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The Two Girlfriends by Toulouse Lautrec c 1894-5
By Association Co-founder Paul Woods.
You may be thinking: This isn't much of an erotic work of art, what with only one breast exposed as two unattractive, old women fumble around on a bed doing nothing sexually interesting at all. Perhaps viewing this painting, created around 1894, from the viewpoint of 2009, nearly one hundred and fifteen years later, that thought may be correct. What may have been shocking then; the depiction of prostitutes with lesbian tendencies certainly is not shocking now, well not at least to the majority of people anyway. But shocking, in-your-face explicit depictions of 'perverted' sex are not the only attributes required for a work of art to be labeled as 'erotic'.
This is not a painting with a goal to elicit a sexual response or to initiate a sexual desire from the viewer. It does very little to sexually stimulate the senses. So why am I writing about this as a piece of erotic art?
In its time this painting would have shocked more people than it does today. The secretive Bourgeois world of mistresses, prostitution, brothels, vice, drunkenness and drugs; everyone knew this murky world existed. Most boys or young men would have lost their virginity to a prostitute, a rite of passage usually initiated by friends or even directly by fathers with a hearty slap on the back of approval. The shock (or more likely embarrassment) was to have this seedy underworld forced into a wider public's (and wives) conscience through 'high art'.
Perhaps more shocking still would have been the paintings execution. To an art appreciating society brought up on a diet of highly finished, clearly defined slavish copies of nature produced for the salons and academy. Paintings brimming with lofty ideals of beauty, purity, nature and heroism through scenes from history, mythology and the bible. This painting, with would have been perceived as sloppy paintwork, unfinished and unrefined, with rough black outlined drawing and crude flesh tones and totally unacceptable subject matter, would have appalled a cultured and educated Parisian society.
But neither the long forgotten shock, nor the long ago unappreciated painterly techniques, make this painting a piece of erotic art. We may today recognise the quality of the undisguised paintwork rapidly applied, alive and dancing. The audacious fluidity of draughtsmanship. The truthfulness of depicted flesh that has lived a life and shows the results of that life on an imperfect body. The cropped composition that gives the immediacy of a photographic snap-shot and compels us to to observe the two women without distraction.
What we see are two women lying on a bed with large pillows. The second woman looks directly at the face of the other. The nearest woman's gaze is not so clear. She may be looking down towards the breasts of the other (from her vantage point she may have a clear view of partially exposed breast) or it may be that her eyes are closed. The woman behind the first is supporting herself by leaning on her left arm. She is wearing a white, loose fitting shirt which, like the red drape on the closer woman, is semi-transparent. Through the semi-transparent white top we get the vaguest hint of the body below. The closer woman is topless, lying on her back with her left arm by her side. She is propped up by a large pillow. Her one visable breast is at the very centre of the composition. The lower half of the body is covered by the red drape, through which can be seen the the woman's upper thigh and buttocks. More tantalising is the placement of the other woman's hand. Is it holding the leg or placed between the legs? The left hand side of the painting is cropped towards the top of the thigh of the first woman, allowing us but a glimpse of her black stocking clad legs.
We have just enough clues to show that these two women are from a brothel, sex workers, and prostitutes. These are not high end courtesans but they are still lucky enough to be working in a brothel and not begging in the dirty squalid streets with pimps, thieves, drunks and the lowest specimens of life, outcasts and the downtrodden, that have washed up in the gathering place for flotsam and jetsam in the Paris quarter known as Montmartre. An area that attracted artists to its places of decadent life and decadent entertainment. There was even a market place for artists models; where young girls and women would gather in the hope of earning a few Francs by being selected to be an artist’s model for a few days.
The two women look too old, worn-out, tired and beyond their prime to attract a better class of client. They are at the end of their working day and close to the end of their effective worth in a brothel. It wont be too long before they are turning tricks on the streets for whatever pittance of money or food they can attract and descending into the Montmartre abyss; but, for the moment at least, they are spared this fate.
Toulouse-Lautrec does not show these two women as contemptible, to be despised and discarded or beyond the reach of human compassion. We do not see them as beaten, without hope or bitter. We see a tender moment of support and comfort between the two women after a day of work servicing the desires, fantasies and lust of their male clientèle. The touch, hidden by the partially transparent garment or drape, is not a sexual act but a tender caress; a reassurance of humanity and hope in a grim world. It is a moment that reawakens the belief that the touch from another human can indeed still be a product of love, respect and care. An understanding between two women who find themselves prostitutes out of financial necessity, reluctant working girls with a need to survive, feed themselves and possibly a family too. It is a touch that is a reminder of a past when a husband or lover would have caressed with the passion and tenderness born of love. It is not about sex between two women, lesbians with a sexual desire for each other, but a necessary reminder, a much needed connection between what they have become and what they would aspire to be, or more likely, to have lost long ago. It is a kind and gentle connection between two human beings, sensitive but not sentimental.
The look from one to the other is a look of compassion and understanding. The other woman with eyes closed reminisces of a time when a husband or lover would have interacted with a similar tenderness, comfort and love. Yearning that it could be again but resigned to the knowledge it will not and knowing it will not be found or given from her level of male clients, except as a deceit.
I am writing about this painting because of its extraordinary ability to twist the usual erotic intent. The very subject of the painting deals with sexuality. The erotic clothing and part nudity are necessary to convey the situation that is enough to leave the door slightly ajar for thoughts of a more lustful nature to be glimpsed but the sheer humanity of the painting closes that door with a sense of resignation and guilt.
This painting has little to do with stimulating sexual desire or merely depicting a sexual act. It has a little more to do with confronting sexual taboos, but most of all, it is about revealing consequences and in this particular painting the consequences for the prostitutes, not their users. The simple act of exchanging money for sex has complicated psychological and sociological effects and consequences. Toulouse-Lautrec gives us a compassionate insight to this through this painting and others.
The life story of Toulouse-Lautrec is well known, well documented, fascinating and is so easily researched through books and the internet that I do not want to delve into in any depth here.
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa, born in Albi near Toulouse in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France in 1864 was a man with short legs but a giant reputation as an artist. Toulouse-Lautrec was born into a financially fallen aristocratic family with an inclination to inbreeding which left him suffering from a number of congenital health conditions. Two separate accidents broke first one leg then the other resulting in his legs failing to grow beyond that of a fourteen year old boy. He was not a dwarf as most people think but a normal man with short legs. Unable to pursue the usual manly activities of the Aristocracy Henri took up painting with a vigour. His mother had dreams of the young Toulouse becoming a famous academy painter and duly placed him in the capable hands of eminent art tutors in Paris. But as a young man learning his craft in this dazzling city he embraced the decadent and bohemian life on offer to him. It was not long before his subject matter changed from horses and dogs to the prostitutes and dancing girls that he encountered around the bars, theatre and cabaret clubs. He was a popular young artist, extremely talented as a draughtsman and hard working. Like many others he developed a passion for drinking. He was said to be a fine drunk, jolly and entertaining with it. He may have had short legs but he was reputed to have had a large penis, slept with prostitutes, lived with prostitutes, drew and painted prostitutes. He reinvented the poster elevating it to great art. His career spanned a mere 12 years. His destructive lifestyle took its toll, he contracted syphilis, became a hopeless drunk and his once dazzling talents deserted him. After a spell in a sanatorium he died of alcoholism and related complications. At the age of 36 in He was buried in a Nuns cemetery that must have pissed him off and them more.