Iskin, Ruth E.: Modern Women and Parisian Consumer Culture in Impressionist Painting.
Art historian Ruth Iskin's rich and engaging study explores the relationship between impressionist painting and Parisian consumer culture, bringing together two scholarly fields whose fascinating parallels have never before benefited from such a comprehensive and insightful exploration. Iskin's impeccably researched book succeeds in casting a new light on some of the most iconic images of impressionist art by making visible what was most striking about these paintings to nineteenth-century viewers. Iskin does this in part by drawing on contemporary advertisements, caricatures and initial reviews. She reminds us that early critics often round that "paintings of modern life and cheap signs of consumer culture were all too closely connected" (8). The references to consumer culture in Caillebotte's gorgeous image of Haussmannized alienation, Paris, A Rainy Day, for example, are barely noticeable today. But in 1877, the multitude of umbrellas that appeared to have been "freshly taken from the racks" of a department store were visually jarring, threatening to overtake the people carrying them, as an initial critic noted (117-18); the clothing of the main couple was an all-too realistic study in luxury Parisian goods, right down to the woman's delicate earring. Degas's 1878 Cafe Singer (Singer with a Glove), to take another example, was mocked in Le Charivari as a veritable advertisement for the dark glove in its foreground, a bourgeois accessory popularized by department stores with mammoth glove departments. And the opera glass in Mary Cassatt's In the Loge, also from 1878, already functioned as a figure for female visual agency in fashion plates from earlier in the century.
Iskin's study explores the complex ways in which painters like Caillebotte, Degas, Cassatt and many others engaged with and were deeply influenced by consumer culture, as she deftly resituates many of these familiar paintings in their initial visual context. With over ninety images, about hall of which are of posters and advertisements, the book allows readers to pore over these striking references ourselves; the visual connections are in themselves nothing short of captivating. Beyond this, we have Iskin's own incisive analysis, as she ably moves between readings of Baudelaire and Zola (and not just the expected choices of Le Peintre de la vie moderne and Au Bonheur des dames, but also Baudelaire's "A une passante," and Zola's L'Oeuvre, Le Ventre de Paris and art criticism); Walter Benjamin, and the impressionist canon.
Iskin's work is focused in part on the role of "modern women" in consumer culture and impressionism, and ber investigation offers a nuanced perspective of late nineteenth-century representations of femininity by displacing the binaristic structure of "male gaze" upon female object. In part because of women's key role in consumer culture, impressionist painters depicted women as participating in modern life, and many paintings "depict modern women as subjects whose gazes were represented and addressed" (23). Iskin proposes that some paintings "represent multiple points of view," allowing for a plurality of gazes within a single work. This argument guides her reading of Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergere, the subject of her second chapter (which follows an extensive introductory chapter that lays out many of the questions she will explore in the book). According to Iskin, recognizing that there are "several points of spectatorial identification in [Manet's] painting: the male customer in the mirror, the woman looking through the opera glass, and the crowd looking at the spectacle" accounts for the widely discussed spatial "incoherence" attributed to Manet's painting, seen through the disjunction between the mirror and its reflection. Iskin reads Manet's painting as marking "a shift in pictorial codes of representation from an exclusive male gaze [...] to a new paradigm of crowd spectatorship" (55) one that resembles Baudelaire's own description of the flaneur as "a mirror as vast as the crowd itself." As in all of her chapters, Iskin's reading draws on a wide variety of sources. In this case, she explores the history of consumer display in department stores and world expositions, other representations of the Folies-Bergere, parallel displays in advertising, contemporary depictions of multiple gazes in poster art, and the question of female spectacle. With the wealth and breadth of these references, one sometimes feels that her approach mirrors the "multisensorial social interaction" of the painting itself. But the effect is not dizzying; rather, the cross-section of cultural references does a remarkable job of restoring the missing visual context to the well-known painting, making it familiar in a whole new way.
Iskin's third chapter argues that Degas's millinery works, his paintings of women buying and selling hats, are a major and overlooked part of his oeuvre. These paintings depict three major aspects of the Parisian fashion industry: the bourgeois consumers, the working-class modistes and consumer display. Chapter Four examines city views in the paintings of the 1870s, arguing that works like Caillebotte's Paris, A Rainy Day and depictions of street and cafe life by Degas, Manet, Renoir, Monet and Pissarro express "a modernist ambivalence about consumer culture and its representation in art" (115). Her fifth chapter examines depictions of markets in Zola's Le Ventre de Paris and paintings by Pissarro and Caillebotte, and ends with a gloss on her earlier reading of Manet's bar, in light of this sustained analysis, which now allows her to describe that same painting as a version of Claude Lantier's shop window, showing "the marketplace of Parisian night entertainment." The return to this painting and the young woman working at the counter provides the transition to the final chapter, which focuses on the "chic Parisienne" who became an icon of a distinctively French image of taste and fashionability at the end of the century. Culminating with a discussion of the Parisienne monument at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, Iskin ends her book with an analysis of this puzzling model of modern femininity, who was meant to "embody the glory of France and the superiority of its fashionable women" (222). At the end of this exhaustive study, we are so much better able to understand the ambiguities of that iconic sculpture, as a product of a decades-long relationship between consumerism, art and new kinds of female visibility.
Rachel Mesch, Yeshiva University
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|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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