Graphically Graphic Art: The making of modern print erotica, 1850–1950

Abbey Rees-Hales, University of Birmingham,

Camilla Smith, University of Birmingham,

The latter half of the 19th century witnessed a proliferation of erotic visual material that marked the beginning of a period celebrated by some for its sexual ‘freedoms’ and chastised by others for its excess. The reform and regulation of sexual life and its scientific study, as well as the re-evaluation of the bourgeois family unit and its restrictive sexual standards, made sex into a central topic of public scrutiny (Kirsten Leng, Sexual Politics and Feminist Science: Women Sexologists in Germany, 1900–1933, Ithaca and London, 2018). Sexual imagery was nothing new. However, the development of new technologies that permitted the cheap offset printing of lavishly illustrated essays, postcards and print and photographic folios, now turned readers into mass viewers across social and economic divides. Throughout Europe, erotic material became an increasing source of moral concern – lest it should corrupt impressionable young minds – spawning diverse methods of state control.  It also troubled the self-appointed gatekeepers of indecency: the producers and publishers of elite erotica.

This session seeks to explore the complex ways in which erotic print culture, modernism, and modernity intersect. How did new media and technology transform the ways in which the erotic subject was portrayed and circulated? Is erotica simply 'the pornography of the elite' (Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History, London, 1979; Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, New York, 1981), or can we productively speak of ‘high’ and ‘low’ erotica? In what ways have artists, publishers, critics or collectors engaged with erotic print material? 

Speakers & Abstracts

‘Under the Empire of Feelings’: The Belgian porn ban, 1891

Leon Janssens (KU Leuven, Belgium)

This paper argues that developments in media, technology and democratisation not only transformed erotica itself, how it was produced, and its patterns of distribution, but also gave rise to the idea that pornography functioned as a network. This means that from the 1880s, pornography was understood as a product created by ‘pornographers’, distributed by ‘smugglers’, and potentially consumed by everyone, everywhere, all the time. This made pornography into an ever-present problem endangering women, children and working-class men, an idea which frightened the middle class. As a result, most European countries introduced new laws against obscenity from the 1880s onwards. Eventually, an international agreement against the circulation of obscenity was signed in May 1910. Politicians, journalists and social scientists debated the porn problem in national parliament, newspapers and congresses. I will focus on one particular case: the Belgian porn ban of 1891. In this year, the Minister of Railroads, Jules Vandenpeereboom, unleashed a ‘war on pornography’. The bookshops in all Belgian train stations were closed, five pornographic journals were banned from being transported by post, and the transportation of pornography by train was forbidden. By looking at this case, this paper shows how Belgian politicians, journalists and social scientists referred to fear, anxiety, shame and disgust in relation to pornography, and how this was linked to the introduction of new anti-porn legislation.

Dirty Picture: Erotic prints of Bengal in the late 19th and early 20th century

Arundhati Dasgupta (Pearl Academy, New Delhi, India)

The brisk trade in erotic print material by the pulp press industry of Battala and the art studios of Calcutta from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century may be seen as a continuity of popular cultural desires from the oral to the print. The long-standing oral tradition of witty, humorous, lewd ribaldry through songs, poems, doggerels, proverbs and sayings prevalent among the lower orders of the society in Bengal found a precarious and distinct expression in vernacular prints. Along with religious and mythological prints, sensational novels, scandalous romances, erotic pictures, almanacs, postcards and advertisements carried a wide appeal for the semi-educated urban masses. Such frank eroticism had become offensive to the reformist sensibilities of the British administrators and the Western-educated middle-class Bengali (bhadralok) alike and despite making provisions for the anti-obscenity law prohibiting the sale or exhibition of obscene prints or other such representations, the business of erotic prints continued to thrive for decades.

Whilst the consumption of these ‘distasteful’ erotic materials is attributed to the lower classes, the bhadralok households equally partook in it within their domestic confines but never talked about it. This vilified low-brow culture became a great melting pot of conformist taste and coarse humour. This paper aims to discuss the nuances of production and consumption of the indigenous graphic prints of the sensual, erotic and obscene kinds under the broad umbrella of the popular culture of Bengal.

