mercredi 25 avril 2012

Caillebotte's view of men

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894)'s wealth and youthfulness (he was 14 years younger than Degas) set him apart from the other French impressionists. His father, a successful judge, died in 1873 and left his heirs very rich. Caillebotte lived his life as a characteristic flâneur : socially observant, well-dressed and wealthy. Trained as a lawyer, he was also a naval architect, a sailor, a philatelist and a horticulturist. After serving in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, Caillebotte decided he would pursue painting and studied under Léon Bonnat, who eventually sponsored Caillebotte's entrance into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1873. In addition to being known as a generous benefactor to his fellow painters he was an important collector whose Cezannes, Degas, Manets, Monets, Pissarros, Renoirs (whose Bal du Moulin de la Galette is a cameo in Caillebotte's Self-Portrait at the Easel), and Sisleys he left to France upon his death - the bequest was initially rejected but with some reluctance was finally accepted.

Though he received a good deal of praise from critics of his time, such as Joris-Karl Huysmans, art historians generally considered Caillebotte an amateur. His striking use of varying perspective is particularly admirable and sets him apart from his peers who may have exceeded him in other artistic areas. But if something is different in Caillebotte’s work, it is his view of men. In Caillebotte’s first major canvas, The Floor-Scrapers, men are depicted laboring in a bourgeois apartment. Kneeling, their arms extended before them, their torsos bare, the men are depicted in remarkably submissive poses. "This choice of subject constituted a deliberate challenge to official doctrine" and the canvas was rejected by the jury of the 1875 Salon.

The immediacy of Caillebotte’s gaze can be felt in Oarsmen in which the viewer is actually in the boat being rowed by the men with exposed arms. In Périssoires, the viewer feels he is on the river, part of an all-male outing. Bathers, depicting men in bathing costumes cavorting comfortably as a boat drifts by in the distance, only adds to this sense of homosocial activity. In Boating Party (Oarsman in a Top Hat), "Caillebotte is even closer to his model... as though only the rower’s feet prevented him from moving closer still." The viewer’s gaze is directed at the Oarsman’s crotch and this "crotch is not only fully visible but is emphasized by the curving folds of his trousers. [...] Once again the subliminal discomfort that this heated image may have caused in contemporary viewers is reflected in a caricature by Draner (pseudonym for Jules Renard), who retitled this work (Steam)boating party". The legs of the protagonist have been drawn up protectively in lateral foreshortening against his body and the anatomical emphasis of the original has been displaced entirely to the hat whose verticality is now exaggerated. Thus, in the caricature, the device of symbolic phallic displacement has been used both to mask and to compensate for the suggested and disempowering exposure of the literal penis itself to the viewer's gaze.

In his essay, Caillebotte as Professional Painter: From Studio to the Public Eye, Michael Marrinan focuses new attention on the pivotal importance of Caillebotte's experiences in Italy, pointing specifically to the work of his Italian friend Giuseppe de Nittis and that of the Florentine Telemaco Signorini as unique models that may have helped Caillebotte to bridge the expressive gap between systems of perspectival and photographic vision at this important juncture in his development. Caillebotte's personal manipulation of traditional perspective, seen by Kirk Varnedoe as an important device that creates "perceptual ambiguity and social and psychological tension" in Caillebotte's work, is signicantly developed in these terms in the later essays by Marrinan and also by Michael Fried, for whom perspective is an important key to understanding Caillebotte's selfconscious-and self-revelatory-juggling of appearance and reality... The tense and exaggerated perspective constructions are interpreted as efforts on the artist's part at "visually taking possession" of intimate and personally meaningful spaces. They are also seen to express some of the social and psychological tensions - an ambivalence of class and familial attachment - that these spaces may have triggered for Caillebotte, as he worked, consciously or unconsciously, to negotiate his own multiple identities: simultaneously a laboring artist and a wealthy employer of artisanal labor, in The Floor-Scrapers; and both an objective observer and a subjectively involved participant in the psychologically fraught rituals of his family's dining table, in The Luncheon. The number of paintings of men which Caillebotte painted on this balcony suggests some psychological statement of entrapment, as he lived behind a barrier, perhaps the barrier of public acceptance of his supposed attractions or relationships... Playing with perspectives is sometimes a way to "jump the barrier" - two men suddenly appear closer than they normally do, in a very equivoque "pose"...

