Une certain équivoque? A study of Vincent van Gogh's ambivalent engagement with prostitution, highlighted by the 1888 Courrier Français controversy
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Discussions of prostitution are commonplace in the history of nineteenth-century French art, but this paper proposes that discourses specific to 1888 concerning the visual representations of prostitution have been insufficiently analysed with regard to Vincent van Gogh's paintings of 1888. Focusing on the artist's responses to brothel sketches sent to him by Émile Bernard in 1888, this paper proposes their overlooked contingency with a censorship controversy that attended the publication of Louis Legrand's full-page lithograph, Prostitution, first published in Le Courrier Français in June 1888. Expanding on my Undergraduate thesis, which addressed Bernard's brothel drawings, this paper focuses on Van Gogh's productions from the same period in light of this controversy, and in relation to theories concerning the emergence of a "caricatural mentalité" in the French post-Impressionist avant-garde, proposed by Richard Thomson. My initial task will be to identify the visual productions from Van Gogh's output of that year that can be associated with prostitution, and to establish them as a distinct and related group. This is something that surprisingly has never been done, despite the prominence afforded prostitution in biographical narratives of the artist for that year. It is not however my intention to perpetuate canonical master narratives, or generalized life- and work-studies. By adhering to the principles of micro-history - approaching the well-trodden centre from the perspectives of the neglected margins, and by attending to the minutiae of material history - I hope to tease out a more authentic sense of the conditions that attended these paintings' production, and point to some of the complexities associated with more recent points in their reception. Implicit in my methodology are questions about the embedded structures of modernism and of modernist art histories, analysis of which lie outside the scope of this paper.
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