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Wilhelm von Gloeden’s Frankly Hedonistic Photography

by Caspar Wintermans in Films & Books , 24 april 2009

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Whoever likes to be guillotined? The royalist painter Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun didn’t relish the prospect which is why she precipitately left Paris after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. She remained abroad for a long time, where she was received with open arms. In her memoirs she described a summery boat trip she made with some friends near Saint Petersburgh shortly before the turn of the century.

The artist was struck by the sight of a mass of people of both sexes who were bathing together; in the distance she perceived nude young men on horseback, merrily riding through the waves. “In any other country,” madame Lebrun noted, “such indecencies would give rise to a big scandal; but the situation is different where innocence reigns. Evil thought occurred to no one, for the Russian people truly has the naivety of primitive nature.”

As civilization advanced and Victorian viewpoints gained ground, it became increasingly risky to enjoy the sun in the buff. The hyper-conservative ‘Anti-Jacobin Review’ praised in 1805 the anonymous author of a pamphlet entitled ‘Observations on Indecent Sea-Bathing, as Practised at Different Water-Places on the Coasts of this Kingdom.’ Tough action to combat this wickedness was badly needed, the critic stressed, for “every public act of indecency is an offence contra bonos mores, and, as such, indictable.”

The ‘Münchener Post’ reported on 2 August 1888 on the charges brought against the painter Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach and his apprentice Hugo Höppener, staunch nudists who had brought upon themselves the authorities’ anger by walking and stretching themselves, naked, on the grass of their private domain, hidden from view by thick bushes anyway. “Schweinerei!” Thus the judge labelled the conduct of the couple, who were duly fined and sentenced to a few weeks’ imprisonment.

The Austrian composer Gustav Mahler was subsequently taken to task by his neighbours’ wives because he allowed his three-year-old daughter to play naked in the garden during the summer. That was disgraceful, the women cried, “for nakedness is not pleasing to God.” The High Church preacher Joseph Leycester Lyne, aka Father Ignatius, went even further in 1907 when in the course of a sermon he pointed out to his enthusiastic congregation (“mainly ladies”): “The nude in art is diabolical and pagan, and it is the duty of the Church to protest. There is no high art in stripping off clothes. Nude art ought to be swept away from the walls of the Academy. It ought to be swept out of the country.”

Cast your eyes on the yellowed photographs of our well-off ancestors, and you’ll realize how tightly they were dressed: the women in a bodice, wearing gowns of which one might make a coverlet for a double bed, or at least for a three-quarter; the men in close-fitting coats, a tie turned round the stand-up collar. Very smart, indeed. But while looking at these pictures you are seized with vicarious dyspnea.

Portret of von Gloeden himself in Arabic dress (circa 1890)

The Liberty Of An Idealised Era

In a century when even the legs of tables and chairs were covered with cloth so as to prevent lustful thoughts to cross the minds of Mr and Mrs Grundy, there were a handful of individuals who were up in arms against the stifling dictates of “decency,” who advocated a return to the liberty of an era they idealised: the classical age. Pierre Louÿs published his novel ‘Aphrodite’ in 1896 with a preface in which he attacked the current sexual morals which he claimed derived from Geneva - that is to say, from John Calvin, the ayatollah whose 400th birthday will be fittingly celebrated this year. Louÿs, who placed his story in the Alexandria of 57 BC, reminded his readers that the Greek historian Herodotus had manifested his surprise that “some barbaric peoples think it is shameful to show oneself naked.”

The people that built the Acropolis did not know such a shame, Louÿs argued. They believed that nothing is more venerable than physical love, nothing more beautiful than the human body. In poetry, painting and sculpture the Greeks expressed their fascination with physical beauty. That time has vanished, the novelist sighed. “Alas! The modern world succumbs under an invasion of ugliness. The civilizations return to the North, they enter the mist, the cold, the mud. What a night!” Louÿs looked upon himself as an exile. He had written his book for congenial spirits who would have preferred to have lived, just like he, in those centuries gone by when “human nudity, the most perfect form we know and can imagine since we believe in God,” did not need to hide itself behind loincloth or fig-leaf.