Pornographic Traversals: Erotic novelettes, ‘obscene’ images and grassroots archiving in Mexico

Zeb Tortorici (New York University, USA)

This paper explores the visual (and international) connections between several Spanish-language erotic novelettes and their pornographic print images as they traversed international borders, often with apocryphal places of publication in the 1930s and 1940s. It explores the incomplete collections of cheaply produced erotic novelettes published by ‘Colección Horas de Placer’ (Collection Hours of Pleasure) and by ‘Colección Lujuria’ (Lust Collection), housed at a Mexico City-based queer grassroots art and archival collective, Archivo El Insulto. Supposedly printed in cities including Buenos Aires (Argentina), Havana (Cuba), Guadalajara (Mexico), Madrid (Spain), Tangier (Morocco), Paris (France), Rome (Italy) and New York (USA), these locales point to partly imagined/fantasised trajectories that censored texts and images travelled imaginary trajectories. I am particularly interested in how print erotica produced forms of difference (in terms of race and gender with a post-colonial twist) and fungible bodies visualised by and through the lavish, libidinous images that were included with several of the titles, including Placeres tropicales (Tropical Pleasures); El guía de turistas (The Tourists’ Guide); and Historia verídica de el 69. Episodio de la dominación árabe en España (Veridical History of the 69: An Episode of the Arabic Domination in Spain). The first part of the paper focuses on the partly fictitious international traversal of erotic images, and the second part focuses on how Archivo El Insulto and I – through our many collaborations in recent years – seek to reactivate these novelettes and their explicit images for the politics and activisms of the present.

Touchy Subjects: (Photo)graphic representations of interwar British nudism

Tania Cleaves (University of Warwick)

Elastic enough to welcome libertarians and fascists, purists and paedophiles, nudism has been considered in turns philosophical, pornographic, curative and criminal. In Britain, it emerged as an organised practice during the 1920s alongside other healthy outdoor pursuits such as swimming, camping and physical culture. It also produced a rich and unexamined body of photographs.

Nudist photographs were encountered through reproduction in magazines and books, presenting titillating engagements of bodies in secluded natural settings. In the reprinting process, however, such joyful imagery of unfettered bodies underwent what readers described as ‘mutilation’, with genitalia effaced through retouching – scratched out with a knife or caressed by a brush. An editorial requirement for public consumption, this graphic translation produced images in which lines were literally drawn to distinguish ‘art’ from ‘pornography’.

This talk is about messy moral lines, arguing that nudism’s ‘erotica’ evaded definition because the movement itself was mired in contradictions. The sun’s enervating powers both attracted and worried enthusiasts, who were eager to attain bronzed skin by its ‘kiss’ whilst simultaneously concerned it could instigate a savage sexuality – especially on children on the cusp of puberty. Such ambivalence is played out, and produced, through its visual representation: the use of retouching; advertisements for discrete developing services; and an odd conflation of pin-ups of sexually mature women next to idylls of innocent children, which delight and disturb. I will explore these tensions within an overlooked and trivialised fringe practice and its (photo)graphic ephemera, a case where layers and meanings of bodily ‘exposure’ connect and collide.

The Lure of the West: Consumer culture, modernity and the making of print erotica in post-Second World War Austria

Paul M. Horntrich (University of Vienna, Austria)

During the immediate post-war years, Austria saw the rapid establishment of a market for erotica magazines. Many magazines focused on giving their readers a little joie de vivre back to overcome post-war depression and compensate for the renunciation of war-time. The magazines, primarily aimed at a male readership, offered light entertainment in the form of serialised novels, slippery jokes, lifestyle reporting and nude photography of women. Their whole presentation tried to capture the essence of a modern, cosmopolitan and decidedly Western lifestyle. The magazines thus provoked criticism by various pressure groups, from cultural conservatives and communists to Catholics. For them, the magazines became a symbol for a superficial consumer society that undermined sexual standards, societal values and, ultimately, the (moral) reconstruction of Austria after the war. The magazine boom thus became a strong argument for politicians in favour of establishing an anti-pornography law.

The law eventually came into effect in 1950 and quickly ended the success of the magazines, that were now prosecuted as pornography. The proposed paper focuses on the magazine Venus (1949–51) and analyses how its production and aesthetic development was influenced by changing regulatory regimes. Venus customised its visual appearance over time from black-and-white nude photography to more representations of pin-up girls to suit the taste of a more international readership, mainly American occupation soldiers. Drawing on diverse sources such as newspaper articles, criminal case files and the magazine itself, the paper probes the making of modern print erotica in Austria around 1950.






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