Log in / Register
Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility

Syphilis for Public Consumption

The popular feminization of syphilis iconography needs further qualification. For Gilman, it is the woman, “the seductress as the source of pollution,” who becomes the visual exemplum and a caveat for nineteenth-century society (1987: 98). And although literature affords many an exception to this generalization, the European pictorial idiom plays with the strange desirability of venereal disease and its visual counterpart - prostitution. Yet many of these images afford more than a simple collapse of syphilis and prostitution and address the complexities of the interweaving of sexual desire, socio-economic ordering and the exigencies of modernity.

The first set of paintings I examine questions the apparent interchangeability of prostitutes’ bodies and syphilis as it underscores the precarious position of women in a society where this relationship is taken for granted.

Christian Krohg, Norwegian naturalist painter, journalist, writer and social critic, addresses these topics in a series of paintings illustrating scenes from his novel Albertine (1886), which, set in the Norwegian capital Christiania (now Oslo), tells the story of a poor seamstress, who, seduced and violated by a police officer, becomes a prostitute in one of the city districts. Regarded as scandalous, the novel was confiscated shortly after its publication and the author faced a series of charges for misdemeanour. Albertine i politihgens ventev&relse (Albertine at the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room, 1887) depicts the main protagonist’s compulsory and humiliating visit to the office of a police surgeon. The scene references the legal regulation of prostitution in Norway. Although the penal law of 1842 prohibited prostitution as such, the trade continued to flourish while local policies of regulation were implemented where needed. Many of them imposed on prostitutes the duty of regular examination for venereal diseases (Berner 1900: 209).

The painting offers an imaginary record of such a visit. Albertine, poorly dressed and with a drooped head, is shown into the examination room. A police officer guards the admission process as other women await their turn. Their attire and posture individualize them but also stamp them as prostitutes. In Myths of Sexuality (1988), Lynda Nead outlines the ways in which sartorial codes were used to depict prostitutes and to mythologize them in popular consciousness. Drawing on the findings of phrenology and physiognomy, mid-nineteenth century established the prostitute as a specific generic type, whose deviancy was mirrored in the physical register: in her facial and body expression, in her manner of presentation and in her dress. The latter was used as a direct method of differentiation between diverse social classes and thus also between various classes of prostitutes. Although the distinction between respectable womanhood and different forms of female degeneration was not always straightforward or easy to establish, dress codes were helpful in creating a visual narrative of fallenness. While “artifice” was a common code for the depiction of prostitution, with the love of dress as a specific feature of degenerate womanhood, the state of woman’s clothing was also used to mark the various stages of her descent into immorality (Nead 1988: 172-5).

The ‘pathological vanity’ of the women on Krohg’s canvas is expressed variously through their flashy accessories and gaudy dresses of bold colour. The golden bracelet, brooch and earrings of the woman on the first plane, her feathered hat and frilled red-white umbrella bespeak her conspicuous femininity. What is even more conspicuous is the pinkish attire of the woman who looks at Albertine and who, with her hands on her hips and her foot boldly thrust forth, seems to communicate her disapproval of the fussiness around Albertine. The women’s postures communicate a variety of attitudes towards the procedure: weary attraction of the woman in green, whose lethargy has been interrupted by the approach of the stranger; pensive deliberation of the woman in the beige coat; detached gaze of the one standing behind, nervously clutching a red umbrella; dignified curiosity in the gaze of the woman on the right who turns her head to see the spectacle; an overtly curious expression of the one who has climbed the bench to see better; and, finally, also fear on the face of the woman in black, who needs to be reassured by the comforting touch of her companion. The tonality and composition of the painting conjoin her and Albertine: the latter’s shame is juxtaposed with the former’s fear as our gaze travels from the comforting touch of the world-wise, experienced woman in black to the forceful gesture of the commanding officer. Both couples function as foils in the painting, with the one in front as a vision of Albertine’s future. Krohg’s painting not only diversifies the milieu, but also offers a synchronic version of various stages of a woman’s fallenness. Unlike most sketches and other versions of this painting, this one widens the perspective and, by underscoring the sheer number of like stories, signals the scale of the problem.

