Feminism to Shop for? The Proof Is in the Pictures of French Women!

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Colette, authoress

Colette, authoress. Photo: Janine Niépce; Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand © Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand/Roger-Viollet

Want to learn about French women? Then put down those books on how to dress, shop or flirt and visit the 200 stars of “Photo/Femmes/Féminisme.” This exhibition is all photos: portraits of ladies with fascinating stories to tell. Many of the amazing shots—all from the Marguerite Durand Collection—have never been seen in public before.

Cléo de Mérode, dancer at the Ballet de l’Opéra and courtesan

Cléo de Mérode, dancer at the Ballet de l’Opéra and courtesan. Photo: anonymous; Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand © Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand/Roger-Viollet

There are, of course, heroines everyone will recognize: Colette, Madame Curie, Sarah Bernhardt and Brigitte Bardot. But the show also puts faces to lives you know through history. For instance, you will see what the great courtesans of the Belle Epoque looked like. Here are Liane de Pougy (whose actual “life’s love” was American writer Nathalie Barney), Cléo de Mérode (photographed so much she became known all across Europe) and Caroline “La Belle” Otero (who conquered royals from England to Russia, as well as becoming one of the first movie stars). You’ll find here the women who inspired Proust, those who modeled for Degas and the cabaret stars familiar from Toulouse-Lautrec posters.

The show lets you peek at Moulin Rouge dancers doing the cancan or gape at Françoise Sagan as she guzzles a beer while on trial in court. Its expansive time line runs from 1860 to 2010—in other words, from the glory days of artists such as George Sand through the Paris of Sylvia Beach and Juliette Gréco, right up to politicians, glamour girls and workers today.

Marguerite Durand, activist and publisher

Marguerite Durand, activist and publisher. Photo courtesy George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

Along the way, there are plenty of eccentrics and wild cards. Such women of substance as Simone Veil or Simone de Beauvoir alternate with cross-dressers, explorers, scientists, miners and mimes. You can see the empress Eugénie, Mata Hari or Josephine Baker; but nothing French women thought about, fought for or accomplished is missing. The show starts with the fight for suffrage and covers work in both World Wars, without forgetting family life, strikes or abortion rights. There is also much impressive work by women photographers (who include Janine Niépce and Berenice Abbott) as well as notable rarities—such as a set of female Communards from 1871.

Marguerite Durand, activist and publisher. Photo courtesy George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

This collection was created by Marguerite Durand, who lived from 1864 to 1936. A star of the Comédie Française at the age of 17, Durand quit theatre to become a feminist publisher. A section at the very beginning introduces her and her circle, focusing on her all-female newspaper La Fronde (The Revolt). Its contributors are a fascinating spectrum, from the first female composer ever premiered by the Paris Opéra to one of the country’s first animal-rights activists.

Like their leader, all cherished a faith in personal stylishness. (Durand once called elegance “the first duty of every feminist”; anything less, she asserted, gave ammunition to movement enemies). Famous throughout her long life for unfailing modishness, Durand also claimed, “feminism owes much to my blonde hair.”

A very French view of a universal question? Maybe. But it’s fully supported by this fascinating show.

Réjane, actress

Réjane, actress. Photo: Reutlinger; Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand © Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand/Roger-Viollet

“Photo/Femmes/Féminisme,” Collection de la bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, is at Galerie des bibliothèques de la Ville de Paris, 22, rue Malher, in the 4th Arrondissement (metro St.-Paul). Hours: Tues–Sun, 1 p.m.–7 p.m. (Thursday until 9 p.m.); admission is 6 euros. Through March 13, 2011.

Created in 1897, the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand remains open to anyone–but check the site’s calendar for openings and hours. Administered by the Paris library system, it is located at 79, rue Nationale, in the 13th (metro Nationale). Users will need a passport or a carte d’identité and also a photo.

The exhibition catalogue Photo/Femmes/Féminisme: Collection de la bibliothèque Marguerite Durand (1860–2010), 30 euros, is also a great value.

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