Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review: Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne, Paris 1880-1910

What did it mean to celebrate "la vie moderne" at the end of 19th century Paris? Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne, which accompanies a traveling exhibition of the same name, seeks to explore the lives and works of numerous avant-garde artists who lived, worked and breathed the fin de siècle era.

The culture in Paris at the end of the 19th century seemed almost designed to host the vast artistic explorations, interpretations and experimentation that the city's many artists were producing at the time. Some of the most popular subjects during this 30 year period were of the city's artistic underside: its cabarets, circuses, even brothels; intimate scenes, such as domestic life or private moments, were also commonplace.  

Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne explores the artists, and their work, who re-imagined life in painting, sculpture and other ephemera in a fresh, modern way at the edge of the new century. The scope of the book is quite vast and includes substantial sections on Realism/Naturalism, Entertainment and Performance, Symbolism/Abstraction and Portraits. There are also some sub-categories in the larger sections, such as Daily Life, Landscapes and Toulouse-Lautrec. Each section features reproductions of artwork, with most of the images reproduced in larger sized and accompanied by biographical and analytical information. The information is written clearly and is accessible for general readers in addition to those with an interest or background in art history.

image: Lucie Cousturier at the Piano by Maximilien Luce
credit: my photograph

One of the paintings that immediately caught my eye while reading was Lucie Cousturier at the Piano by Maximilien Luce. This painting of an intimate daily scene, completed around 1905, is a striking portrait that speaks in color. The woman in the portrait was not just a random art model, but a woman known in the Neo-Impressionist circles of Paris. In addition to her work arranging art exhibitions, she produced her own artwork, mostly landscapes and still life paintings. She was also an accomplished art historian and published several studies on some of her prolific contemporary painters, such as Seurat, Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross.

Maximilien Luce, the artist, was a close friend of Lucie and painted her more than once. This particular portrait of her stands out because of its broad, impressive use of color. Everything from her clothing to the walls and even to the piano itself is showcased with impressions of color using wider brush strokes to give the impression of shadows, objects and even folds in fabric. The vibrant reds, blues, greens and whites play on each other to create a colorful, stylized image of a simple, daily scene: a young woman playing the piano.

image: Le Divan Japonais by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
credit: my photograph

Of course, the highlight of the book is the thirty-page (or so) section on Toulouse-Lautrec and his work. An entire review could be written solely on this well-illustrated section! One of my favorite 'Lautrec' pieces featured in the book is Le Divan Japonais, a poster created to celebrate the famous Divan Japonais cafe/cabaret. Divan Japonais came at a time when the Japonisme style, influenced by Japanese art and aesthetics, was heavily in vogue among European artists.

Toulouse-Lautrec's poster depicts Edouard Dujardin, a symbolist writer, accompanied by dancer Jane Avril; the pair are viewing a concert performed by Yvette Guilbert, well known for her signature full-length black gloves. Toulouse-Lautrec's use of color in this poster is similar to other Japonisme-inspired pieces produced around the same time, which often feature monochromatic color schemes accented with pops of brighter colors. Another poster featured in the Toulouse-Lautrec section of the book, 'Jane Avril,' features a similar "Japanese" inspired color scheme.

These are just two of the many pieces of art featured in Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne. I highly recommended this lavish exhibition album for anyone with an interest in 'la vie moderne,' French art history, or simply "art" itself!

[A review copy of this book was given to me by the publisher in exchange for my opinion.]

Thursday, April 25, 2013

An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley

[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher upon my request.]

Life in early 17th century Japan was a wild place, even for those privileged enough to live and work in the imperial palace. The wilderness of the court, however, was much vastly different than the wilderness of life outside the protected imperial walls. To live in the court was to live in service of the emperor and to pledge one’s self to live according to the rules of society. Both men and women needed to be careful never to overstep the boundaries of their station-if they did, they risked punishment which would range from the death penalty to banishment—the cruelty of the punishment usually rested on the good will and mercy of the emperor.

An Imperial Concubine: Scandal, Shipwreck and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley is a painstakingly researched look at the life and world of an often overlooked, and yet nonetheless remarkable woman living in 17th century Japan. Nakanoin Nakako was a noblewoman who entered into the imperial service when she was about 11 years old—the imperial Daily Records of January 19th, 1601 mark her entry simply: “The young lady, daughter of the Nakanoin, entered [the palace]; she was received in the anteroom with congratulatory cups of sake and strips of kelp.” The life she entered into was one centered on the life of the emperor; when she became of age, she would be fulfill duties such as serving the emperor his meals, presenting gifts to the emperor, bathing and clothing the emperor, and entertainment. Women of age, of course, would also attend to that duty inherent to the role of a concubine, although this duty is never recorded in the meticulous Daily Records.

Nakako’s life as an imperial concubine would soon be altered forever by what came to be known as the dragon-scandal. In the sixth month of 1609, a series of hurried entries in existing diaries of courtiers record the many rumors which were circulating about the “lax behavior” of imperial palace attendants. By the end of that same month, the imperial concubines were forbidden to leave their apartments due to an investigation. And by the beginning of the seventh month, the entries in the Daily Records turn ominous: “1st day: … His Majesty took his morning cup of sake. No meal was served because no one could be found.” It was not until the fourth day of the seventh month that the dragon-scandal finally broke. Five women, including Nakako, were restricted to the custody of their parents to await further instruction from the emperor. What, exactly, was the “lax behavior” they were accused of? Although the exact nature of the accusations varies from source to source, the women were essentially accused of leaving the imperial palace to attend parties in male courtier’s homes; attending then-taboo kabuki dances outside of the palace; and potentially having sexual relations with courtiers other than the emperor. At first, the emperor had a mind to execute all of the guilty parties in the scandal, including the women. However, he was eventually convinced to only execute the two men of lowest rank, while subjecting the rest of the men and women to exile. 