In discussing The Pont de L’Europe, Julia Sagraves writes that "... the flâneur [loiterer] is apparently distracted by the fashionably dressed woman he has just passed, who, in turn, seems to glance suggestively toward him. Importantly, competing with this implied sexual exchange in The Pont de L’Europe however, is a social one: the flâneur appears equally if not more, distracted by the figure of the worker in whose direction he seems to stare." Why is the male-female exchange assumed to be sexual and the male-male interaction social? It could be obviously just the opposite. In an era of widespread identification on the part of bourgois pet owners (among whom we may number Caillebotte himself) with their dogs, the indepedent and unmuzzled dog who holds the pivotal position in The Pont de l'Europe is on many levels the vital connection between the artist/flâneur and the male worker whom he ogles. The dog's symbolic currency, however, is suggested by the following lines of verse, which were attributed to Théophile Gautier : "Que les chiens sont heureux!/ Dans leur humeur badine,/ Ils se sucent la pine,/ Ils s'enculent entre eux! / Que les chiens sont heureux!" But Caillebotte may also have been concerned to depict a potentially offensive topic by disguising it. He used as the vehicle for that disguise, however, not the dog, but the figure of the woman. The painted altered the physical and social relationship between the two figures by placing the female figure a few paces behind the flâneur. The dog would have been instantly recognizable as a challenge to the repressions of bourgeois culture and as a statement about ambivalence and anxiety that this culture experienced in the face of modern urban life and temptations. Nevertheless, the conspicuous silence of Caillebotte's contemporaries on the prominence of the dog in this composition and on the issues that the dog might have evoked is in retrospect not surprising, for it can be understood as part of an unconscious evasion and denial of the potention homosexual proposition that the dog and its placement clearly specify as the subject of the painting.

It is the same subjet, that Caillebotte set himself to explore in The Pont de L’Europe (Variant) , a slightly smaller but nervertheless finished and independent variant on the theme, set at a different position on the same bridge. Here, the top-hatted and elegantly attired bon bourgeois, whom Varnedoe again associates with Caillebotte himself, has stopped in his progress across the bridge, presumably to look out at a view of the gare Saint Lazare, which we see through an opening in the ironwork trellis at the right. But for the gentleman/flâneur, the massive X-formation of that ironwork in the center of the composition clearly blocks the view and unmasks it as a pretext for yet another interest and agenda, whose object seems once again to be the blue-smocked worker, whose conspicuously fashionable bowler hat suggests that this material tastes that may exceed his economic means, and "his upward mobility". The worker loiters at the railing, again presumably to observe the view. His bright blue smock, the only color note in an otherwise emphatically gray and tonal painting, functions not only as an indicator of his class and economic position but also as a visually arresting element, which makes him quite literally the object of the viewer's gaze and by extension, we might say, of the flâneur's desire. In 1914, E.M. Forster finished a draft of Maurice which concluded with Maurice, a member of the middle class overcoming social, to say nothing of sexual, barriers to live happily (we presume) with Alec, the gamekeeper. We can see a similar dynamic here: men crossing class boundaries as they cruise one another. Consider, for example, these lines from Verlaine's poem Mille e tre of 1891 : "Mes amants n'appartiennent pas aux classes riches : / Ce sont des ouvriers faubouriens ou ruraux, / Leurs quinze et leur vingt ans apprêts sont mal chiches / De force assez brutale et de procédés gros."

The interiors reveal a different gendering of spaces, where the man is absorbed into the domestic sphere and where the woman is not a mere decorative motif. In comparison with what could be termed his conventional ("masculine") likenesses of men and women - seated front and center and framed by wooden moldings or the edges of pictures - Portrait of a Man is a decidedly uncommanding, decorative, "feminized" and thus complicated portrait. In the Self-Portrait at the Easel, the artist is painting in his studio, while in the background a man "whose features are indistinct" (the bottom half of his face concealed by the painter's arm), reads on a sofa or a coach. This studio is not an isolated retreat, but a room in which a friend could feel at ease - maybe a lover ? Overall, a diffuse melancholy flows from the paintings... And a definitive homoeroticism.

