Constrained by social norms or cultural tradition, women working outside the home in the mid to late 1800s walked a fine line when wanting to earn a living. Three Paris exhibitions follow the working life of women for almost a century from 1839 to 1945. All three are exploring subjects assembled for the first time. “Qui a peur des femmes photographes” (Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers) Part 1 (Musée de l’Orangerie until January 24, 2016) and Part 2 (Musée d’Orsay until January 24, 2016) is the first gender-based exhibition in France. and “Splendeurs et Misères, Images de la prostitution 1850-1910″ (Splendour and Misery – Pictures of Prostitution 1850-1910 Musée d’Orsay until January 17, 2016). “Splendeurs…” is the first time a museum is dedicating an entire exhibition to prostitution.
Within this article you will find a synopsis of the three exhibits, links to YouTube videos with English subtitles, download links to publications in English, books in English available and visiting information.
Paris is the classical place for “so much to see, so little time”. I liked all three exhibits and decided to combine my reviews. The contrast between the two subjects (Photography and Prostitution) is significant. The professions offered a form of independence from the traditional call to domestic life. But where photography offered financial independence and mechanical creativity, prostitution maintained a financial dependence. Both investigate sexual identity and explore the socially acceptable boundaries of women between 1839 and 1945.
One was a new profession, while the other was older. In the 1850s prostitution in Paris established a limited respectability and legality. Photography was a creative outlet and an accepted ladies profession. A woman could work and move about alone without suspicion. Simultaneously, however, a woman alone without the protection of a camera, a man or a family could be viewed suspiciously or wantonly.
Norms of women and acceptability
I found it interesting to view the three exhibits and observe the norms of women in the mid to late 1800s. The fine line of birthright could determine a profession. In photography, a family with means or a family member working in photography could advance a career and allow a woman to explore. It was natural for women to be the documentarians of family history. Eventually they continued on to artistic, war, travel, photojournalism and advertising photography in the 20th century.
Where women photographers could explore intimate moments in a woman’s life or photograph celebrities and wealthy men; prostitutes in cafés, on the street, in theaters with wealthy society men in the Splendour and Misery exhibit became the explored, the focal point of artists. In photography, the women captured sensual images that a male photographer could only dream of. In prostitution, the women were captured sensually by the voyeuristic artist. Both women earned a living; but professional longevity was more in the photographer’s favor.
More thoughts on “Qui a peur des femmes photographes”
Seventy five photographers from France, the United Kingdom,Germany and the United States are exhibited in the 1839-1919 exhibit. Their work reveals a “potential vehicle for emancipation and subversion”. They moved from the fringes of the art world into a respectability supported by Queen Victoria.
Emancipation and self-discovery of photographers from Europe and the United States continues in Part 2 with their publications. Male photographers consider them rivals in the male world of machines, motor cars and industrial architecture. Some female become the teachers of male photographers, whose names would be more familiar than the teacher’s, for example Margarethe Mather is the mentor of Edward Weston. Elsa Neuländer is Helmut Neustädter (aka Helmut Newton). On the audio guide, mention is made to the photography title resembling “Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf”, but no other details are given.
I recommend the audioguide for five euros for each of the exhibits. Each exhibit offers a brochure, which is handy if you prefer not to stand and read the walls of each section (French and English). You can download the brochures below.
Brochures: Orsay- Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839-1945 (Part 1 1839-1919) and Orsay brochure Women Photographers 1839-1919 (Part 2 1918-1945)
Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers Exhibition Album
Bilingual version: French and English
Exhibition Catalog details (French only – 45 euros)
Available at both Musée de l’Orangerie and Musée d’Orsay
1839-1919 – Video with English subtitles: YouTube Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers?, Thomas Galifot, curator at the Musée d’Orsay and curator of the exhibition for the first part of the show 1839-1919, on view at the Musée de l’Orangerie.
1919-1945 – Video with English subtitles: YouTube Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers?, Marie Robert, curator at the Musée d’Orsay and curator of the exhibition on view at the Musée d’Orsay, 1919-1945, on view at the Musée d’Orsay.
Further reading: Featureshoot, including many photos from the exhibition.
Splendour and Misery book of the exhibition
Currently the book is available only in French, the English edition is unavailable.
More thoughts on Splendour and Misery
The French working-class included manual workers, milliners, florists or laundresses. In order to survive, some supplimented their wages with prostitution. If you were a male tourist, special guide books suggested which cafés to visit. Using paintings, photography and furnishings for support, the Splendour and Misery exhibit covers ambiguity, behind the scenes of the theatre and opera, brothels, photography of forbidden images, scenes of intimacy (bathing), regulation versus abolition to maintain the moral and social order, vice in the aristocracy (the kept woman), the imagination of fantasy and allegory and eventually turns the profession of these working women into an experimental art form in paintings and photography. Their profession to satisfy “men’s brutal passions” came with a price. The “legal” women were forced to endure medical examinations and arrest. The clients escaped both. It was hard to make a living this way! Two parts of the exhibition are behind curtains.
Musée d’Orsay (Ticket information – combinations with other museums)
Open from 9:30 am to 6 pm (Closed Monday, May 1 and December 25)
Late night on Thursday until 9:45 pm
Last tickets sold at 5 pm (9 pm Thursday)
Museum cleared at 5:15pm (9:15pm Thursday)
Group visits, pre-booked only, Tuesday to Saturday, 9:30 am to 4 pm (Thursday until 8 pm)