This is the first in an occasional series of posts about the social and cultural world inhabited by Calypso Bergère. This post focuses on the first novella in the series, Calypso and the Severed Portrait, set in Paris in the autumn of 1931.
At the beginning of the story, Calypso decides to visit the Bateau-Lavoir, a ramshackle tenement building in Montmartre, once lodged in by Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris among many other artists. The photograph at the top of this post was taken around 1910, not long after Picasso lived there. The Bateau-Lavoir was destroyed by fire in 1970.
Picasso’s seminal painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, was created at the Bateau-Lavoir. Though Calypso doesn’t like it, she recognises its significance (I feel the same as she does), Here is John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer, on the work, and particularly the two figures on the right:
Picasso was out to shock, if need be appall…Familiarity has inured us to the horror that these dog-faced demoiselles caused when they were first unveiled…It was as if Picasso had unleashed a new race of gorgons on the world.
Some scholars see these monstrous faces as embodying Picasso’s fear of syphilis…However, his Demoiselles was an exorcism of more than private demons; it was also an exorcism of traditional concepts of “ideal beauty”. The fright-masks constitute an assault as much on “beauty” as on women—an assault that is all the more devastating for being reinforced with Picasso’s misogyny and a shot of Baudelaire’s “Spleen”.
(A Life of Picasso -Volume 2 – John Richardson)
When Calypso is drawing her Aunt Nina sewing, she thinks of Chardin’s domestic portraits, including Woman Cleaning Turnips and The Scullery Maid, both shown above.
Later in the story, Calypso visits Les Halles, Paris’ central food market. Les Halles, dubbed the ‘Belly of Paris’ by author Émile Zola, was demolished in 1971. The photograph above is from the 1950s.
The famous female nudes that Calypso considers in the story are Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Ingres’s Grand Odalisque, and Manet’s Olympia, shown above in that order. The art historian Kenneth Clark thought that the nude reached its apogee in the Renaissance, and wrote that:
The nude gains its enduring value from the fact that it reconciles several contrary states. It takes the most sensual and immediately arresting object, the human body, and puts it out of reach of time and desire; it takes the most purely rational concept of which mankind is capable, mathematical order, and makes it a delight to the senses; and it takes the vague fears of the unknown and sweetens them by showing that the gods are like men, and may be worshipped for their life-giving beauty rather than their death-dealing powers.
(The Nude – Kenneth Clark)
The critic John Berger had a less elevated view of the female nude:
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
(Ways of Seeing – John Berger)
Perhaps one can agree more with Clark in relation to the Titian painting, and more with Berger in relation to those by Ingres and Manet. Even so, I think that the Grand Odalisque and Olympia look at the viewer with more power, dignity, and self-possession than Berger gives them credit for.
[All images sourced from Wikimedia Commons]