Archive

fin de siècle

Image

In 1934 Edward Hopper created his oil painting ‘Sun on Prospect Street’. Its subject is an ordinary street in an ordinary American seaside town. The geometric image showing a row of houses and three parked cars is completely devoid of people. The architecture on Prospect Street is recorded with detailed precision. The artist has removed all superfluous elements of the scene, inviting the viewer to add the narrative to an image that is both familiar and strangely foreign. The painting typifies Hopper’s style. Trained by William Merritt Chase, an impressionist; Kenneth Hayes Miller, an urban realist; and Robert Henri, the inspiration behind the Ashcan realists, Hopper is often defined as an American scene painter in line with his predecessors who depicted aspects of everyday city life. Hopper’s intensely personal art, however, does not fit well into this category. His contemplative and introspective figures appear to be alienated from life and society. They occupy a world devoid of interaction and communication, provoking questions about human relationships, the social roles people play, and about the meaning of life itself.
Image

Born on 22 July 1882 in Nyack, New York, Hopper was a loner who experienced acute discomfort in interpersonal relationships. From the outset, his work permeates isolation. He enrolled at the New York School of Art (Chase School), and between 1906 and 1910 made three trips to Europe where he admired the work of Gustave Courbet and Edgar Degas. He was especially drawn to artists whose work included ordinary scenes of people in mundane situations. In 1924 Hopper married Josephine [Jo] Nivison. The couple honeymooned in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a landscape that would become a favourite subject for the painter. They made Greenwich Village their home, sharing time between city and country. During the 1920s Hopper’s career started to take shape. Hooked on travel, he frequently treated themes related to transience such as lodging rooms, restaurants, and trains. His interest in the hotel lobby, a temporary space where strangers briefly congregate but rarely communicate, was sparked by films and novels, especially the detective-story depiction of this area as a meeting place for the protagonists.
Image

In 1941 the second version of The Maltese Falcon appeared on screen. Starring Humphrey Bogart, it is a mystery thriller in which the private-eye confronts the gangster in a hotel lobby. Hopper was attracted to this style of filming with its shadowy settings, eerie lighting, and complex plots. All these elements came together in the 1943 painting ‘Hotel Lobby’, one of his more intriguing works.
Image

The emphasis on a dysfunctional relationship in this painting is not unusual for Hopper. The theme of discontented couples returns regularly in his work. Alternatively, the detailed architectural qualities of Hopper’s painting influenced film makers. His ‘House by the Railroad’ (1925), an ugly dwelling in an uninspiring setting, inspired Hitchcock’s choice of location for Psycho. The painting’s grey mansion is a melancholic reminder of the damage inflicted on the countryside by the demands of progress. At the time railroad tracks were associated with the rapid and noisy change of modern life, but this scene is curiously silent. It is as if the maelstrom of industrialization has passed it by.
Image

Hopper, working in the period between two world wars, feared that urbanization would wipe out the pastoral character of the New World. In the picture, the railway track has been given the colour of earth as if taking the place of the pleasant stream that once formed the background of the American landscape. The painting expresses a tone of regret that reminds one of John Ruskin’s famous outbursts against the industrial pollution of the English countryside.
Image

By the end of the nineteenth century streetscapes had become associated with Paris and the Impressionists. Napoleon III had appointed Georges Haussmann to realize the ambitious project of turning the French capital into a modern metropolis. Once this massive task was completed, the revitalized city turned into one of the favourite pictorial subjects. From Édouard Manet to Gustave Caillebotte, from Pierre Auguste Renoir to Camille Pissarro, Parisian boulevards were considered the ultimate source of inspiration by many outstanding painters of the era.They grasped the atmosphere and dynamics of everyday life on the newly created boulevards and avenues. The cityscape was exported from Paris to America by such talented painters as James McNeill Whistler and Childe Hassam who preceded the artists of the Ashcan School.
Image

As American society became increasingly urbanized, art took a grittier and less romantic direction. Ashcan artists focused on depicting everyday life in Manhattan and the bustling streets of early twentieth-century New York. Leading figures such as Robert Henri, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and George Bellows, insisted that artists should face urban realities to find their subject matter. They urged young painters to step aside from sterile academic orthodoxy and develop a harsh style reflecting the essence of metropolitan life. Earlier paintings of New York were characterized by distance, being either impressionistic blurs or bird’s-eye views of the city. By contrast, Ashcan artists looked for street level realism. Their gaze was directed at the perspectives of the street itself, their ambition to communicate the ‘theatre’ of inner city streets.
Image

In the commemoration of ordinary lives, the Ashcanners put New York on the artistic map as the city that defines metropolitanism. In their images the crowd effectively becomes the city itself and serves as its primary imagery. Ashcan art offers an intimate feeling for the pressures of inner-city life. The best of these paintings are evocative observations of day to day experiences presented in such a manner that the viewer can emphasize with the ordinariness of the subject matter. The anonymity of city life may be stressed, but the image invites the viewer to participate, to become involved, and to enter into a dialogue. These snapshots of city life are dramatized stories of a struggle for survival in the urban jungle. As such, critics tend to consider the Ashcan creative output as a visual equivalent of Walt Whitman’s poetry.
Image

George Bellows was a student of Robert Henri at the New York School of Art. When he died in 1925, aged only forty-two, Bellows was hailed as one of the greatest artists America had yet produced. His paintings and drawings of tenement children and New York street scenes are iconic images of the modern city. These were produced during an extraordinary period of creativity that began shortly after he left his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, for New York in 1904. He selected contemporary subjects that challenged prevailing standards of taste, depicting the city’s impoverished immigrant population in ‘River Rats’ (1906) and other paintings. Bellows’s New York scenes portrayed the crudity of deprived neighbourhoods. Fascinated with the full spectrum of life of the urban working classes, he chronicled a variety of subjects and applied an array of palettes and painting techniques. From 1907 through 1915, he executed a series of paintings depicting New York City under snowfall. To the artist, these paintings were a testing ground in which he developed a strong sense of light and visual texture. However, his signature contributions to art history are the paintings recording brutal boxing bouts.
Image

To circumvent a state ban on public boxing, fights were illegally organized by private clubs in New York at that time. In three acclaimed masterpieces, ‘Club Night (1907), ‘Stag at Sharkey’s’ (1909), and ‘Both Members of This Club’ (1909), Bellows’s slashing brushwork matches the violent action of the fight itself, and relates the aggressive participation of a grim-faced and chain-smoking audience. These pictures are powerful and disturbing – raw reflections on life in the metropolis. They have become iconic depictions of the American inner-city struggle. The spirit of tough desperation these paintings evoke has been maintained by Paul Simon in his celebrated 1968 song ‘The Boxer’ (first recorded by Simon & Garfunkel).
Image

European Impressionists (and their American followers) created a model of visuality that has been associated with the figure of the disinterested flâneur, the prototypical urban spectator celebrated artistically by Charles Baudelaire or Louis Couperus and critically by Walter Benjamin. The flâneur was a gentleman-dandy whose independent means allowed him to cultivate the arts and rise above the crowd. He would stroll about town without particular direction, purpose, or destination, infiltrating society to see up close and yet maintaining his distance. For Baudelaire, this detached but inquisitive gaze embodied the urban human condition. It originated in the need to protect individual integrity against the threat of metropolitan anonymity. Ashcan painters focused on the city’s inhabitants for their diagnosis of the nature of modern life. They were part of a wider group of urban observers such as Walt Whitman or Stephen Crane who felt involved with the people they depicted. Art was engaged and a statement of social commitment. However, viewing the street as theatre carries with it the dangers of artistic license and misrepresentation. Both sentimentalism and sensationalism are part and parcel of the process. Scenes of poverty, crime, and immigrant life were often described as picturesque scenes and ‘entertaining’ sights.
Image

Slumming became a pastime for a number of curious New Yorkers. A few decades earlier a parallel process had taken place in London where urban deprivation was associated with the East End. The area was by all accounts a social nightmare, a gothic tale of contemporary suffering.
Image

One of the more bizarre aspects of London’s poverty was that by the 1890s the idea of ‘slumming it’ in the dark East End had become a leisure activity of the urban rich. Oscar Wilde’s hedonistic Dorian Gray gave the idea a literary status. The hero of the novel travels into Whitechapel’s shady alleys to sample the rude delights of entertainment that were on offer there. Various studies on London’s poorest districts provided both images of dreadful social conditions and descriptions of crude merriment in clubs and caves.
Image

The most outstanding work of this type was London: a Pilgrimage, published in 1872 by playwright and journalist (William) Blanchard Jerrold. The word ‘pilgrimage’ is a reminder of the fact that such a journey was considered to be one of great moral significance. Illustrated by Gustave Doré, the book is a hellish vision of East End poverty. Doré’s London, with its stark contrasts between affluence and apocalyptic misery, captured the public mood at the time. Of the many social investigations undertaken in the Victorian era, the Pilgrimage had the most enduring appeal. Vincent van Gogh’s admiration for these illustrations led him to paint a version of Doré’s haunting image of dehumanized convicts circling a bleak exercise yard.

Image

The New York Ashcanners were contemporaries of the Camden Town Group in London. Yet there are telling differences between the two traditions. Camden realists were keen to dispel all elements of sympathy or dialogue from their painting. They were interested in the systems and structures of the city to the point of exclusion of the human presence in their paintings. Their outlook was harsher, more clinical, and at the same time more anxious. The cause of this crisis feeling was not war or economic depression, but the speed of change that took place within urbanized society. Anxiety and city images are frequently paired in Camden art. The treatment of urban subjects projects the vitality of the city, but also expresses unease at the effect of massification.

Image

People are cut off from one another, isolated, alienated. The city-dweller has lost his identity. Hopper went a step further. His most intriguing works are his interiors (which links him to the Camden realists). Composed like stage sets, these paintings depict everyday scenes populated with introspective figures that seem oblivious to their surroundings. They suggest a sense of abandonment and uncomfortable repose. The rat race has stopped. Thrown into the isolation of the night people sit back, alone, seemingly questioning the meaning of it all. Stillness pervades – the paralysis of despair. In 1900, young Hopper had made a pen and ink drawing of a ‘Dutch Girl’ in traditional costume with hat and wooden shoes. She personifies the innocence of childhood, yet she is an isolated observer, surveying a scene in which she does not participate. The image indicates that as a student Hopper was already preoccupied with Dutch art (he may have been of Dutch descent himself). The young girl has a prim demeanour – very much like the maidens Vermeer portrayed.

