Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ladies in the Brothel Dining Room

Ces Dames au réfectoire (1893)
Ladies in the Brothel Dining Room

Location: Paris, France

Date: 1893, by Henri Toulouse-Latrec

When I search for Lost Womyn's Space material, this painting called "Ladies in the Brothel Dining Room" by Henri Toulouse-Latrec has the habit of surfacing again and again. Finally I threw in the towel. I figured this painting must be trying to capture my attention for a reason, so I decided to find out more about it.

I'll grant that Toulouse-Latrec had a fascinating sense of color and composition, but as a man he was something of a sleeze. He definitely had this creepy obsession with prostitutes and lesbians, which kind of repulses me. And frankly that repels me from taking a greater interest in his work.

But heck, maybe Toulouse-Latrec was on to something here. Maybe turn-of-the-century Parisian brothels did have dining areas that were just for the women. Might be interesting to investigate further, since we see only women in this painting. Is this a kind of womyn's space, if only an eating space for women trapped in prostitution?

So I started digging around, and it soon became clear that I was barking up the wrong tree entirely. Despite Toulouse-Latrec's track record for general sliminess, it turns out that this painting apparently has nothing to do with a brothel at all. The original French name of this painting is Ces Dames au réfectoire, which roughly translates as Ladies in the Refectory. And what is a refectory? According to Merriam-Webster it's a dining hall (as in a monastery or college).

So what we see here is an excellent example of the patriarchal politics of translation. Some (male?) translater/art critic assumed that if all these "unescorted" women were eating together in the same dining hall, they must be...whores! And therefore, in some huge leap of the imagination, the dining room must a whorehouse! 'Cause naturally, that's where we find whores, right? Such is the Misogynist Mind as it struggles--mightily--to make sense of the world around it.

Pure. unadulterated. bullcrap.

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