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corner Wilhelm von Gloeden - The Boys of Taormina corner









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Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden
September 16, 1856 - February 16, 1931


Von Gloeden's Work


"He mixes nudity and truth, natural phenomena and essence. These little Greek gods have peasants' hands, hardened feet... clearly visible foreskins which are unstylized, that is, not slenderized and tapered: our attention is drawn to the fact that they are clearly uncircumcised. The baron's photographs are at the same time sublime and anatomical. "
Roland Barthes


If one compares his œuvre with the work of his contemporaries von Plüschow and Vincenzo Galdi, it becomes apparent that von Glœden not only developed his own narrative style, but also cultivated a different working relationship with his models.

Occasionally, photographs of von Plüschow have been attributed to von Glœden, a confusion that arises because von Plüschow apparently sold von Glœden's work. Another ground for muddled accreditations has been documented in collections published by such authors as Jean Claude Lemagny and Jack Woody: from time to time, the fragile albumen coating had so deteriorated that the originator's mark had become effaced. In such cases it is impossible to accredit the images authoritatively.

However, those nude studies in which the secondary sexual traits have been accentuated stem in all likelihood from Galdi, a photographer with an inclination towards pornographic scenes. Galdi's work, in fact, slips easily into pornography, something that none of von Glœden's works do, however explicit in subject matter they may be.

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 Glœden's images: the pictures invariably inspire, rather than titillate.

Photography offered von Glœden the possibility of transforming his surroundings by applying the Pygmalion effect in reverse. He endeavoured to blend the antique and modern worlds, sought to create a timeless theatre of desirous fantasy.

This amalgamation is clearly evident in one particular study of a youth who had regularly modelled for von Glœden over a period of years: in complementary pose he shares the frame with a popular Greek statue. Ulrich Pohlmann, who has written the best von Glœden monograph published to date, traces von Glœden's development from amateur to professional photographer with reference to the progression of his "living pictures".

Wilhelm von Glœden is important to the history of photography as an innovator of the nude image - principally of the male nude. Von Glœden was a pioneer, one of the first to compose his nude studies outside the studio. Nineteenth century conventions demanded that a fig leaf be placed over the genitals, or that the retoucher's dark-room art strategically blur the anatomy. Von Glœden dispensed with such strictures, his large format plate camera faithfully reproducing each and every detail of the physique. The baron was chiefly a pure photographer, his point-of-view blunt and straightforward.

Although he occasionally attempted to idealise cosmetically the physiques of his models, they always remained peasant youths. Von Glœden's portrait settings were balustrades with splendid views, or, festooned with antique amphorae, its walls ornamented with an intricate palm design, the inner courtyard of his own residence. The wildly romantic outlying mountains also provided choice photographic settings. Together with his models, von Glœden would venture to lonesome sites where he could unhurriedly compose his photographs, many of which called for protracted shutter exposures.


Wilhelm von Glœden attached great importance to the aura of classical antiquity surrounding his nudes - their paradisiac nakedness was complemented by a varietuy of props conveying historical references and symbolic messages, such as blossoms and grapevine tendrils, Greek vases, flutes, cloth drapes, and fragments of columns. Backgrounds were provided by ruins and romantic landscape panoramas. Von Glœden used as settings for these photographs the village's ancient remains, the large terraces overhanging the Ionian Sea, gardens, Saint Dominic convent courtyard and cloister, and every manner of prop and location that would create a mood of Greek antiquity.

Beautifully composed, Von Glœden's photographs transformed working-class boys into images of antique legend. Many photographs held the image of two or more boys, or a young man with a younger boy, and had the ability to suggest mysterious and unknown relationships. The positioning of the models and their facial expressions hinted at subtly suggestive relationships, and many related a mysterious processional or ritual quality. The explicit nudity was intended to be seen only by Wilhelm's close friends, while the chaste "classical Greek" postcards were intended for sales in local shops.

Apart from the background of the Taormina landscape, with the wild, imposing Etna wreathed in smoke, the unspoiled majesty of the ancient Greek theatre and the natural beauty of the many hued mountains of Ziretto, Castelmola and Tauro, the human models as Vincenzo Lupicino, Peppino Caifasso, Pietro Caspani, Nicola Scilio and many others carried great weight as poles of attraction. Mention should also be made of the women like, for example, Maria, the niece of the parish priest of Castelmola.

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 Glœden succeed in convincing local boys to pose for him without either their families or the Church intervening? Von Glœden's photographs are, as we have already noted, neither extravagantly provocative nor blatantly pornographic - in point of fact, they quite usually exude an aura of innocence. "Although the erotic inspiration and sometimes even the erotic content of these photographs is self-evident", remarks Gert Schiff, "the Victorian public and censors, in a consummate act of self-deception, succeeded in viewing these images as ethnological studies or lyrical evocations of antiquity".

Von Glœden's importance to the history of nude photography arises from his utter dismissal of the genre's taboo, the confident manner in which he manipulates his ephebic, androgynous models, and the sheer magnitude of his output. Gratuitous sexual and pornographic images are absent from von Glœden'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; among nineteenth century work evincing homosexual contents von Glœden's images stand quite alone.

He predominantly works with two models, their body language demonstrative of affection, devotion, Greek attachment. Yet beyond this category there are also a number of portraits of individuals in which the sexual connotations, though coded, are far more blatant.

How did von Glœden persuade the local boys to pose for him? Aside from the fact that their activity was remunerated, one must bear in mind that von Glœden, 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."