Image

In his famous streetscape, through an extraordinary economy of means, Vermeer succeeded in creating an atmosphere of stillness and puritanical dignity. In painting the street he protects its dwellers – façades of a house show the viewer nothing but the outside of its intimate existence. The artist keeps his distance as if not to interrupt the locals in their daily routine. It is a technique that Hopper applies in a similar manner. Vermeer casts his endearing images in a beautifully warm light. Hopper by contrast presents his isolated characters in a glare of electricity that exposes a brutal urban milieu. The scenes created by Vermeer are tranquil and harmonious, those painted by Hopper ominous and threatening. Hopper is the Vermeer of the contemporary streetscape.

Image

Image

Heddon Street is a small side-street and alleyway off Regent Street, close to Piccadilly Circus. Yet, the Handbook Guide to Rock and Pop (1997) lists the street as an historic London music site. The reason is David Bowie. His 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was based on a story of a fictional rock star named Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy is the human manifestation of a ‘space invader’. He is also the definitive rock star: sexually promiscuous, hooked on drugs, but with a message of peace and love. He is destroyed by his own excesses and by the fans he inspired. A film of the same name, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, was released in 1973. The cover of the album shows Bowie posing as Ziggie in front of no. 23 Heddon Street. Photographer Brian Ward created the photograph for the cover. Originally shot in black and white, Ward tinted the photographs to achieve the storybook style of the album sleeve. More importantly, however, it was in the basement at no. 9 Heddon Street that in 1912 England’s first cabaret club opened its doors.

Image

The concept of cabaret is a Continental one. The first modern nightclub, the Chat Noir, opened in Montmartre in 1881. The club presented itself as a ‘cabaret artistique’, a new kind of public meeting place for writers, poets and artists. In an obituary of its founder Louis Rodolphe Salis, the New York Times of 23 March 1897 specifically referred to the artistic clientèle of the Chat Noir: ‘Here Alfred de Musset, Alphonse Daudet, and the frères de Goncourt assembled to write verses and eat their dinners, including wine, for twenty sous. Here Guy de Maupassant came nightly, brooding alone, at a table apart from the others. Paul Verlaine wrote verses here, seated at a marble table, with ink and a bottle of wine before him, and a quill pen in his hand’. The Chat Noir staged the integration of the artist as a social outcast, the ‘poète maudit’, into the gallery of criminals, revolutionaries, and libertines long associated with the shady underworld of pubs and clubs.
Image

This, the first modern nightclub, was both a place of adversarial culture and a shrewdly planned commercial venture. Almost as soon as the Chat Noir opened in 1881, Salis turned the club into a money making enterprise, in part to advance the careers of writers and artists associated with the club. The Chat Noir exploited the medium of print to disseminate its brand of bohemianism. The club published its own weekly journal in tabloid format, with a print run that grew from 300 to 20,000 copies per week in a matter of seven years. Other publications included the Chat Noir Guide, a brochure listing art works that were for sale at the club; the Album du Chat Noir, a portfolio of drawings to be sold by subscription; song sheets of lyrics recited or sung at the club, and collections of stories concerning the club. Bohemianism was good business.
Image

A significant aspect of the new nightclub was the design of its interior. Again, the Chat Noir had set a precedent. Its rooms were decorated seemingly at random. In reality, the cabaret’s environment had been carefully planned. It featured furniture and artifacts of the Louis XIII period, but arranged in such grotesque settings as to make them incongruous. Walls were covered with green paper or drapes. Panels were made with glazed doors of Louis XIII design. On all available wall space were hung paintings and prints created by the cabaret’s resident artists (the ‘artist-in-residence’ was also a new concept). Pots, plants, plates, and antiques hung from the ceiling or were stacked in corners and niches. The deliberate attempt was to mix the ancient and the modern, to blend the rococo and the commonplace, to combine the luxurious and the obnoxious, to fuse style and kitsch. Many clubs adapted themselves to specific themes.
Image

One of the more outrageous attempts was made at the Cabaret du Ciel. Waiters were dressed as angels with wings and wigs. As guests sipped on the ‘ambrosia of the gods’, they were treated to ‘mystical illusions and celestial music’ while beholding burlesque religious rites (striptease in other words). Heaven was situated on the second floor of the house. The 1903 Pleasure Guide to Paris describes this abode in the following terms: ‘It is a vast grotto, in which hang stalactites of a golden colour. Here Saint Peter is represented by a robust mulatto, armed with a long key, with which he opens the door for the elect … Gorgeous transformations now take place in a mysterious manner, so as to favour the illusion that it is no longer this sad earth of ours, but a region ethereal and serene where all the angels are represented by women’.
Image

At the Café du Néant visitors entered a dark chamber lit only by wax tapers suspended on a chandelier composed of human skulls and arms. Customers were welcomed by waiters dressed as undertakers and seated at tables made of coffins, from where they could ponder images of death, carnage and assassination that adorned the walls. After drinking ‘les microbes de la mort’, clients would be directed to the Hall of Incineration where they could enjoy a spectacle of death and decay. A chosen member from the audience was placed in an upright coffin. Using a projected image, glass and mirrors an illusion was cast to make it appear as if that person was slowly decomposing into a skeleton.
Image

In 1885, Aristide Bruant opened a club called Le Mirliton. Its famous owner – the man in the red scarf and black cape featuring on Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters – composed and performed accusatory songs in Parisian slang about the fate of the poor and downtrodden, and about crime and violence in the city. His mix of song, satire and entertainment was popular with the affluent classes slumming in the Montmartre district. The ‘chanson réaliste’ made an instant impact and became part of the repertoire of most cabaret performers in the European capitals. This repertoire consisted of poems of loss and hopelessness. It listed songs that dealt with the struggle for life in poorest parts of the city, and with the thugs, pimps, and tarts that called them home. Its themes were poverty, abandonment, deprivation, combined with socio-political commentary. Novelists had been a major influence on the development of the genre which had been preceded by such literary movements as Realism and Naturalism. Later, the art form was performed mainly by female vocalists. It was brought to perfection by Édith Piaf.

Image

Once the madness of the Great War was behind them, Parisians rebounded in a carnival of cosmopolitan hedonism known as ‘les années folles’. There was a new aspect to this particular orgy of pleasure: the influx of American youngsters who were sick of prohibition and puritanical small-mindedness back home. Some of them had plenty of dollars in their pockets taking advantage of the strong exchange rate, while others arrived with the sole ambition of making it as an artist. Many nightclubs cultivated a deliberately coarse and promiscuous atmosphere. In Berlin, these were known as ‘Tingeltangel’ clubs.

Image

The sleazy atmosphere of such establishments is captured in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film Der blaue Engel (based upon a novel by Heinrich Mann) with lusty Marlene Dietrich as the chanteuse Lola Lola.
Image

The story line was inspired by clubs such as Zum hungrigen Pegasus (opened in Berlin in October 1901 by artist Max Karl Tilke), where one could enjoy performances by a poet named Dolorosa (real name: Maria Eichhorn) reciting erotic and sadomasochistic verses, or artists performing ‘niggersongs’.
The identification of jazz with the ‘spirit of the times’ formed the essence of many articles and essays during the 1920s. When in May 1938 Hans Severus Ziegler organized the ‘Entartete Musik’ exhibition in Düsseldorf, he included work by Schönberg, Kurt Weill, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Mahler, Krenek, and many others. He specifically turned against the Berlin craze for jazz. Ernst Krenek had incorporated jazz influences into his opera Jonny spielt auf (1926). Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill were interested in the means of expression found in jazz, but in the Nazi interpretation of German high culture there was no place for ‘Niggermusik’.

Image

With an audience consisting of artists, scholars, writers, financiers, well-connected ladies, prostitutes, and criminals, the nightclub was a place where middle-class citizens could pretend to be bohemians and, for one night at least, release themselves of all shackles of respectability. These weekend bohemians introduced the recreational practice of ‘slumming’. Middle-class city dwellers visiting naughty clubs in marginal neighbourhoods became an ingredient in the allure of modern European urban nightlife. The OED dates the first use of the word ‘slumming’ to 1884. Social commentators and reformers visited London slum neighbourhoods in order to observe social life in those parts. Once Oscar Wilde incorporated the theme of ‘slumming it’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray the idea became fashionable and held a fascination for authors and artists alike. Nocturnal club life added spice to the concept.

Image

Outside France, the authorities looked at such developments with a degree of concern. The presence of cabaret performer Hans Hyan, the owner of Zur Silbernen Punschterrine (The Silver Punchbowl) which had opened in Berlin in November 1901, was closely watched by the police. After all, Hyan had a criminal record. In 1891 he had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for aggravated burglary; ten years later he was (unsuccessfully) investigated for robbery. He was fined for libel and suspected of writing and publishing pornography. For a while, Hyan was the talk of the town. He was celebrated as Berlin’s counterpart to Aristide Bruant.

Like his French model, he used local slang, sang songs about criminals and outcasts, and verbally insulted the curious audience that came to see his cabaret. To be treated rudely and abused aggressively was all part of the fun of slumming. Hans Hyan was a master of this game. He had the skill to imitate the speech of various social groups in the city, in particular the slang of the criminal fraternity. His command of the Berlin dialect was masterful. No one less than Kurt Tucholsky remembered Hyan for his capacity of capturing phonetically the ‘Berlin manner of thought, the Berlin soul’. Hans was Berlin, Berlin was Hyan. The relationship with the authorities worsened when Dolorosa started to perform regularly at the Punschterrine. Her list of explicitly erotic and masochistic songs, of which ‘The Song of Songs of Pain and Torture’ was a particular favourite of the club’s clients, became morally intolerable to many respectable observers. Cabaret had become a celebration of immorality. The club was finally shut down in 1904.


Image

Frida Strindberg was very much a product of the European avant-garde of the early twentieth century. Born in Austria as the daughter of the editor of the Wiener Zeitung, Frida Uhl worked as a writer and translator in Vienna. In 1893, at the tender age of twenty years, she met forty-three year old Swedish writer and dramatist August Strindberg, who had achieved fame as the author of more than twenty plays, several novels, autobiographical works and collections of stories, poems and essays. He was a controversial figure whose sexually frank works had incurred the intervention of Swedish and German censors. Fame was not accompanied by money. At the time Strindberg proposed to Frida, the writer was heavily in debt and being pursued by his first wife for child support payments. Friedrich Uhl opposed the marriage, doubting the author’s ability to support his daughter.

Image

Frida and August married soon after their first meeting in spite of her father’s disapproval. Strindberg’s reputation allowed her access to the bohemian circles he frequented, and make lasting contacts with some outstanding artists of her day. In marrying Strindberg, a morose misogynist if ever there was one, she sacrificed not only the relationship with her family but also her career as a writer and critic. Taking his financial affairs in hand, she at once tried to organize a production of his work in England. However, Strindberg did not approve of the active role Frida was taking in his business affairs, and the marriage in which one daughter was born ended in divorce in 1895. It has been suggested that their stormy relationship inspired Strindberg’s tirades against women in general and against married women in particular. Frank Wedekind, the German playwright who in his work laid bare the shams of sexual morality in his time, was the father of Frida’s second child. She sent both her children away to be cared for by her parents.

