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This is the fourth in a series of articles written by artist Lilianne Milgrom. Milgrom is Paris-born but currently resides in Washington, DC. She shares with Bonjour Paris her unique journey in which she explored female sexuality through her very personal encounter with one of Paris’ most infamous treasures… (Lilianne can be contacted by e-mail here )
Last summer when I was applying for an art residency in Paris to pursue work on female sexuality, I came across an article in Time magazine that piqued my interest. The article discussed a shift in attitude towards topless bathing in France. The findings of a recent French survey entitled Women and Nudity unearthed some unexpected new trends. Not only were many younger French women opposed to topless bathing, but a substantial percentage of them were self-confessed prudes!
Mon Dieu! What has the world come to? Was France no longer the France of my youth? Ah, those sun-kissed days spent with my monokini-clad copines on the beaches of Saint Tropez, dreaming of Jean-Luc or Philippe while pretending to inhale a Gauloise…My subsequent visits to France over the years only seemed to reinforce my impression of a laissez-faire culture comfortable in its own exposed skin. A nation where the presence of a president’s mistress at his state funeral barely causes a raised eyebrow would lead one to assume that French prudishness is an oxymoron.
My excitement was high as I headed off to Paris earlier this year to pursue my artistic aspirations. I was also curious to see whether I would encounter a French version of the conservative and rather puritanical moral values popular in mainstream America today. Choosing to be the official copiste of the most sexually explicit painting in the Orsay Museum placed me in an ideal situation to make some social observations. Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting L’origine du monde demands attention. After all, it is not every day that one comes face-to-face with a realistically painted vagina, mounted in a gilded frame and exhibited in one of the world’s most distinguished museums.
Just a few days into my routine of copying Courbet’s painting and interacting with the viewing public, I came to the conclusion that the French had not become prudes overnight. Pas du tout. Compared to their Anglo counterparts, French museum visitors—young and old—reacted to the painting in a largely intellectual, mature and unabashed way. They spoke in terms of Nature and Motherhood, all the while embracing the beauty and eroticism captured by the artist.
Outside of the museum environment, I kept a wary eye out for palpable signs of cultural prudishness. As a frequent visitor to Paris, I knew enough not to expect Henri Cartier-Bresson photo-ops at every turn, nor to expect streams of scantily clothed Brigitte Bardot look-alikes. However, using admittedly unscientific methodology, I went in search of indications of potential constraints in other areas of the Arts.
I made it a point to look at movie billboards to see what Parisians were being offered for their viewing pleasure. What I saw were the usual suspects: French-language films featuring complicated relationships punctuated by long silences, slapstick police fiascos and a smattering of dubbed Hollywood hits. However I did come across this prominently displayed billboard in a well-to-do neighborhood which reassured me that the pendulum had not swung too far to the right!
Les Travailleu(r)ses du sexe – et fières de l’être
Translation: “Sex workers, and proud of it”
Anyone who is in the least bit familiar with France will have noticed that the French are a very literary nation. The Métro at rush hour is filled with book readers and the streets and boulevards are more often than not named after the country’s literary heroes. Multi-level bookstores abound and the Seine is sprinkled with bouquiniste stalls. Being a self-confessed bibliophile, one of my favorite pastimes in Paris is browsing the abundant bookstores of the Latin quarter. In one such randomly chosen librairie I decided to check out what I call “book candy”—those cute little pocket-sized volumes offered up for sale near the cash registries of bookstores. I discovered further proof that open-mindedness and liberalism are alive and well.
Title translations from left to right:
Why men want sex
A Guide to declaring love
Making love in the United States
Upon my return to Washington DC, I stopped by a well-known bookstore in my area and remembered to check out the book candy on display.
Alors, we’re not in Paris anymore, Toto. Although for my next trip to the French Riviera I’m going to pack my two-piece bathing suit. Just in case.
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