Nadine Biss (Class of 2013) focuses on an image of an icon’s downfall as a representation of turn-of-the-century celebrity culture.
This essay was originally published on September 15, 2014.
With the advent of the Industrial Age in the 19th century came many new media innovations, including photography, postcards, and other processes of mass communication. The combination of photography and industrial production made images ubiquitous within the public sphere. Mass-produced images—especially postcards —helped contribute to the construction of celebrity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Postcards were an ideal medium for capturing the fleeting nature of fame, which, in turn reflected the fleeting nature of modernity. This relationship is powerfully evoked by a photographic postcard entitled La Goulue, taken by an unknown French photographer around 1920-9, and depicting the dancer Louise Weber [Figure 1]. The performance that Weber enacts in this image is an especially compelling reminder of the impermanence of fame; it can be read, in fact, as a failed performance of celebrity and nostalgia, a picture of imminent destruction.
Louise Weber was born in 1866 in Clichy-la-Garenne, in the suburbs outside Paris. Working with her mother as a laundress, the teenaged Weber found the expensive lingerie ladies had left to be cleaned, making good use of it in the dance halls of Montmartre, a working-class neighborhood of Paris with a burgeoning artistic community. Soon enough, her dancing became celebrated enough for her to perform at dance halls like the Moulin de la Galette and Elysée-Montmartre. She was nicknamed “La Goulue,” or “The Glutton,” a reference to her practice of downing customers’ drinks during her performances. Another dance hall, the Moulin Rouge, opened in 1889, providing another arena for upper and middle class Parisians and foreigners to mix with lower-class dancers and locals. La Goulue made a splash here in 1891, appearing in Toulouse-Lautrec’s well-known advertising poster [Figure 2] (1). She also sat for numerous studio photographs, including a c. 1895 image where she raises her leg in cancan fashion, staring at the camera with a mask-like lack of expression [Figure 3].
As David Price explains in Cancan!, “La Goulue’s down-to-earth and cheeky rendition of the dance and her general lack of sophistication proved to be a great attraction for the idle rich clientele…Although not regarded as pretty…[she] had impudent good looks, which her audiences found irresistible” (2). Accordingly, the constructed identity of La Goulue did not need to rely on the ephemeral nature of youth and beauty. Soon enough, she had become the most famous cancan dancer at the Moulin Rouge.
This rapid rise to fame was aided by mass-produced images; ordinary citizens could now see La Goulue, hold her in their hands, and possess her via more realistic media like photography and postcards. As Aaron Jaffe explains in Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity, “Portraits are valued…for the sincerity of their implied connection to the sitter, their capacity to represent lived identity as once experienced firsthand…The best portraits are the ones that best frame their subjects as objects of worship…” (3) In other words, through a supposed visual accuracy, viewers of photographic portraits feel an emotional or physical proximity to the subject. Moreover, being able to possess photographs as objects gives the viewer a certain power over the definition of the subject’s identity. Thus, the constructed identities of celebrities were enhanced through this proliferation of media and images.
By 1895, La Goulue decided to branch out from the Moulin Rouge and create her own “Théâtre de la Goulue,” in which she would showcase belly dancing; fighting her weight gain for many years, and even becoming pregnant, she was finding it difficult to keep up the cancan. With backdrop panels painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she set up shop within a Parisian fairground [Figure 4], but this new venture soon failed. Apparently, patrons did not care to see her outside of the Moulin Rouge. Within a few years, she was poor, alcoholic and too overweight to ever consider a return to dancing. After working as an assistant within a brothel, she died in 1929 as an unrecognizable match-seller outside the very dance hall where she gained her fame (4).
It must have been near her death that the photographic postcard La Goulue was taken. In fact, the portrait almost reads as an image of death. Surrounded by dirt and decay, La Goulue’s white, mask-like visage, presumably caked in make-up, provides little expression. Even her tilted trailer seems to be breaking down. Displaying herself with her loved possessions, she stares defiantly at the camera, at the public, at death. As a silver print, the clarity in detail is remarkable, thus making La Goulue seem more realistic, more destitute and closer to her own destruction.
The central figure is of course, La Goulue. Wearing a long dark skirt (with a slip showing near her feet), a wrinkled shirt that emphasizes her large size and a lace collar, she holds a mangy dog and cat, with another dog at her feet, halfway on the stairs, with his hind legs facing the viewer. La Goulue is seated at the top of the wooden stairs that lead to the open door of her small trailer (which sits on unstable-looking wooden stilts). Even though it is tilted, and the photograph’s frame is narrow, both sides of the trailer can be seen, with the left end near the left side of the postcard, and the right receding towards the back. One door to the trailer is closed, with a curtain or tapestry hanging over part of it. Clearly, this calls the viewer’s attention back to the subject’s history of stage performance, as well as the photography studio portrait traditions of posing figures with stage-like props such as curtains. Sticks and dirt on the ground make up the bottom of the frame.
