Where is the line between private and public? Each situation has a different answer—and sometimes many different possible answers. As an example, take this painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Lautrec portrays a woman seen from above and behind as she sits in a chair. Her left arm and breast are bared. She gazes into the distance, but we cannot see her face. Our view is cropped and the room is cluttered.
Lautrec preferred to use performers rather than professional models, and he painted prostitutes a number of times. The scattered clothes and bare breast suggest that this painting depicts a prostitute—but there are many open questions. Did Lautrec pose the woman in his studio? Did he work in the model’s room? Or is this a public setting, as suggested by the rows of tables and chairs?
If Lautrec hired this woman to sit for him, she would have been aware of his presence. Yet he creates tension in the composition by suggesting that she is oblivious to us, the viewers. Since her face is not visible, her privacy is preserved. But at the same time, our gaze becomes one of domination. Are we also a client?
In late 1800s Paris, prostitution was common, but the business of sex wasn’t discussed in polite circles. Lautrec made this private trade public by portraying its practitioners in his art.
Lautrec’s life, too, blurred the line between public and private. Though he inhabited the world of Montmartre bars and brothels and courted the image of the Bohemian, he dinnered nearly every night with his mother, a wealthy aristocrat and staunchly conservative Catholic, at her apartment on the respectable rue de Douai. He only made part of his private life public.
Lautrec was prolific, especially given that he died just before turning 37. He made over 700 paintings and 4,700 posters, lithographs, and drawings. Many of these portray women in a range of moods and situations. Yet privately he was unable to be emotionally intimate with women; though he had sexual relationships, none seem to have lasted very long.
Art can be made in the privacy of a studio, but the act of creating and recording something opens it to a potentially infinite public, extending into future generations.
In the age of blogging, Twitter, and Facebook, do any experiences remain truly private? What do we choose to reveal about ourselves, and what do other people share about us, with or without our knowledge?
Where is your line between your public and private selves?
Question of the Week is a series inspired by our Masterpiece of the Week tours. Featuring an open and upbeat discussion among visitors and gallery teachers, the tours feature a new object and pose a new question each week. Lautrec’s Model Resting is the object for the week of September 27, 2011.