Image

Fin de siècle Vienna was a major centre for arts and culture. It was the most exciting period in the capital’s cultural history. The literary and artistic movement known as ‘Jung Wien’ (Young Vienna) was composed of such remarkable artists as Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Klimt, Adolf Loos, and others. Frida was closely involved with several writers of the Young Vienna movement, such as the poet Peter Altenberg for whom she organized a subscription, and the journalist and outstanding satirist Karl Kraus whom she convinced to sponsor a reading of Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Her affair with the writer Werner von Oesteren was particularly problematic. She threatened him on two separate occasions with a revolver. Details of this relationship were made public in 1905 when she sued Werner for harassing a detective she had hired to follow him. In 1908, on New Year’s Day, she fired a gun in a Viennese hotel. This may have been an attempt to take her life.
Image

The event caused such publicity in her native town that she decided to move to London where, in 1912, she opened the Cave of the Golden Calf (named after one of the rooms in the Parisian Chat Noir) at no. 9 Heddon Street, off Regent Street, England’s first ‘Cabaret Club’ housed in a large basement below a warehouse. She intended her club to be a meeting place for writers and artists, an avant-garde rival to the nearby Café Royal where Oscar Wilde once was one of the regulars. The club offered a cheap meal and reduced admission to young artists. The Cave served as a kind of avant-garde soup kitchen. For better-off clients, of course, there was lobster salad on the menu.
Image

The Continental inspiration for the club, apart from the Chat Noir, was the Kaberett Fledermaus in her native Vienna. In her ‘Preliminary Prospectus’ to the opening of the club, issued in April 1912, Frida proudly announced that the interior of the establishment would be ‘entirely and exclusively’ decorated by ‘leading young British artists’. The ‘Prospectus’ was illustrated with woodcuts by Wyndham Lewis. It claimed that the cabaret would do away with the necessity of crossing the Channel in order ‘to laugh freely and sit up after nursery hours’. As this comment suggests, the Cave of the Golden Calf looked to the Chat Noir for inspiration. Moreover, the Cave opened only three months after Marinetti’s notorious first visit to London, which gave an added Futurist impetus to Frida’s plans for her club. Among its ‘resident’ artists were Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Wyndham Lewis. Frida insisted that the club presented itself properly in print, from its ‘Preliminary Prospectus’ to programs, announcements and menus.

Image

Typography was essential. All printed materials were designed by Wyndham Lewis according to the latest Continental styles. Sculptor Jacob Epstein transformed the cellar’s structural columns into plaster female figures described by Ford Madox Ford in his 1923 novel The Marsden Case as ‘white caryatids with heads of hawks, cats, and camels picked out in red’. Opening night saw performances by Norwegian cabaret singer and founder of the Oslo Chat Noir Bokken Lasson, shadow plays by Wyndham Lewis, an actor reciting Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, and, in true cabaret fashion, a young cockney shouting foul mouthed abuse at the audience.

Image

Ezra Pound admired Frida’s achievement. Other luminaries who frequented the establishment included Katherine Mansfield, Ford Madox Ford, and – of course – Augustus John. The Cave attracted London’s bohemian set, the mad, bad and decadent. It contributed to the erosion of class identities in the capital. Here guests could enjoy the full cabaret repertoire, plays and poetry, jazz and ragtime music, song and dance, with champagne served until dawn. The Cave went bankrupt in 1914, but not before Strindberg herself had become disappointed by its failure as an artistic experiment. It proved nevertheless to be an influential venture and became the model for a number of nightclubs of the 1920s. The Cave of the Golden Calf had certainly made a contribution to modernism in Britain. The club had served as the after-hours headquarters for what would become the vanguard movement of Vorticism. London’s first avant-garde movement was born in Frida Strindberg’s nightclub. After closure of her club, Frida left for the United States, where she secured a job with Fox Film.

001

The Rue des Moulins dates back to 1624 and is located in the first arrondissement of the city. Two windmills once stood on the hill – hence Rue des Moulins and nearby Rue Saint-Honoré which is dedicated to the patron saint (Honorius of Amiens) of millers, bakers, pastry chefs, and confectioners. One of the windmills, the Moulin Radet was dismantled and rebuilt at the junction of Rue Lepic and Rue Girardon in Monmartre. The notoriety of the street was established during the last decade of the nineteenth century. That was largely due to the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a post-Impressionist painter and illustrator whose immersion in the theatrical life of Paris yielded a series of provocative images of the extravagant 1890s life-style of the capital. Prostitution is central to his oeuvre.

Image

Prostitutes play a central role in the European novel of the nineteenth-century century. There are Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Dickens’s Nancy, Collins’s Mercy Merrick, Gaskell’s Ruth, Hugo’s Fantine, Dumas’s Marguerite Gautier, De Maupassant’s Elisabeth Rousset, Zola’s Nana, Fontane’s Effi Briest, Wedekind’s Lulu, to mention but a few of the ‘fallen women’ that appear in realistic and naturalistic novels of the age. Prostitutes inspired many negative stereotypes. However, as victims of a culture that marginalized her, the prostitute offered a perfect vehicle for writers to criticize bourgeois hypocrisy. The interest in the world of brothels and courtisanes extends well into the twentieth century and is not limited to literature.
Image

Hungarian photographer and filmmaker George Brassaï (real name: Gyula Halász) published photographs of brothels in his 1935 book Voluptés de Paris. In 1952, Robert Miquet (using the pseudonym Romi) published a voluminous illustrated work on Maisons closes: l’histoire, l’art, la littérature, les moeurs. Released in 2002, the Parisian Musée de l’Érotisme exhibits Polissons et galipettes (Rascals and somersaults), Michel Reilhac’s compilation of film clips from silent pornographic films made between 1905 and 1930 in France that were intended to be shown in brothels.

005

Ever since the works of Titian and Giorgione, paintings of brothels and prostitutes appear frequently over the centuries. In many cases the bond between artist and sitter was a close one. Margaret Lemans was of Flemish descent and had settled in London some time in 1629. Little is known of her life, even the spelling of her name is in doubt – but her image will last. She was probably still in her teens and working as a prostitute when Anthony van Dyck made Margaret his mistress allowing her to preside over his grand properties in Blackfriars and Eltham where he entertained Charles I and many noble patrons.

Image

Van Dyck has been the most successful immigrant artist ever to arrive on British soil. The English were so overwhelmed by his talent that they were willing to forgive his Catholicism. In fact, most of his clients were Puritans and nobody more so than Philip, Lord Wharton, who bought no less than twenty paintings of the master. While noble women were queuing up to have their portrait painted by Van Dyck, the master himself was completely taken in by an ordinary Flemish girl who had been forced to make a living out of prostitution. He painted her image over and again. Twelve of the paintings for which she posed survive, five of which are portraits. It is not the subject matter that is relevant in this context, but the intimacy between artist and model. It appears that such a caring relationship is in no way exceptional. Artists identify with prostitutes because the creative mind tends to be abused by society in a similarly exploitative and disposable fashion. There is an element of mutual recognition, the artist realizing that Anch’io sono [una] puttana.

Image

Toulouse-Lautrec was born in 1864 into the provincial interbred aristocracy of Albi, in south-western France. At the age of thirteen, he broke his left femur, and a year later, he broke his right, after which his legs stopped growing (possibly a consequence of pyknodysostosis, a genetic disease of the bone, related to his family’s consanguineous marriages). During his long convalescence, he spent much of his time drawing and painting. He persuaded his parents to allow him to go to Paris. In 1882 he entered the atelier of Léon Bonnat, transferring later to Fernand Cormon’s studio where he met his lifelong friends Louis Anquetin, Émile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh.
Image

His first illustrations were published in 1886 in the Montmartrois journals Le Courrier français and Le Mirliton. His subsequent work is intimately connected to this lively Parisian district where he focused on the life of the dance halls, cafés and concert halls. He created his first lithograph, the famous poster ‘La Goulue’, for the Moulin Rouge in December 1891 and went on to design a further twenty-nine posters as well as hundreds of prints, drawings and paintings.
Image

Catalan-born bookmaker Joseph Oller (inventor of ‘Parimutuel’ betting which spread across most race tracks around the world) lived in Paris for most of his life. From 1876 onwards, he focused his attention on the entertainment industry. He opened various venues such as Fantaisies Oller, La Bombonnière, Théâtre des Nouveautés, Nouveau Cirque, Montagnes Russes, and Olympia (the first music-hall in Paris). In 1889 he inaugurated the famous Moulin Rouge. He also managed Le Jardin de Paris, a café-concert on the Champs Élysées, which was the summer outpost of the Moulin Rouge. Both establishments are associated with Jane Avril and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Image

Lautrec portrayed Jane’s debut at the Jardin. A beautiful and extremely thin girl with pale skin and tresses of red gold hair, Jane Avril soon became infamous for performing the cancan at the Jardin. Lautrec had been employed to produce an advertising illustration. The couple, in spite of their different backgrounds, soon became close friends. Jane (originally named Jeanne) was said to be the daughter of a courtesan, with an absent father rumoured to have been a foreign aristocrat. Her youth was an unhappy and abusive one. She left home when she was thirteen years old, soon afterwards ending up in the care of the Salpêtrière psychiatric hospital in Paris, a desperate place where many ‘bad’ women were imprisoned without trial or sent by their families. Throughout her life she suffered from nervous disorders. These however did not interrupt a glittering career.
Image

Lautrec painted her time and again, and in various moods and poses, glamorous, graceful, melancholic, tired, or nervous. It is doubtful that the two ever became lovers. Lautrec had his own inhibitions and insecurities. In 1899, suffering from the effects of alcoholism and syphilis, he was institutionalized for several months at an asylum near Paris but he returned to drinking soon after his release. On 9 September 1901, he suffered a stroke and died at his mother’s estate, the Château de Malromé, aged thirty-six.
Image

For a period Lautrec resided at no. 24 Rue des Moulins. This was the address of a luxurious brothel, a ‘grande tolérance’ consisting of ornate rooms including a Chinese salon, a Gothic chamber, and a domed Moorish Hall. It was a well-run business, operated to strict rules of conduct, and proper schedules. Despite his aristocratic upbringing, Toulouse-Lautrec found a way to accept and feel accepted by the entertainment industry. Sex workers were his friends, and he treated them as equals.
He produced more than forty paintings and drawings of the inhabitants of Rue des Moulins. It must be the most famous brothel in the world.

