Saturday, November 12, 2005

Von Gloeden

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856–1931) was a German photographer who went to live in Sicily in Italy. He photographed boys.

His photos (and his models) encouraged Oscar Wilde, Alfred Krupp, Richard Strauss, and the German Kaiser to come to Sicily.

Von Gloeden and his photos 'were generally accepted and respected'. The popularity of his work in Germany, England, and America can possibly be attributed to the following reasons :

1. The Classical and painterly themes disguised the erotioc content.

2. New printing technologies enabled the mass reproduction and sale of his work in postcard form.

The following is from:

...Who was the man who left such an enduring mark on Taormina, the man who bequeathed his prodigious photographic estate to Pancrazio Bucini (his last model who only passed away in 1977 at the age of eighty-seven), the man who made his entry into the history of photography as the master of the male nude?

...The life of this Prussian baron, who was born in 1856 in East Prussia and who died in Taormina in 1931, reads like a fairytale dating from the late Victorian or Edwardian periods.

Von Gloeden, a young Prussian country squire, left his homeland for Italy to regain his physical (he suffered from a disabling lung condition) and mental health (the psychological distress he experienced as a pederast unable to indulge his erotic fantasies). After arriving in Taormina, which at the close of the nineteenth century was a small, impoverished Sicilian town unknown to tourists, not only did health and psyche improve, but von Gloeden was able to embark upon his artistic career.

Wilhelm von Pluschow, a distant relative living in Naples, inspired von Gloeden to dedicate himself to the craft of his newly discovered photographic hobby.

Using local boys as models, von Gloeden endeavoured in his "tableaux vivants" to achieve a vision of Arcady. The story of the baron's life became the subject of a biography by Roger Peyrefitte, the French sensationalist author...

Von Gloeden's visitors' book, since lost, could boast the signatures of Oscar Wilde, Gabriele d'Annunzio, Eleonora Duse, the King of Siam and King Edward VII, as well as those of such well-known bankers and industrialists as Morgan, Krupp, Vanderbilt and Rothschild. In 1911, von Gloeden was awarded a medal in recognition of his valuable assistance in helping Taormina become a favourite tourist destination.

In his work, von Gloeden presented a vision of Taormina's past as a golden age brimming with Greek, Roman, Arab and Norman influences...

Von Gloeden was a pioneer, one of the first to compose his nude studies outside the studio...

At the close of the nineteenth century, von Gloeden's work found swift recognition within the world of photography, his images appearing at important international exhibitions. During 1893 his photographs were published in such trend-setting periodicals as "The Studio" and Velhagen & Klasing's "Kunst f?r Alle" (Art for everyone). In 1898 von Gloeden became a corresponding member of Berlin's "Freie Photographische Vereinigung" (Free Photographic Society).

...Two factors appear astonishing to us today: how was it possible that Victorian censors allowed the publication of nude images so unrepentantly realistic and how did von Gloeden succeed in convincing local boys to pose for him without either their families or the Church intervening? Von Gloeden's photographs are, as we have already noted, neither extravagantly provocative nor blatantly pornographic - in point of fact, they quite usually exclude an aura of innocence.

Gratuitous sexual and pornographic images are absent from von Gloeden's work. The strong formal elements of his images remain faithful to the classical rules of composition which prevailed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; so too, his preference for the androgynous male nude.

Fully evident is a homosexual preoccupation with such libidinally charged areas of the anatomy as the penis and buttocks...

How did von Gloeden persuade the local boys to pose for him? Aside from the fact that their activity was remunerated, one must bear in mind that von Gloeden, a man of charisma, arrived in the community as a generous benefactor. In its "indigenous souls" he believed himself to have discovered the direct descendants of the ancient Greeks, a lineage which, though reduced to rags, retained its nobility. One must also bear in mind that, throughout the Christian Mediterranean, homosexuality was tacitly tolerated as a passing phase in a young man's life.

"This could quite well be a result", Gert Schiff points out, "of the age-old Graeco-Roman tradition. But perhaps a more logical solution lies in the regional custom of keeping the two sexes separated until marriage, and thus in the wisdom of the church - to be magnanimous in all peripheral questions, yet utterly implacable with regard to the preservation of its own political power."

...Works by such artists as Frederic Leighton, Alma Tademas and Maxfield Parish evidence their acquaintance with Gloeden's oeuvre...

Deprived of his family income, von Gloeden, the aristocratic amateur, was obliged to employ his artistic hobby as a means of livelihood.


The following is from:

Gloeden, Wilhelm von, Baron (1856-1931) by Jason Goldman

... The standard tale paints von Gloeden as an affluent German--a member of the minor nobility of Mecklenberg in Northern Germany--who, suffering from what was probably tuberculosis, moved to the Sicilian village of Taormina in his twenties.

According to this account, he was instantly enamored of the village boys who eventually became the subjects of his Homeric photographs by day and the objects of his personal pleasure by night. The Baron's family wealth financed a lavish lifestyle; he hosted a slew of guests from throughout Europe, many of whom indulged in the nocturnal orgies he orchestrated at his villa with the local boys.

The bulk of von Gloeden's photographs were made between 1890 and 1914 and belong to a generation of pictures that romanticize pastoral life in the wake of widespread industrialization. Several of his models reportedly remained devoted to him until his death in 1931, shortly after which many of his glass negatives were seized or destroyed by Mussolini's Fascist police under a pornography charge.

Although von Gloeden has been largely mythologized as a charming, generous benefactor and hero of homoerotic photography, it is important also to think of his work in relation to the colonial dynamics of his presence in impoverished Taormina. His subjects' bodies were not classically athletic, but the callused products of hard labor--an effect the aristocratic German attempted to smooth over with a homemade emulsion.

The Baron's economic clout in the small village ensured both a civic stake in his work and tolerance of his open homosexuality. Not only did von Gloeden employ several boys as domestic servants, but he also became a pre-war sugar daddy, financing dowries and new businesses for his models. Despite the village's strong Catholic dogmas, von Gloeden was thus able to procure its sons for both his camera's gaze and his guests' (as well as his own) sexual tourism.

Von Gloeden's images epitomize a standard tactic of early homoerotic image-making: the "classical" scenes, costumes, and props in his compositions act as alibis for their homoerotic narratives, legitimizing the camera's obsessive gaze upon the boys' bare bodies.

For the mainstream audience that consumed them, the Homeric themes and allusions to antiquity--coupled with the depiction of the pastoral countryside--were crucial for reading von Gloeden's images as nostalgic, asexual visions of a simpler life or as ethnographic portraits.

However, the homoerotic impetus of his work is by no means covert; the lack of moral scrutiny of his work by the Victorians is as surprising as the censorship of his work by the Fascists is predictable. Over and over again, carefully crafted poses, sultry looks, and passionate caresses cement a homoerotic subtext.

Given this, the "classical" themes are also readable as an early example of kitsch: the irreverent recombination of Greek and Roman regalia mixed in with faux leopard print rugs and potted palms set the boys' eroticism in a melodramatic vision of "old world" sensuality.

Equally important are the ways in which von Gloeden's pictures contribute to a long-standing tradition of the docile, brown-skinned sex object within European art. As his production is contemporaneous with the rise of modern tourism among the wealthy, and as his images were celebrated mainly among affluent socialites, these boys' eroticism is largely informed by racial, cultural, and class difference.

Indeed, many of his photographs were printed in postcard format, as if to capture both the cultural exoticism and sexual availability of the local boys in true souvenir fashion.

Jason Goldman


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