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

 

 

 

The Gulch Snob

Last night I observed a new species in Nashville. I can’t say that it’s truly new, just that it’s new to me, probably because I don’t make it to the trendier parts of town that often. It has long, blonde hair and a slim figure; dresses fashionably; seems to have lots of friends. The females apparently travel in great hordes. And oddly enough, they kind of all look the same, like a herd of zebras. Can they tell each other apart?

There were swarms of them in the Gulch neighborhood’s Moto restaurant, buzzing around long tables. Some of their habits include: turning their heads in the same direction all at the same time; laughing in loud, shrill choruses; clogging heavily-used walkways; and treating waitstaff like subhumans. With such a large herd, I’m surprised I haven’t encountered them before. It’s possible they’ve only recently migrated here, perhaps from somewhere like Laguna Beach, or maybe State Street in Santa Barbara.

Now, it’s true that they closely resemble other species that have been here for years. And it wasn’t until I spotted a couple of them outside that I knew I was witnessing something rare. A closer look (but from a safe distance, of course) revealed they were not only “pretty,” in a Stepford Wives kind of way, but they were also drunk and mean! Imagine my horror when I saw one stop talking (yes, they can talk) to her friend for no other reason than to peer down her long snout at what she must have perceived to be a lesser animal. And if this open show of disdain for a fellow creature wasn’t enough, the drunken, mean female wouldn’t even step aside to let her inferior pass on the sidewalk. The nerve of this new species!

As far as I can tell, they are belligerent, but in a calm, socially less-suspect kind of way, preferring to spread their malice through subtle means, like making fun of lesser species just obviously enough so that victims can know they’re being laughed at, yet they won’t be able to actually hear the laughter. There really is an art to it—a fine line between outright mockery and the more insidious kind of belittling at which this new species is truly adept.

I can’t speak to their feeding habits; they didn’t appear to be eating, despite dominating nearly half of Moto’s dining room. And their mating habits are murky, though I did identify a male of the species jogging across McGavock Street with no regard for traffic.

Finally, as any thoroughgoing amateur naturalist would do, I had to give my discovery a name: the Gulch Snob. If you find yourself at an upscale restaurant in the Gulch on a cool (but not cold) Friday night in Nashville, chances are you will see the Gulch Snob in its natural environment. If so, give it some space, and try not to look un-rich. (Also, don’t pretend to be wealthy if you’re not; they can detect that, and their “humiliate” instinct will trigger.) With any luck, you’ll finish your meal psychologically intact.

In the Mall, I Was . . . in the Mall

As a halfway educated man, I wonder why I like hanging out in shopping malls. There’s an understood mandate among we liberal arts types to despise such centers of consumerism, with their calculated storefront designs and cleverly displayed merchandise; and the hardly hidden motive for profit, which is one small, capitalist step away from greedy excess. In other words, the mall is a two-storied, soulless gallery of deception. Yet this store across from me right now, called Altar’d State, looks inviting, even though I think it’s geared toward women. The letters in the name are clean and modern, and they’re evenly centered above the entrance, on a slanted, wooden awning that runs nearly the width of the store. The tall windows are arched and contain rectangular bits of stained glass, all in various shades of brown, beige, tan, and off-white (I imagine that at some point, someone used words like “khaki” and “cream”). The facade reminds me a little bit of Macaroni Grill, which has even further pleasant associations. Anyway, staring at Altar’d State, it strikes me that mall storefronts are a little like television shows: just as TV gives us artificial slices of life on one convenient screen, the mall gives us artificial slices of architecture in one convenient location. Neither is what you would call real life or fine architecture, but they both seem to be enough. They both seem to satisfy some vagrant need for spectacle.

Maybe its the cleanliness and brightness that I love at the mall, and the good smells, and the splashes of color in the makeup department at Belk. The fact that the mall is climate-controlled is a definite plus, and opportunities for people-watching abound (even though most of the adults seem to be nursing a low-grade misery). Also, there’s something to be said about the pairing of familiar stores, like Dillard’s, with stores I’ve never heard of, like Native and Nomad. It’s as if the mall is saying, “I know who I am, yet I also like trying new things.” Humans like that kind of spirit.

Inevitably, I begin to wonder what this desire to be in the mall says about me. Am I drawn by the scent of retail? By its implied promise that happiness can be bought? Yet I almost never buy anything. (But I could. But I don’t. It goes back and forth.) To embrace the idea that buying brings happiness is, of course, shallow. So if I do get some kind of thrill from close proximity to retail, I hope that it is only a vicarious one. Perhaps the fascination is an expression of social class: an overlap of the working-class obsession over brand names with the middle-class obsession over buying power. This doesn’t feel quite accurate either, though. I shook brand-name obsession decades ago (I like to think), and as I’ve already said, I almost never buy anything. Or maybe, like most Americans, discussions of social class put me on edge, so I’ll drop that. Anyway, I think I’m gonna just drop this whole thing. I’m beginning to feel shallow.