Finally, the most overt break with contemporary iconography: the male nude in such canvases as Man at his Bath. "By the late nineteenth century, of course, the subject of the nude grooming or bathing had been for some time exclusively associated with the female body. As a result, neither the suitably masculine austerity of the setting that Caillebotte provided nor the virtually monochromatic palette that he employed for Man at His Bath could soften the impact of this image, which was an audacious inversion of both traditional and avant-garde norms." Positioned so that the viewer is presented with a startingly direct view of his buttocks, the man appears to have just emerged from his bath and is absorbed in drying his compact and muscular body with a towel that he rubs vigourously across his back. Painted in 1884 and sent to the exhibition of Les Vingts in Brussels in 1888, this picture was apparently disturbing and problematic enough to the organizers or viewers of that exhibition to cause its isolaton in a inacessible space."

But these nude men are not just toweling off after a bath. They have taken a bath that Caillebotte has witnessed, or staged to look as if he had done so, and are now being observed by the male onlooker. Who were these men? Were they friends of the artists or part of his household staff? The man drying his back is more of a bodybuilder (he is probably one of Caillebotte's oarsmen) than a god. His slim, fit stripped physique, the muscles and buttocks are strongly described in light and shade. It is a more overtly sexualised image than any Degas bather. It goes out of its way to emphasise the thing you can't see. The man is not shown in some discreetly casual pose that happens conveniently to conceal his privates. With his upright, at-ease stance, his nakedness is fully exposed to view - but in exactly the wrong direction. The figure is turned a full 180 degrees away from the spectator. He stands with his back absolutely square on to us, just as his feet are put squarely on the ground. It is the polar opposite of full-frontal nudity. Meanwhile, the image hints at what it pointedly refuses to disclose. We get an eyeful of buttocks, but as the buttocks divide, between them peeps the dark silhouette of a scrotum, marked clearly against the bright curtain behind. (Caillebotte didn't have to put that in.) And the man, bending slightly forward from the waist, his head looking down: he too could be taking an interest in his genitals, gazing at what's hidden from us.

The pairing of a small, recessive male figure with a large, dominant female figure in Portrait of Madame X was repeated by Caillebotte in Interior, now known as Interior, Woman Reading. Shown at the 1880 exhibition, this painting elicited an unusual amount of vivid commentary from reviewers, who criticized Caillebotte for his seemingly inept handling of the perspective but who were clearly far more disturbed by the inequality of the pairing itself and its implication of gender-role reversals. The critics agreed that the man and woman in this painting were husband and wife, and according to Eugène Véron, "on a beaucoup ri du petit mari de M. Caillebotte." Several likened the man to a doll or a puppet, "a child's play thing", wrote Henry Trianon, who described the way in which the contact of the man's head with his wife's hand seemed both literally and figuratively to diminish him and pointed to the disproportionate size of the large flowered cushions on which the man lies and by which he seems to be engulfed. Joris-Karl Huysmans referred to the husband as "microscopic" and speculated that his wife "reads Le Charivari or L'Evénement while he enjoys a novel". Thus, even the reading material with which each figure was imagined to be engaged seemed to extend this inversion, this reversal of the normal order of things, reflecting the woman's dominance by virtue of her engagement with the public and political sphere on the one hand and her husband's unnatural passivity on the other.

In this painting, where the protagonists pointedly do not communicate with each other, and in another Interior (not known as Interior, Woman at a Window) which was shown along with it at the 1880 exhibition, Caillebotte, according to some of his critics, was addressing the subject of dysfunctional bourgeois marriage, a theme that was very popular in Naturalist litterature but with which Caillebotte himself would have had little direct experience. During the years when these pictures were painted, in fact, Caillebotte lived the life of a well-to-do-bachelor. After the death of his mother and the sale of the family homes on the rue de Miromesnil and on the River Yerres after 1878, he and his younger brother Martial, an amateur musician and composer, had moved into an apartment on the boulevard Haussmann in Paris, where they lived together until 1887 when Martial married and Caillebotte removed permanently to a house that he had purchased five years earlier in the suburbs at Petit Gennevilliers.