By the end of the nineteenth century, there were some 34,000 professional ‘filles à numéro’ (prostitutes) registered in Paris. The brothels were licensed and monitored by the police, while sex workers were subject to routine medical inspections by the ‘dispensaire de salubrité’. The majority of women were forced into prostitution in order to look after themselves and/or family. Job prospects were scarce. Alexandre Parent-Duchatlet noted in his famous 1836 study De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris that few professions were open to women. For many, prostitution was sheer survivalism. Prostitution was a profitable trade by which women improved their circumstances, helped to educate siblings and often saved enough to open a shop or lodging house.
Image

At one time, a job as a seamstress was a respected position. Honour was an important draw as it could help to better marriage prospects. More often than not, seamstresses worked out of their own homes, choosing which assignments to take or leave. The down sides to becoming a seamstress were poor pay and a two year apprenticeship. Many families who needed their daughters to work could not afford two years of lost wages. Hence, the job of a seamstress was reserved to the relatively well-to-do. All that changed after the (belated) industrialization of France. Mechanization and foreign competition led the demise of the skilled artisans who were previously employed in those trades. This change occurred first and most dramatically in the textile industry in centres such as Normandy and Rouen. The skilled and gentle seamstress of former days now became a low class factory worker often with questionable morals. For many decades, the seamstress had been romanticized as a paragon of female virtue. The idealized image would soon be shattered. Hardship took its toll. Prostitution offered a far more profitable trade which took considerable moral strength to resist. The figure of the whore hovered behind the poverty-stricken seamstress, and they ultimately represented two halves of the same whole.

Image

The connection is highlighted by Guy de Maupassant in La Maison Tellier (1881). The brothel is located in the small town of Fécamp, Normandy. Madame herself came of a respectable peasant family. The town accepts her business without moral condemnation. Locals simply say: ‘It is a paying profession’. The irony of the story is located in the interplay between the notion of ‘a good job’ and the conventional accusation of immorality. The revealing remark is that Madame had accepted her position as a bordello-keeper without prejudice, as if she might have taken up that of a milliner or a seamstress. The association of the profession with prostitution is also suggested by Jean Béraud in his delightful (undated) Impressionist painting ‘La modiste sur Les Champs Élysées’.

Image

Toulouse Lautrec’s painting‘L’inspection médicale, Rue des Moulins’ dates from 1894. He created this scene from personal observations. In a room richly decorated with autumnal colours and Chinese patterns, two women stand in line. One is blonde and more mature than her smaller red-haired colleague. Both have lifted their chemises above their knee-length stockings to reveal naked buttocks and thighs. With her dress gathered in front to preserve what remains of her dignity, the blonde looks tired and resigned. The younger woman is more assertive. With bright red hair and rouged cheeks she approaches her assignation without inhibition. A third woman in a turquoise kimono walks away from them towards a group of people below a large window through which can be seen a clock tower (perhaps the nearby Bibliothèque Nationale!).

Image

Lautrec paints these women without moralism, sentimentality, or contempt. Despite his personal carnal pursuits as a paying client in the house, there is no erotic exploitation, no sensationalism. He simply records the medical routine to which these women were submitted. Physical examinations served to protect upright citizens from the physical and mental ravages of syphilis, one of the blessings Columbus had brought back to Europe from the New World. The first written records of an outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494/5 in Naples during a French invasion. The disease may have been transmitted to the French via Spanish mercenaries serving under King Charles during that siege. During the Renaissance syphilis, generally known as the ‘French disease’, was a major cause of death in Europe. The term was first applied in 1530 by physician and poet Girolamo Fracastoro in his epic poem Syphilis sive morbus gallicus. There, the shepherd Syphilis is punished by Apollo with the disease for his defiant attitude. From this character the poet derived the medical term which he introduced in his medical study on contagious diseases De contagionibus. Other names in circulation were great pox, lues venereal, or Cupid’s disease. It was not until 1905 that the causative organism was first identified which led to more effective forms of treatment. Until the advent of penicillin in 1943, ‘cures’ for syphilis were based on the use of heavy metals such as mercury or, as the saying goes, ‘a night in the arms of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury’.
Image

In Europe during the nineteenth century syphilis took on epidemic forms. More than fifteen per cent of the adult population and seventy per cent of sex workers were estimated to have been infected with the disease. In Britain, this led to moral panic during the 1850s and 1860s. The response was a sustained campaign to drive ‘fallen women’ from the streets by representing them as a depraved element in society, doomed to disease and death. Refuges were opened and men like future Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone patrolled at night to persuade girls to leave their life of ‘vice’. The introduction of the Contagious Diseases Acts whereby prostitute women were medically examined and detained if deemed to suffer from venereal disease gave rise to a notable reform campaign. Josephine Butler’s anti-contagious diseases movement argued that enforced medical examinations effectively encouraged prostitution and did not prevent the curse of syphilis. In the nineteenth century syphilis was known as the artist’s disease. A whole alphabet of outstanding creators and thinkers suffered or died from the affliction, Baudelaire, Beau Brummell, Delius, Donizetti, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Heine, Keats, Manet, De Maupassant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Schubert, Smetana, Tolstoy, Vrubel, Wilde, Wolf, and many others. Toulouse-Lautrec painted this world which prompted Edgar Degas to make the crude observation that some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s female portraits ‘stank of syphilis’.

Image

Image

The Friedrichstrasse is a major business and shopping street in central Berlin, forming the core of the Friedrichstadt neighbourhood. It runs for three and a half kilometres through the heart of the city in north-southerly direction from the old Mitte to the Hallesches Tor in the Kreuzberg district. During the Cold War it was bisected by the Berlin Wall and formed the location of Checkpoint Charlie.

Image

Since the nineteenth century the area has been renowned for the dense conglomeration of theatres. The options run from classical works at the Berliner Ensemble, founded by Bertold Brecht, to political cabaret at the Distel Theatre, to costume spectaculars at the Friedrichstadtpalast. The most northern section of Friedrichstrasse was a lively bar and club district. Almost every second building housed some sort of entertainment venue, including numerous brothels. Paul Boldt’s poem ‘Friedrichstrassendirnen’ dates from 1913/4 and deals with the street walkers of the famous street:

Image

Sie liegen immer in den Nebengassen,
Wie Fischerschuten gleich und gleich getakelt,
Vom Blick befühlt und kennerisch bemakelt,
Indes sie sich wie Schwäne schwimmen lassen.

Im Strom der Menge, auf des Fisches Route.
Ein Glatzkopf äugt, ein Rotaug‘ spürt Tortur,
Da schiesst ein Grünling vor, hängt an der Schnur
Und schnellt an Deck einer bemalten Schute,
Gespannt von Wollust wie ein Projektil!

Die reissen sie aus ihm wie Eingeweide,
Gleich groben Küchenfrauen ohne viel
Von Sentiment. Dann rüsten sie schon wieder
Den neuen Fang. Sie schnallen sich in Seide
Und steigen ernst mit ihrem Lächeln nieder.

Image

Some have called Friedrichstrasse Berlin’s own Champs-Elysées. The street may lack the grandeur of the Parisian boulevard, but it makes up for it in its history, its sheer variety and vitality that made recovery possible after the disasters of war and subsequent Communist neglect. Friedrichstrasse stops at the Oranienburger Tor, a gateway to another nightlife district that came into its own after the Wall tumbled. The history of the Friedrichstrasse station dates back to 1878. It was built adjacent to the point where the street crosses the Spree River. In Mr Norris Changes Trains, novelist Christopher Isherwood has William Bradshaw eating ham and eggs with Arthur Norris at the first class restaurant of the station. The atmosphere inside the station was captured by Georg Grosz in his 1912 ‘Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, Berlin’ (pen and ink on paper). The city was buzzing at the time.

Image

Politically, at the time, Germany was a unified nation. The economy was strong. By the beginning of World War I, industry was responsible for more than half of the nation’s gross national product and its industrial sector was the largest in Europe. The speed of change, the rapid modernization, industrialization and urbanization around the turn of the century, caused feelings of anxiety and alienation which were expressed in art and literature. The nature of this crisis feeling was not a war or catastrophe or economic depression, but the rapidity of change that took place within society. Such disquiet was not limited to the German artists. There was a mood of despair among intellectuals that infected popular opinion on much of the Continent at the beginning of the twentieth century. The machine has brought about change in habit and the circumstances of life at a rate for which we have no parallel, F.R. Leavis wrote in Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (1930). Change has been so catastrophic that the generations find it hard to adjust themselves to each other, and parents are helpless to deal with their children. One prominent target of this reaction to modernity was urbanization. A mood of anxiety and images of cities are frequently paired in Expressionist art. Street scenes combine a feeling of unease with a suggestion of energy. This ambivalence is characteristic of Expressionism in general. Paintings or poems however do not represent a polemic against the metropolis. Expressionist art work does not simply embody or reflect ideas, but it provides an emotional attitude towards ideas that effectively interiorizes them.

Image

For Kirchner, the street was an abstraction, a blur of buzzing anonymity. There are hints of architecture, but in general the streets are runways for prostitutes and their clients. In his painting ‘Friedrichstrasse’ the two women depicted pose with chilly hauteur whilst an ‘endless chain’ of mechanically moving men descend diagonally in their direction. These women are not the gross characters of George Grosz or Otto Dix. They are glamorous and aloof. Eroticism and fashion go hand in hand. Within his staccato style of painting, Kirchner details plumed hats, colourful scarves, fashionable jackets, transparent blouses, and slit skirts. In his work, women are – as it were – on display. In the midst of growing prosperity, Berlin had developed a passion for luxury. During the early decades of the twentieth century, art, fashion, consumerism, and the increasing sexualization of everyday life, were hotly debated. Moralists feared an excess of lust and luxury. The young had to be protected from immorality. Cultural critics called for legal action and increased censorship in order to combat an explosion of eroticism in art and advertising. The commercial aspect is intriguing. The focus of attention was on the ‘liberties’ taken by the display windows of the big stores in Berlin’s main streets – and on the appearance of mannequins in particular.

Image

In March 1913 a new fashion house named Kersten & Tuteur had opened its doors to the public in the Leipziger Strasse (near to the Potsdamer Platz). The house took particular pride in their display windows as a cultivation of luxury at its lyrical best. The erotic element was pushed to a new limit by showing mannequins dressed in corsets or revealing negligees that attracted a whole new form of voyeurism. Other shops quickly followed suit in order to share in the enormous curiosity these windows attracted. The more suggestive the ‘tableaux’ on display, the more clients would enter the store. Kirchner was fully aware of this new development in consumer behaviour. Many of his images seem to refer directly to the current debate on corset and corruption, on commercial display and depravity, on fashion and frivolity. It made his paintings more controversial (he had his fair share of difficulties with the censor) and topical.

Image

Vlaanderenstraat is a street in the Flemish coastal town of Ostend (Oostende). Originally a small fishing village, the town acquired something of a reputation in 1834, when King Leopold I made his summer residence there, and went on to become a fashionable seaside resort in the following decades.

