Two sides to every epoque

by Victoria James

They called it the Belle Epo^que, the “Beautiful Age”: France’s brief period of grace after concluding peace with Prussia in 1871 and before the horrors of World War I turned her pastures into killing fields in 1914.

“Paris 1900: Brilliance de la Belle Epo^que” is a ghost-haunted show. Portraits of elegant Frenchwomen greet the visitor in the entrance lobby of Tokyo’s Teien Art Museum, which was once an Imperial residence and is a masterpiece of the French Art Deco style of the 1920s and ’30s. There is Mme. Singer, her loosely folded arms accentuating her tiny, whaleboned waist. Middle-aged Mme. Herve is a little self-conscious in a revealing white, lacy dress. The stunning Mme. Rosenau casts a smoldering sideways look from a dark corner.

And just as in real life, the star of the show holds court in an inner sanctum. The “divine” Sarah Bernhardt, muse of Oscar Wilde and the icon of her age, reclines swathed in floor-length silk, idly fanning herself, in a wall-size portrait hung in the Teien’s former dining room. These are the faces of just a century ago, but of a world now far distant, before Europe lost its innocence on the battlefields of two world wars.

The problem with spooks, and with this show as a whole, is that they’re insubstantial. The gorgeous objects on show — Greek- and Egyptian-inspired hair combs, keepsake boxes, jewelry designs and boudoir knicknacks — don’t take us deep into the lives of the women who owned them, or cast much light on the society that produced them. Throughout the exhibition, there’s too much belle and not enough epo^que.

For example, many of the society beauties whose pictures adorn the entrance display the hyperfeminine S-shape silhouette, the so-called “Grecian bend” then in vogue. Shaping and constricting the women rather more drastically, however, were new psychological theories of femininity that took root at the time.

Paris was home to the “Father of Neurology,” Jean-Martin Charcot, who in the 1870s formulated the notion of “hysteria” as a female nervous disorder. It became the era’s dominant image of womanhood, inspiring a thousand swooning heroines in the pages and on the stages of Europe. Charcot exhibited “hysterical” young women at his Tuesday lectures at the Salpe^triere, the hospital he renovated and oversaw, and the events drew packed audiences from across the city and beyond, with Sigmund Freud among the crowds.

The women on show were Charcot’s patients at the Salpe^triere; many had escaped from a life on the streets and were victims of rape or sexual abuse, or had engaged in prostitution. Hysteria became inextricably linked in the popular imagination with suppressed sexuality. Women were both desirable and, the neurologist’s theory suggested, dangerously out of control.

Knowing this, the viewer can trace a common thread through many of the works at the Teien, most all by minor artists. (Belle Epo^que high society produced no artists of distinction. France’s Impressionist movement, which blossomed contemporaneously, drew its inspiration from the countryside and from symbols of urbanization, such as railways and steamships, rather than from urban life itself.)

Many of the artworks here show sexualized women, dangerous or alluring — or both. There’s “The Temptation of St. Antony,” in which the desert ascetic is encircled by pert, naked beauties; “Reverie,” showing an unclothed young woman gazing intensely into space; and “Ophelia,” Hamlet’s spurned beloved, sinking slowly to her death. Among the sculptures by Albert Bartholome are a naked young woman hiding her face with shame and lifting a drape to conceal her body, and “Little Girl Weeping” — a girl on the cusp of womanhood sobbing for . . . what? Perhaps the loss of her childhood innocence as she enters sexualized adolescence.

A work by Rodin on show, “Amour and Psyche,” places the emphasis on desire rather than danger — in this erotic sculpture Cupid appears to be rolling an eager Psyche onto her back, ready to ravish her. Then there’s a cheerfully shameless silver walking-stick handle in the form of an ample-breasted woman bending over invitingly — her buttocks would have nestled in the hand of her possessor. Bizarrely, all these works (excepting the walking stick) are lumped together under the title “Spiritual Pursuits.”

