Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914 - at the Hammer

Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914 Helen Cox 2/24/14
At the Hammer, UCLA - The exhibition runs until May 18th, 2014

This was an impressive exhibit, both for the prints – which included some by Cassatt, Redon, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Vuillard – and for the information about the plight of women at the beginning of the twentieth century.  According to the exhibit catalogue, a woman had no right to vote or to own property.  Upon her marriage, any assets she did have became the property of her husband.  He could commit adultery with impunity; she could not.  Job opportunities for women were few, but they could become prostitutes, since that was legal.   It was small wonder that morphine, a derivative from opium, had a fatal attraction for many.

The images could be divided into three main categories:  woman as an evil and seductive influence (femme fatale); woman as domestic and refined; and woman as desperate and distraught.  Perhaps the artist who most effectively captured the dilemma of women was Albert Besnard in his twelve etchings depicting women in situations ranging from wealth to poverty, from being in love to being raped, from suffering drug addiction and prostitution to the death of a child.  Some might consider his images a bit melodramatic; I found them sobering and powerful.

The Art Nouveau prints were classic, filled with beautiful, curved, sinuous lines while depicting drug induced states, acid throwing, and shooting up!  What a contradiction between the form and the content!

I chose to include an image from Albert Besnard, Suicide, because I appreciate his use of positive and negative space.  The white of the snow forms a strong diagonal across the composition, a sharp form that echoes the despair of the woman.  She blends into the dark and the darkness of her pain, an unseen form easily ignored by the passing coach.  The lights of the city sparkle in the background; that such beauty and agony coexist is one of the fundamental contradictions in life.  The use of the vertical lines in the etching reinforces the sense of snow and cold, and her plunge into the river below.
Many of the better prints demonstrated an interesting arrangement of positive and negative shapes.  There were a few faded images that did not look resolved.  Most were etchings and lithographs, with an occasional woodblock or linoleum cut.

It is a bit of a drive to get to the Hammer, but the exhibit was well worth it.  There is also an excellent collection of paintings in the next room, including Daumier, Van Gogh, Vuillard, and Rembrandt.  If you go on the weekend parking is only $3.00 and you are close to the Getty.  Go with a friend and the carpool lane gets you home in decent time if you leave by 3:30 p.m.