It was in Ostend that Englishman James Frederic Ensor met local girl Marie Catherine Haegheman. He was probably an alcoholic and a bankrupt. The family’s main income came from the shop owned by Marie’s family, an antiques and souvenirs emporium selling china, taxidermic specimens and grotesque carnival masks. James Ensor was born in 1860 and the future painter grew up in this setting of ‘shells, lace, rare stuffed fish, old books, engravings, weapons, Chinese porcelain, an inextricable jumble of miscellaneous objects’ (letter to Louis Delattre, 4 August 1898). Ensor himself lacked interest in academic study and left school at the age of fifteen to begin his art training with two local painters. From 1877 to 1880, he attended the Académy Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where Fernard Khnopff, Theo Van Rysselberghe, Willy Finch, and other future members of L’Essor and Les Vingt were among his fellow students. In Brussels, he met poet and art critic Théo Hannon who introduced him to the liberal circle of Ernest Rousseau, professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and his younger spouse Mariette. The home of the Rousseau couple was a meeting place for the artistic, literary and scientific elite of the time. Here he met Félicien Rops, Eugène Demolder and others who stimulated his artistic and intellectual development.

In 1880 Ensor installed a studio in the attic of his parental home. Although he lived in Ostend until his death, he regularly stayed in Brussels and participated in the artistic life of the capital. With the exception of a few excursions to London, Holland and Paris, Ensor scarcely travelled. He was a loner who despised most cultural representatives and was convinced they hated him. He was both an aggrieved traditionalist and a sophisticated artist who helped shape early Modernism, not in a Paris studio but in an attic room over an Ostend novelty shop. His self-portraits tell their own story. Within the span of five years in the late 1880s he depicted himself as a cross-dressed dandy, a rotting corpse, a bug, a fish, Albrecht Dürer and a crucified Jesus. Between 1885 and 1888, Ensor’s attention went chiefly to drawing and etching. Under the influence of Rembrandt, Redon, Goya, Japanese woodcuts, and Brueghel, Ensor developed a highly personal iconography and design. He rejected French Impressionism and Symbolism and lent himself to the expressive qualities of light, line, colour and the grotesque and macabre motifs which he rendered in massive tableaux such as in the series ‘The Aureoles of Christ or The Sensibilities of Light’ (1885/6). While his early works depict realistic scenes in a sombre style, his palette subsequently brightened and he favoured increasingly bizarre subject matter. Such paintings as ‘The Scandalized Masks’ (1883) and ‘Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man’ (1891) feature freakish figures. Masks recall the strange atmosphere of the family shop as well as the local carnival tradition. They conceal a reality that the painter found unbearably cruel, while skeletons point to the vanity of the world. Ensor’s cityscapes of Brussels and Ostend offer a derisive view of contemporary urban renewal and the social transformations it enforced. His work is socio-cultural criticism in colour.

From his studio in the attic on the fourth floor of the house on the corner of Vlaanderenstraat and Van Iseghemlaan, Ensor had a splendid view over the rooftops of his hometown. There are several paintings and drawings on this topic, including the oil paintings ‘La Rue de Flandre dans le neige’ (1880/1) and ‘Boulevard Van Iseghem’ (1893). More relevant in the context of his oeuvre is the 1890 oil painting ‘Musique Rue de Flandre’ or ‘Muziek in de Vlaanderenstraat’ (he also made an engraving of the scene) in which, from a bird perspective, the festive passage has been recorded of a military band in the street, followed by a mass of people, approaching the observer and marching in the direction of the sea. The picture reflects Ensor’s intense preoccupation with the masses. In this case, the image is light-hearted rather than fearful. It is as if Ensor had painted the street and houses first and waited till later to add a seemingly endless stream of people. The marching musicians and their followers are all identical characters. Ensor seems to suggest that within the crowd all individuality dissolves. The single individual is becoming increasingly unable to have a meaning other than as a function of something in which he ceases to have a personality. By contrast, the buildings in the street are presented in an accurate manner, one of those being the Hôtel de Flandres (now Albert II). It was at the time one of the most important hotels in Ostend and had a central gate leading to a courtyard and stables. Nearly all of Ensor’s illustrations of city life include images of crowds and masks, elements applied to his work in order to evoke the horror of the modern metropolis. This is particularly evident in his masterpiece. In 1888, Ensor tackled the monumental ‘Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889’ which elaborates an earlier theme treated in his 1885 drawing ‘Les Auréoles du Christ’, a vast masked carnival mob advancing towards the onlooker. Ensor gave his own features to Christ entering Brussels, as if sacrificing his life and his peace of mind to painting. Ensor’s society is a mob represented by an ugly and dehumanized sea of clowns and caricatures. Public, historical, and allegorical figures along with the artist’s family and friends make up this mob. The haloed Christ at the centre of the turbulence is an isolated visionary amidst the herd-like masses of modern society. After rejection by Les Vingt, the association of artists that Ensor had helped to found, the painting was not exhibited in public until 1929. In 1917, Ensor moved to the house in the Vlaanderenstraat (no. 27) that he had inherited from his uncle. Today, the James Ensor museum is housed there.

Ensor’s macabre depiction of the masses is by no means exceptional in European culture. Fear of the masses dates back to the eighteenth century and was widely expressed, particularly in England. Lord Chesterfield may have been responsible for introducing the word mob in the English language (1751); Laurence Sterne spoke of the herd of the world (1768). The word ‘mob’ is derived from the Latin phrase mobile vulgus (the fickle crowd). It had its origin at the period of the Exclusion Crisis when the nation became divided into party and faction, Whig versus Tory. Elections for parliament, and other public meetings, resulted inevitably in riots, fights and other disturbances. Initially the word ‘the mobile’ circulated. It was soon shortened to ‘mob’ and became an increasingly loaded term encapsulating the growing fear of social upheaval. During the 1790s the imagery concerning the masses became more surreal. In English journalistic and literary iconography in response to the French Revolution a new image was introduced that would be worthy of James Ensor himself. The image is that of cannibalism.

After the massacres of September 1792, James Gillray portrayed a family of Paris sansculottes feasting upon dismembered bodies, and in 1793 he depicted the exiled revolutionary leader Charles Dumouriez about to eat the severed head of William Pitt. Radical Tory journalists associated with Fraser’s Magazine adopted this set of images and gave it new social resonance in the restless 1830s and 1840s. Social unrest, it was feared, would give rise to a new generation of bloodthirsty barbarians. Fraser’s pointed time and again to Paris in 1792/3 to warn its readers of the dangers at home. Thomas Carlyle was closely connected to this magazine in the 1830s. He made the cannibal and eating imagery his own. The myth of a self-consuming revolution was passed on virtually ready-made from Carlyle to Dickens, who incorporated it as the historical backdrop for A Tale of Two Cities. The fantasy of a cannibal-like insurrection persisted over the entire Victorian period: Carlyle’s ruthless Jacobins from the 1830s merely turned into H.G. Wells’s bloodthirsty Beast Folk and Morlocks from the 1890s. Yet, there is an interesting shift in application. By the end of the nineteenth century the fear of revolution had receded. The cannibal in society is given a different shape. It is no longer the revolutionary mob that drinks the blood of innocence, but the new industrial order is threatening to devour its workers. Capitalism, mechanism, and urbanism turn civilized man back towards a savage state of being. Wells’s oeuvre is catalogue of modern day barbarism, a never ending parade of cannibals fighting to consume one another.

Apart from his passion for painting, Ensor also placed great importance on his (mediocre) musical productions. In 1911, he wrote the libretto and composed the music for a ballet entitled ‘La gamme d’amour’. For this pantomime he designed the decor and costumes himself. In 1924, this ballet was performed in the Antwerp opera house. In that sense, it is appropriate that the artist is remembered in song. John Flansburgh and John Linell, founders of the Brooklyn-based American rock band They Migh Be Giants (TMBG), wrote the lyrics for a song for in which the painter is remembered. ‘Meet James Ensor’ and features on the 1994 album John Henry. Ensor would have appreciated the macabre lines of the refrain:

Meet James Ensor, Belgium’s famous painter
Dig him up and shake his hand, appreciate the man.

Image

Tverskoy Boulevard is the oldest and longest street in central Moscow. For some two centuries, the neighbourhood called Bely Gorod (White Town) formed part of a defensive belt around the capital until, in the eighteenth century, the crumbling walls were taken down and replaced with large boulevards. Laid out in 1796, Tverskoy was the first of those and quickly became popular with Moscow’s aristocracy. In 1812 the boulevard changed dramatically in character when Napoleon’s armies entered Moscow. Soldiers set up their tents along the street, cutting down most of the trees for firewood. However, no permanent damage was done. Although new avenues were laid out afterwards, Tverskoy remained popular and was simply known as ‘the boulevard’.
Soviet art and architecture have been responsible for acts of severe vandalism, but the historical Tverskoy Boulevard has remained relatively well preserved. Architects and urban planners designed parts of their typical massive office blocks to stand back from the street to maintain the line of historic façades. Many of the buildings have their own story to tell.

Image

The famous Café Pushkin is located at no. 26a of the Boulevard. What is now known as the Gorky Moscow Art Theatre on the boulevard was originally the site of a mansion where young Alexander Pushkin met his future wife Natalya Goncharova at a ball in 1828. This first meeting was the beginning of a love affair that tragically ended with Pushkin’s death in a duel.
Image

In June 1880, the first monument to Alexander Pushkin was unveiled. Sculpted by A. M. Opekushin, it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece and a spiritual symbol of Russia. For a long time the statue was located in Tverskoy Boulevard until, in 1950, it was moved to a new place because the former Strastnaya (now: Pushkinskaya) Square was being reconstructed. The monument was moved to its centre, to the place of the former bell tower of the Strastnoy Monastery which was destroyed in 1937 together with a number of other local churches. The monument portrays the poet immersed in thought. It makes Pushinskaya Square justifiably one of the most representative places in Moscow. After all, Pushkin was a Muscovite by birth and, poetically, expressed a profound love for his home city. The lateral sides of the pedestal bear famous lines of his poem ‘Exegi monumentum’.
Image

