Sinners and Saints: Depictions of Women Then and Now

La Morphinomane [The Morphine Addict]. Eugene Graset, 1897.

La Morphinomane [The Morphine Addict]. Eugene Grasset, 1897.

There are certain fundamental commandments that we should all strive to live by. Treat others how you would like to be treated, always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and wine before liquor, never been sicker, are a few that come to mind. One of the most important ones, in my opinion, is follow your own advice.

Which is why this past Saturday found me wandering the many halls and exhibits of UCLA’s Hammer Museum. While I was busy soaking up culture in all its eclectic and high-brow glory, a friend stumbled upon the most interesting exhibit I’ve seen in a long time: Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914.

Spread out between three rooms, the close-to-one-hundred paintings, etchings, prints and books that comprise the Elisabeth Dean Collection reveal to the viewer what life might have been like for a woman living in France at the turn of the twentieth century. The first room of the exhibition is filled with depictions of affluence and wealth: well-to-do women enjoying themselves at tea parties, at the theater, in the venues that characterized France’s high society during this historical period, like in this lithograph entitled Sagot’s Lithography Gallery by George Bottini.

Sagot's Lithography Gallery. George Bottini, 1898.

Sagot’s Lithography Gallery. George Bottini, 1898.

As you make your way through the exhibit, however, the subject matter of the artwork slowly transforms: instead of enjoying the comforts of modest, high society, the women portrayed are being shown in increasingly provocative and suggestive poses, engaging in risque behaviors and pastimes like burlesque shows and prostitution. When you get to the last room, you’re confronted with an image like this one (featured above): Eugene Grasset’s La Morphinomane [The Morphine Addict]. The difference between the image of “woman” you get at the beginning of the exhibit and the one you’re left with at the end, then, is stark, as stark as the pain and relief etched in equal parts on the subject’s face as she slides the syringe into her bare thigh. With deliberate placement, seemingly-random pieces of art work together to suggest a dichotomy between “sinner” and “saint,” and craft a narrative about the ways in which women coped with the reality of their lives and their entries into a male-dominated society.

What struck me about this exhibition wasn’t the subject matter so much, but the fact that so many of the pieces, like Henri Martin’s Femme Couronnée d’épines [Woman Crowned with Thorns] and La Morphinomane, don’t look like they were created more than a hundred years ago – in fact, they look contemporary, like they could have been created yesterday. This observation inevitably led me to ask the following question: what, if anything, has changed about the depiction of women and the female form in the last hundred years?

Not much, if Kim Kardashian on the latest cover of Vogue can teach us anything about the state of contemporary affairs. Years spent in front of the camera have turned her life into an open book; it’s no secret that being featured on the cover of Vogue has been one of her biggest aspirations, and it’s definitely no secret how she rose to fame in the first place. If it were any other magazine, the cover would have made a nod, hopefully subtle but probably otherwise, to this very important and very obvious aspect of her celebrity persona. But because it’s Vogue and there are reputations and images at stake, it decided to feature her in a gorgeous white wedding gown, posing in front of the soon-to-be Mr. Kardashian. I repeat: in a wedding gown, featured with Kanye West. Does anyone see where I’m going with this?

Let’s break down the two major issues here, the first being that Kim is essentially acting out society’s obsession with the Madonna vs. whore complex that has eternally plagued humankind. Women like Kim who own and wield their sexuality have always threatened to upend the delicate balance of patriarchal hegemony in society. After all, it’s easier to control a person who constantly feels ashamed and insecure than a person who is self-confident, which makes it easier to convince them that sexual chastity equates to spiritual purity. What does history suggest you do with difficult women like Kim? You hide them away in convents, you burn them at the stake as witches, you condemn them to the kitchen and, if all else fails, you stick them in Lanvin wedding dresses and conveniently gloss over the fact they make sex tapes and motorcycle-straddling music videos. At the end of the day, besides being a mother and a blushing bride-to-be, Kim is first and foremost a businesswoman and the owner of a multi-million-dollar brand she basically built from the ground up. Why didn’t Vogue think that was something worth playing up for the cover?

kim and kanye

The second major issue here is that Kim is sharing the spotlight on the cover with a/her man. Because it’s not as if she can casually be featured in wedding dress without her fiancee breathing over her shoulder, right? While couples being photographed together isn’t a problem in and of itself, issues arise when one member of that couple is used to legitimize or validate the presence of the other, especially when the member doing the validating is a man. You don’t see Kim cuddling with Kanye on the February cover of Interview, do you? (Nor, come to think of it, do you see Bey anywhere near Jay-Z on the November 2013 cover of Vanity Fair – not that she needs anyone to co-sign her, though!) For all intents and purposes, Kim’s career, while no longer centered around that incident, began because of her sexual exploits with a man. To feature Kim wrapped in Kanye’s arms not only implies that her value as a human being and as a celebrity is still dependent upon the presence of a man, it also brings to mind the intimate nature of the acts that occurred on that infamous tape. Especially since Kanye’s gaze is directed not at the viewer, but rather downward at Kim’s chest.

While this is but just one contemporary example, it’s indicative of an overwhelming trend in modern media that parallels a similar phenomenon present in Tea and Morphine. When viewed in tandem, Kim Kardashian’s Vogue cover and Tea and Morphine reveal that a hundred years haven’t made that much of a difference. Regardless of the strides that women have made in the past hundred years, it seems that they can still be typecast as either a “saint” or a “sinner” at the drop of a hat. It still seems that they are subject to the scrutiny of the sexual gaze, oftentimes male, be it of the viewer or the artist or society at large. And it still seems that legitimization is a one-way street.

Maybe in a hundred years, women won’t have to choose between being portrayed as Mary Magdalene or Mary, Mother of God. Maybe they’ll be able to choose both. Or neither.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll be able to choose just Mary. 

Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914 is currently on display at UCLA’s Hammer Museum until May 18, 2014.

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