Thursday, 10 May 2012


....a woman's aquiline profile, seen from far below emerging from the darkness of her box, carries a force like a whirlwind with it; even the plaster putti look as if they're flying her off somewhere..... 

Detail of Edgar Degas (1839-1917), La Loge, 1880. Pastel on paper laid on board, 66 x 53 cm. Private collection....
Renoir at the Theatre: Looking at 'La Loge'
An exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery
21 February to 25 May 2008

The seductive gaze of Renoir's exquisitely dressed female model is directed slightly downward, possibly at the stage (there was good stuff on in Paris that year of 1874 for anybody in the audience who cared to look), but more probably at an admirer looking at her, which adds a layer of self-awareness to her characterization, like an actress's, while her rakish partner is spying out other attractions in the auditorium through his binoculars. Renoir emphasises the element of performance by painting her in close-up and lighting her from above, like a star, as if she was on stage, not in the audience. They are at the theatre to see and be seen, no different from most first nighters nowadays. That dress would look good on the red carpet today. Her luscious beauty, her luminous skin and deep blue eyes and shimmering striped dress are exhibited like something delicious in a shop window; she seems to be created for our delight but she's also pre-occupied by her own affairs; she is in her own show, which we are watching, while she watches another. It's not her fault that her's became the face, and dress, that launched a thousand chocolate boxes.

She - the model's name was Nini and controversy surrounds her social standing, her equivocal beauty and even her identity (one art historian suspects there's a Nini II), which all seems ridiculously unfair, when she had the talent to be one of Renoir's favourite models - is the covergirl of a small, carefully representative exhibition which examines aspects of 19th century Parisian social history in a theatrical setting. Its scope is expressed in the subtitle: Looking at 'La Loge'. It is about social display and looking and being looked at, it is about social history in Paris of the third quarter of the 19th century presented microcosmically through a box at the theatre. It's not about theatre itself; it does not, with one exception, attempt to analyse drama;  'La Loge' is presented primarily as a display window for social and sexual contact and for fashion design and wear. 

Boxes at the theatre were often used as a setting for illustrations of evening wear in fashion journals from the 1830s onwards. This exhibition lays special attention on two women fashion illustrators, the mother and daughter Anais Toudouze and Isabelle Desgrange, with examples of their work from the 1850s and 70s. The real-life occupants of the boxes initially offered satirists irresitible targets for making fun of licentiousness, vanity and hypocrisy. Some are respectable family boxes, some the luxurious preserve of high society, others are used by courtesans and their lovers. But then, interestingly, Daumier leaves caricature for a moment and treats his subject with tender respect: in a tiny oil painting 1854 - 6 of a group of figures, each with their own individual expression, they are all looking at the performance on stage, completely forgetful of their own concerns.

Nearly twenty years later, the Impressionists and other painters adopted theatre settings as ideal for their depiction of spontaneous moments of modern life, particularly focussing on the sensual and social power of women in this sphere, and exhibited them as fine art. The architecture of theatre boxes, like windows and parapets, provides all the lines for  experiments in perspective and foreshortening. The crowded interiors meant that there was no shortage of things and people for the models to look at, so it's never a problem for them to find somewhere to direct their eyes. From within their upholstered and gilded frame within a frame, the models can be arranged to look in or around the picture, at one another, or at people we cannot see, with complete naturalness and informality. Their hands can be kept busy with opera glasses or fans or bunches of flowers. The contemporary caricaturists had great fun with the binoculars, some of enormous proportions, more suitable for use at sea than in a theatre.

As happens so often with an artistic idea, two artists working independently produced works on the same subject at the same time. Renoir's La Loge is the first and most famous of the Impressionist treatments, but the excellent book of essays accompanying the exhibition does justice to Eva Gonzales' overlooked and more conventional Une loge aux Italiens which appeared the same year, 1874. Her good-looking figures in formal eveningwear lean out of their box as if out of a window. Renoir's model is portrayed with a fresh and open sexuality in daring close up which shocked the salon-goers. She's so delicious, so beautifully dressed, as resplendent and confident as a grande dame, but it was evident that she was nothing of the sort, she was demi-monde from Montmartre, wearing lipstick, and what looks like chocolate box to us it upset their notions of art and class in 1874.