Another statue in the Tverskoy Boulevard is that of socialist philosopher and author Alexander Herzen who was born at no. 25. Known as Herzen’s House, it soon became a centre of literary and artistic life in Moscow. Osip Mandelstam lived in a modest room of the building during the late 1920s and 1930s. A memorial plaque of the poet (by Dmitry Shakhovsky) was inaugurated there in 1991 in celebration of his 100th anniversary. In 1995, another statue was unveiled there, this time in honour of legendary poet Sergei Yesenin who gave a number of famous readings at Herzen’s House. Although he was Russia’s most popular poet and had been given an elaborate funeral by the State, most of his writings were banned by the Kremlin during the reigns of Stalin and Khrushchev. Only in 1966 were most of his works republished.
Image
Between 1889 and 1928 Tsarist and Soviet theatre star Maria Nikolayevna Yermolova lived on the Boulevard. She was hailed as the greatest actress in Russian history and, in 1921, the first person to be proclaimed the ‘People’s Artist of the Republic’. Following her death, her Tverskoy flat was designated a national monument. The same neighbourhood hosts the headquarters of Russia’s major news agency, Itar-Tass (founded in 1902), constructed in the 1970s. Its trademark giant windows have been inspired by a series of Soviet propaganda posters that were typically displayed in windows.
Image

In painting the ‘traditional’ and ‘aristocratic’ Tverskoy Boulevard has been an inspiration to modernist artists in particular. Igor Emmanuilovich Grabar was a post-Impressionist painter, publisher, and art historian. Creatively, he reached his peak in painting in the period between 1903 and 1907. His work was notable for a peculiar divisionist painting technique and his rendition of snowy scenes. One of his early paintings dates from around 1880 and is an oil on canvas entitled ‘A Moscow Street, Tverskoy Boulevard’. Cityscapes in a similar tradition were produced by Konstantin Yuon. He too was inspired by French post-Impressionists and their interest in the city. Among his urban scenes are ‘The Tverskoy Boulevard’ (1903) and ‘The Night Tverskoy Boulevard 1909’. The most remarkable rendering of the boulevard however was Aristarkh Lentulov’s 1917 cubo-futurist image of ‘Tverskoy Boulevard’. The latter had lived in Moscow from 1909, and he was one of the founders of the avant-garde exhibiting association of artists named the Jack of Diamonds. The group became the most significant exhibition societies of the early Russian avant-garde and remained active until its dissolution in 1916. Between 1910 and 1911 Lentulov studied at the Le Fauconnier studio and the La Palette Academy in Paris. Whilst there, he became acquainted with contemporary French modernists and absorbed the new tendencies of Fauvism and Cubism before developing his own unique colourful style of painting. He was instrumental in pushing forward the avant-garde movement in Moscow and influenced such masters as Kandinsky and Malevich.

Image

Image

The Boulevard des Italiens is one of the four grand avenues in Paris (the others are Boulevard de la Madeleine, Boulevard des Capucines and Boulevard Montmartre). Originally the term boulevard referred to a bulwark or rampart of a fortified town; hence, a street occupying the site of demolished fortifications. The word was derived from the Middle Dutch bolwerk (bulwark or bastion). The name points the Théâtre des Italiens which was built there in 1783, shortly before the French Revolution (now replaced by the Opéra-Comique). Under the second Bourbon Restoration it was known as the Boulevard de Gand in memory of Louis XVIII’s exile in Ghent during the Hundred Days War. Throughout the nineteenth century and up to World War I the boulevard was a meeting place for the elegant elite of Paris.

Image

The streets of Paris underwent remarkable changes in the 1820s. The existing cobblestones were covered with bitumen pavements to make them more pleasant to walk and easier to maintain, and to prevent rebels from using the cobblestones to make blockades. In addition, gas lights were installed which created a new and exciting atmosphere, that of ‘la ville lumière’ in the making. They lined the streets, illuminating them throughout the night. Cafés and restaurants were brightly lit. Their large plate-glass windows seem to open up the inner city. The terraces were full of relaxed clients watching the world go by. The light of the gas lamps enabled them to socialize late at night. In 1842, such an image was captured by Eugène Lami in his painting ‘Le Boulevard des Italiens, la nuit, à l’angle de la Rue Lafitte’. Showing the intersection of the Boulevard des Italiens and the Rue Lafitte, it depicts affluent Parisians out on the streets during the evening. Not long afterwards Lami’s popular view was made into a colour litho by E. Radclyffe. Many artists were inspired by the lively atmosphere of the Boulevard. In 1880, Gustave Caillebotte created an ‘aerial’ view of ‘Le Boulevard des Italiens’.

Image

Édouard Léon Cortès, a French post-impressionist artist of French and Spanish ancestry, was known as ‘Le Poète Parisien de la Peinture’ because of his beautiful cityscapes in a variety of weather and night settings. His first exhibition in 1901 brought him immediate recognition. He depicted the Boulevard des Italiens in a number of atmospheric paintings. In 1897, Camille Pissarro painted the Boulevard in the morning sunlight and called the work ‘Boulevard des Italiens, matin, soleil’. The painting was acquired by Chester Dale who, upon his death in 1962, bequeathed the core of his impressive French art collection to the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Image

After the July Revolution of 1850 the cityscape of Paris began to express its bourgeois prosperity in which the young played a leading role. The archetypal denizen of the modern boulevard was a flâneur, a man (always, a man) of sophistication and elegance who scanned the activity around him with detachment. Baudelaire cast the artist in the role of flâneur, a detective who could decipher the codes of a new urban experience. The boulevards were filled with aristocrats, diplomats, artists, and dandies, who gathered in fashionable establishments such as the Café de Paris, the Café Anglais, Maison Dorée, and above all at Tortoni’s. Founded in 1798 by a Neapolitan immigrant named Velloni as a café-pâtisserie and extended by Giuseppe Tortoni, the Café Tortoni became the establishment where the elite of Parisian society would meet in the nineteenth century. In the morning, stockbrokers breakfasted there; late in the afternoon, artists sipped absinthe; and at night tout le monde went to Tortoni’s for his famous ice creams. Some of its artistically refined clients soon came to be referred to as ‘dandies’ or more locally as ‘tortonistes’. Composer Offenbach, poet Alfred de Musset, novelists Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Sue, the Goncourt Brothers, Lord Henry Seymour, and Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, author of Du dandysme et de George Brummell, were all regular visitors to the café. Balzac often mentions Tortoni in his novels; the café is described by Alfred de Musset; the famous billiard room on the second floor appears in Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir; and Proust points on several occasions to Tortoni’s in À la recherché du temps terdu. Sénécal, in Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale (1869), kills Dussardier on the steps of Café Tortoni.

Image

There are several depictions of the café, all confirming its reputation as a fashionable establishment. In his from his 1856 series of lithographs entitled Physionomies de Paris Eugène Charles François Guérard, an artist of whom few biographical details are known, shows an image of ‘Le Boulevard des Italiens, devant Tortoni à quatre heures du soir’. The scene is outside the café, where patrons crowd the sidewalk. Men, all in top hats and frock coats dominate the mass of people. An image of the café itself was provided in an oil painting by Jean Béraud, another artist who specialized in the depiction of daily Parisian life, which he titled ‘Le Boulevard devant le Café Tortoni’. Édouard Manet felt particularly at home in this café where he frequently lunched. He was more a dandy than a bohemian. His top hat and waistcoat blended in splendidly with the patrons of Tortoni’s. In 1878/80 he created a painting of a jaunty gentleman in a top hat in the act of writing (a letter or a novel?) which he gave the title of ‘Chez Tortoni’.
Image

The origin of the word dandy is uncertain. Eccentricity, defined as taking characteristics such as dress and appearance to extremes, began to be applied in the 1770s. Similarly, the word dandy first appears in the late eighteenth century. A dandy is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and cultivated wit. In most cases of middle-class background, he strove to imitate an aristocratic lifestyle. The model dandy in British society was George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell in his early days, an undergraduate student at Oriel College, Oxford, and later, an associate of the Prince Regent. In 1799, upon coming of age, Brummell – although not from an aristocratic background – inherited from his father a fortune of thirty thousand pounds, which he squandered on costume, gambling, and high living. His snobbery was one of style and fashion. The new development in fashion he started off was in his perfect plainness. His understated elegance and refinement set the standard in masculine dress. To a world in which dress was dictated by wealth and display, he brought a new ethic of restraint. His mode of masculine dress reflected the neo-classical ideals in art and architecture of the day. It was based upon his interpretation of Greek masculine beauty. The best known image of Brummell is a watercolour produced by the prolific London portrait artist Richard Dighton.

Image

Although Lord Byron considered Brummel the most influential character of the nineteenth century after Napoleon, Romanticism created a different image of the dandy. The romantic pose was always to appear at ease, but it was a casualness that was as painstakingly cultivated as the outward perfection of the dandy. The romantics wore their collars unbuttoned to show their pale chests. Broad brimmed hats kept their white complexions away from the sun. Byron, in order to conceal his club-foot, wore loose trousers, an innovation that would become a ‘must’ among his followers soon after. In France, from the 1750s onwards, the English were much admired in certain (aristocratic) circles. The number of French visitors to England increased substantially and many travellers published an account of their journey. English novels were popular in translation. Voltaire had paid tribute to the English political system; the French admired the horse racing culture in England; their aristocracy drank ‘ponche’, and dined on ‘rosbif’ and ‘pouding’. After the defeat of Napoleon, both English dandyism and Romanticism struck Paris like lightning. The French adopted the figure of the dandy and made him their own. French dandyism however took on a different direction. The Bourgeois Revolution of 1830 had an effect of idealizing practicality, economy and efficiency. In rebellion, Parisian artists and poets adopted dandiacal dress and haughty manners. They created a bohemian ‘aristocracy’ rejecting and mocking bourgeois society. Barbey d’Aurevilly intellectualized the dandy and identified dandyism with the battle against vulgarity. Writers such as Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire and J.K. Huysmans enhanced the status of the dandy by giving him a spiritual mission. Dandyism was defined as the outward manifestation of inner perfection.

Image

Tortoni’s at the Boulevard des Italiens closed in 1893. The famous name however was not lost. In 1858 a French immigrant in Buenos Aires named Touan opened a coffeehouse at no. 825 Avenida de Mayo. He called the establishment Café Tortoni. Nostalgia no doubt. The café recreated the atmosphere of the Parisian fin de siècle coffeehouse.

Image

Manet and Monet – one festive occasion, two paintings, two streets, two faces of modernism.

To commemorate the recent Exposition Universelle, an exuberant celebration of luxury and prosperity, the French government declared 30 June 1878 a national holiday. Called the Fête de la Paix, this day also marked France’s recovery from the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1 and the divisive Paris Commune that followed. As well as demonstrating nationalist unity, the celebrations of 30 June were seen as an opportunity to strengthen the position of the Republican regime, still fragile after the major political confrontations of 1876/7. Two years later, July 14 was designated the French National Day.

Image

From the second-floor window of his studio at no. 4 Rue de Saint-Pétersbourg, Édouard Manet could see the Pont de l’Europe to the left. Straight ahead was the new Rue Mosnier (today, Rue de Berne), which he painted on various occasions. From there, he captured the holiday afternoon with his precise staccato brushwork in a patriotic harmony of the reds, whites, and blues waving from the windows. His 1878 oil painting ‘La Rue Mosnier aux drapeaux’ is a vivid evocation of Paris in the 1870s: the construction site on the left, where the street overlooks the railway cutting, records the enormous transformation of the city. The urban street, of course, was a principal subject of Impressionist painting. Manet was one of those artists who aimed to show not only the transformation the Industrial Age had brought about, but also how these changes affected society and individuals.

