I recently interviewed Victoria Dailey and asked her not only about the exhibition and its key images, but also about what she has learned from her involvement with the material.
John Seed in Conversation with Victoria Dailey
I had been advising Elisabeth Dean on her collection of late-19th century French prints, and arranged for her to donate the collection to the Grunwald Center at the Hammer. To celebrate the gift, Cynthia and I decided to do a show drawn from the collection, and we knew women would be the focus of the exhibition. The Mary Cassatt etching of a woman having tea had recently been added to the collection, and I have long been fascinated with Eugène Grasset's lithograph, Morphinomane, and the idea just struck us. Tea and morphine encapsulated so much about women in Paris during what is usually called "La Belle Epoque" and we just knew that this title would yield an interesting, provocative show.
While I was aware that many women had difficult lives in 19th century France, I was astonished at how deeply misogyny ran throughout French culture; women in France didn't even get the right to vote until 1945! No wonder they turned to morphine, they were shut out of nearly everything (except prostitution).
Another shock is that France didn't really have a democracy until the 1870s, that despite the French Revolution, France continued with monarchy for nearly a century. After the Revolution, they had an emperor--Napoleon--then they restored the monarchy they had so violently toppled, going so far as to crown Louis XVIII and Charles X, brothers of the guillotined Louis XVI. After the Bourbon kings, they had King Louis-Philippe and another emperor, Napoleon III. By the time France had its first democratically elected president, we in the United States were on our 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant. To me, this is a staggering fact.
I mentioned Grasset's Morphinomane; it is my favorite work. It is so extreme and bold, I think of it as a companion piece to Munch's Scream. To see a young woman injecting herself with morphine in a work from 1897 is more than surprising. Another favorite is Henri Martin's depiction of a young woman as a Christ-like figure; female Christ figures are extremely rare in art, and this one is extremely haunting and mysterious.
Some visitors have asked why there is only one woman artist in the show--Mary Cassatt. The answer is that there were very few women artists at the time. Along with everything else, women were shut out of higher education, including art schools, and prints by women are rare. Luckily, Mary Cassatt made etchings, and her work depicting a woman having tea is the basis for one-half of our title. Furthermore, the few women artists that did exist were mostly painters; printmaking was just not something women did at the time. It was difficult, messy, and required strength to operate heavy etching and lithograph presses; the printmaking world of the time was run by men.
Yes, printmakers often dealt with subjects that were taboo, difficult or hidden; they weren't as public as paintings, and their frequent use as book illustrations created a literary connection that just didn't exist in paintings. Prints could depict images that explored the deeper recesses of culture that paintings often missed, and since prints were sometimes issued as a series, a range of images could illustrate one theme. In the exhibition is Albert Besnard's series La Femme, a group of twelve etchings showing the life of a woman, from marriage and childbirth to rape and suicide.
Yes, visitors are astonished that drugs were so prevalent in the 19th century; drug-addiction is not a new phenomenon, but we tend to think of our ancestors as somehow naïve or innocent and that our problems are new ones. Similarly, we don't really understand how prostitution was a huge social problem over a century ago, and that it was probably worse than today since women had so few choices in life back then. In actuality, prostitution was one of very few career choices for women.
I want to give credit to Elisabeth Dean for being a fearless collector, always ready to acquire something new and interesting in order to expand and improve the collection. It has been a pleasure working with her for nearly thirty years. She has a deep understanding of French printmaking and her devotion to the subject has resulted in an extraordinary achievement. Her generosity in donating her collection to the Hammer is being recognized as one of the museum's most significant gifts.
I am working on the effects of the French Revolution on women, and specifically on the role that prostitutes played in French culture, especially in the first half of the 19th century. I have discovered that as the Inuit are said to have one hundred words for snow, the French have nearly three hundred words for prostitute...from "adoratrice" to "wagon," and I am especially fond of "fleur de macadam" and "Vénus populaire." I am compiling a list that I will publish with the rest of my findings.
Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris 1880 to 1914
January 25, 2014 - May 18, 2014
The Hammer Museum at UCLA
10899 Wilshire Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90024