Monday, October 27, 2003

Poetry and Innocence: Life in Sepia Tones

Sicilian Youth with Flowers (detail) c1900 - Wilhelm von Gloeden

:: The last few days I have found myself mesmerized by the life and times -- and mainly by the extant photographic artifacts -- of the astonishing Wilhelm von Gloeden. Thriving in the late Victorian and early Edwardian era, he was a pioneer photographer of nude adolescents, whose influence on the visual artistic community at the turn-of-the-20th-century, cannot be understated. While many of his photographs were known in postcards from the charming and sleepy Sicilian seaside village Taormina, Gloeden in fact made something on the order of 7000 images, mainly in the period 1890 - 1914. They are heart-warming, erotic, compelling, haunting, captivating ....

As music is never far from my thoughts, I can't help but keep humming The Pet Shop Boys' Being Boring whose opening lyric resonates with Wilhelm's story:

I came across a cache of old photos

And invitations to teenage parties

"Dress in white" one said, with quotations

From someone's wife, a famous writer

In the nineteen-twenties

When you're young you find inspiration

In anyone who's ever gone

And opened up a closing door

She said: "We were never feeling bored"

If there are occasional scholarly lapses in this post, please forgive me: everything I learned I learned on the net. :-)

This story has many different threads in it: male lovers, orgies, community tolerance, church and political repression, war, poverty, outrageous success, celebrities, and, not least, a life which constantly raises issues of public and private sexual expression.

Self-Portrait as Arab Nobleman - Wilhelm von Gloeden

:: Wilhelm was born in northern Germany 16 September 1856 of royal blood (he was, in fact, a baron). It makes him an almost direct contemporary of Vincent van Gogh, Gustav Mahler, Giacomo Puccini, Sigmund Freud and George Bernard Shaw; no doubt had he stayed in Germany he would have settled in the artistic communities of Vienna, Berlin or Paris -- and hung out with Gustav Klimt, Alban Berg and Arthur Schnizler.

But it was not to be. The young man fell ill with tuberculosis and had to abandon his university studies. On the advice of doctors and friends, he traveled to Italy for a rest cure. At the age of 22, he arrived in Taormina and immediately fell in love -- with the countryside, with the townsfolk, with the local boys, and with one boy in particular: Pancrazio Bucini. With an eight or ten year age difference, the two remained forever devoted to one another, even beyond the death of Wilhelm in 1931.

Wilhelm had a natural painter's eye and had studied art history, and then the craft of painting. His father died when he was young and his mother re-married (another baron), Wilhelm Joachim von Hammerstein who was a well-known, and well-to-do, journalist. The step-father provided Wilhelm the means to live in some splendour in Sicily. It wasn't long before the painter became photographer -- in the early 1880s something exotic and looked down upon as an artistic medium. However the painter made this medium his own and, at first, made memorable -- and saleable -- pictures of the surrounding countryside, including the famous Mount Etna which appears in a number of his later pictures.

Clothed Youth with Vase (detail) c1900 - Wilhelm von Gloeden

:: But all this was really nothing more than the expressions of a dilettante who, though art was his hobby, turned his social life into an art. The parties, and the generosity Wilhelm was able to spread to the locals, not least of which included the lithe, adolescent peasant boys, quite literally spread the name "Taormina" far and wide. Single-handedly, von Gloeden turned a sleepy paradise into a thriving tourist destination, in particular for homosexual men.

It's remarkable that in the Victorian Age von Gloeden's fame spread so rapidly. His images first appeared in magazines and soon galleries throughout Europe began to feature his works. By 1893, the artist's fame had won him awards in Europe, not only for his work as landscape photographer, but for his stagings of classical settings and even for his growing interest in nude photography which was almost exclusively focused on adolescent males. A cousin, Wilhelm (Gulgielmo) Pluchow, as it turns out, was also in Italy, also working as a photographer and soon the two Wilhelms were co-producing nude male pictures.

A third photographer with a similar style, Vincenzo Galdi, joined the two Wilhelms in founding a sub-artform of its own. However, it was von Gloeden's eye for soul of the subject which his artistic companions rarely captured; Galdi's work, in fact, slips easily into pornography, something that few of von Gloeden's works do, however explicit in subject matter they may be.

Three young men overlooking a low wall - Wilhelm von Gloeden

:: When the political fortunes of his step-father changed, Wilhelm found himself in near-poverty. His sister had come to live with him and with the cut-off of his stipend, the servants were laid off and a lavish lifestyle came crashing to an end. But Bucini, who had first joined the household as a houseboy, remained on, finding jobs off the estate to pay for the needs of his mentor and lover. The community, too, did not turn its back on von Gloeden who, in better times, had been very generous. It was time to turn art into business and, on the basis of his fame, Wilhelm was able to begin selling postcards of his photographs, as well as individual prints, to the tourists who continued to arrive in ever greater numbers. It wasn't long before Wilhelm was again thriving and living a lavish existence.