Claude Monet ‘La Rue Montorgueil’ depicts the same festival that had inspired Manet. Like its twin painting ‘Rue Saint-Denis’, it was painted on 30 June 1878. The Rue Montorgueil is a fashionable street in the Châtelet-Les Halles district lined with famous restaurants (including L’Escargot at no. 38, opened in 1875), cafés, bakeries (including La Maison Stohrer at no. 51, founded in 1730), fish stores, cheese, wine, and flower shops. Traditionally, it is one of the most vibrant streets in the heart of Paris. The painting produced by Monet supplies a more festive and upbeat image than Manet’s depiction of the ‘Rue Mosnier’. The painters approached their subject in a similar manner. Monet did not mix with the crowd either. Both images propose a distanced vision observed from above (Monet painted his view from a balcony, whilst Manet was seated as his window). Monet applied Impressionist techniques to the full. Its multitude of small strokes of colour, suggests the animation of the crowd and the wavering of flags in a sea of red, white and blue colours.

Image There is, however, a difference in depth. Monet is happy recording the festive nature of the impression, a colourful outdoor scene, sketched quickly and spontaneously in order to capture the enthusiasm of initial perception. The artist functions as reporter. The ‘Rue Montorgueil’ is a perfect example of Impressionist ‘forgetfulness’ in art. Radicalism is an aesthetic criterion, not a political one. Manet’s ‘Rue Mosnier’ on the other hand is a balanced reminder of past and present. Manet observed both elegant passengers in hansom cabs and, in the foreground, a worker carrying a ladder. The hunched amputee on crutches, who passes by fenced-in debris left from the construction of a new train track, is most likely a victim of the war. His presence is a painful memory of recent events. Manet’s sensitivity to the sacrifices made during those troubled years tempered his optimism in regard to national pride and new-found prosperity. His stance was a political one.

Monet versus Manet means ‘forgetful’ art versus ‘political’ art. The one approach emphasized that modernism merely meant a revolution in style and technique; the other is a reminder that the idea of avant-garde had its origins in the socio-political ideas of Saint-Simon (he was the first to use the military term as a cultural metaphor). Monet, like most Impressionists, may have veered away from the political side of the avant-garde, but Manet’s outlook as expressed in the ‘Rue Mosnier’ stands very much in that tradition.

Basin Street (Rue Bassin) is a street in New Orleans, Louisiana, close to the French Quarter. The name comes from the turning basin of the Carondelet Canal (also known as the Old Basin Canal) which was constructed in 1794 on the order of Governor Francisco Luis Hector de Carondelet and which remained in use until 1938. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century railroad tracks ran parallel to the Canal and then turned on to Basin Street to one of the city’s main railroad depots on Canal Street. The massive turning basin at the head of the Canal was the inspiration for the naming of Basin Street. The industrialization of the area in the late nineteenth century turned what had been a fine residential street into a red light district. From 1897 through World War I, the back side of Basin Street was the front of the Storyville red light district.

The name of the area was coined in reference to city alderman Sidney Story, who wrote the legislation creating the district. The ambition was to limit prostitution to one part of town where authorities could monitor and regulate the practice. In the late 1890s, the New Orleans city government studied the legalized red light districts in German and Dutch ports and set up Storyville based on such models. Between 1895 and 1915, so-called ‘blue books’ were published which were guides to prostitution for visitors to the district’s services including house descriptions, prices, particular services and the ‘stock’ each house had to offer. The blue-books were inscribed with the motto: Order of the Garter: Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense. Establishments in Storyville ranged from cheap ‘cribs’ to a row of elegant mansions along Basin Street for well-heeled customers. Black and white brothels coexisted, but black men were barred from legally purchasing services rendered in either black or white brothels. Nonetheless, brothels with black prostitutes serving blacks openly flourished with the full knowledge of the police and other local authorities a short distance uptown from Storyville proper. With a main railway station nearby, business boomed in the district. And so did music. It was tradition in the better establishments to hire a piano player and sometimes small bands.

Jazz did not originate in Storyville, but it flourished there as it did in the rest of the city. Many out-of-town visitors first heard this style of music there before the music spread north. Some people from elsewhere continue to associate Storyville with the origins of jazz. One of the finest pianists in the district was Ferdinand Joseph La Mothe, better known as Jelly Roll Morton. At the age of fourteen, he began working as a piano player in a brothel (or as it was referred to then, a sporting house). He was a pivotal figure in the development of early jazz. His composition ‘Jelly Roll Blues’ was the first published jazz composition, appearing in 1915.

Storyville was closed down in 1917 after campaigns by moral crusaders and an intolerant attitude by the army. Soldiers were forbidden to enter the area and similar places. Soon after 1917 separate black and white underground dens of prostitution emerged around the city. The district continued in a more subdued state as an entertainment centre through the 1920s, with various dance halls, gambling dens, cabarets and restaurants. Brothels were also regularly found in the area despite repeated police raids. Almost all the buildings in the former district were demolished in the 1930s. While much of the area contained tired and decayed buildings, the old mansions along Basin Street, some of the finest structures in the city, were also leveled. The city government wished to blot the notorious district from memory. The history of Storyville has been recorded in the haunting photographs of John Ernest Joseph Bellocq. Born in a wealthy white Creole family in the French Quarter of New Orleans, he made a living by taking photographic records for local companies. More interestingly, he took personal photographs of the hidden side of local life, of the opium dens in Chinatown, and of the whores of Storyville. Some of the women are nude, some dressed, and others posed as if acting some exotic narrative. Many of the negatives that have survived were damaged, in part deliberately. Whether this was done by Bellocq himself, or by his Jesuit priest brother who – ironically – inherited the photographs, or by someone else, has never been established. The mystique about the photographer inspired Louis Malle’s controversial 1978 film Pretty Baby. Bellocq’s images have inspired stories and poems about the women in them, including Brooke Bergan’s Storyville: A Hidden Mirror.

‘Basin Street Blues’ is a song written by Spencer Williams, a jazz musician and singer from New Orleans. The song, published in 1926, was performed by many Dixieland jazz bands. Hundreds of recordings have been made since its creation, including a version by Miles Davis in 1963. The following famous lines were later added by Glenn Miller and Jack Teagarden:

Won’tcha come along with me,
To the Mississippi?
We’ll take a boat to the lan’ of dreams,
Steam down the river down to New Orleans:
The band’s there to meet us,
Old friends to greet us.
Where all the people like to meet,
This is Basin Street.

Chorus:
Basin Street, is the street,
Where the Elite, always meet,
In New Orleans. Lan’ of dreams,
You’ll never know how nice it seems
Or just how much it really means,
Glad to be; yes, siree,
Where welcome’s free, dear to me,
Where I can lose, my Basin Street blues.

There’s no punishing or shaming
Certain people out of gaming;
’Tis among the plagues that ravage
Countries civilized and savage,
In its blind, impartial rage
Sparing neither sex nor age.
Henry Luttrell, 1827
Crockford House (Cantos II)

Gambling is the wagering of a stake on a competitive event with the intent of winning money. Typically, the outcome of a bet is known within a short period. Chinese culture has been the home of gambling, but games like craps, baccarat, roulette and black jack all originated in Europe. In addition to these games betting took place on a variety of spectator sports such as dog-fighting, bear-baiting, cock-fighting, boxing, and even cricket.

Speculation is often associated with gambling although there is a significant difference. Gambling is investing money in a short term game of chance with a high probability of losing the stake. Speculators take a longer term view based upon on an assessment of risk. However, there have been numerous occasions in economic history when speculative ventures turned out to be little more than mindless gambling. The story of the tulip has been told many times. Complementing the craze for curiosities, tulips were displayed in Wunderkammers. Each rare flower was exhibited like a work of art. The tulip became an object of wild speculation until the market crashed in late 1637. That collapse did not spell an end to the flower mania.

In the early eighteenth century another craze manifested itself, this time for hyacinths. They, too, reached astronomical prices on the open market. In 1720 Het groote tafereel der dwaasheid (The Great Scene of Folly) was published in Amsterdam. This folio volume is a collection of seventy-six engraved satirical prints and literary pieces which all concern the so-called South-Sea Bubble, the boom and subsequent crash of the stock market in that year, hitting France, England (Isaac Newton lost £20,000 in the crash), and the Netherlands. Each particular issue of Het groote tafereel is unique, cobbled together on demand by an unknown Amsterdam printer. It is astonishing that this publication was compiled and released in the few months following the financial collapse in September. Interestingly, the collection also includes a deck of playing cards. In England in particular there had been a tradition of publishing packs of specially illustrated cards to commemorate the reign of monarchs or specific events and sceneries.

In 1672, London mapmaker Robert Morden created a pack of playing cards with an image of the fifty-two counties (the exact number of cards in a pack) of England and Wales. The earliest politically motivated pack was produced in 1679 to commemorate the (fictitious) Popish Plot. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution was celebrated in a deck of cards containing reminders of James’s cruel reign, such as the murder of the Earl of Essex and the hanging of Protestant rebels. The tradition of issuing topical cards is maintained to this very day.

After being introduced into Europe by Arabs, playing cards have been around since the 1370s. The anonymous Master of the Playing Cards was active as an artist in the Rhineland from the 1430s to the 1450s. He is the first recognizable personality in the history of engraving. Over a hundred of his works have been recorded. They include a set of playing cards in five suits, copper-engraved and uncoloured, from which he takes his name. They were most likely intended as models for use in workshops. Playing cards such as these served as repositories for design motifs to be used by other artists. Craftsmen throughout the medieval period worked from sketch-book models which were copied time after time, so that images spread from master to pupil. The designs were inspired by written texts. Plants from the herbal, beasts from the bestiary, birds and insects from the Books of Hours, created a semiotic language based upon the everyday world of popular belief and proverbial wisdom. The same figures recur into the border decorations and miniature illustrations of manuscripts or printed books from the same period.

Spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds were taken from French decks of cards and did not emerge until later. They represented the four perceived classes in society, i.e. nobility, clergy, merchants, and peasants. Cards were used for games and gambling. They also provided a new way of telling fortunes. Prohibitions of card playing and denunciations by preachers demonstrate that the passion for the game was widespread. It was a pastime that attracted card sharps and gamblers. Cheating at cards has been delightfully depicted in paintings by Caravaccio, Gerard van Honthorst, Hendrick ter Brugghen, Georges de La Tour, and others. In our own time, several films have been inspired by the same subject.