Most of the photograph is shown in dark gradients of gray and black, though a few choice sections stand out to the viewer as bright white, thus bringing attention to them. Most critically, La Goulue’s face appears completely white, and therefore mask-like and devoid of most expression. Her lace collar (perhaps an attempt to seem slightly sophisticated) and her slip (peeking out of a dark skirt, harkening back to days of kicking her legs up so high her undergarments could be seen) also stand out. Curtains within the trailer, as seen through the door’s window appear white, again focusing attention on the performance aspect of the drapery.
As the central figure, La Goulue is alienated by the camera’s viewpoint, seeming to be very separate from the viewer. The photographer has roughly equated her with the mangy animals that surround her; with her dogs, cat and trailer, she is part of the landscape of decay. Whereas previous images of her idealized her and propped her up as a celebrity, this image serves to isolate La Goulue; she is alone, unrecognizable and in poor shape.
Thus, despite the proliferation and continued existence of images of La Goulue at her prime, her celebrity was evidently fleeting. Within a decade of her departure from the Moulin Rouge, she was destitute and abandoned. Similarly, the modern era is marked by fleeting communications and technologies, such as the postcard. These ephemeral pieces of paper were used to send quick notes, marked special one-time events and can be traced back to specific moments in time. As Lynda Klich and Benjamin Weiss explain in the exhibition catalogue of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s The Postcard Age, “The requisite terseness [of the writing style], combined with the postcard’s connotation of speed, made the cards just as much a sign of the fast pace of contemporary life as other inventions of the day…” (5)
The pre-paid postal card was first created in Austria-Hungary in 1869, and quickly became a popular method of communication. The advantages posed by the postcard included cheapness, standard size and new opportunities for advertising. At first, postcards came without images; one side was for the address, the other side for one’s message. Quickly, however, decorative imagery began appearing on the message side, leaving little room for actual writing. Postcard makers added cityscapes, advertisements and standard greetings to their cards (6). Photographic postcards (wherein photographs were pasted onto postcard backs) began appearing in Germany in the 1880s, with France soon following its lead (7). As Clément Chéroux and Ute Eskildsen explain in The Stamp of Fantasy: The Visual Inventiveness of Photographic Postcards, “photographic postcards effectively constituted the first union of two objects of fascination: the analogue image and the popular image” (8).
In 1902, the divided postcard that is commonplace today was created in England, leaving one side for a whole image, and the other side divided into sections for address and message. This provided a great opportunity for postcard makers and artists to truly embrace the new medium with images. In 1904, France adopted the new carte postale, followed by many other nations. The drive for international standards stemmed in part from the postcard-collecting craze of the first decade of the 20th century (9).
Despite their original intent, many postcards went un-mailed; instead, they resided in collectors’ special catalogs, ready to be displayed to friends and family. Publishers and artists created illusion cards, cards in series, cards marking special events such as World’s Fairs, cards advertising performances and much more to respond to the collecting craze. According to Klich and Weiss, “…collecting such mass-manufactured images marked one as an up-to-date global citizen. Postcards connected their user to the wider world” (10). Again, we can see the fleeting nature of this technology; postcard collection was a way to display one’s connection to the everyday, the current, the modern – which all change rather rapidly.
As the postcard La Goulue went un-mailed (there is no writing on the message side of the card), we can assume that contemporary French audiences would be interested in collecting such an image. The snapshot aesthetic and more spontaneous aspects of this photograph (it was taken on the street, showing an un-idealized figure), as well as the lack of knowledge regarding the author, may point to the fact that it was taken by an amateur photographer. Thus, it would have been produced in smaller batches than those published by larger studios (11). Evidently, the appetite for a haggard and destitute-looking, desexualized ex-dancer was not as voracious as it had been for advertising postcards such as those seen in Figures 5 (La Goulue, Shaftesbury Theatre, 1898) and 6 (Le Moulin Rouge, circa 1900).
It is La Goulue’s haggard appearance that makes this postcard somewhat of an outlier. Rather than re-using old images of her, or focusing on a younger, more glamorous dancer, the photographer has chosen to realistically portray an aged and abandoned celebrity. This can be examined through the lens of interwar French nostalgia. During and after the First World War, French society experienced a state of nostalgia for the comparatively happier and more carefree days of the fin-de-siècle, of which the imagery of La Goulue in the 1890s was part and parcel. Modernity is characterized by a fleeting sense of time, that there is something fundamentally different about each historical moment. Correspondingly, nostalgia is an inherently modern phenomenon. The emergence of mass media and mechanically reproducible images is an important contribution to this way of thinking.
In Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, Nancy Martha West examines photography as a disavowal of death, including “photography’s eerie technology mimicking the way death freezes a living subject into a corpse” (12). In La Goulue, the subject herself can be read as a corpse, in that she approaches death, and due to the freezing power of the medium. Moreover, her body can be seen as a repository for the corpse of French national culture and identity. After World War I, France rebuilt itself, in part by incorporating commemoration into their collective memory. La Goulue herself functions as a lieu de mémoire, a “site of memory,” a corpse from the past. However, she fails to perform as a simply nostalgic figure, due to her pitiful circumstances and unrecognizability.
Evidently, however, there was some interest in La Goulue during her later years. Silent film from 1925 (with the description “Parfois un reporter s’aventure chez une ancienne ‘gloire’”) shows her performing a less strenuous version of her signature cancan (13). As quoted in Wendy Buonaventura’s Something in the Way She Moves: Dancing Women from Salome to Madonna, one of Janet Flanner’s ‘Letters from Paris’ for the New Yorker read as follows:
A month ago she reappeared: fat, old and dancing drunkenly in a few feet of a remarkable documentary film about the rag-pickers of Paris…A few weeks later her rag-picker friends took her to the city clinic, where she too died, murmuring as if declining a last and eternal invitation, ‘I do not want to go to hell’ (14).
Despite her sorry state, it does appear that French citizens were still interested in La Goulue; thus, the context for the La Goulue postcard makes sense. However, it is critical to recognize how the photographer posed her as a pitiful object of nostalgia, as a failed performer, a failed celebrity. For comparison, Figure 7 shows a photograph of La Goulue in slightly better times in tidier dress, through a tighter, more traditional studio portraiture style that leaves out her trailer and animals. From roughly the same time period, and certainly the same area (sitting on her trailer’s steps), this shows a more composed, recognizable Goulue. Her hair in the familiar chignon of her dancing days, a patterned shawl around her heavy frame and no defiant gaze help make this portrait a simpler form of nostalgia. She does not appear to be as ravaged by time and memory as she is in the postcard image.
Photographs like La Goulue serve to actually freeze time, to stop the endless marching forward of progress. Seeing images of La Goulue from the 1880s through her death, the viewer assumes an imagined past that these works supposedly point to, completely ignoring the narrative that must have taken place between them. Easily reproducible images preserve just posed moments, not the process of time outside the frame. Thus, by stopping time, as West points out, “every photograph functions potentially as a relic” (15).
The fleeting nature of the postcard and of celebrity combine in this work to paint a failed nostalgia and a failed performance. Being the central subject, combined with aspects of the theatre such as curtains and a made-up mask-like face, the work reminds us of La Goulue’s failed career as a performer. The postcard also fails as a performance of celebrity and as a performance of nostalgia. The celebrity is broken down and portrayed realistically, thus, not as an “object of worship;” the nostalgia for the Belle Époque is trumped by the pitiful state of the subject. Moreover, this postcard represents a failed type of voyeurism; the pleasure of looking at the image is taken from the viewer by La Goulue’s defiant, straightforward gaze. Her ‘death-mask’-like face points toward her imminent destruction, both as a constructed celebrity image and as a living person.
It is ironic that a woman so famed for her dancing did not perform for decades before her death (another failure). A disappointment occurred during the organization of a Toulouse-Lautrec retrospective in 1914, when La Goulue was asked to set up her fairground booth and perform her original act; however, upon consideration of her “unattractive” state, the idea was forgotten – an actual failed performance to complement the failed performance of the postcard (16).
(1) David Price, Cancan! (London, UK: Cygnus Arts, 1998), 45.
(2) Ibid., 46.
(3) Aaron Jaffe, Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 172.
(4) Price, 63.
(5) Lynda Klich and Benjamin Weiss, The Postcard Age: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection (Boston, MA: MFA Publications, 2012), 38.
(6) Ibid., 37.
(7) Clément Chéroux and Ute Eskildsen, The Stamp of Fantasy: The Visual Inventiveness of Photographic Postcards (Göttingen, Germany: Steide, 2007), 195.
(8) Ibid., 198.
(9) Lynda Klich and Benjamin Weiss, The Postcard Age: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection (Boston, MA: MFA Publications, 2012), 43-4.
(10) Klich and Weiss, 44.
(11) Rachel Snow, “Correspondence Here: Real Photo Postcards and the Snapshot Aesthetic,” in Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity, ed. David Prochaska and Jordana Mendelson (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 42.
(12) Nancy Martha West, Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 143.
(13) Video can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tG5CQRYTHI
(14) Wendy Buonaventura, Something in the Way She Moves: Dancing Women from Salome to Madonna (Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), 109.
(15) Nancy Martha West, Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 147.
(16) Price, 63.