By 1900, Wilhelm's Taormina estate had been visited by a number of world celebrities, not least of which were Oscar Wilde and Alexander Graham Bell (who took away a number of original prints which later were published in the October 1916 edition of the National Geographic). André Gide came to stay for a while penning his famous "The Immoralist" inspired by his stay at resort town.
King Edward VII stayed at the von Gloeden estate; as did composer Richard Strauss, the King of Siam, celebrated French author Anatole France, industrialist Alfred Krupp and many others.

Fortunately, while a homosexual scandal hit his cousin Pluchow, forcing him to return to Germany, von Gloeden was adored by, and ultimately protected by, the locals. And nothing stopped the prolific photographer from creating, and distributing, image after image of male models, scantily clad and, more often unclad -- except for props such as sashes, flowers, leaves weaved into the hair, ancient columns, urns, and other paraphernalia evoking antiquity.

Two Youths on a Loveseat - Wilhelm von Gloeden

:: It's not just the flaccid penises or firm buttocks which litter his output: there is magic in Wilhelm's vision which makes these images decidedly erotic rather than pornographic. The contrast to the depiction of male beauty in our own times couldn't be more striking: there is not a single young man whom you would described as "buffed" or "gym built". Nor, contrary to the writings of some observers, are many of the images particularly "androgynous": the masculinity of the models in unmistakable, quite apart from the genitalia; this is not the art of gender-bending. And it is true that some of the models are younger than we are accustomed to viewing in our current puritanical climate. It is rare to find gratuitous nudity or raw sexuality in any of von Gloeden's images: the pictures invariably inspire, rather than titillate.

With the outbreak of WWI, Wilhelm, and his sister Sofia, were forced to return to Germany or stay in a camp in Italy as enemy aliens. During the five years away, the estate was managed by Bucini. With conscription, Bucini himself was forced into service but managed to be posted in his native town. At one point, letters from von Gloeden to "Il Moro" (The Moor), as Bucini was affectionately called, were intercepted and Bucini faced court-martial as a spy, charged with consorting with the enemy. But a silver-tongue -- which would come in handy years later -- convinced his superiors that Bucini was a loyal Sicilian. After a three-month gap, the correspondence between the lifelong partners resumed till the end of the war.

Seated Youth Playing Flute (detail) - Wilhelm von Gloeden

:: For the remaining dozen years of his life, Wilhelm returned to his villa at Taormina and continued to make new images. The world had changed, as so many artists who were famous before 1914 discovered, and the taste for antiquities -- the "hook" in so many of his pictures -- became less desirable. On 16 February 1931, three months after the death of his sister, Wilhelm followed her to the grave; they are buried side-by-side in the local protestant cemetery.

Bucini, who had married and had children, inherited the estate and the vast picture collection and the surviving masters. In 1933, and again in 1936, the fascists, in collaboration with the Catholic church, charged Bucini with being a pornographer and seized most of the collection. In a passionate plea before the judges, Bucini insisted the work was art and included as evidence names of the many important people, and institutions, which held copies -- including his oppressors. He was acquitted but much of the collection had been destroyed, the remnants of which were not returned until after WWII. Bucini passed away in the 1950s but his descendants remain in Taormina to this day.

Clothed Youth Laying on Rock (detail) - Wilhelm von Gloeden

:: It's difficult to estimate the exact output but a commonly held figure is around 7000 pictures. Of the 3000 glass masters and negatives seized by the authorities in the mid-30s, only 25% were returned intact. Substantial collections reside in the hands of the Florence firm Alinari; the Kinsey Institute claims 250; and smaller collections are prized by institutions and independent collectors. Currently, shows travel on all continents and still, occasionally, provoke controversy. A 1999 showing in Australia by the Martin Browne Fine Art gallery was threatened with potential closure after complaints to police by the Rev Fred Niles that the images constituted child abuse and pornography. However, no formal request was made and the exhibit, after a police visit, remained fully on view for the remainer of the scheduled exhibition.

In researching this piece, I have found almost 200 different images accredited to Wilhelm von Gloeden, in various states of quality. To be sure, a small screen image doesn't do justice to lighting, shading and detail of the originals, or even the copies of same. In a separate exhibit, I have created The Boys of Taormina, 22 images with captions which I invite you to visit and explore.

Von Gloeden - Youth Sitting Resting Hands on Face (detail) - Wilhelm von Gloeden

One hundred years ago, the world was a far different place, and the pace of life much slower than today. It's hard to imagine the pace at which von Gloeden created his life, his art, largely unfettered by modern preoccupations. Where once the camera was a quiet, intelligent observer, in our age it is the despised paparazzi or the eye of big brother, not the friend, or even sensual lover which von Gloeden's images often conjure up.

The last surviving boy model who exposed himself to the great photographer's lens, died in 1977, at the age of 87. It is accepted that all of the models were photographed willingly and many were paid handsomely in royalties, their descendants continuing to prosper as a result today. No harm was done then; how can there be any harm done by showing the images, savouring the male beauty, and reliving, however briefly, the halcyon heaven von Gloeden created for himself, his friends and lovers on the romantic seaside in the heart of the ancient world.

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