French culture is imbued with sexuality. There is no “off” switch, and very few clearly defined limits to where sexuality starts and ends. Flirting happens everywhere, and beauty and sensuality are found in everything from fashion and art to food and language. There is no black and white division, no separation to “protect” people, especially children, from exposure. Let’s take nudity, for example.
For all our sexualized pop cultural images, we Americans are still Puritans at heart. Even my self-identified “sexually liberated” compatriots all notice the same thing when they first visit France: there’s a lot of nudity over here. You see it on the beaches, on the newsstands, on “regular” TV, in advertisements, and most noticeably in art, from sculptures in public gardens to the paintings in museums. Tourists tend to cover their children’s eyes or giggle nervously, turning bright red even when simply strolling through the lingerie section of a Parisian department store. But not all nudity is necessarily sexual in nature, especially in art.
A stroll through the bucolic Parc Montsouris reveals several statues of nude women. One, La Pureté par Costa Valsenis, is a simple female nude meant to symbolize “purity”. Another, Groupe de Baigneuses by Maurice Lipsi, shows two women bathers casually posed as if caught in conversation by the pool. Perhaps a little titillating, but still nothing that could be considered “offensive”. For that, you’d have to get a little closer to the north end of the pond, where René Baucour’s Premier Frisson has a young woman with her shirt opened to her waist smiling invitingly over her shoulder to the naked satyr who is caressing her hair with an equally naughty grin on his face. Nearby are parents and nannies playing with small children, either oblivious or simply used to seeing statues like this in Paris.
It’s hard to imagine this statue would be allowed to exist in a public park in the United States. Perhaps that’s why the Statue of Liberty given to us by the French has her wearing a floor-length gown and a stern expression more evocative of a librarian enforcing silence than a beacon of liberty. The one they built for themselves is quite a different story. La Génie de la Liberté, or Spirit of Freedom, tops the July Column at the Place de la Bastille commemorating the 1830 revolution that brought Louis-Philippe to the throne as the last king of France. This winged, gilded angel of liberty is balanced on one toe as if about to take flight, his arms raised triumphantly in the air brandishing a flaming torch of civilization in his right hand and the broken chains of tyranny in his left hand. And he is fabulously stark naked, with nary a fig leaf in sight, reveling in his freedom. It’s hard not to imagine him letting out a triumphant “woo hoo!”
But while this may be the adopted mascot of nudists (and any toddler who refuses to put clothes on), it wasn’t the nudity that raised 19th-century eyebrows, but the fact that it was a male statue. The artist broke with the usual tradition of depicting Liberté as a woman with a Phrygian cap reminiscent of the 1789 French Revolution, such as the one seen baring her breast in Delacroix’s famous painting, Liberty leading the People (and subsequently depicted on the French 100 Franc note until the Euro replaced it). If you still doubt Americans are really Puritans at heart, try this for perspective: the French put breasts on their currency, but when Janet Jackson’s nipple flashed unexpectedly during a Super Bowl half-time show, the ensuing scandal resulted in the adoption of a five-second delay on all live broadcasts.
For recovering Puritans, art is an excellent way to explore the naughty side of French culture while maintaining an air of respectability. No one back home will raise an eyebrow if you tell them you spent your afternoon admiring the fine chefs d’oeuvres of the city’s renowned museums. Those of you lucky enough to be in Paris this season are spoiled with a choice of no less than three exhibitions exploring naughty themes in French culture. For a discreetly joyous romp through 18th-century erotic art, start with Fragonard Amoureux: Galant et Libertin (Fragonard in Love: Suitor and Libertine) at the Musée du Luxembourg (through January 24, 2016), featuring the French master’s famous painting, The Swing.
The Impressionists were more inclined to capture the full reality of the city’s seedy underbelly, as seen in the Musée d’Orsay’s popular exhibit Splendeurs et Misères: Images de la Prostitution 1850-1910 (Splendor and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution 1850-1910), showcasing the fantasy world of the Belle Epoch brothels and dance halls by painters like Manet, Degas, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec (through January 17, 2016).
French literature fans won’t want to miss Hugo Eros: Entre Pudeur et Excès (Hugo Eros: Between Modesty and Excess), an exploration of how novelist Victor Hugo’s characters embodies both extremes, from the chaste Cosette in Les Miserables to the passions unleashed in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, through sculptures, drawings, and other works by artists such as Rodin, Pradier, Corot, Courbet, Ingres, and Delacroix. At the Maison Victor Hugo (Place des Vosges) from November 19 through February 21, 2016.