“Greek philosophers, risen from the dead, desired ephebes, a rain of rose petals, poetry... Orgies in the manner of the Marquis de Sade... Fusion and release. The angels of Sodom celebrated their obscene rituals by means of lengthy and varied pleasures.”
Nicole Canet thus sets the tone in her preface to a work she has compiled and published, “Plaisirs et débauches au masculin 1780–1940,” the edition of which is limited to 1000 numbered copies. An imposing, well-executed collection of autographs, erotic drawings, some sheet music, frivolous postcards and pornographic photographs from days of yore which give a fascinating picture of male love in Europe - France in particular - and in exotic regions such as Persia and China.
Mrs Canet owns the Galerie Au Bonheur du Jour at Paris. She previously issued monographs on the photographers Baron von Gloeden and Wilhelm von Plüschow, Vicenzo Galdi and Rudolf Lehnert; her most recent effort is more bulky and also functions as a catalogue, for a great part of the exceedingly rare material presented here can be ordered from her. The Roman bibliophile Raimondo Biffi kindly opened his treasure house for her, allowing engravings from the epoch of the French Revolution to be reproduced.
The deposition of the Bourbons in 1792 resulted in the new Republic decriminalizing homosexual contacts between consenting adults, provided they took place in private, and rather clumsy caricatures poked fun at “the children of Sodom.” The plates embellishing the novels of André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat were more refined. Legend has it that having lost his potency this man consoled himself with writing such masterpieces as “Félicia ou Mes fredaines” (1775) and “Le Diable au corps” (1800) which feature gay episodes.
The heterosexuals’ displeasure at Greek sex is shown once again by the melodramatic horror evinced on an illustration by one of Nerciat’s characters (a lady) on catching a sodomising couple in the act; the top being a clergyman undoubtedly contributing to her indignation.
Nicole Canet introduces us to some “decadent” celebrities from the Belle Époque: Count Robert de Montesquiou, an “arbiter elegantiarum” who served as model for some novel heroes of Marcel Proust and Joris-Karl Huysmans; the bitchy journalist Jean Lorrain who had a strong predilection for rough trade; the opium and cocaine addict Baron Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen who, in the wake of a resounding sex scandal - a storm in a teacup, really - moved to Capri and who deserves our esteem as the founder, in 1909, of the first ever French gay magazine, “Akademos”; and Oscar Wilde, who so much loved Paris and found a refuge there after serving a term of two years’ hard labour in England.
Marc Devirnoy is responsible for the text about the Irishman. Unfortunately it contains some errors. Lord Alfred Douglas is said to have immediately “fled” to the continent when his friend got arrested. In reality Bosie remained in London as long as possible, at considerable risk to himself, finally leaving the country, under protest, at the urgent request of Wilde himself and his lawyer. Devirnoy’s ascription of the novel “Teleny; or, the Reverse of the Medal” (1893) to the author of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is another example of the impossibility to refute certain myths, for Oscar Wilde was in no way involved in the production of this specimen of curious, but poorly written Victorian pornography.
“Curious” is the label which also fits a series of watercolours from 1888, made by the youthful Arthur Chaplin (1869-1935). He set the series, showing “Count de Mercure’s” preparations for a masked ball, in the 1820s, the era of coxcombs like Beau Brummell and the Count d’Orsay. The male servants of Chaplin’s dreamed-up aristocrat are just as effeminate as their employer with his pursed lips, red cheeks and impossibly narrow shoes. There’s no accounting for taste.
Much more interesting, because more powerful and more virile, are the washed pen drawings made around 1935 by a German artist simply called “Hildebrandt” about whom we are only told that he had to hide his homosexual orientation and that he secretly vented his frustrations on paper during the night while his parents were fast asleep. It’s a miracle, really, that his libidinous fantasies - pagan parties at which the god Pan is the pacemaker - have not been chucked into the fire by his next of kin, as has happened all too often when “objectionable” material was found in an artist’s drawers after his funeral.
The delight shown on the faces of Hildebrandt’s figures is not demonstrated by the men who, sometimes in a state of almost full dress, are making love on Persian watercolours and coloured Chinese drawings. In spite of the explicit nature of these pictures, the impression they make is, therefore, rather tame; but they prove additional evidence that homosexuality is not an exclusive Western phenomenon, whatever the Iranian ayatollahs may say to the contrary.
An incident which created much sensation in Paris led to the production of a booklet of the caricaturist Georges Gorsat (1863-1934), better known as “Sem.” The object of his satire was Don Luis, a Spanish prince who openly showed his warm feelings for his Portuguese private secretary with whom he picked up a couple of rent boys one fine evening in October 1924. They went to a shabby hotel where the boys tried to deprive their customers of their jewels and wallets. Don Luis opened the window and cried for help; policemen arrested the whole lot, and the Prince and his pal were kicked out of the country. Sem’s drawings do not betray any sympathy for the foreigners, on the contrary; but he certainly knew his job.
The manuscript signed H. Jussey, entitled “L’Onanisme,” dates from about 1920 and may be acquired by those who are interested - if it has not been sold in the meantime. One may doubt the author’s strict scholarly intentions; it rather seems as if the whole thing is a joke. Thus the observation that the ancient Romans had found the right way to protect aristocratic youths from the dangers of masturbation by sending them to bed with a slave boy whom they were allowed to fuck, appears to be a wishful dream rather than the outcome of serious research.
That there is nothing new under the sun is finally shown by clandestine pornographic photographs of which Mrs Canet presents us quite a few. The absence on most of these indecent images of decent erections is undoubtedly the result of the lengthy exposure time. Be that as it may, the homosexual repertory of 1895 did not differ from that of today. That’s why the reader of Mrs Canet’s book will turn over its leaves with a feeling of recognition and solidarity with earlier generations which were forced to keep a very low profile.
Incidentally it has escaped the publisher’s attention that the illustration from an 1825 edition of “Les Amours du chevalier de Faublas” that has also been used to decorate the fly leaves has nothing whatever to do with gay sex. Those who have read this light novel by Louvet de Couvray know that it doesn’t feature a single “sodomite.”
The picture in question shows an intimate scene between the protagonist and one of his girlfriends, dressed in male attire. Not that it really matters. Lovers of homoerotic art will greatly enjoy this beautiful book which does not lack a bibliography and which fully deserves a place on their coffee table.
Nicole Canet, Plaisirs & Débauches au masculin 1780–1940: Dessins et gravures; Documents et photographies. Paris: Éditions Nicole Canet – Galerie Au Bonheur du Jour, 2014, 336 blz., geb., ISBN 9782953235180, € 79,00. www.aubonheurdujour.net