Hugh Schofield sees an An eye-popping array as France’s National Library lifted the veil on its collection of long-censored erotica.
An eye-popping array of rutting satyrs, tumescent aristocrats and lusty 18th-century shepherdesses went on display in Paris Tuesday, as France’s National Library lifted the veil on its collection of long-censored erotica.
For the first time since it was catalogued in the 1830s, the library’s special pornographic section — officially entitled “Enfer” (Hell) — has been revealed in all its priapic glory. Such is the graphic nature of the material that under-16 year-olds are barred.
Some 350 books, engravings, photographs and curiosities — the oldest a 14th-century manuscript illustration of a nun picking the fruit of a phallus-tree — bear witness to man’s insatiable instinct for the lurid intimacies of the flesh.
Overall more than 2,000 works — including books by the Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet and Guillaume Apollinaire — were marked with the library inscription “Enfer” until the department’s closure at the end of the 1960s. It meant they were off-limits to the reading public.
“Today the ‘Enfer’ section is still the focus of all sorts of false rumours and fantasies, even though it no longer exists. This exhibition is to set the record straight,” said curator Raymond-Josue Seckel.
The first golden age
The first golden age of French erotica was the 17th century — when titanically-endowed figures from the Greek pantheon were shown doing things to each other that certainly did not figure in the conventional myths and legends.
A hundred years later the novel was born and a secret book called “Therese Philosophe” (Therese the Philosopher) lay discreetly on many a nobleman’s bookshelf. Harbinger of the enduring “Confessions” genre, it told of a girl’s sexual awakening through the perusal of pornography.
Contemporary police documents show the troubles encountered by another novel, “The History of Dom Bugger,” whose publisher was sent to the Bastille. As indeed was the Marquis de Sade, whose “Justine” published in 1791 brought sex into new contact with cruelty and crime.
The Revolutionary period was also the heyday of obscene pamphleteers who delighted in libels against members of the “ancien regime.” Louis XVI’s supposedly insatiable queen is shown in flagrante on the frontispiece of “Marie-Antoinette’s Uterine Frenzies.”
Later there are almanachs listing the prices and specialities of Paris “mondaines,” and revealing studies of the imported English vice of flagellation. In the 20th-century erotica becomes semi-respectable, as recognised writers develop a taste: but their banned works are still consigned to the library “Hell.”
Many of the exhibits ended in the library as gifts of the state prosecutor, who used them first as evidence in obscenity trials. Among these is a large collection of surprisingly explicit 19th-century photographs.
“Visitors are going to be amazed by how daring the material is. It is not what people expect from the past. Some items even go beyond what we regard as acceptable in our permissive age. The animal pictures for example,” said Seckel.
Offending the national morals
Other curios include an 1830 phenakistiscope — an early animation device — showing the sex act in close-up; English “peep-show” engravings which reveal a hidden copulation scene when held to the light; and a graphic 1921 porn film replete with early-cinema flickering lights and Chaplinesque judders.
What the items have in common is that they were all once held to offend against national morals and yet were all secretly prized.
As the 18th-century encyclopedist Denis Diderot said, in a quotation that opens the exhibition: “The tougher the ban on a book, the higher its price and the more eager the curiosity. So the more copies are sold, and the more the book is read.”
AFP / Expatica