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.
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.