The game of cards and its players has been a recurrent theme in the history of painting. From the works attributed (with reservations) to Lucas van Leyden in the sixteenth, to that of Rombouts, Teniers, Terborch or Jan Steen in the seventeenth, to Dumesnier and Chardin in the eighteenth, to Meissonier and Millais in the nineteenth, to Cézanne’s series of card playing Provence peasants of the early 1890s, to paintings by Theo van Doesburg and Ferdinand Léger in the twentieth century (to mention but a few masters of their art), they were all intrigued by the same topic. From the outset, artists have been fascinated by gaming, gambling and cheating.

In the course of the sixteenth century English inns had begun to serve one meal a day at a common table at a fixed time and price. The meal was called the ordinary and the eating places generally began to be named ordinaries. During the seventeenth century many of these ordinaries were turned into fashionable clubs and gambling resorts. Of Locket’s ordinary at Spring Gardens, Westminster, no representation has been preserved. Adam Locket, the founder of the house, lived until about 1688, and was succeeded by his son Edward who was at the head of affairs until 1702. During that period, Locket’s was the resort of the ‘smart set’.

One of the regulars in Locket’s was wealthy dramatist and diplomat George Etherege. In 1660, young George composed his comedy The Comical Revenge or Love in a Tub. The success of this play was enormous. After a long silence, he wrote the 1676 play The Man of Mode or Sir Fopling Flutter, arguably the most sophisticated comedy of manners written in English. The play had the additional attraction of satirizing known London characters. Fopling Flutter was a portrait of Beau Hewit, in Dorimant the public recognized the Earl of Rochester, and in Medley the author drew an image of himself (or maybe fellow playwright Charles Sedley). Etherege remained a regular customer at Locket’s. His passion for gambling was well known. In his ‘Song on Basset’ he celebrated a card game that had been introduced to England in 1677. Apparently the game (bassetta) had been invented by a noble Venetian, who was punished with exile for the contrivance. In France, the game was prohibited by Louis XIV in 1691. It continued being played in England where in a relatively short period of time it impoverished many families. Having learned basset at the London house of Hortense Mancini, Duchesse Mazarin, French mistress of Charles II, Etherege became one of its victims. Gambling deprived him of his fortune. He stopped writing and went in search of a rich widow.

Various forms of gambling were a feature of eighteenth century London life. Gambling gained wider popularity during the last two decades of the century, especially with the arrival of French émigrés fleeing the Revolution. It was given additional impetus with the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1815. The heart of London’s gambling was St James’s Street in the West End. By the late 1820s the street was the site of four leading gentlemen’s clubs, White’s, Brooks’s, Boodle’s and Crockford’s, where gambling was pursued in varying degrees. William Crockford was the son of an East End fishmonger. By the mid-1820s, he obtained the lease to a building on the west side of the street, where he set up a so-called gambling ‘hell’. After acquiring the leases to three adjacent buildings, he razed all four and set about building a palatial gentlemen’s club devoted to gambling. It was dubbed ‘Pandemonium’, the name invented by John Milton at the end of the first book of Paradise Lost (1667) for the capital of Hell that was built by the fallen angels at the suggestion of Mammon.

Crockford’s opened in January 1828. Architect Benjamin Wyatt had modeled the club’s neoclassical design on the palace of Versailles. The cost of construction and furnishings was phenomenal. Membership to the club was limited. Among its members were the Duke of Wellington, the acknowledged leader of English society, as well as a host of other aristocrats such as Lord Alvanley, Bentinck, and Chesterfield. There were distinguished foreigners like the Count d’Orsay, Prince Paul Esterhazy, Prince Lieven, Louis Napoleon and Talleyrand; and fashionable authors such as Edward Bulwer, Benjamin Disraeli, and Theodore Hook. Vast sums of money followed the fall of the dice or the facing of a card. The house was in name operated by a management committee, but in reality the show was run by Crockford alone. With his Cockney accent and corpulent appearance, he presented himself as a humble servant to his privileged clientele. He retired in 1840, an extremely rich man.

During the Georgian, Regency and Victorian periods, gambling was endemic among the English upper classes. Beau Brummel and the Count d’Orsay had to flee to France when their gambling debts got too high. Young Charles James Fox, the future politician, would stay up for days gambling, drinking coffee to stay awake. At one point Fox’s father, Lord Holland, paid off almost £140,000 in gambling debts which freed Fox to go off and make new ones. Lord Byron’s daughter Ada, Countess of Lovelace, tried to use her mathematical talent to devise a system that would enable her to beat the odds at horseracing. She piled up large debts.

Members of the Royal family were also involved in gambling. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, got caught in a gambling brawl known as the Royal Baccarat Scandal. On 8 September 1890, the Prince spent the evening at Tranby Croft, the county estate of shipbuilder Sir Arthur Wilson. The guests played baccarat, an illegal gambling game which was a favourite of Edward. Present at the table was Scottish landowner and soldier Sir William Gordon-Cumming, who was accused of cheating. Attempts to keep the affair a secret failed. Sir William sued his accusers in civil court for defamation. The Prince of Wales was called as a witness and had to acknowledge his participation in an illegal game. William lost the case, was dismissed from the army, and withdrew from high society. Edward changed his behaviour, abandoned baccarat, and played whist instead.

In the early days, members of Venetian high society met to gamble in so-called ‘casini’ (small dwellings). These houses attracted other activities, from dodgy business dealings and political intrigue to prostitution. The word casino became synonymous with crime and vice. Forced to act, the authorities produced the shrewd idea that gambling could provide additional income to the state. The first known gambling house was the Ridotto, established in 1638 in order to allow controlled gambling during the carnival season in Venice.

Blaise Pascal created a perpetual motion machine in 1655. The spinning wheel entered European history. In its present form, the game of roulette (‘small wheel’) was played in Paris since 1796 in the Palais Royal. In his 1801 novel La Roulette, ou le Jour (1801) Jacques Lablée provided a description of the wheel. Napoleon legalized casinos in 1806 after which the game spread widely. Casinos were patronized by the European aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Traditionally, there has been a close connection between spa towns and gambling. In fact, the Spa casino in Belgium (La Redoute Spa) dates from as early as 1762. In England, spa cities such as Bath and Tunbridge Wells were places where the rich went for treatment, entertainment and gambling. In 1824, Friedrich Weinbrenner designed his neo-classical Kurhaus in Baden-Baden. By the mid-nineteenth century this city, situated on the foothills of the Black Forest, enjoyed the reputation of being Europe’s gambling capital. In 1837, public gambling was prohibited in France and casinos were declared illegal. Then a great idea was put forward in Monaco. The principality was in serious financial difficulty when François Blanc suggested the building of a casino. It proved a masterstroke. Monte Carlo became a Mecca for the Europe’s big spending elite.

Many authors were addicted to gambling. Writing was a means to settle debts and play again. Oliver Goldsmith was addicted to the game and perennially in debt. As a hack writer for London publishers he produced a massive output to keep himself afloat. William Makepeace Thackeray was educated at Trinity College. However, he became hooked on gambling and left Cambridge in 1830 without a degree and heavily in debt. Novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave ample space to the figure of the gambler, but there is a clear difference in approach. The romance of gambling, a celebration of the ‘lucky break’, is a central topic in the novels of Richardson, Smollett, Fielding, Edgeworth, or Austen. Nineteenth century European fiction, as illustrated by Marcel Emants’s novella Monaco (1878), emphasized the curse of Monte Carlo, and highlighted the ruinous effects of gambling. The novelist was interested in the psychology of addiction and the pathological behaviour of the gambler.

If an element of light-hearted romance remained, then it was associated with crime and fraud. The most notable example is that of Charles Deville Wells, son of the poet Charles Jeremiah Wells, a man to whom John Keats had addressed a sonnet in June 1816. Charles was a fraudster and gambler. In July 1891 he travelled to Monte Carlo with £4,000 that was stolen from investors in a bogus invention. In an eleven-hour session Wells ‘broke the bank’, winning a million francs. In April 1892, Fred Gilbert wrote the song ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’ which was made popular by music hall star Charles Coborn. This pleasant song was a favourite of James Joyce’s and is mentioned in Ulysses. Significantly, Edvard Munch created his first roulette painting in that same year 1892 (followed by another painting on the same theme in 1903).

George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894) was one of the more controversial novels of its day for its depiction of a single mother struggling to survive prejudice. Stylistically in the tradition of French Naturalism, the author supplies a vivid, at times polemical, image of Victorian sub-culture. The novel is set against a background of horse racing and the frenetic atmosphere of gambling and drinking that surrounds it. Moore exposes the hypocrisy of those who condemn the poor for their vices and profit from their addictions. Moore knew racing well. His father had a stable of race horses in Ireland and in his teenage years young George was a keen gambler who studied the racing-calendar, the stud-books, the latest betting, etc. In spite of Moore’s detailed knowledge of the game and its technically correct representation, his novel was received as a vitriolic attack on gambling. The Russian novel of the nineteenth century also portrays countless gamblers and losers. In his younger days, Leo Tolstoy was addicted to gambling. At sixteen he had entered Kazan University to study Oriental languages and later took up law. He dropped out before completing his courses and spent his time in Moscow and St Petersburg where he got caught up in high society, enjoying nights in ballrooms and at gambling tables. In 1851, after clocking up enormous gambling debts that would take him years to pay off, Tolstoy accompanied his elder brother to the Caucasus. He joined the army and spent almost three years in a Cossack village where he began writing in preparation of his first short novel Childhood. Fyodor Dostoevsky was another notorious player. His novella The Gambler is the most famous and influential gambling story in literary history. It reflects the author’s personal addiction to roulette. He completed the novella under a strict deadline to pay off gambling debts. In it, Dostoevsky analyzes the psychological make-up of the gambler and suggests that his countrymen have a particular affinity for gambling.

The association between Russia and gambling was reinforced by the emergence of Russian roulette. The earliest use of the term appears in ‘Russian Roulette’, a short story by Swiss author Georges Arthur Surdez that was published in the January 1937 issue of Collier’s Magazine. Was there a historical precedent for this story? Did soldiers play Russian roulette? Czarist officers were notorious for their dissolute behaviour. They drank heavily, fought duels, gambled, and shirked their duties. But there is no evidence that they engaged in this sinister game. The only reference to anything like Russian roulette can be found in the 1840 novel A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. After an evening of playing cards, officers debate whether fate is preordained. A gambling-addicted Serbian lieutenant challenges his companions to a bet. Pointing a pistol to his head he pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. He then points the weapon into the air and pulls the trigger again. It fires. He collects his winnings. Later that evening the same lieutenant is murdered by a drunken Cossack. Had it not been for its rolling alliteration, Russian roulette may well have gone into history as Lermontov’s roulette.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 573 other followers