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‘Paris of the West’
by Jake Highton
Jul 31, 2010 | 696 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
SAN FRANCISCO — This city is showing two magnificent art exhibitions from France, proving once again its sobriquet “Paris of the West.”

One is “Impressionist Paris, City of Light” with 100 prints, drawings, photos, paintings and posters of the Belle Époque. It is at the Legion of Honor until Sept. 26.

The other is “Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay.” The exhibit of 100 paintings is at the de Young until Sept. 6.

The d’Orsay paintings are less stunning for anyone who has seen them in Paris but not to be missed by culture vultures.

Monet and Manet, the two giants of Impressionism, are here. My favorite Monet at the de Young is “Magpie,” a snowscape with the bird perched on a railing.

Another is Manet’s “Woman with Fans.” It’s a “happy” canvas, the woman stretched out on a couch, her head supported by her left hand. She has a faint smile of confidence and contentment.

The “new” gem here is the Paris art exhibit. The era it portrays was alive with great novelists like Hugo and Zola and poets Rimbaud and Mallarmé.

Artists abounded: Degas and Renoir, Bonnard and Vuillard, Cassatt and Morisot, Tissot and Pissarro, Lautrec and Daumier, Signac and Seurat, Manet and Monet.

Poster mania, reaching its peak in the 1890s, starred Lautrec with his artistic and humorous advertisements. The funniest here shows an attractive blonde, a leering doctor and a shocked maid with her mouth agape.

The era also saw commodification of women, using them to sell products. The trick has not been lost on modern advertisers. A British string quartet a couple years ago featured an album cover with all four women wearing filmy chemises and high heels.

When the Supreme Court in 1966 upheld a ban on sending erotic ads through the mail, Justice Douglas angrily noted that the ruling condemned a hoary practice: “Some of our best magazines are chock full of thighs, ankles, calves and bosom to draw the potential buyers’ attention to lotions, tires, food, liquor, clothing, autos and even insurance policies.”

Other attractive women stand out in the Paris exhibit. Raffaëlli’s “Fashionable Young Woman on Boulevard des Italiens” portrays an elegant woman of the demi-monde. One of the many Degas boudoir scenes, “Woman Dressing,” gleams as a woman tousles her red hair while her left nipple is exposed.

But all is not beauty here. Bleak scenes of “grim-visaged war” are jarring.

Manet pictures a stark lithograph of the French dead in the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). A Daumier print shows corpses strewing a vast field. It’s called “Appalled by the Legacy.”

This viewer was also appalled, left with a depressing feeling that nothing has changed about senseless wars except ever deadlier technology.

Brady’s photos brought the Civil War dead home to Americans as TV did the fighting during the Vietnam War. America now has endless, futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The history of mankind can be told in wars: death and destruction, enormous costs and psychic damage to nations. Wars might be human nature but it is the darkest, most stupid side of that nature.

Shaw’s witty shafts

It’s hard to believe today that Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” was banned in London in 1894 despite the fact that the words “prostitution” and “brothel” never appear in the play nor does a bawdy line.

A Broadway production closed in 1905 after one performance, critics denouncing it as “an insult to decency” and likening it to “refuse in garbage cans.” The sick mind of Anthony Comstock thought Shaw an “Irish smut dealer.”

Actually, Shaw is a great playwright once you get past the interminable prefaces. He can be as witty as another Irish expatriate, Oscar Wilde.

Moreover, Shaw’s point is still relevant today: It is better to be a prostitute and live comfortably than toil 10 hours a day for starvation wages because of capitalist exploitation.

As Shaw puts it: “Prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul


Mrs. Warren (Stacy Ross in this production) commands the stage and the play, which closes today at the Shakespeare Theater in Orinda, 20 miles east of San Francisco. Mrs. Warren and Ross are imperious, witty and wise.

Her daughter Vivie, as played by Anna Bullard, is too young, too unbelievable, too ungrateful, too self-righteous and too judgmental.

For a cultural “fix, anyone in the Truckee Meadows with a cultural bent should go to San Francisco often.

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. He can be reached at
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