‘Aphrodite’ became a best-seller and was turned into an opera in 1906 by the yet-to-be-rediscovered Camille Erlanger. His piece in five acts was given in Paris some 180 times up to 1927. At the premiere the famous Mary Garden performed the part of the courtesan Chrysis whose charms drive the sculptor Démétrios to the brink of madness. High point of the work is the scene in which the woman enters her admirer’s studio, showing himself to him in the glory of her nakedness. Some fifty years afterwards the soprano remembered with amusement that during the rehearsals efforts had been made to light her in such a way that the audience would think that she was truly nude (she only wore a veil), but it proved impossible to realize that illusion. And on the eve of the First World War it was naturally inconceivable that Miss Garden would appear on stage without clothes; happily this would not cause any problems nowadays.

Pierre Louÿs was a practising, yes, enthusiastic heterosexual who greatly pleased hetero’s and lesbians with his “paean on sensuality” (as the novel was dubbed by Mallarmé), but among the gays of the Belle Époque the desire for freedom and the sight of nudity was of course equally great. Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover, wrote a ‘Hymn to Physical Beauty’ while a student at Oxford in which he, too, painted a nostalgic picture of Antiquity, deploring the fact that the enjoyment of the charms of adolescents and young men had been tabooed:

“Dull fools declare the sweet unfruitful love,
In Hellas counted more than half divine,
Less than half human now; the untrammelled shapes
Of glorious nakedness, the curve and line
Of sun-browned youth, must hide, for human apes
Have found God’s image shameful”.

A few months before the publication of this lyric in Douglas’s début, ‘Poems’ (1896), the aristocrat addressed a couple of letters from Naples to André Gide. In the first he thanked him for sending him some photographs which, in the café where he was sitting, he dared not look at; in the second, written later on the same day, he called them “altogether admirable.” What kind of pictures were these?
It is not inconceivable that Gide had surprised Lord Alfred with a set of photographs taken by baron von Gloeden and showing nude Sicilian youths, which at the time proved highly popular among gays. Von Gloeden may be said to have discovered a hole in the market; besides, the quality of his work was such that he has earned a place in the pantheon of the great photographers.

A Charming Fellow

Numerous monographs have been devoted to him, among which Italo Zannier’s handsomely produced Wilhelm von Gloeden: Fotografie - Nudi, Paesaggi, Scene di genere (2008) deserves to be mentioned, providing us with a welcome opportunity to examine the life and achievements of the baron once more.
Von Gloeden was born in 1856 at Volkshagen Castle in Wismar, between Lübeck and Rostock. The climate of the Baltic Sea proved to be far from beneficial to his health, which was why his doctor urged him to move to the sunny South. Seldom a piece of medical advice is likely to have been followed with less reluctance!

For in the Sicilian hamlet of Taormina, where the baron, who had trained to become a landscape painter, settled himself at the age of twenty-two, he not only found the warmth his lungs needed, but also a tolerant attitude towards homosexual love under whose banner he had found himself placed. He quickly decided to exchange the brush for the camera, encouraged to do so by his cousin Wilhelm von Plüschow, who shared his sexual tastes and who pursued a photographer’s career in Naples.

Von Gloeden began as an amateur, but when in 1895 his financial situation dramatically deteriorated because of a scandal involving his family, he perforce turned his hobby into his profession. And success smiled on him. The baron was a charming fellow whom the inhabitants of Taormina highly respected.

