The publication of Les Fleurs Du Mal by Charles Baudelaire in 1857 can rightly be judged as the birth of Modernity. Baudelaire’s innovation wasn’t in style or technique, but in the bold, shocking subject matter, (that would lead to obscenity trials) and its depiction of a sordid, urban milieu. As well as the poems themselves, Baudelaire as a perceptive art critic would have a great influence upon emerging young artists determined to break with convention and tradition, notably Edouard Manet (see Olympia Press: A Brief History of DBs which features his groundbreaking painting Olympia from 1863).
The great realist Gustave Courbet was directly inspired by Baudelaire’s poem Femmes damnees Delphine et Hippolyte (Damned Women Delphine and Hippolyte)from LesFleurs du mal in his masterful erotic painting Le Sommeil (The Sleepers) from 1866. This provocative depiction of lesbianism with its compelling, and at the time completely new, realism led to a police report and removal for display when first exhibited in 1872. Le Sommeil was not subsequently allowed to be publicly shown until 1988.
1866 was also the year that Courbet completed a commission for his most famous erotic painting L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) with its graphic close up view of a naked woman’s genitals and abdomen. In February 2016 a Parisian court ruled that Facebook may be sued in France for removing the image from users pages.
(This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared here September 2016, in order for to fit in with the Dreams of Desire Series. If you like this post or my many other stories, poems, essays then my collection Motion No. 69 will be available for sale on 30th November 2017.)
On James Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2nd 1922, the Paris based American owner of Shakespeare and Company Sylvia Beach published Joyce’s controversial novel Ulysses, excerpts of which had already been the subject of obscenity trials in the United States. It was immediately banned in both the US and the UK, a ban that was to remain in force for over a decade. However in France, where the book was printed and published, Ulysses was freely available as the French authorities had decided that they couldn’t possibly rule on the possible obscenity and artistic merits of a book in a foreign language.
Jack Kahane, born into a wealthy industrialist family of Jewish origin in Manchester, England and living in Paris with his French wife saw a business opportunity. Kahane was himself a novelist of mildly racy lightweight novels, however he had bigger ambitions and so he founded the Obelisk Press (with a suitably phallic logo).The business model was simple; he would buy out the rights of a novel that was encountering legal difficulties at a bargain basement price and then issue his own edition, with half the cover emblazoned with a BANNED IN…thus ensuring healthy sales from the prurient and/or curious travellers passing through Paris. Mixed in with the heavyweight avant-garde novels that included works by Cyril Connolly, Lawrence Durrell, Anais Nin and re-issues of D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Radclyffe Hall’s early lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness were novels of a much more dubious literary pedigree, in other words pornography. Kahane’s greatest succes de scandale however was undoubtedly the publication in 1934 of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, with its bold language and sexually explicit descriptions.
Kahane whose health was ruined by his experiences in WWI died on the day that WWII was declared. His son Maurice stayed in Paris and changed his name from the Jewish Kahane to his mother’s maiden name Girodias and took over the family business of publishing DBs (dirty books). It is not sure how he survived the war in occupied Paris, though it was probably a combination of his wily charm and his instincts as a born survivor, instincts that there were to serve him well in his eventful and strife-filled life.
After the war Girodias expanded operations of the Obelisk Press, however the publication of Henry Miller’s Sexus set off a storm of outrage in France that resulted in obscenity trials and imprisonment. Although he managed to get out of jail Girodias was bankrupt and he had to surrender control of Obelisk. This setback, however, only spurred Girodias on and soon he was launching a new venture entitled Olympia Press, so-called because of its similarity to the name of his father’s Obelisk Press and the famous Manet painting of 1863 (see above) of a courtesan whose bold stare confronts the viewer that caused such a sensation on its first showing.
After a particularly cold and difficult winter Girodias came across a group of hungry British and American expatriates writers for the literary review Merlin. He suggested that the best way for them to earn a crust was to write DBs (under preposterous pseudoymns) for his new series the Traveller’s Companion. The group included the brilliant Scottish writer and later Situationist Alexander Trocchi, John Stevenson, Iris Owens and Christopher Logue. Girodias would pay $500 upfront and a further $300 if the title was reprinted. There was no question of the author getting royalties.
Following in the tradition established by his father Girodias also published avant-garde fiction. As well as works by Henry Miller he published Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, William Burrough’s The Naked Lunch, Pauline Reage’s (pseudonym of Sadean scholar Jean Paulhan’s lover Anne Desclos) The Story of O which is undoubtedly the classic text of sado-masochism, Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s erotic romp Candy, Jean De Berg’s (a pseudoymn of Catherine Robbe-Grillet, wife of the founder of the nouvelle roman Alain Robbe-Grillet) The Image. The OlympiaPressalso commissioned the first English translations of De Sade’ s 120 Days in Sodom and Philosophy in the Boudoir.