In conjunction with the novel, the painting can act as a critique of the repressive state apparatus, which - instantiated in Albertine’s sexual exploitation by a police officer and echoed in the interpellatory gesture of the policeman in the waiting room - subjugates women to male power by literally turning them into figures of pure exchange. The painting also obviously implicates the role of medicine in this type of statutory oppression. Implicitly, it points towards broader, self-frustrating practices of the system, which, in fostering prostitution, unsettles its own economic stability. Commodified, the prostitute simultaneously exemplifies and warps bourgeois economy as she encapsulates all steps in the capitalist production-consumption cycle and highlights the fruitlessness of such economic exchange: she does not produce anything socially desirous and cannot be fully contained in the system where she continues to resell her body ad infinitum (Nead 1988: 99, Laqueur 1992: 213). These economic implications are, however, subordinated to a vision of prostitutes whose imposed ‘excessive’ consumption does not, in fact, transform them into mere goods but curiously allows them to retain their individuality even in the face of medico-legal oppression.

Concerned with the realities of Parisian urbanity, Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec’s Medical Examination, Rue des Moulins (1894) depicts a similar scene. For Sweetman, this canvas encapsulates the major theme in the series of brothel paintings: the vacuity of the women’s existence, conducive to their “physical and spiritual exhaustion” (1999: 344).18 With his sumptuous brush, Toulouse-Lautrec suggests the interiors of a Montmartre maison de tolerance and captures the characters of women offered both for consumption and for medical examination. The famous publication by French hygienist Alexandre Parent-Duchatelet De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris (1836) indicated the necessity of creating an enclosed milieu, constantly under supervision and invisible to the rest of society, which could be “hierarchized and compartmentalized” in order to avoid social intermixing (Corbin 1990: 9; emphasis in original).19 By no means did he propose an entirely new system of treatment. Nonetheless, his greatly systematized work and methodological innovation in his anthropological study had an unprecedented influence on the study of prostitution for another half-century (Corbin 1990: 3). Regular medical inspection was an integral part of this supervision. Its ordinariness is evinced by the pensive attitude of Toulouse-Lautrec’s women (McKiernan 2009: 366).

Unlike in Krohg’s painting, the bodies of Toulouse-Lautrec’s prostitutes are to a greater extent exposed to the gaze of the (invisible) viewer, as they become, if only tentatively, the “fetish objects for capitalist consumption” (Bernheimer 1997: 126). Despite the humanity of the painter’s vision and his lack of “erotic exploitation” of the women (McKiernan 2009: 366), their sensuality is routinized as part of the capitalized practices of late nineteenth-century Paris. While McKiernan stresses their role in Montmartre bourgeois economy, Bernheimer insists on Toulouse-Lautrec’s edifying vision that allows women to retain a sense of personhood, which has “survived the objectifying force of the capitalist transactions” (1997: 198). Similarly, Alain Corbin argues that their poses and self-reflexive containment allows these women to reclaim the space which they inhabit (1990: 60). The brothel becomes a site of their individuality, self-consciousness and isolation. These two apparently contradictory interpretations intertwine in Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting. Depicted in profile,20 the two women are positioned in an inchoate state between subjectivity and objectivity: the individuality of each prostitute is contrasted with her exploited body as spectacle and merchandise.21 Whereas Krohg offers a social commentary on the evils of the regulation of prostitution, Toulouse-Lautrec records, without prurience, moral judgment or reprobation, the daily routine of women entrapped in a specific capitalistic setting.

These divergences are echoed in both painters’ treatment of women’s bodies, which, purified from any signs of potential disease, are ambiguous incarnations of capitalist spectacle and its criticism. Krohg walks a tightrope between censure and eroticism. Clothed in an abundance of frills and feathers, with corsets and full skirts looped, draped and tied up to accentuate the shape oftheir bodies, the women portrayed here are exposed to the craving gaze of the male spectator. Similarly, Toulouse-Lautrec combines humanity with the visual spectacle, if tamed, of prostitutes’ physicality. Nead has pointed out the aesthetic problems around the portrayal of prostitution. As a hotly debated topic, prostitution, if it were to be depicted for exhibition and for purchase, had to conform to two sets of seemingly opposing values: it was to follow the guidelines of realism and to provide pleasure to the observer. It was to be “contemplated and enjoyed” (Nead 1988: 181-2). Krohg follows this tradition also maintained by such British painters as Abraham Solomon (notably in Drowned! Drowned!, 1860), who depicts the prostitute as a blameless social victim, as he evokes “the frisson of a voyeuristic enjoyment of deviant female sexuality” characteristic of this genre (Nead 1988: 191). Toulouse-Lautrec, on the other hand, veers away from this iconography by fashioning the prostitute as a victim ofcapitalist consumerism who has retained her subjectivity. Obviously, Toulouse-Lautrec’s treatment is much more in keeping with the avant-garde tendencies in fin-de-siecle French art, in which the prostitute, in her “narrative density” defies the codes of decorous salon painting and in which her body becomes a site of pictorial and ideological critique (Clayson 1991: 33). Unlike the chaste but sensuous salon nudes, with “smooth, fluid, hairless” bodies (Clayson 1991: 36), Lautrec’s prostitutes both record the material realities of the trade and exude a certain erotic appeal, at the same time frustrating male viewers’ expectations of unrestrained submissiveness and salubrious corporeality.22

