Looking at you looking at me

Posted by Helen Tuesday, May 20, 2008 ,

Two separate events in my life in the last week or so have coalesced in one theme. Things happen like that sometimes. The first was a double book launch at the Social Affairs Unit of Peter Whittle’s “Look At Me – Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain” and of Lincoln Allison’s “Disrespect – or how the wrong kind of niceness is making us weak and unhappy”.

Both books are about the modern world and of the many ills that have befallen it, thus being slightly outside this blog’s scope (though not totally so) but another interesting event was a visit to the exhibition, now closed, at the Courtauld Galleries that was about Renoir’s painting “La Loge” and various social and artistic matters surrounding it.

There are many interesting and debatable subjects in Mr Whittle’s book – too many for this posting. (There might be a return engagement at a later stage.) He builds up structures around five people, who, he thinks, are typical of modern Britain in its self-obsession: Kayleigh, Harriet, Sue and Marc, and Jason. They are, in various ways, narcissistic, anti-social, self-centred, shallow and, without acknowledging this to themselves, unhappy.

Two questions arise inevitably: are they really typical of Britain or of the British of certain generation and are they particularly new with no antecedents. I would say not really to the first and definitely no to the second. However, the phenomenon may be more widely spread these days than before.

Mr Whittle mentions the appalling habit people have of not switching their mobiles off in places like theatres, cinemas and, I would add, exhibitions. I suspect that is thoughtlessness rather than anything sinister but there may be an element of exhibitionism there: look at me, I am so important, people want me even when I am out with my friends or family.

In that connection there is the point that a number of people go to the theatre and the opera to display themselves rather than watch the performance. Now that is definitely not new as a reading of eighteenth and nineteenth (and twentieth, for that matter) century would make it clear.

Renoir’s “La Loge” is about going to the theatre to display oneself to advantage and to see who else is present. Apparently when the painting was exhibited there were discussions as to whether the lady in it was from good society or a social climber. Unless the latter is a euphemism I’d say that she is neither but a lady of the demi-monde, who is already sizing up the next patron while the present one is also surveying the scene.

Much of the excellent exhibition is about the growth in importance, socially, of the theatre in late nineteenth century France, the people who went there and the many uses visits could be put.

There is Renoir’s other painting, “At the theatre”, sometimes known as “The first outing” which shows a young girl in a box with an older female companion, perhaps her mother or sister. The rest of the audience is a blur but there is one gentleman who is more distinct. He is quite clearly eyeing the young girl for his own purposes. Despite the prettiness of the picture, it is quite disturbing.

There are the various caricatures, sometimes directed at the aristocracy, but mostly at the middle classes, whose rather innocent attempts at entertainment that is not too expensive, are presumed to be a matter for satirical laughter.

Renoir, having painted several socially dubious pictures of the theatre also produced at least two enchanting small oil paintings of middle class couples, contentedly and companionably absorbed in the performance. They are not in the theatre to show themselves off but to watch the play.

Among other artists Mary Cassatt is represented with two pictures: one of a lady in mourning, probably a widow, who, while being watched by a gentleman in another box, is herself surveying the audience with absorptions. But the most fascinating one is “Woman with a pearl necklace” that shows a completely different female attitude.

It was assumed that the lady in question was an American visitor and there are good grounds for this assumption. She is dressed and coiffed differently from the others but above all she looks at the world differently. Neither demure nor calculating, she surveys her companions openly, as an equal. A painting like that makes one realize that the American invasion of Europe and Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century must have been quite electrifying.

1 Responses to Looking at you looking at me

  1. Jonathan Says:
  2. Interesting comments.

    When I saw the Cassatt painting on your blog, before I read the corresponding part of your post, I immediately thought of an acquaintance of mine who is an American businesswoman.

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