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  • Writer's pictureBeyond the Canvas

Women who defend themselves

At long last, my reading drought has come to an end. I am currently re-reading the original version of The Life Before Us written in 1975 by French author Romain Gary under the pseudonym of Émile Ajar. This extraordinary novel tells the story of Momo, the abandoned child of a prostitute, the mother he will never know. Mere pages into this second reading, I was reminded that Gary used the verb 'se defendre', to defend oneself, to describe what prostitutes do. I am puzzled by this expression as I'd never associate prostitution with an act of self-defence, so I have gone down a linguistic rabbit hole to try and make sense of it. Could it mean that they were independent financially? Any native French speakers with a clue, please help me out.

Much of the artistic output of the 19th and 20th century is testament to the obsession for the depiction of prostitutes. Manet, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Renoir, Schiele and Picasso to name a few, they were all at it. With the growth of the modern cities came the significant presence of sexual commerce in the streets and, for the artists, the abundance of cheap and available models. The representation of the women of the night expressed all the fascination and disdain for the splendours and miseries of what was arguably one of the symbols of the degrading morals and ambiguity of urban modernity.

I will never forget the first time I saw this painting, which is hands down my favourite Picasso. This is a scene you don't just look at, you listen to it, you feel it. The rustling of the robes, the whispering of a secret, the clinking of the glasses, the band playing, I'm sure there's an accordionist in there somewhere. And what of the gentle evening breeze, those flickering lights against the dark sky, the intoxicating lust hanging in the air. And the chattering of the women who are there to defend themselves.

Pablo Picasso

Le Moulin de la Galette, 1900

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection

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