April 21, 2015

"The Invention of Privacy" @ Le Musée Marmottan

I have to confess, it was the suggestive title and the rather risque advertisements that drew me to the outskirts of Paris on a recent Sunday afternoon.  Of course, as my readers know, the Musée Marmottan regularly offers worthwhile exhibitions in their elegantly restored hunting lodge on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, but they are usually of the safe and pretty variety.  This, by all appearances, was going to be different.

"La Toilette and The Invention of Privacy" explores the notions of hygiene and personal space through the eyes of artists from the 15th century to the present.  Needless to say, there have been a great many changes over the years in habits, equipment and social norms, and the depictions vary accordingly.  From the clinical act of cleansing the body to the eroticism of the luxurious bath this show presents the action of washing in more permutations than you can possibly imagine!

"La Toilette" begins its history of bathing in the Middle Ages with a magnificent tapestry borrowed from the Musée de Cluny.  Here, in "The Bath", we see a partially clothed woman sitting in a stone basin, surrounded by ladies in waiting, trees, flowers and strolling musicians while she splashes in water.  The scene is not so much about cleansing as it is about pleasure and beauty and communing with nature.

By the Renaissance, the practice of washing in public baths was eschewed as unsanitary and only the very wealthy could maintain an enclosed area within the home for bathing.  These "bathing apartments" were not private and it was common for several women, sometimes accompanied by children, to bathe together.  They also provided the opportunity for secret meetings and dalliances.
School of Fontainbleau 
"Venus with Mirror", late 1600s

Before long, bathing with any sort of water was replaced with a "dry toilette", basically wiping the face and hands with a cloth and applying a lot of powder and perfume.  Artists began to depict women at their dressing tables, having their hair coiffed and applying cosmetics, while very often a secondary story was apparent in strategically placed undergarments, a bed, or peeping eyes!

Abraham Bosse (after)
"Sight:  A Woman at her Toilette", c. 1635

Fortunately, by the 18th century the practice of washing with water made a comeback and with it a new sensibility about privacy.  Foot baths and bidets were invented and the idea of individual bathtubs took hold among the upper classes.  Ladies performed their personal ablutions in two phases - a private first toilette and then a second, more public affair - and artists became much bolder in their depictions.
Francois Bouchet
"The Indiscreet Eye" or "Urinating Woman", c. 1742

In the early 1800s, dramatically changing concepts of privacy and decorum spelled the end of the "open" bath.  It was no longer acceptable for women to dress and make-up in front of friends, lovers, painters or even servants, and washing became something done only behind closed doors.  A new puritanical attitude discouraged the painting of nude bodies leaving the representation of the female form to the more circumspect press.

With the invention and increased accessibility of running water in the late 19th century the "woman at her toilette" re-emerged as a pictorial theme.  Nude women, in all shapes and sizes, were portrayed washing, fixing their hair, applying cosmetics, and pulling on their clothing.  It was a new awareness of the female form in all her sensuality.  From the basin and pitcher to a full length bathtub, women were being portrayed soaking and scrubbing as never before!

Edgar Degas
"Woman in her Bath, Sponging her Leg", 1883

 Théophile Alexandre Steinlen
"The Bath", 1902

The theme of women and their toilettes was explored by almost all the major painters of the late 19th and 20th century.  From Impressionism to the Belle Epoque through Cubism and Modernism, the subject of women bathing, dressing, applying lipstick and fastening an earring has been painted, photographed, sculpted and portrayed in myriad forms.  Indeed, what was racy just a few years ago is now quite tame as our private lives are lived out on television and other social media.

Natalino Bentivolglio Scarpa
"Woman at the Mirror", 1927

Women's bodies and the care and maintenance thereof has fascinated since the beginning of time and this exhibition, the first of its kind, is proof positive that the appeal continues no matter how open or closed our societies become.  "The Invention of Privacy" continues at the Musée Marmottan until July 5, 2015.

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