Although the colour of the women’s skin recalls the potent image of a withered and wasted body that stands for the ravages of moral and social deterioration, neither painting suggests any overt signs of disease. Even though the ‘availability’ of the women’s bodies on Lautrec’s canvas is suggested, their surface is exchanged for a vigorous dynamics of fleshiness thanks to his expressionistic technique. All the same, even here, the symptoms of the disease are not depicted, as the potential cruelty of medical inspection is replaced by the women’s pensive waiting. In his analysis of the painting, Sweetman draws parallels to early depictions of syphilis:

The pose Gabrielle adopts is horrifyingly reminiscent of the hideous medieval woodcuts showing an archetypal syphilitic, rotted by the disease, passively gawping back at the spectator or of the crude female figure, dress provocatively pulled up, with a skeleton in the shadows behind her, used as propaganda by the authorities trying to warn young men of the dangers of consorting with prostitutes. (1999: 349)

Whereas the link to death imagery is certainly justifiable, Sweetman appears to read the medieval iconography of the disease into Toulouse- Lautrec’s canvas. None of the woodcuts discussed in the history of syphilis iconography (see Morton 1990a, 1990b and Gilman 1987) appear to be directly referenced here. It is only with a substantial leap of imagination that Gabrielle’s pose can be compared to Durer’s syphilitic fob-martyr. In fact, it is not necessarily through the women’s poses that the painting references existing syphilis iconography but rather through its activation of the narrative of victimhood. Both in Krohg’s and Lautrec’s paintings, prostitutes are simultaneously objects of sexual interest and identifiable victims of the system based on male prerogative. They are not, in the first place, the carnivorous seductresses that Gilman claims dominate the cultural imagination of the early and mid-nineteenth century (1987: 96, 98). Nonetheless, and in spite of their overt (Krohg) or covert (Toulouse- Lautrec) criticism, both artists also participate in transforming “deviant female sexuality [... into] cultural commodity, [as] part of a social spectacle which in turn defines and categorises its consumers” (Nead 1988: 191). Despite considerable differences in style and approach, these two works instantiate an intriguing and disquieting transformation of a socially stigmatized, potentially syphilitic body into a purchasable good. Not only do they substantiate this transformation in their subject matter and in the rendition of women’s bodies but also by participating in the exchange market as producers of high quality merchandise for a niche clientele.

This metamorphosis of a potentially syphilitic body into a commodity is nowhere more visible than in Ramon Casas’s poster for Dr Abreu’s sanatorium for syphilitics in Barcelona (ca. 1900). Here, the syphilitic’s body is a beguiling female body unreservedly offered for consumption. Sparsely clad in a richly decorated shawl, the woman is disquietingly desirous. Syphilis here undergoes symbolic coding. Most directly, the serpent woven into the folds of the shawl betokens treacherousness and, with it, references the mask iconography characteristic of the depiction of syphilis and noted in Chapter 3. Its serpentine form, as Jordi Vigue and Melissa Ricketts remark, mimics the “s” of the poster’s title (20 07 : 20 5).23 No scars or lesions disrupt the surface of the woman’s body; rather, imaginably revolting skin eruptions are aestheticized into a nauseating whirl of flowers on the shawl. Most notably, the flower imagery, while evoking the images of fleetingness and putrefaction typical of the memento mori genre, also echoes the disturbing vision of J.-K. Huysmans’s modernist novel A Rebours (1884), where, overwhelmed by the exotic artificiality of the flowers he purchased, the main protagonist Des Esseintes begins to see them in terms of syphilitic eruptions:

The gardeners brought in still more new varieties, this time affecting an appearance of artificial skin streaked with fake veins, and for the most part exhibiting livid flesh, marbled with roseolae and damasked with eruptions as if eaten away by syphilis or leprosy [... ] others still displayed hairy skin, pitted with ulcers or embossed with chancres. (2008: 115)

Whereas Huysmans’s odourless flowers astound with the veracity of characteristically syphilitic skin lesions, here the roses on the shawl aestheticize the disease, even further displacing it onto the horticultural symbol of passion and desire.24 The potential rottenness of the body, sublimated into red roses, is juxtaposed with the promise of cure symbolized by the white lily in the woman’s hand (Vigue and Ricketts 2007: 205). The poster is doubly transformative: it erases the signs of syphilis and replaces them with easily recognizable symbols, thus turning a potentially dangerous body into a desirable image of cure in the sanatorium that it advertises.