In one category of images, von Glœden works with groups of youths whom he positions across the scene in various attitudes, some appearing at leisure, some kneeling, others standing or lying down. Such photographs not only evince an overall mood of hannony, but were also used as académies, or figure studies by artists.

a boyThe youths in such photos appear unrelated to one another, disconnected. Other photographs used as figure studies feature models of various ages, their bodies established in ambiguous relationships. Such photos regularly provide disparate anatomical perspectives (for instance, frontal and rear) of two models standing in opposition. Two youths on a stone bench, 1900 Fauns, figures of Pan, shepherds and Greek ephebic figures were perfect roles for the boys of Taormina, these Southern European adolescents who, at the century's turn, endowed with such healthy exhibitionistic qualities, took great narcissistic pleasure in their physiques. Many were natural actors, a trait which helped them through the lengthy photo sessions.

Glœden was a contemporary of historicism. In his work, he insouciantly mixed prop accessories associated with a wide variety of historical epochs. For the French philosopher Roland Barthes, this clash of historical vernaculars was a disturbing stylistic flaw. The boys are not endowed with classically proportioned physiques; rather, their bodies reveal their situations as hardworking peasant youths. But today, this is exactly the artistic quirk which we find so compelling: the idealised imagery of an historic paganism is winnowed from these images by puberty's fey realism - each youth has his own face, his own penis.

The boys knew no shame. At times with enthusiasm, at other times, worn out by the long sessions, with weary boredom, they attempted to follow the demands of their director - although they often possessed no real insight into his purposes. However, another portrait category exists in which the boys articulate no artificial sentiment, but instead exclude the expectancy or dreaminess peculiar to adolescence. These portraits, the most genuine, are also the most successful. Nude photography during the nineteenth century possessed two pre-eminent purposes: firstly, figure studies aided artists in the absence of live models; and secondly, sold surreptitiously, such images provided a pornographic stimulus.

For instance, the boy stichimg his finger into the mouth of a flying fish, the Bacchus figure proffering his penis from the top of a wine drum, or the reappearing motif of the disarranged toga - all are images brimming with unambiguous eroticism.

Other photographs used as figure studies feature models of various ages, their bodies established in ambiguous relationships. Such photos regularly provide disparate anatomical perspectives (for instance, as said, frontl and rear) of two models standing in opposition.

The awkwardness of these adolescent models posing upon their turn-of-the-century stage is what appeals to the modern viewer's imagination and purges these images of any pornographic content. Roland Barthes is quite correct in observing that von Glœden has taken "the antique codex, hyperbolized it, applied it in inspissate layer (ephebi, shepherds, ivy, palm branches, olive trees, grape vines, togas, columns, stone slabs), but, (the first distortion) he mixes the antique symbols, lumps together the Greek vegetation cilt, Roman figurine sculptures, and the "classical nude" wich stems from the Ecole ded Beaux-Arts.

Von Glœden's work did not always gain large audiences or find its way to exhibitions. Only select motifs were eligible to appear in Velhagen's periodical "Kunst für Alle", or were published alongside articles taking Sicily as their theme. Some photographs were accepted by periodicals which began to appear at the turn of the century, catering to the aesthetic tastes and psychological self-image of a male homosexual readership. Such periodicals, sold solely by subscription, naturally eluded a more general audience.

In 1893 "Kunst für Alle" published one of von Glœden's photographs together with a caption remarking that the image depicted "naked natives of the Island of Sicily". The caption's ethnological flavouring was meant to excuse the image's overt nudity. Von Glœden's iconography of poses and settings emerges from the venerable classicist tradition.

a boyThe most famous of such examples is Cain, von Glœden's version of the painting "Solitude" by Hyppolyte Flaudrin. We know that many of von Glœden's contemporaries collected his photographs. Works by such artists as Frederic Leighton, Alma Tademas and Maxfield Parish evidence their acquaintance with Glœden's œuvre. One particularly handsome example can be found in the study collection of Berlin's Hochschule der Kunste. Here, the pencilled grid applied to von Glœden's albumen print is used to give impulse to other artistic projects.

Von Glœden remains an influence in contemporary art. Joseph Beuys, intrigued by the utopian themes, added his own designs to the baron's motifs. Also, artists ranging from Andy Warhol to Michael Buthe have used von Glœden's erotically inspiring photographs in their work, creating their own interpretations.

Deprived of his family income, von Glœden, the aristocratic amateur, was obliged to employ his artistic hobby as a means of livelihood. His photographs, exactly like those of his distant relative, Wilhelm von Plüschow (who besides merchandising his own "tableaux vivants", also worked in Naples as a portrait photographer), could be ordered from a catalogue of small proofs.

Here, among images ranging from genre studies to views of Taormina, from boys clad scantily to not at all, von Glœden's wide thematic range becomes apparent. Interested parties could order their favourite scenes by number. Von Glœden's vivid photographic studies intimated to Europe's homosexuals the fulfilment of their innermost fantasies. The excessive strictures of the Wilhelmine epoch were circumvented; through photos these men could find refuge and satisfaction in the Arcady of the imagination. The photographs are difficult to date with any certainty.

Not until 1897 - a relatively late point in his career - did von Glœden set about placing his work, in order and stamping the back of the majority of his prints. Unfortunately, his numbering fails to correspond with any chronology. Perhaps the best chronological clues are those provided by the boys von Glœden worked with over a period of years. In such photographs we can follow the slow passage of adolescence. By and large, once a model had crossed the threshold from adolescence into young adulthood, he was no longer willing to pose for von Glœden.

Publications springing up around von Glœden's name have regularly brought to light new material, testifying to the wealth of his erotic motifs. The Italian journalist Pietro Nicolosi estimates von Glœden's vast œuvre to have at one point numbered some 7000 glass negatives, a figure by no means inflated.


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