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Prostitution in art and literature

Parent categories: prostitution - art

In art: Olympia (1865) - Édouard Manet - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) - Pablo Picasso

In film: La Maman et La Putain / The Mother and the Whore (1973) (not about prostitution per se, more an exposé on the mother/whore complex) - Salon Kitty (1976)

Related: whore dialogues (literary genre)

Lais (1526) - Hans Holbein

Prostitute: the Sphinx (1898) - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The hooker with a heart of gold

The hooker with a heart of gold (also the whore with a heart of gold or the tart with a heart) is a stock character in which a fallen woman, a prostitute who sells sex for cash or drugs, is in fact a kindly and internally wholesome person. This character is often a pivotal, but peripheral, character in literature and motion pictures, usually giving key advice or serving as a go-between. She is sometimes established in contrast to another female character who is morally perfect but frigid or otherwise unyielding. The stereotype owes a debt to Mary Magdalene.

A variation on the theme, the stripper with a heart of gold, is a tamer version of the character, a stripper and sex worker but not a prostitute. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hooker_with_a_heart_of_gold [Jun 2005]

Mary Magdalene as fallen woman
The Magdalene became a symbol of repentance for the vanities of the world, and Mary Magdalene was the patron of Magdalen College, Oxford and Magdalene College, Cambridge (both pronounced "maudlin", as in weepy penitents). Unfortunately her name was also used for the infamous Magdalen Asylums in Ireland where supposedly fallen women were treated as slaves. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Magdalene#Veneration_of_Mary_Magdalene [Jun 2005]

Fallen woman in fiction

The fallen woman in Victorian England
In the writings of Henry Mayhew, Charles Booth and others, prostitution began to be seen as a social problem, rather than just a fact of urban life. It also began to be seen as a feminist issue in the work of Josephine Butler, who attacked the long-established double standard of sexual morality. Prostitutes were often presented as victims in sentimental literature such Thomas Hood's poem "The Bridge of Sighs" and Dickens' novel Oliver Twist. The emphasis on the purity of women found in such works as John Ruskin's Sesame and Lilllies led to the portrayal of the prostititute as soiled and corrupted, who needed to be cleansed.

This emphasis on purity was allied to the stress on the homemaking role of women, who helped to create a space free from the pollution and corruption of the city. In this respect the prostitute came to have symbolic significance as the embodiment of the violation of that divide. The double standard remained in force. Divorce legislation introduced in 1857 allowed for a man to divorce his wife for adultery, but a woman could only divorce if adultery was accompanied by cruelty. The anonymity of the city led to a large increase in prostitution and unsanctioned sexual relationships. Dickens and other writers associated prostitution with the mechanisation and industrialisation of modern life, portraying prostitutes as human commodities consumed and thrown away like refuse when they were used up. Moral reform movements attempted to close down brothels, something that has sometimes been argued to have been a factor in the concentration of street-prostitution in Whitechapel by the late 1880s. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_England#The_fallen_woman [Nov 2005]

La Puttana Errante [...]

Art [...]

Many great writers, composers and playwrights have regularly indulged, patronised, and befriended prostitutes, including Franz Kafka, Guy de Mauppausant, Georges Rouault, Toulouse Lautrec, Dennis Potter, Picasso, Paul Verlaine. The artistic fascination with prostitutes, rather like their religious fascination, is hard to fathom precisely, but tends to exaggerate their power, beauty, social function and intelligence. Like medieval jesters, and circus clowns, and as social deviants, prostitutes are held in awe and have a fearsome power and fascination contingent upon their ability to engage in 'immoral acts' and mix intimately and heedlessly with strangers - types of behaviour that are completely taboo for 'decent people'. Artists especially identify with prostitutes because the inspired, creative mind is so often used and abused by society and its rich patrons in a similarly merciless, exploitative and disposable fashion. Many users of prostitutes are simply lonely or addicted to sex, while others are deranged socially or psychologically, and have concocted a dangerous or unhappy mixture of various mistaken apprehensions about their psycho-social identity connecting sex, violence, sado-masochism, desire to control or be controlled and deviance. --http://www.homeoint.org/morrell/misc/prostitution.htm [Aug 2004]