Nakako herself would never make it as far as the official site of her banishment, the island of Nijima. Her boat shipwrecked in the harbor of Nagatsuro, which lies at the tip of the Izu Peninsula; a small village nearby would become her home for about 14 years.  Not much is known about her life there, but contemporary accounts do record some instances of a peaceful life; Nakako directed the dancing of the villagers at harvest festivals, and even danced to entertain them herself. She became known as “Nakako-hime”—or princess Nakako.

In 1623, Nakako—and the other women implicated in the scandal—were pardoned and allowed to return to the capital once again. Although she was a young woman of 18 or 19 when she was exiled, she was now a mature woman in her early 30s. Unfortunately, Nakako herself drops off the record for more than a decade after her return to the capital. It is likely that she lived quietly at her family home with her mother, brother, sister-in-law and her family. In 1641, however, she reappears: eighteen years after her pardon from exile, Nakako joined an aristocratic convent. She eventually became an abbess and died in 1671, the longest-lived of her family in her generation, around the age of eighty.  

Nakako did not leave behind extensive written records. Her story is primarily told through scraps of contemporary records, such as notes in the Daily Records, poetry, diaries, local records and even local legends. With some authors, this gap in historical records might result in an empty and sparse retelling of her life. Rowley, however, has the remarkable ability to flesh out the world of Nakako by using research on the lives of her contemporaries—such as the lives of imperial concubines in service of the emperor—in addition to documentation that still survives from contemporaries, including Nakako’s own father. While I’m sure readers will be left wishing that they could read something written by Nakako’s own hand, there is something almost enigmatic about the fact that all we have of her are these little traces, these little wisps, of who she once had been. A young woman, full of life, banished from the world she had known and torn from her family. This poem, composed by Nakako’s father after he received a letter from his daughter after her banishment, records his despair at their parting:

Could even the
Expected eternal parting
Compare with this?
I wonder at such a moment
Coming in my own lifetime.

I highly recommend An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley for readers interested in 17th century history, Japanese history, or women's history.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Hélène Berr

On the metro today I wondered: Will anybody ever be able to understand what it was like to live through this appalling tempest at the age of twenty, at the age when you are ready to grasp life’s beauty, when you are completely ready to trust in humanity?
 --Hélène Berr

I apologize for the total lack of updates in the past few months. Life has been overwhelming and I've been neglecting traditional blogging, for the most part, because it is harder to keep up with than micro-blogging. I am currently working on a review for An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley.

Today, however, I'd like to deviate a little from the typical book posts on Inviting History by talking a little bit about Hélène Berr ((27 March 1921 – April 1945). Hélène Berr was a young French Jewish woman living in Nazi-occupied Paris. Her journal, published in English in 2009, documents her life in a city which becomes increasingly hostile and increasingly limited to Hélène and other Jewish people living in the city. Her journal is something of a journey:

At first, her musings and day-to-day recollections reflected relatively little of the anti-Semitic policies which were being employed with increasing frequency by the occupying Nazis. She wrote of love and boyfriends, of literature and music, of worrying about passing her examinations. But her diary changed as the world changed around her. Jewish French citizens were forced to wear the yellow star, and told they may only certain cars of the Metro stations. Little by little, their freedoms are restricted or taken away entirely. Jewish citizens were eventually banned from public parks, from the theater, from crossing certain areas of Paris, and from going out at night. Hélène recounted how her non-Jewish friends tried politely not to stare and how some strangers smiled broadly at her in the street, while others pulled their children away as she passed.

Hélène, despite the harsh conditions under which she was now living, struggled to remain normalcy--as did everyone in occupied Paris. She worked at the library, listened to music, attended lectures when she was allowed, and fell in love. She worked both officially and underground for UGIF (the General Organization of Israelites in France) - filing papers, answering phones, sorting suitcases sent back by deportees, and secretly helping to place Jewish children with Christian families to be kept safe. Although those working for UGIF are supposed to be “safe" from deportation or imprisonment, it became more and more clear that no Jewish man, woman or child in France was safe from internment, deportation, and death.

Hélène’s family was finally arrested in the spring of 1944. Hélène was first held at the Drancy interment camp, then deported to Auschwitz, and eventually to Bergen-Belsen. She contracted typhus and was beaten to death by a guard for not being able to get out of the bunk, five days before the liberation of the camp.

Her last full entry in the journal details a conversation with a former camp prisoner she encountered, who told her about the execution of Russian prisoners of war at his camp: Each morning, they were rounded up and made to stand. Those too weak to stand were shot. Healthier prisoners that held up the sicker ones had their hands beaten with rifles, and those sick prisoners were then put into the wagons with corpses and thrown alive into pits. Their bodies, alive and dead, were covered with a layer of quicklime.

The last words in the entry: Horror! Horror! Horror!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

I apologize for a lack of updates on this blog (and my others) over the past few weeks! The holiday season has been taking its toll and my energy for regular blogging has been particularly sapped; however I hope to return to regular weekly posting in a few days and there are a few surprises in store! :)