Sophie Boegly

A workers' strike has delayed the opening of a new show on prostitution at the Musée d’Orsay.

September 23, 2015

Sometimes things happen here that make me smile and say, only in France. Case in point: One of the Musée d’Orsay’s most anticipated exhibitions this fall is Splendor and Misery: Images of Prostitution from 1850 to 1910. It was due to open yesterday, September 22, until a general strike was called by workers against a proposed plan to extend museum hours to seven days a week this fall. (The new schedule is currently set to start in November).

As of this morning, Paris time, staff is voting to see whether they’ll extend the strike. So for those hoping to have attended a gorgeous roundup of some of the era’s best-known painters, including Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent van Gogh, exploring—though some might say exploiting—the world’s oldest profession, hang tight for possibly a few more days.

The show arrives at a vexed moment for prostitution in France. Contrary to the Belle Epoque—when becoming a paid companion to a wealthy man could bring a woman social power, which she could display, like her impeccable taste in fashion, on Paris’s newly widened boulevards—today the still-legal profession has gone underground.

The city’s brothels were closed in 1946, and now new restrictions are passed seemingly every year: prostitutes can no longer solicit on the street, nor dress lewdly. (That law cleared out my neighborhood, Montmartre, a few years ago, but doesn’t seem to have caught up with the ladies who still streetwalk on the rue Saint-Denis, the last remaining stroll in central Paris.)

Another law proposing to penalize johns was floated in 2013, though it didn’t pass. Pimping, on the other hand, is very much illegal, but the definition is so broad that it brought Dominique Strauss-Kahn in front of a judge earlier this year for allegedly profiting from prostitution merely for having attended professionally staffed sex parties. (He was found not guilty.)

One doesn’t have to profit from prostitution to be convicted of pimping; one merely needs to have facilitated it. The debate continues as prostitutes themselves sporadically demonstrate in the street for the restoration of their right to freely ply their trade.

A lot has changed since the years the show covers, when, without French prostitutes to act as models and subjects, and symbols of developing capitalism, and unique and changing gender norms, modern art as we know it would likely never have happened. With this unique social history as a background, and what France calls a “mouvement social,” or strike, in the foreground, when this inherently French art moment does debut (any day now), I promise it will be worth the wait.

Alexandra Marshall is a contributing editor and the Paris correspondent at Travel + Leisure. Food, design, architecture and fashion are her specialties, which means, living in Paris, that she is very busy. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram.

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