Although Caillebotte himself never married, the literature contains much speculation on the existence of a mistress, speculation based largely on the terms of his will and on what census records suggest about his household arrangements in his later years. She is listed in census records for 1891 as a "friend", age twenty-eight, residing in the Caillebotte household. Two "sailors", along with several domestic servants, were also listed as part of that household. One of the sailors, Joseph Kerbratt, who was forty-one years old in 1891, had long served as navigator for Caillebotte's boating expeditions and was the recipient of one of the artist's last and most intense and searching self-portraits. In Rowers on the Yerres River, an oar is clearly definiting a "border", while the bourgeois' gaze appears to be directed at the white-suited muscular man’s crotch. Caillebotte "sailed in a race in 1885 with another yachtsman, Eugène Lamy, who from then on was to be very close to him. (...) It is apparently also Lamy with whom the painter has shown himself in a tête-à-tête in the remarkable and ambitiously scaled picture, The Banks of the Seine at Petit-Gennevilliers, Winter from 1893." Lamy was married and had two young sons. A tree planted between the two men, standing hands in pocket and face to face, materializes a barrier, not only a social one, but maybe also a border of the feelings they're allowed to share. Nevertheless, Caillebotte's companion is crossing another line drawn by the tree alignment... A close relationship underscored by the fact that on Caillebotte's death Lamy was the owner of some of his major works.

While homoerotic desire was characterised as deviant during the nineteenth century, homosocial relationships among men of the same class or professional group had long been and continued to be an accepted - although increasingly problematic - norm. But as definitions of masculinity shifted over the course of the nineteenth century and as institutionalized homophobia played an increasingly important role in the regulation of all bonds between all pairs of men, the difficulty of finding an acceptable position on this "homosocial continuum", as Sedwick has termed it, increased accordingly. In a patriarcal society, where male entitlement depended not only on maintaining control over women within the structure of the family, but even more fundamentally on maintaining fraternal bonds with other men, all men, no matter what their sexual tastes , were being forced increasingly to negotiate these aspects of their social and sexual identities. Within the established boundaries and the acceptable conventions for such relationships, however, by the second half of the nineteenth century, there was little room left for overlap betwwen the categories of homosocial bonding and same-sex desire, at least on an overt level. Thus, upper-middle-class men would not normally have had sexual relations with their friends, but would have exercised their predilection only with lower-class pickups and prostitutes. As a socially enforced pattern, this classed distinction between sex partners and friends helped to support the "expert" opinion during this era that homosexuality was a form of purely genital and not emotional expression.

While we have no way of knowing whether Caillebotte himself had open or sustained erotic contact with other men beyond - or even on the level of - the casual prostitution to which we have seen him allude in several of his paintings, the importance to him of homosocial friendships with men of his own class is clearly suggested not only by the many surviving photographs that show him boating, gardening, wrestling and socializing with other men, but also by such paintings as The Bezique Game of about 1881, a life-size study, set in Caillebotte's own apartment, of a group of his wealthy friends companionably absorbed in what appears to be their habitual game of cards. This scene shows the beginning of a round, each player taking a card from the pile and trying to decide how to bid... The man standing in the center, hands in pocket, is said to be his friend Richard Gallo and the right-hand player is none other than his brother Martial. One detail more : a lot of Caillebotte's "men" are standing hands in pocket. According to body language, they're "unsatisfied with their self image" or "the way they act at a certain situation". "The subconscious mind, which thinks in a primitive way, believes that putting your hands in your pockets is a good step towards hiding completely and avoiding the situation." Maybe "the person feels in need to hide because he is not saying the truth, but this only happens when this person thinks that lying is bad." And "if someone always puts his hands in his pocket then this person might be lacking self confidence and so always feels uncomfortable around other people..."

Caillebotte shares with novelist Guy de Maupassant "une façon de concevoir le monde qui rend la même sincère tonalité [...]. Ce sont des histoires qu'ils nous racontent, des histoires d'une humanité en souffrance qui veut continuer à espérer, à croire que l'art est encore la plus sûre façon de vaincre l'éternelle solitude."

4 commentaires:

Zen a dit…

wonderful, as always.

keifster aka mark a dit…

I love your blog. Thank you for all this incredible history.

Diogo a dit…

I love your blog... I didn't new the artist neither is work and lifestory and difficulties. I am a fan of early impressionism and later expressionism. This is brillant, and I never knew about the male nudes in the tub (bath).

Diogo a dit…

I love your blog... I didn't new the artist neither is work and lifestory and difficulties. I am a fan of early impressionism and later expressionism. This is brillant, and I never knew about the male nudes in the tub (bath).