Christiansen on Kerley (2017)


Kerley, Lela F. Uncovering Paris: Scandals and Nude Spectacles in the Belle Époque. Louisiana State UP, 2017, pp. 278, ISBN 978-0-8071-8633-8

Hope Christiansen, University of Arkansas

If the amount of highlighting made by a reader correlates to scholarly import, this book must be very important, indeed. Kerley showcases the role that women and the arts played in changing the public’s attitude toward nudity in the years preceding World War I, looking closely at the ways la femme nue challenged conventional understandings of femininity, the nude, and art (4–8). She builds on the work of a wide range of scholars including Linda Nochlin, Charles Rearick, Mary Louise Roberts, Patricia Tilburg, and Theodore Zeldin; 114 books and articles figure in her list of primary sources, alongside fifty-five periodicals. Where she departs from her predecessors is in adopting a broader interpretation of performance, “one that includes the scripted and the unscripted enactments of cultural tension” found in street riots, bals publics, and music-hall revues (8).

The two chapters of part one deal with public balls, of which bals populaires, bals de sociétés [sic], bals de caractère, carnavals, fêtes, and mascarades are sub-genres. Kerley is particularly interested in the artists’ ball, the most famous of which was the 1893 Bal des Quat’z-Arts. Her lively discussion of the event and its aftermath—a trial followed by a popular uprising in the Latin Quarter—is one of the book’s high points. For Kerley, the affair represents a key moment in the history of gender relations and morality “precisely for what it reveals about changing attitudes toward the artistic Nude in turn-of-the-century France and the complex efforts to control it” (60). She delves into the sexual politics of the artist’s studio, teasing out the distinctions between “artistic” nudes and “commercial” nudes before turning to a discussion of moral leagues that took on the task of combatting pornography. This is just one of many binaries under scrutiny in the book, along with individual freedom and common decency, high and low culture, public and private space.

In part two (which consists of five chapters), Kerley examines how women’s sexual expression in artists’ balls gradually worked its way into the theater, then traces the evolution of la femme nue from a figure posed on stage, considered relatively harmless, to a seemingly more dangerous acting, speaking, dancing one: “le nu au théâtre” (in fact, la nue) (62). Readers will be intrigued to learn that there is a difference between café-concerts, which presented life from the perspective of “fantasy and the unreal,” and the music hall, more of a mirror of modern life “in which problems and concerns about urbanization, commercialization, and a blurring of gender, as well as art and life, were projected, magnified, and understood” (65). A transitional genre falling between le théâtre subventionné and the music hall (67), the café-concert got spectators singing and interacting with performers. This was in contrast to the music hall, whose clowns, acrobats, tightrope walkers, jugglers, illusionists, and phénomènes (“monstrosities”) performed in tableaux vivants, pantomimes, circus and vaudeville acts, commercial ballets, short operettas, and farces, which could leave audiences feeling disconnected and exhausted (68).

Kerley also revisits the moral leagues, this time in the context of preventive censorship which, she explains, failed because of a shift in political power and public opinion, not to mention the government’s inability to manage theaters (150). Directors found creative ways to evade censorship, such as situating la femme nue in the historical past or in the bourgeois home (“cubicular” plays were set in the bedroom in order to make undressing seem more benign). Four trials in 1908 led to the establishment of a legal framework within which the courts could define art and pornography (160–61). Kerley brings part two to a close with an analysis of the relationship between industrialization and neurasthenia, defined at the time as a mental exhaustion and an overstimulation of the senses that put “the entire nation and race” at risk (174). To the rescue: bodybuilding, physical education, dance, and a “back to nature” movement—sometimes involving nudism—which purportedly minimized the threat of social and moral degeneration (174). 

A captivating narrative animated by a colorful cast of characters (Phryné, Nana, Olympia, Colette, Isadora Duncan, to name but a few) and enriched by twenty-four carefully curated illustrations, Kerley’s book is also chock-full of fascinating facts. To wit: actresses sometimes wore flesh-colored maillots or smeared their bodies with rice powder and white grease; La Fête du Nu featured women’s wrestling matches and a beauty contest focused solely on the contestants’ legs, which guests were encouraged to fondle so as to verify that they were real; spectators could purchase erotic cartes-de-visite after music-hall performances; titles of music-hall revues mentioned by Kerley include Nude in Paris, Paris All Nude, Hide Your Nude!, Have You Seen My Nude? 

It is unfortunate that such cleanly written English prose should be marred by numerous mistakes in the French, with problems ranging from missing, unnecessary, or incorrect accents to misspellings ( “nécessaries” [218], “arrondisements” [251]) and agreement errors (“choses entendus […] choses vécus” [229], “la question sexuelles” [252]). Translations are generally accurate, except in the case of “fleau [sic] de pornographie” (101), where “wave” fails to capture the negative connotation of “fléau.” On occasion, Kerley confuses similar-sounding words, such as “caché” for “cachet” (97, 198), “peak” (“an audacious act of publicity that peaked the public’s curiosity” [131]; “pique” appears correctly on p. 158), and the unintentionally suggestive “wetted” (“Yrven announced proudly her decision to appear in such scenes, which wetted the bourgeoisie’s appetite for and interest in sex” [181]). But such infelicities, while distracting, do not ultimately take away from the significance of Kerley’s project or the pleasurable reading experience it provides.