Unsurprisingly, given the incendiary, explicit and subversive nature of the work published and Girodias’s unfortunate habit of failing to pay his authors, resulted in numerous, ruinous legal difficulties. He was involved in protracted disputes with Nabokov, Terry Southern and the author of The Ginger Man, J.P Donleavy who eventually brought the Olympia Press after a twenty year legal battle in a supposedly closed auction. The collusion of the French, British and American authorities led to his prosecution in 1964 for publishing The Story of O that led to a year in prison, a $20,000 fine and a ban from publishing for twenty years, the most severe penalty ever imposed in France.
After a brief spell as a nightclub owner he moved operations to New York where he holed up in the Chelsea Hotel (where else) and published Valerie Solanas radical feminist pamphlet the S.C.U.M Manifesto. Solanas became convinced that Girodias and Warhol were in a plot together to screw her out of money and on the day she shot Warhol she first appeared at the Chelsea Hotel intending to shot Girodias, but as he was out she then went in search of Warhol (this is at least Girodias’s account, however as a natural self-promoter and consummate con-man it is not necessarily to be believed).
Girodias was 71 when he suffered a heart attack while giving an interview for Jewish Community Radio in Paris, resulting in Girodias dying on air. Although Girodias undoubtedly was a deeply flawed and somewhat unscrupulous individual, he published books no other publisher would even look at and he dared to take on the courts and the censors. Girodias, carrying on the work of his father changed the cultural landscape of the mid-twentieth century inexorably.
One of the most famous portrayals of the female nude in Western Art, Diego Velázquez’s Venus at her Mirror, more commonly known as the Rokeby Venus, (so-called because it hung in the 19th Century at Rokeby Park, Yorkshire before becoming part of the National Gallery in London permanent collection), is a landmark of erotic art.
As Titian and Rubens were both connected to the Spanish court, it is likely that Velázquez would have been familiar with both Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and Rubens Venus in Front of the Mirror, which are cited as possible sources for the Rokeby Venus, however Velázquez was working in the severely censorious and repressive atmosphere of the Spanish Golden Age, where the Spanish Inquisition monitored art for immorality. Several Spanish Cardinals had called for the destruction of any artwork featuring nudity, but some Spanish courtiers and nobility held private collections of such work. Velázquez position as court painter to King Philip IV enabled him to become the first Spaniard to feature female nudity; it would be 150 years before another Spanish artist, Goya, would again take the risk, in his incomparable La Maja Desnuda.
As in Titian’s painting, Venus is shorn of her traditional mythological trappings, the only indicator that this is a mythological painting is the winged presence of her son, Cupid, who holds the mirror for her rapt self-appraisal. In a departure from previous representations of the Goddess, Venus is a brunette and is noticeably more slender than the fully figured versions of Titian and Rubens (especially Rubens). One of the most controversial features of the painting is the blurred face in the mirror in contrast to the precisely delineated derriere that is the focal point of the composition.
Outside of Spain, Velázquez wasn’t well known until the mid 19th Century, when he was discovered however he would have an important influence upon Modern Art. Manet, Picasso and Bacon are among those who have acknowledged their indebtedness.
The King of Kink, Helmut Newton (see Dreams of Desire 55 (Helmut Newton) knowingly references and updates the Rokeby Venus in one of his coolly fetishistic photographs from the late 70’s/early 80’s.
I have concentrated in the Dreams of Desire series on erotic images produced by the various avant-garde movements that followed the great rupture with tradition that was Impressionism, especially the Symbolist, Expressionist and Surrealist movements. However eroticism had long been a staple of Western Art, notably in the Renaissance.
Although Titian’s painting bears the title Venus of Urbino, it is immediately evident that it represents a break from the numerous preceding pictorial versions of the Goddess of Love. This is a Venus that is shown in a domestic scene as opposed to the bucolic countryside, and she has been largely stripped of her standard allegorical and mythological accoutrements. The viewer is presented with a sensual and erotic image of a earthly woman (probably a courtesan); nothing more, nothing less.
Also startling in a painting almost 500 years old is the frankness of the steady gaze of Venus, a frankness that certainly invites comparisons with Manet’s Olympia, a painting that caused such controversy and consternation upon being first exhibited in 1865.