There wasn’t much spiritual about the Belle Epo^que. It was a turbulent time of social change as France took on its modern identity.

Nationalism was on the rise. In 1879 the revolutionary song, “La Marseillaise,” was declared the national anthem, and the following year Bastille Day, July 14, was made a national holiday. France’s empire was swelling: Colonies acquired in the 1880s included Tunisia, the Congo, Indochina and Madagascar. Yet at the same time, a string of political scandals — culminating in 1894 with the Dreyfus affair that brought to light the French Establishment’s entrenched anti-Semitism — provoked soul-searching on a national scale. (The false charges against Dreyfus prompted novelist Emile Zola to pen his celebrated “J’accuse,” a ferocious denunciation of the army.)

You won’t find any of that so much as hinted at in the Teien exhibition. Instead we get oddly shaped flower vases, grotesque pots and a delicate glass cup quirkily displayed all by itself in a case in the middle of the former Prince’s bathroom. (It must be a curator’s joke: The color of the cup is a good match for the enamel on the toilet bowl next to it.)

We’re shown France as she sought to show herself to the world — a hectic, cosmopolitan country, host of the fabulous “Expositions Universelles,” world’s fairs held in 1867, 1878 and 1900. These were promoted as highbrow cultural events, but were more akin to the “bread and circuses” used by Roman emperors to keep the public happy. It wasn’t altruism on the part of the government — radical socialist movements would be quick to recruit any malcontents.

The expositions brought to a gaping French public the arts, antiquities and peoples of exotic lands, Japan among them. Presumably as a concession to its audience, the Teien show includes a number of French-produced items that reveal the influence of Japanese arts and culture as it filtered down from the expositions into the French cultural mainstream. These pieces are scattered randomly through the display galleries and are generally of abysmal artistic quality, including tacky dinner plates and a shiny, kimono-clad statuette. The only appealing examples are some chunky stoneware by Jean-Joseph Carries. That the potter only paid lip service to Japanese forms, however, is evident from the fact that his handsome tokkuri (sake flasks) were intended for use as flower vases.

It’s perhaps unfair to judge this show’s Japanese curators too severely, as in falling for the myth of the Belle Epo^que they’ve done no more than the French themselves. Just as the Edo Period in Japan is bathed in the glow of nostalgia by innumerable NHK samurai dramas, in France the Belle Epo^que is looked back upon as a “golden age” before the brash succeeding years of militarism and modernization.

We should know better. Just think of Edgar Degas’ famous painting “The Absinthe Drinker,” which peels away the glamour of Parisian life. Or of anything at all by Felicien Rops, the Belgian painter who settled in Paris in 1873 and spent the following decades depicting the lowlife of the city — topless tarts in bars and working men pie-eyed on cheap booze. Even an art show can try to tell the whole story. Instead, the Teien show chooses to buy into the myth that life for all during the Belle Epo^que was as glamorous as the privileged existence of the elite.

There’s just one poignant photograph in this exhibition that tells it how it was. In an easily overlooked display case to the right of her enormous portrait is a faded photograph of Sarah Bernhardt. Gazing coolly at the camera with her dark eyes, she reclines on leopard skins on the same divan as in the painting. Even her alluring pose is the same . . . then you notice that half of her right leg is missing.

Bernhardt’s leg was amputated due to gangrene in 1915. She adamantly refused to conceal her disability, although she used a wooden leg when acting onstage for a public that still adored her. Not long after her operation, she visited French soldiers in the trenches of the Western front. In 1916 she undertook a two-year-long farewell tour across the United States. One of her aims was to highlight the plight of her homeland and to urge the U.S. to join the conflict. It seems she was successful — with a little help from the German U-boat that sank the Lusitania and her American passengers. On April 6, 1917, America entered the war.

Embattled yet alluring, Bernhardt was in every way the icon of her complex and only occasionally “beautiful” age.