They did not object to his artistic projects which involved their sons stripping off their clothes in the open air; otherwise they would never have accepted them in their midst. In fact they saw him as their benefactor, for it was chiefly thanks to the fame his photographs gained that Taormina became a tourist attraction. Glossy magazines such as ‘The Studio’ published his work, von Gloeden had exhibitions in London, Paris and Berlin and received various medals. Celebrities like Oscar Wilde, Gabriele D’Annunzio, the heir to the British throne and Anatole France visited his atelier and wrote words full of praise in his guest book which unfortunately has vanished without trace.

‘To The Pure All Things Are Pure’

In his short, romanticized biography of von Gloeden from 1949 Roger Peyrefitte recounted a couple of peculiar visits the baron received. The first dates from 1904. A seventeen-year-old German, whom von Gloeden immediately recognized as Prince August-Wilhelm, wished to see what the photographer had on offer.

Usually the latter showed his potential customers architectural and landscape pictures to begin with; but knowing that the prince - who believed that his incognito had been kept - preferred boys to girls, he at once handed him a portfolio containing male nudes. To his amusement he noticed that the teenager blushed deeply. Without looking at von Gloeden, the prince asked:
“Are these models indigenous?”
“They are at the disposal of your Imperial Highness,” von Gloeden answered.

August-Wilhelm appeared not to be irked that he had been seen through. With a smile he sat down on a comfortable chair, studying the photographs in a more relaxed way, intimating the wish to get acquainted with one of the models, a handsome cobbler who, having been drummed up by von Gloeden, spent a few days and nights in the August company of August-Wilhelm, to the entire satisfaction of both, it would seem.

When the Emperor’s son had to return to Berlin he took a pile of photographs with him, among which a great many of his young friend; he promised when at home generously to reward both the model and the photographer for services rendered. A promise that was not fulfilled. Weeks later von Gloeden received a carefully sealed parcel that had been sent to him by the German embassy at Rome. A short accompanying note informed him that the dispatch had been ordered by the imperial court; the parcel contained the complete series of photos selected by August-Wilhelm. Obviously the taste of the prince was not to the taste of his father!

Then there was the canon of Saint John Lateran who called to lecture von Gloeden.
“At one of my penitents,” he snorted, “with whom I am bound by ties of friendship, I saw some of those artefacts that carry your stamp. Thus I discovered the origin of the sins which hitherto had been alien to him, the depravity of which made him shudder. Needless to tell you that he was only too willing to deliver these scandalous objects to me. A journey that happened to bring me here made me curious to meet a man whose profession it is to contaminate they eyes and corrupt souls.”
Von Gloeden knew how to answer that. He quoted the New Testament: “To the pure all things are pure.” He might also have come up with Oscar Wilde’s witty variant: “To the pure all things are impure.”

Photo above is Caspar Wintermans’ favourite Wilhelm von Gloeden photograph, reproduced in ‘Taormina’ (Pasadena: Twelvetrees Press, 1986). However, some attribute this picture to Wilhelm (“Guglielmo”) von Plüschow. This confusion can exist because Von Plüschow apparently sold Von Gloeden’s work, and furthermore because the fragile albumen coating has sometimes so deteriorated that the originator’s mark has become effaced

Characters From A Mythic Past

It were these “pure,” those who see everything through the darkest of glasses, who in 1933, two years after the baron’s death, paid a surprise visit to his heir, Pancrazio Bucini. The police confiscated thousands of glass negatives of which about a third were smashed to smithereens. Totalitarian regimes are inimical to erotic art, and Mussolini’s formed no exception to this rule. Bucini, who since his fourteenth year had shared von Gloeden’s bed and board, found himself engaged in a lawsuit which dragged on for years but which, surprisingly, ended in 1941 with the defendant’s acquittal. The court of Messina judged that von Gloeden’s photographs were not pornographic after all.

Nonetheless it would be a long time before the baron’s art would be appreciated again. His models often had not yet reached the age when they were legible to vote or get a driver’s licence, and this has appalled many people. Those who think that a minor photographed in the altogether should be automatically seen as a victim of child abuse are not likely to be charmed with von Gloeden’s work. Those who hold different views about this - and the fact that a street in Taormina has been named after von Gloeden shows that the municipal council there has no problems with his personality - will be able to appreciate a lot in the photographer’s work, especially when they are equipped with a sense of humour.

