More skin

The photography curator at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris gives us a rare glimpse into the subjectivity of the curatorial process when (s)he comments (in the museum’s translation) that “naked bodies appear in disconcerting numbers” in the museum’s photographic collections. Indeed, it is not just the numbers of nude bodies the curator, and this viewer, find disconcerting, though not for the same reasons. In this vast museum of modern art, there is just one room currently devoted to photography, despite the Orsay’s immense holdings, and the curators have decided to pursue the nude theme at least for this three-month bloc,  in an exhibit titled “The confusion of genres.” Though the museum staff explains that the photographs are vulnerable and cannot go on permanent display, this relatively tiny representation of one of the revolutionary developments of modernity (photography, not nudity) is disappointing, particularly since there is no other Paris museum in the public realm — with the partial exception of the Jeu de Paume — devoted to photography. Phooey. When it’s ice cream you want, and what you find is one old carton of vanilla ice milk at the bottom of the freezer case, it’s “disconcerting” indeed. And while you wouldn’t guess this from my last few entries, I generally don’t take my ice cream nude. 

Nonetheless, I soldiered on. Oh, the other thing I’d like to comment on, here in this public if obscure forum, is my dismay at the Orsay’s changed camera policy. When I first visited this fabulous venue in the 1990s, there were no signs with slash lines over cameras OR cell phones OR pointed fingers, for that matter (it took me a while to figure out whether I was to leave my hands at the cloakroom). Refitted as a museum between 1978 and 1986 from the central Paris train station that it was from 1900 (again, built for the Universal Exposition that did so much to change the city’s face for the twentieth century), the Orsay is one of the glories of this city. Banning tourist photography particularly in its main sculpture hall, with the arched glass ceiling and huge gilded clocks, is a sin. (The Louvre, even busier and just as full of treasures, does NOT prohibit photography.) I have not loved the Orsay in the same way for two years now, and I grieve my former infatuation. I did sneak an iPhone shot of one of the clocks this time, just to be perverse (and I rarely break rules, believe it or not — what a wimp).

Sneaky shot of Orsay clock


(And just as the Transportation Security Administration ALWAYS rifles my suitcase, I expect to be banned for life from the Orsay once this blog entry is published.)

Now I need to say that what is missing from the walls is amply repaid by what is represented online regarding this exhibit. You may view a number of the prints with full information about their photographers, editors, subjects, and provenance.

Alice Boughton, NUDE (1909)

For example, here is a photo of a group of children by Alice Boughton, an American photographer, that links her work to Edward Steichen: a useful piece of information indeed. 

A number of this disparate group of images (at least 23 photographers are represented among these small prints) are from the pictorialist school of photography: photographers early in the art form who chose to make their photographs  look like paintings. Claude Nori,  an accomplished  photographer as well as  a journalist and historian of the enterprise — see my previous entry — feels strongly that the pictorialists were little more than failed artists, “mediocre and frustrated painters or wealthy amateurs who wanted to preserve the status of the unique work of art” (Nori, French Photography from its Origins to the Present [1979]).  Now that’s harsh. But  this explains the soft-focus preference of this group of photographers. And because of the central place of the nude in the history of art, it is not surprising that so many pictorialists are represented on these walls. 

BUT WAIT — there is much, much more. There is gentle erotic art, such as this Carabin photograph of two nude women caressing each other.  

Francois-Rupert Carabin, DEUX FEMMES NUE SUR UNE BANQUETTE (1895-1910)

Perhaps because of the women’s expressions, perhaps because of their tender pose, tucked in toward one another, I don’t experience this print as a Belle Époque version of woman-on-woman pornography — to some  extent I feel these women interrupt the male gaze. 

There is deeply offensive material as well (yes, I know, I’m the historian, always ready to examine phenomena dispassionately in their contexts). Nadar, a hugely important early photographer, appears in this collection as the creator of a cruel, more melodramatic  than   clinical, photo of a hermaphrodite. A hand extending from a suit-cuffed wrist grasps the person’s penis between thumb and fingers and holds it out for the camera’s inspection, while the intersexed individual flings an arm over her/his face to hide from the camera. This photo is painful and of course part of the sexual “science” of the late nineteenth century. I do not reproduce the photo here, but it is readily available on the web — in  Wikipedia,, for example. There are also several early pornographic prints, as the curator points out: sadomasochistic shots of women tied up. These pictures are not in soft focus. There is a beautiful, even though headless, photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe by her by-then husband Stieglitz.

Alfred Stieglitz, GEORGIA O’KEEFFE – TORSO (1931)

And there are several quasi-documentary photos, mainly out of European exoticism of the nineteenth century: Europeans’  fascination with the otherness of the people whom they had worked so hard to  abjectify (I couldn’t help myself — I’m in France, after all).  Here is one of those prints:


Deux femmes d’un clan Nguni (Afrique Australe) — around 1880

I will be checking in again about the uses of photography in “othering” as well as in bringing others closer.

The Orsay curator has an amusing and bemused take on all this nakedness, surprised by its ubiquity in a century supposedly so modest. Yet – yet – just as people normally over-clothed were willing to pose for snapshots in skimpy bathing suits, as soon as snapshots were possible, and just as the century that violently resisted women’s rights saw the rise of companionate marriage, and just as some of the most shocking pornographic imaginations flourished in the nineteenth century, so it is hardly surprising that a new medium that made all things possible would also make it possible to see pictures of naked people whenever one wanted.  I do think the curator has it right in her/his final statement about these photos, so in violation of what I tell my students, I’ll end with a quotation:  “the nude in photography is not a genre.”

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