Paris 1900 at the Frist: a Tangent

A lady of the night, by Toulouse-Lautrec; Paris 1900.
Toulouse-Lautrec nightlife grotesquery.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (On-‘hree duh Too-‘loose Low-‘twhek–say it fast) mastered the grotesquery I so lovingly associate with Parisian nightlife at the turn of the century (the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth), an era taking center stage right now at the Frist Art Museum in their show, Paris 1900: City of Entertainment. Grotesque–curled and crinkled like gargoyle faces, sneering–not to shame the women involved, but to highlight the excesses of high society men, who could afford to lay out all night, imbibe spumante (while the poor artists imbibed absinthe, and sometimes the not-so-poor, like our dear Henri), and secure the services of singing and dancing courtesans. It really is like in the movie Moulin Rouge–maybe not as polished, or as over-the-top theatrically, as the perfected routines and filmed angles of the movie, but in spirit, a match. I imagine the can-can was quite a spectacle for the booze-buzzing minds of men with no fear of repercussions for lecherous behavior. It is not for me to judge those men, but it is for me to acknowledge that without them, there may not have been a “Belle Epoque,” at least not in the charmed, green-glowing, guiltily pleasurable fashion which art history has handed down to us. And I wouldn’t want a Paris 1900 without Toulouse-Lautrec in it, without the features he painted so fantastically distorted by excess.

I think of the approach of World War I, during which the youth of France would be decimated in a war for which no one was prepared–the first modern war, with long-range artillery and machine guns; trench warfare, with all its dismal living conditions: arms and legs of the dead protruding from the soft mud. I swear I’m not judging those wealthy, lecherous men, on display in so many of the paintings in Paris 1900. What else could well-off men be expected to do? Besides, the war was a good fourteen years away. No one saw it coming–not yet.

Ladies of the night, by Jean Beraud; Paris 1900.
Detail from “Les belles de nuit au Jardin de Paris (The ladies of the night at Le Jardin de Paris),” by Jean Beraud (1905).

Paris 1900 would’ve been a good time to be alive, if you were a man of means in the City of Lights. Maybe, too, if your were a woman of means, though I suspect the same freedoms weren’t afforded you, regardless of social class. Imagine the wives of these men at home. It’s two a.m., the men are out, drifting through Montmartre, brain-blitzed on champagne, and their eyes have begun seeking unfamiliar entertainments. The wives at home are trying to sleep, trying to convince themselves their husbands are only out laughing with friends and have lost track of time, essentially remaining faithful. They suspect otherwise, but they’re not ready to accept it (and they might never be). And they wouldn’t dare threaten their own fragile position by making accusations of infidelity. They’d do it subtly, with guilt and moralistic innuendo. And the men may or may not take the bait, yielding to the hints of their wives, and the damnable situation proves to us, one-hundred-eighteen years later, that the women–even the rich ones–held staggeringly little influence over their well-heeled husbands. I may have this all wrong, but I look at the ghostly profile of a mustachioed man puffing a cigar in Beraud’s painting, and his top hat is more solid than his face, and he’s more-or-less a demon, or if not a demon, then an apparition of debauchery. An apparition in a long coat. And that’s when I feel I’m dead-on about the dynamic at home for these men and their beleaguered wives: lots of things left unsaid. Just as there are lots of things the paintings aren’t saying. But it’s not like we need them to.

**Paris 1900: City of Entertainment is up through January 6 at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum.

Alan D. Tucker Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist
Alan D. Tucker
Content Blogger,
Essayist, & Novelist

 

 

 

Nashville’s Current Time Warp

Roman portrait bust

Are you ever confounded by the passage of time? Not the simple passing of hours that segments each day, but significant time. Like when you look out over the ocean and remember that those waves have been meeting the shore for untold millennia; or when you find a tombstone from the 1800s; or when you hear a favorite song and realize it’s already twenty-five years old. In those moments, a type of soul-inertia can set in, a simultaneous smallness and weightlessness of spirit. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, a feeling of insignificance slips in.

My quest for solitude—a scant commodity, given that we have three kids (which I’d never, ever, ever give up for any reason), and I have a full-time job (which I can’t give up, at the moment)—often leads me downtown, to Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It was there, very recently, that I was confounded by time. The current big-ticket exhibit, Rome: City and Empire, is filled with dozens of art objects from antiquity, and wandering among 2,500-year-old marble sculptures can definitely cause that soul-inertia to rise.

But unlike standing beside the ocean, no feelings of insignificance beset me. And I think it’s almost entirely because of the portrait bust pictured above. I wasn’t diligent to record its title or provenance—a rare lack of meticulousness on my part—yet I remember its impact. Note the scar on his cheek. And the deformity of his ear. He is imperfect, and also there is something common about him (though I know only the wealthy could afford the extravagance of a marble likeness). He’s flawed in ways that the nearby bust of Octavian is not. I remember reading that the portrait above was produced at a time when realistic representation was the standard, whereas the sculptor of Octavian would’ve been more interested in rendering the emperor godlike. It’s understandable that a dutiful sculptor should render an emperor godlike. After all, Romans believed their sovereigns divine. However, it’s the flawed old man with a gashed cheek and a crinkled ear that resonates as human. It is he who helps ward off feelings of insignificance in the face of unfathomable time.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

BRUTUS WUZ HERE

Seventy-one lifetimes. Or at least seventy-one of my lifetimes. That’s how long it’s been since the earliest would-be Italians lived in huts of wood and thatch in small villages on land that would become the heart of the Roman Empire. But I’m no historian. All I’m qualified to do is publicly ruminate on the 3,000-year-old burial urn that I saw near the entrance of the Frist Center’s current mega-exhibit: Rome: City and Empire.

The text placard states that the urn held its owner’s ashes, but what happens to ashes over such a long period? Do they disintegrate? Or does the wind lift each one up and out of the urn—single particulates, one by one, until the vessel is empty? Maybe three millennia is enough time for such arduousness. But the urn was buried, so does that mean the poor man’s ashes are mingled with the Roman soil still? Beneath the ruins on Palatine Hill? His spirit may’ve roamed the statued avenues of high empire, swirled up fluted columns and pierced the pantheistic heavens, drunk on the triumphs of his ancestors, but his body was bound to the same ball of rock and dirt that will one day lay claim to all bodies, whether ashen or buried whole. We’ll never know if the 3,000-year-old spirit, once free of his earthly matter, was relegated to an underworld of dubious torment, or if he was free to fly the expanses of empire, never stopping long until he reached Elysium, where he stretched his ghostly limbs in Lethean fields.

But isn’t it just like art to connect us to a 3,000-year-old person? We know instinctively that whatever his social position, whether peasant or patrician, he had loves and losses, pains and ecstasies, talents and flaws. Maybe he was educated—whatever that meant back then—or dumb as the ceramic that would house his remains, but the indisputable thing is that he shares with us—across seventy-one lifetimes—a humanity that is triumphant by sheer force of its existence. The urn says, “Here I was.”