Lela F. Kerley’s Uncovering Paris: Scandals and Nude Spectacles in the Belle Époque examines the social and political significance of erotic entertainment featuring nude women—la femme nue—in fin-de-siècle Paris. A number of scholars, including Charles Rearick, Patricia Tilburg, Rae Beth Gordon, Sarah Gutsche-Miller, and Catherine Hindson, have considered popular performance practice at this period; Kerley takes up the subject to trace the parallel histories of the rise of erotic entertainment and of concomitant efforts to regulate female nudity, arguing that the proliferation of nude spectacles served to stimulate and shape debates about gender and moral norms in France. Kerley links la femme nue’s emergence in the public imagination to events surrounding the Bal des Quat’z’Arts in 1893. Organized by students in Parisian fine arts teaching ateliers and sponsored by the Jules Roques, publisher of Le Courrier français, the highlight of the ball was a parade of tableaux vivants featuring semi-nude artists’ models. Kerley characterizes the displays designed by the students as a ‘secondary aesthetic practice’ of Ecole des Beaux-Arts artistic production and an avant-garde challenge to bourgeois conventions. The centrepiece was a tableau featuring Cleopatra, impersonated by a well-known model, based on a well-known Salon painting by Georges Rochegrosse. This painter’s lurid and titillating works gave an Orientalist cast to often violent historical narratives and won him official recognition and popular acclaim, but were hardly avant-garde. Likewise, although Kerley maintains that the transgressive spectacle of la femme nue originated in works such as Emile Zola’s Nana and Edouard Manet’s Olympia, the music-hall performances she takes up in the second section of the book seem to owe little to the ‘sexual realism’ of these avant-garde icons. Tracing the trajectory of erotic performance from tableaux vivants offered as a private, salon amusement in the early nineteenth century to the popular productions of the commercial entertainment industry that flourished in the Belle Époque, she relies on program synopses and publicity photographs to reconstruct the staging and costumes. Images of Jane de Lyane and other stars of music-hall reviews show them bedecked in bejewelled and veiled costumes that highlighted their physical charms while conjuring distant Oriental or Hellenistic cultures. Linking the costumes to colonialist discourse, Kerley suggests that les femmes nues who posed as harem figures or exotic dancers re-enacted the gendered master-slave narrative of imperial and patriarchal ideology. Within the chapters that explore the history of la femme nue, Kerley interpolates chapters that chronicle private and official efforts to regulate erotic entertainment. The Bal des Quat’z’Arts stoked an ongoing conflict between Senator René Béranger, who brought the charges against the participants on behalf of the Société central de protestation contre la licence des rues (Society Protesting License in the Streets), and Roques, who had previously been brought to trial over representations of nudes published in his journal and whose reports on the models’ performance at the ball were deliberately provocative. Kerley argues that the trial of a student organizer and three artists’ models, which pitted supporters of a modern, liberal, secular regime that fostered artistic freedom of expression against conservative and official bourgeois moralists who favoured the rigid policing of gender and sexuality norms, contributed to demarcating the terms of a struggle to define French morality. Kerley’s examination of the ‘moral leagues’, which Bérenger led in a battle against what was considered a ‘plague of pornography’ in print and on stage, provides an extended consideration of the leagues’ organizational structures, objectives, and strategies. The bourgeois professionals who predominated among the anti-vice crusaders favoured an ideal of feminine modesty and dignity that was explicitly tied to traditional family structures. Their private advocacy fuelled official efforts to engage with complex and contentious issues of obscenity and freedom within the liberal republic. Although state control of theatres in the Third Republic was never particularly effective, the government’s eventual abandonment of censorship in 1905 opened the way to increasing numbers of nude performances and lawsuits. Kerley’s thorough review of the debates surrounding theatrical censorship provides the context for a consideration of several trials that illuminate specific questions pertinent to theatrical nudity. The issues include not only the nuances of staging—the nature of a nude performer’s costume and attitude, her mobility or immobility, and even her distance from the audience—but also the performer’s agency, addressed in a decision that asserted women’s right to refuse to perform in a costume judged indecent. It is in this brief chapter that Kerley’s two histories—that of erotic entertainment and that of the efforts to regulate it—intersect directly. This chapter, raising the question of the performer’s agency, also lays the groundwork for the final chapter in which la femme nue is considered as a femme nouvelle whose embrace of bodily freedom liberated her from the moral constraints to which women had previously been confined. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 3, 2018
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