The exhibition makes it clear that all is not what it seems in 'La Loge'. As with revivals of period plays, it's a reminder to look at these paintings in their historical context if we want to appreciate how truthful in observation and innovatory in technique they were. Just because the Impressionists produced works which are easy on the modern eye and make painting look easy, don't dismiss them as if they were only fit for the commercial West End and not for art house. 

I've never recovered from being told 20 years ago by another teenager that Monet wasn't a great artist because he hadn't suffered enough - as if we could possibly know what Monet really felt and as if feelings alone paint pictures - as if self-revelatory art was the only kind with integrity.  Actors have gone on their knees to play Toulouse-Lautrec, but no-one's yet taken Method so far as to cut his ear off to play Van Gogh. Nowadays in our confessional and ghoulish culture, pop music critics deride public entertainers like Britney and Kylie for not singing about their private suffering, instead of praising them for knowing their artistic limitations.

There is nothing morbid about the voyeurism of the artists here. Parallel to the Impressionists own central interest in depicting realistic scenes of modern life, of men and women enjoying themselves at public places of entertainment, the theatre-going in Paris of the early 1870s was transformed by social, cultural and economic developments. There were more people going to more types of theatrical entertainment. The notes to the exhibition tell us that 200,000 theatre tickets were sold every week. 

The middle classes had money for boxes at the opera houses and classical theatres, including Garnier's Opéra de Paris (opened in 1875), the biggest and grandest of all opera houses, inspiration for Leroux's Phantom. The audiences in 'les loges' of the Impressionists' compositions could go to operas by Massenet and Bizet - Carmen was first performed in 1875 - and Offenbach's latest operettas and Delibes' ballets of Coppélia and Sylvia. Towards the end of the decade, in 1878, Tchaikovsky's works reached Paris audiences in performances at the Trocadéro. The year of La Loge was the year Sarah Bernhardt first played Phèdre at the Comédie-Française. The first cabarets and music halls were flourishing: the Folies Bergères had been opened in 1869, to be used thirteen years later as a theatrical setting by Manet, whose inclusion of a trapeze artist's legs in the top left hand corner of a painting is testament to the assimiliation of acrobats and circus acts into mainstream entertainment.  Sexual and social interaction is fluid in these paintings of performers and audiences. The gentlemen in their loges, ogling the audience through their opera glasses, like Daumier's moist-lipped leerer in La loge grillée (1836-7), or Renoir's handsome brother  Edmond in the background of La Loge, might be flirting with the barmaid at a music hall a few minutes later. 

Sometimes, as in Renoir's oil painting of 1880 of two young women in Une loge au théâtre, the theatrical setting is hardly apparent, and they could just as well be in a sitting room. Sometimes, as in some of the fashion plates, the ladies seated comfortably under the swagged curtains, resting their hands on the curved balustrade, look as if they are cruising in a pleasure boat, showing off their frocks, looking out at people on shore. In Guys' watercolour studies of 1860, the fashionably dressed occupnts of the box, preoccupied with displaying their figures to the best advantage or with staring at other people through their binoculars, could be looking out from a balcony on any smart street in Paris.

In Renoir's painting of the two women, one a demure young girl in white, the other a confidently poised brunette, the ones who could be sitting at home in their drawing room, there is overwhelming attention paid to a dress, just as in La Loge. In this case it's a sophisticated black satin number of which the details, like the tiny black net covering the woman's white shoulder and the little buttons in a vertical line all the way down her tight bodice to the tiny waist, are painted with the appreciation of a true connoisseur of women's clothes as well as of their sensuality.

It's a mistake to think that the focus on fashion in the majority of the images meant that nobody in the 19th century audience was interested in the play or opera on the stage, any more than our enjoyment of the annual parade of Oscar frockage and the lasting fame of Liz Hurley's Versace dress are a sign of our indifference to the quality of films. Daumier and Renoir both portray dedicated theatregoers,  entirely rapt by the performance they are watching. There is something solemn, almost devotional, about the way Renoir's young bourgeois couple are concentrating on the performance below. Daumier's little panel of a group of six people from le petit bourgeoisie, snugly fitted into a box, with a shadowy glimpse of two more figures in the neighbouring box, shows everyone, except a bored little boy, directing respectful attention to the stage, all their faces lit with a restrained religious intensity. The pose and expression of Renoir's young girl in his study in blue, whom we see in profile, her lips slightly parted, body her leaning forward while she tightly grips her bouquet, suggests all the breathless excitement of stagestruck youth.

