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The Emancipation of Private Space in Five Centuries of Art History
by Jana Zilova

The curators of a new exhibition at Marmottan Museum, Paris, Georges Vigarello and Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen, have chosen an audacious topic: La Toilette and The Invention of Privacy, tracing the ritual practices that accompany the toilette through selected part of art history (with works on display from the 15th to the first half of 20th century).

Theophile Alexandre Steinlen, Le Bain, 1902. Copyright Musee cantonal des beaux-arts de Lausanne


The "toilette" (bathroom) is here understood in its wide use for private self-care that ranges from hygienic rituals—such as bathing and removing of fleas—to combing, and applying fashion accessories and make-up. However, because the exhibition focuses solely on the representation of women in these private spaces, the effect seems less the "invention of privacy" (or, "the birth" as implied by the French exhibition title la naissance de l’intime) than "the invention of the nude via the toilette." Lacking in art historical references to Ancient Greek art or bathing hammam rituals from Arab culture, for example, the exhibit also remains a French affair.

Still, the very character of the museum space itself—a former residence—lends itself well for an exhibition of this kind: the choreography of the space unfolds as a walk through a dark corridor, where only the artworks are lit, enhancing the boudoir-like viewing experience.

Eugene Lamont, Jeune Femme a sa Toilette, 1898, Copyright RMN Grand Palais / Thierry Ollivier


The collection displays contrasting works that illustrate the evolution of corporeal rituals, dating from 15th century up to Alain Jacquet’s 1965 silk screen print, Gaby DEstrées, which revisits an iconic image from 1594 by the Fonteinbleau School (The Portrait of Gabrielle dEstrées and Duchess de Villars).

Anonymous (Ecole de Fontainebleau) Portrait présumé de Gabrielle d’Estrées et la Duchesse de Villars au bain, Copyright Musee de la Societe Archeologique, Montpellier, France / Giraudon Bridgemann Images  


Throughout the exhibition installation the images contrast historically—in both content and approach—as they trace the evolution of ritual toilette practices. The early depictions portray bathing women facing the viewer, shop window style, where women proudly expose their nudity, often accompanied by servants or random observers in the distance. However this almost publicly celebrated space of privacy undergoes transformation during the Libertine era: intimacy here is no longer grasped through the prism of bathing but rather through dressing, in fashion and accessories. The Libertine era redefines the private toilette as a grooming space, with fluffed corset dresses, laced stockings, corsets, and occasionally fans accessible to the viewer through an almost forbidden gaze of a peephole or a vignette frame.

Francois Boucher, L'oeil indiscret ou La femme qui pisse, c. 1742. Copyright Christina Baraja 


At the entrance is a delicately portrayed Venus with the Mirror that hangs in parallel to Eadweard Muybridge’s chronophotographic plate presenting  Animal Locomotion (1887). The movements of a nude woman in her bathroom—still and artificially elegant—become a private performance seen through Muybridge’s lens, an animated ritual dance, in which the woman appears to own her space and to emancipate her desire.

These attitudes show the transformation of the subject matter and the position of the viewer: whereas Venus exposes herself in a style closer to Alain Jacquet's prints, Muybridge captures the truly private space in its dailiness and repetition. This transformative shift takes us away from the objective glorification of the nude and we enter a space where we are complicit in the intimacy.

Alain Jacquet, Gabrielle D'Estrelles, 1965, Courtesy Comite Alain Jacquet et Galerie GP & N Vallois, Paris. Copyright Comite Alain Jacquet


The 18th century depictions of rituals of cleaniness in the private space began to open up the world of boudoir scenes to the public: the nude, discrete erotica, and new visual forms of feminity and zones of social tolerance were a corollary of these new portraits of intimacy.

The birth of these new spaces of intimacy becomes gradually articulated and affirmed through refined palette of tonal modulations: brush-size bright color patches in Manet’s Femme Se Coiffant (1879) expose enacted intimacy brimming with new liberty, while the delicately nuanced pastel strokes of Berthe Morisot’s Devant La Psyche (1890) express a meditative privacy of the composed gestures, and stand in contrast to hard strokes of color in the manicure ritual of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s  Toillette (1891).

Henri Toulouse Lautrec, La Toilette: Madame Favre (Femme Se Faisant Ses Mains). Copyright Suisse, Collection Nahmad / Raphael Barithel


With Degas’ revolutionization of the gaze on the nude and toilette, the libertine pictorial themes of sensual pleasure, as presented by François Boucher, suddenly fade into background. Through dynamic poses and low or overhead angles, Degas reveals the nude immersed in intimate acts, where the figure suddenly unveils itself through a delicate, self-appropriated self-contact that renders her at once graceful and vulnerable.

Through the work of color, architecture of space in the image with (erasing of  the position of the viewer) these images testify the complete closing up of the once open private space and an unnoticed and veiled quality of intimacy resurfaces. Degas with his new almost cinematic approach to the feminine figure, employment of novel angles, and his focus on capturing the everyday ritual resembles and paves the way to Muybridge's cinematic style.

Privacy conquered in such a manner begs to be contrasted and challenged with the images of our current landscape too. Muybridge's work remains thus a solitary example that could have been extended to contemporary video art, for instance, and the advertising rhetoric of Jacquet's image of the toilette rituals could have been bridged to art that addresses digital advertising now. The revival of shared private space via social platforms and the rampant success of selfie portraits evokes an unusual resemblance with the frontal self-presentation of the medieval tapestry.


Jana Zilova


(Image at the top: Edgar Degas, Femme dans son bain s’épongeant la jambe, 1883, Paris, musee d’Orsay, Legs du comte Isaac de Camondo, 1911 Copyright RMN, Grand Palais (musee d'Orsay) / Herv. Lewandowski)

Posted by Jana Zilova on 3/23 | tags: photography figurative drawing painting nude toillette bathers

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