Prostitutes in art

Prostitutes have been the subjects of and/or modeled for many masterpieces by world-renowned painters throughout history. Here are just a few more examples:

Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) is famed in part for his paintings of Majas--loose, carefree common women of questionable repute who dressed in gaudy fashion. Two of his paintings portray Majas sitting on balconies, a typical place for prostitutes to attract customers. Behind them stand shadowy male figures, probably pimps. These representations suggest that Goya saw the Majas as prostitutes--which many surely were. And art historians believe that the model for "The Naked Maja", Goya's most famous work, was the mistress of his sponsor, Spain's chief minister Manuel Godoy. Nudity was rare in Spanish art at that time, and so controversial were the "Majas" that in 1815 Goya was called before the Spanish Inquisition to explain them. He was released unharmed, however.

In 1877, French artist Edouard Manet (1832-1883) exhibited "Nana", a lighthearted, life-size portrayal of an adorable prostitute in undergarments, standing before her fully clothed gentleman caller. The painting, rejected by the official Salon exhibition (perhaps because of the scandal caused earlier by Manet's portraits of Victorine Meurend), was displayed in a fashionable shop window--where it predictably caused another furor. The model for it was the popular courtesan Henriette Hauser. Manet was probably inspired by his novelist friend Emile Zola's descriptions of his upcoming prostitution novel Nana, which was published in 1880. Despite all controversy (or because of it) Manet was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1882, and his works were highly valued by the end of his life. The prostitutes of his portraits paved the way for artists to express themselves openly on real-world topics.

Art begets art. One of Manet's followers, the impressionist artist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), created several goodnatured spoofs of "Olympia", each titled "A Modern Olympia". The one shown here more-or-less faithfully portrays the prostitute with her cat and servant, but adds a clothed gentleman caller--sans pants! "Olympia" influenced the works of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and in 1891 he painted a straightforward reproduction of it. His appreciation for "Olympia" may have stemmed from his own experiences with mistresses, one of whom--"Anna the Javanese"--the famed art dealer Ambroise Vollard found for him. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) created his "Parody of Olympia" in 1901. Not only did he add himself and a friend to the picture, but he placed Olympia's black servant in the bed instead of Victorine Meurend!

Picasso's real-life adventures in brothels inspired him to paint "The Demoiselles of Avignon", which he referred to as "my bordello". This breakthrough image of five prostitutes was the first to exhibit the characteristic distortions of reality that would soon evolve into cubism. It is often hailed as the first work of truly modern art.

U.S. artist John Sloan (1871-1951), well known for his paintings, etchings, and lithographs of daily life in New York City, was clearly sympathetic to prostitutes. His 1907 painting "The Haymarket" unabashedly shows prostitutes entering a famous dance hall; in the 1908 lithograph "Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street", a wealthy prostitute or madam summons the courage to stride confidently through the street despite stares from onlookers; and in the 1913 courtroom scene "Before Her Maker and Her Judge", a gentle prostitute faces prosecution by obviously overbearing and malevolent police authorities. Sloan's paintings also feature women in fancy dress and feathered hats. Were they prostitutes or merely "bachelor girls"? Art experts have debated the issue, but the very ambiguity of these paintings speaks volumes: to Sloan, the question was irrelevant. Prostitutes or not, these women were worthy subjects for his work. --http://wondersmith.com/heroes/painted.htm [Sept 2004]

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Prostitutes befriended, supported, and modeled for an ugly, crippled dwarf who would one day be remembered as one of the greatest artists of 19th-century France.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), pictured at left, spent much of his short life painting the nightlife of the Montmartre district of Paris, France. He often spent his evenings in the extravagant dance halls there, painting the professional dancers who performed the risque can-can, along with prostitutes who mingled among the clientele in search of business. The dance halls also commissioned Lautrec to create advertising posters, dazzling lithographs filled with the vigor and movement the sickly artist must have wished he possessed. After its opening, the Moulin Rouge dance hall reserved a table for Lautrec every night, and displayed his paintings and sketches in the foyer. Elles. He neither vilified nor glamorized these women, but presented an objective, almost documentary view of the everyday life they shared with him. --http://wondersmith.com/heroes/lautrec.htm [Aug 2004]

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