In this case, the syphilitic body is transformed into the sanitized, desirous and titillating, if potentially dangerous, corporeality of a consumptive, designed to act as an incentive to procure Dr Abreu’s services. Casas utilizes here the type of visual vocabulary he became famous for, most notably visible in his advertisements for Anis del Mono (1898), a sweet liqueur that was popular across Europe at the time (Vigue and Ricketts 2007: 205). Despite the different colouring, the resemblance between the women on these two posters is conspicuous. There is, however, also a pronounced difference between them. While Ams del Mono addresses a female audience, in the syphilis poster, the (potentially infected) male is the chief addressee. In this shift, the syphilis poster references popular iconography used to market addictive substances such as alcohol and tobacco.

In social consciousness, syphilis and alcohol, next to poverty and criminality, were often conjoined as the fundamental evils of modernity. All four were linked to the dangers of excess and to the pervasively hailed value of temperance. Elizabeth K. Menon has pointed out the late nineteenth-century exploitation of the female body as a way of boosting the sales of dangerous products by eliminating their potential perils through association with nature. In times when medical and reformist discourses made alcohol, poverty and syphilis into the major sites of physical and intellectual - and thereby also national - degeneration, addictive substances required a type of promotion that would sever this link. The connotative power of the equation between femininity and nature propounded the alleged naturalness and safety of the products marketed in this way. This strategy, accompanied by a blatant erasure of the medical discourse within the industry, resulted in the depiction of alcohol as part of the new- founded, fashionable decadence rather than as a source of degeneration (Menon 2004a: 102).

The significant difference in Sifilis is that, while it attempts to evoke what has purposefully been expunged from the alcohol advertisements, it simultaneously strives to achieve a similar aim: this double goal reinscribes the female body within the aesthetic codes of consumption and insanity, while simultaneously retaining the woman’s desirousness. In keeping with the disease iconography of the time, the figure on the Sifilis poster is less neatly attired than Casas’s other women, which indicates a degree of moral and physical illness.25 Through the combination of femininity, venereal disease and the echoes of alcohol consumption, it also activates potent late nineteenth-century fears of the proletarian mob.26 In its symbolism, tonality and displacement of physical putrefaction, Casas’s poster inscribes the syphilitic body into the tradition of the pale consumptive as a site of deprivation. According to Hirsch, by the mid-nineteenth century, the consumptive body had become highly romanticized: it conjoined the sentimental ideal of beautiful death and notions of feminine submissiveness and beauty. With particular resonance in the middle and upper classes (the working classes were not necessarily connected to this notion of consumption due to their alleged vulgarity and lack of spirituality), the ethereal female body became an aesthetic ideal. By the turn of the century, however, although it was still popular in decadent circles, the consumptive body was replaced by a strong and healthy regenerative physicality (Hirsh 2004). In Casas’s poster, more than anywhere else, the ill female body evokes the temptations and perils of modern overconsumption: it becomes a warning against the overindulgence of modern desires, such as the insatiable appetite for sex and alcohol. Syphilis becomes the spectre haunting the modern economy. However, the fusion of both diseases also transforms the woman into the prime site of exchange and promises hope in her metaphorical consumption - in the medical services she advertises. The poster is a case of doublearticulation that evokes and disavows the partial presence of syphilis, without which the new economy would have no other to define itself against. It also highlights the contradictory status of a modern male consumer who is instructed in the pleasures of overindulgence but is at the same time required to remain temperate.

As Krohg’s and Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings thematically question the pervasive cultural construction of the prostitute’s body as polluted and problematize the deployment of this assumption in statutory policies, they at the same time participate in the market exchange of these bodies. Casas’s advertisement, on the other hand, openly exploits these connections. Partly, these differences stem from the generic distinctions between the works and from the divergent audiences and circulatory routes that were planned for this imagery. The poster alludes to the cultural construction of the female body as contaminated, thus activating attendant male fears, but also uses it to stimulate potential clients to undertake a capitalist exchange. Both types of imagery situate syphilis at the core of consumerist economy: either as an evil produced by late nineteenth-century capitalism or as a problem it may solve. In order to function, capitalism necessitates the phantasmatic salubriousness of women’s (prostitutes’) bodies as exchange goods. At the same time, it is precisely their apparent neatness, which suggests both potential illness and latent unhealthiness of the modern exchange economy.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >
Business & Finance
Computer Science
Language & Literature
Political science