Tuesday, June 23, 2015

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‘La Toilette’: 500 Years of Watching Women Undress in Art

Art & Design

‘La Toilette’: 500 Years of Watching Women Undress in Art

Slide Show|8 Photos

‘La Toilette: The Birth of Privacy’



PARIS — A woman undressing to take a bath is at her most vulnerable — alone, half-nude, self-absorbed, unprepared for prying eyes.
For centuries, however, women experienced the ordinary act of washing in less than complete solitude. Women of a certain class were rarely alone, even when attending to the most intimate parts of their bodies. Their lives were, in a sense, communal property, especially those of wealthier women who until the mid-19th century were the ones most frequently depicted in artwork, although prostitutes and mistresses were also subject matter.
The evolution of how women experienced bathing and grooming — and how artists portrayed those moments — is the subject of a thought-provoking exhibition at the Musée Marmottan Monet here. The show, “La Toilette: The Birth of Privacy,” brings together more than 100 works, including paintings, etchings and drawings, that reflect the most private moments in a woman’s day, as she washes her hair, buttons her dress, and — in a couple of paintings that might appeal to the more prurient viewer — urinates and shows her bare buttocks.

With works from as early as 1500 and as recent as the 1990s, the show is as much social history as art history, tracing how long it took for women to possess private space. Though some of the material is first-rate, the exhibition’s greatest strength is illuminating themes that resonate even today — not least the elusiveness of privacy and the way the modern era of selfies and Internet sharing has made hard-won private moments public again.
For Georges Vigarello, one of the show’s curators, “La Toilette, “ which runs through July 5, brings together ideas about how our forebears saw their bodies. “When we look at these works we are looking at ways of seeing and feeling that are completely different from our own,” he said. At the same time, the rituals surrounding bathing have not diminished. “This history is interesting because it makes us ask ourselves about our own cleaning practices and what we do and why we feel so strongly about it and it makes us wonder how it will change over time.”
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