Mary Cassatt's two paintings of alert, independent-looking women intent on gaining their object in life provide a satisfactory idealogical contrast to Renoir's languid beauties luxuriating in the world of the senses but not doing much else. Cassatt's women very evidently know what they want and why they're at the theatre, and it's not to see a show. The first is a rather off-putting, limelight-hogging blonde in a pale pink dress, which, combined with her reddish-yellow hair, makes her look like one of those colourful iced buns in old-fashioned bakeries. She is obviously in her box to have a good time being seen and chatting to her companions in the brightly lit auditorium. From her appearance she's probably American, and it's hard not to think of a Henry James heroine on her first trip to Europe. She thinks she is the show, she is the performance, but she lacks the erotic allure of Renoir's women and her dress and demure pearls are fashion disaster compared to the chic ensembles of the Parisiennes.

Next door to her, is a far more powerful painting by Cassatt, At The Français, A Sketch, using a bold zig zag composition, of a far more intriguing heroine, a slim and angular woman dressed completely in black, training her opera glasses with implacable concentration on an object or person we cannot see. Cassatt reproduces every detail of the stitching of the delicate gloves covering the wrist of the lady while she firmly holds her opera glasses, her elbow supported on the edge of the box. She is not flirtatious or self-consciously coy; she is determined. Her skin is translucent. While she's looking at someone else, a man is looking at her from another box through his own opera glasses. She is unaware of her audience. The drama is here in the box with her, breaking the fourth wall, not on the stage. As the exhibition notes suggest, it's a memorable image of an assertive 19th century woman and in her quiet way she is very dominating.

Seeing her, the tone of the exhibition, hitherto predictable, changes. Next is something so extraordinary that on first glance it gives you a jolt. It is a small pastel study in fiery golds and reds by Degas, dated 1880, loaned from a private collection, with a startlingly vertiginous perspective and rapid, energetic brushwork creating movement and spontaneity, a dramatic work of art in its own right, which though it depicts nothing more sensational than a woman's aquiline profile, emerging from the darkness of her box seen from far below, carries a force like a whirlwind with it.

This image, by evoking mystery and passion in a single moment of action, tells us more about theatre than any other picture in the exhibition. It has the feel and look of a real theatre that you have been in. You can imagine being in the stalls and looking up that woman, who startles you with the power of her personality, something haughty and intense about her, though all you can see are her scarlet lips, heavily kohled slanting eyes set in a white powdered face, and an earring glittering in her ear. So brisk is Degas' brushwork, that even the plaster putti on the balcony of the box look as if they're flying her off somewhere. 

This lesser known La Loge is exhilarating and makes you wish that there had been more room and money for at least one other Degas theatre scene to have been loaned. He selects his angles like an innovatory film director; his oblique views of figures and their complex interplay with each other, through gesture or glance, evoke the atmosphere of theatres, backstage and in the auditorium.

One advantage of the one-room size of the exhibition, is that you will have time and energy to see the complementary selection of French 19th century drawings and to revisit old favourites from the Courtald's collection on your way out, all on your £5 ticket. Pop down the stairs, and you can see that huge painting about painting, that notoriously puzzling juxtaposition of reality and illusion, full of spatial contradictions and sequential possibilities,  blending the different genres of crowd scene, still life, and portrait into one composition, Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergères (1882). 

Viewed just after seeing Renoir's and the other Impressionists' studies of private people posing at the theatre, this painting of a theatre bar reveals an insight into dramatic truth as catharctic as any play. The back view of the girl that we see in the mirror is her in performance, bending amenably towards her customer. The sad face that looks directly at us shows us how she really feels, with all the pain of her life's experience showing in her big, hurt eyes.

If you want great drama, look here.

Pippa Rathborne © 2008

This article was first published as
Exhibition Review | RENOIR AT THE THEATRE: Looking at 'La Loge' on Sarah Vernon's Rogues and Vagabonds Theatre Website