One of the reasons why the Musée D’Orsay is my favourite museum in Paris is that it stages great temporary exhibitions, and the one that’s on at the moment is no exception.
Splendeurs et misères: Images de la prostitution delves into the development and artistic representation of prostitution in Paris between 1850 and 1910. It’s an exhibition that leaves you a lot more informed – and in many ways, surprised – about the sex trade of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
During the second half of the 1800s, prostitution boomed in Paris and so too did the number of artists who turned to it as a subject. The artwork on show at the D’Orsay offers insights into many aspects of prostitution, such as ‘occasional prostitutes’ – women who turned to prostitution to make ends meet at the end of the month, and ‘demi-mondaines’ – women who were ‘protected’ by rich men who paid not just for their services, but often for their living quarters too. Zola’s Nana is one of the most famous literary representations of a demi-mondaine.
Meanwhile, the information that accompanies the art explains how no decent woman would drink alone in a café because it meant risking being mistaken for a prostitute, and explores the role of the opera house as a place for meeting and socialising with prostitutes – for many female performers, their work was only half done when the curtain went down. There are also a lot of objects on show, including a handsome box of condoms and a ‘chaise de volupté’ – a rather lavish chair that was designed to enable the future King Edward VII to have sex with two women at the same time.
The Independent recently reported on French art critics’ objections to the pornographic nature of the exhibition: “Want to see some naughty pictures? Push your way through the red velvet curtains and place your eyes to the peep hole. Around the corner, a pornography film made more than a century ago is flickering on a screen.”
Indeed, part of the exhibition is curtained off and out of bounds to under 18s. And once inside, you soon find out why. The section comprises old photographs and video recordings of the sex trade in action. You do feel like you’re watching something that you perhaps shouldn’t be watching, but it remains an intriguing element of what is a fascinating exhibition.