Von Gloeden, who smeared his models with a mixture of milk, glycerine and olive oil to blur the ruggedness of their skin, had a substantial number of props at his disposal. He wanted to transform the farm boys and labourers’ sons into characters from a mythic past that has been sung by poets such as Theocritus and Virgil. The Sicilians were therefore dressed in togas, handed a shepherd’s crook or an amphora, and posed in the “bucolic” landscape, sometimes in front of the ruins of the local pre-Christian theatre. This “classical” setting served a double purpose.

In the first place it provided von Gloeden with a convenient alibi which he really needed at the time. According to the then prevailing conventions, nudity could pass muster more easily when served with classical sauce. Which explains why academic painters such as Alma-Tadema, Burne-Jones and Bougereau situated their - impressive, albeit rather saccharine - works in Greek or Roman Antiquity. Such canvasses could be exhibited in museums, also because by means of a clever posture or camouflage the private parts of the pictured persons can hardly be discerned.

It was an altogether different matter for the artist who dared to place his undressed models in a contemporary background, as Manet discovered when creating his ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe’ in 1863. It shows a nude woman in the company of two gents wearing nineteenth-century clothes, which was perceived as quite a provocation. Now von Gloeden’s photographs obtained some respectability by their “antique” context, although the unhampered view that some, by no means all, pictures offer of the models’ genitalia was an absolute novelty: a sufficient reason to call Wilhelm a pioneer.

To Make Angels Blush

But I think that the dressing up of these youths as “sons of gods” (to quote Hans van Weel) may also be seen as a manifestation of humour and of the good mood which forms its basis. The models sometimes look quite seriously, the result of the long exposure that necessitated lengthy sittings. In spite of that the photos are often hilarious. Camp, we would say nowadays. This aspect of von Gloeden’s work has not been lost upon later generations. How appropriate, for instance, was the choice made in 1984 by Jos Versteegen en Cees van der Pluijm when they were looking for a cover picture for their book of poems, ‘Het lustprieel’ (The Bower): the tone of their playful, gay verse is perfectly set by the photograph where the baron has immortalized a couple of lads in “Greek” outfit amusing themselves with a recorder and a bunch of grapes.

Shocking images? Not at all. Pathetic pictures, rather. Edelkitsch that has left its mark. The work of modern photographers such as the Dutchman Benno Thoma, which most of us are likely to find infinitely more sensual than that of von Gloeden, has been influenced by the latter, or so it seems to me. Various photo’s in Thoma’s ‘BelAmi: Around the Globe’ (2007) show the (adult!) models in “Arcadian” poses, holding pitchers and fruit dishes; it looks as if the artist wanted to pay homage to the man who was able “to make angel blush by means of photographs of a communicant.” A quotation from Peyrefitte’s essay on von Gloeden referred to above, a text that has recently been reprinted by the Éditions Textes Gais in Paris in combination with a gallery of male nudes, the reproduction quality of which unfortunately leaves much to be desired.

The photographs of the baron are frankly hedonistic. He enjoyed life, and conveyed this delight to his public through his work.

What music belongs to it? I cannot view my favourite von Gloeden nudes without being reminded of the opera ‘Król Roger’ (King Roger) by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. The piece, completed in 1924, is set in Sicily in the twelfth century, where a divinely beautiful shepherd’s boy with messianic traits enraptures both the court and the populace with his message of joy: “I have come to free a world in chains!” His charisma infuses a score which a reviewer of ‘Fono Forum’ in 1999 described as Szymanowksi’s “coming-out.”

The opera, indeed, oozes with homo-erotic sentiment. And how appropriate that the photograph reproduced on the CD-box of Simon Rattle’s recording might have been taken by von Gloeden himself!



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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