Édouard-Henri Avril

The near-forgotten Édouard-Henri Avril (1849 – 1928) was an Algerian-born French painter and illustrator of erotic novels whose contributions to 19th century erotica were as immense as they were explicit. Here we look at the impact of Avril’s work, his ability to blur lines between art and erotica and how his erotic illustrations can be particularly telling of attitudes towards sex during the 19th century.

Born in the Algerian capital of Algiers in 1849, Édouard-Henri Avril was an artist perhaps more familiarly known by his pseudonym Paul Avril, under which he produced his most prominent works as an illustrator of several works of erotic literature. Not a great deal of biographical information exists on Avril, perhaps due to the supposedly salacious nature of his work during the time it was produced, and the fact he worked largely under an alias. What is certain, however, is that he made his way to Paris, France where he nurtured his artistic talents at various salons and spent some time studying at the prestigious art school École des Beaux-Arts.

Though a painter at heart who had been exhibiting his art in the salons of Paris from 1878, his big break arrived when Avril was commissioned to illustrate an edition of French poet and novelist Théophile Gautier’s 1838 novel Fortunio, which originally appeared as a serialised version in the French daily newspaper Le Figaro in 1837 and chronicled the escapades of the young French marquis and titular character upon his move to Paris. After illustrating Gautier’s novel, Avril’s reputation as a talented commercial illustrator of novels was established and before long the artist began to accept a number of commissions for works of literature of a more erotic nature – books that, at that time, were more ‘underground’, so to speak, than much erotica today and typically received a very small print run, sometimes limited to around only 100 copies, sold within circles of collectors of erotica.

In 1908 Avril was commissioned to illustrate a later edition of the British novelist John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which was first published in England in 1748. More popularly known as Fanny Hill (the name of the novel’s female protagonist), due to its sexual content the book came to be one of the most controversial and banned books in the history of literature – a significant publication that author and historian Julie Peakman writing forHistory Today Magazine describes as ‘a revelation in that it incorporated pornographic scenes in a novelistic form, a feat never previously undertaken in English literature.’ Following the young Fanny Hill from her village home to London, the novel depicts her sexual undoing and the edition featuring Avril’s illustrations contains one of his better known images Les charmes de Fanny exposes.

It was perhaps Avril’s graphic illustrations for an edition of the German scholar and philosopher Friedrich Karl Forberg’s De figuris Veneris two years earlier in 1906 when it was published in French that really established his reputation as an illustrator of erotic novels. The book, originally published by Forberg in 1824, was a collection of ancient Greek and Roman scripts on erotica, now more commonly known and published as the Manual of Classic Erotology in which the writer discusses erotica and sexuality in an objective manner, and Avril’s contributions to the 1906 French edition include several explicit, yet sensual images.

As so little conclusive biographical information exists on Avril it is hard to judge specifically the impact his own images had on society though the ‘underground’ nature of many of the works the artist contributed to. However, their limited print runs, sales within exclusive collectors’ circles and the contentious nature of publications like Fanny Hill, do in fact speak volumes about the way in which erotica was received and perceived during the 19th century. If we look at Avril’s erotic illustrations in the cultural and historical context of their production they are important and revealing artefacts of attitudes towards sex during that time.

In her academic essay A Secretly Sexualised Era: Pornography and Erotica in the 19th Century Anglo-American World, Samantha J. Rose points out the ability of erotica such as the illustrations that Avril produced for many publications to provide a significant understanding of historical sexuality – which in the case of 19th century sexuality may be particularly interesting given the modern-day predilection to view this era as more ‘respectable’: ‘Pornography is also a useful historiographical tool, capable of providing us with a unique insight into several aspects of Victorian sexuality and culture, encapsulating everything from popular sexual fetishes…to the hypocritical nature of this culture of respectability’, says Rose.

Writing for the online magazine Fearless Press writer T. M. Bernard, who specialises in the topics of sex, love and relationships, while assessing the work of Avril notes the propensity of the artist to depict sensual and mutually enjoyable scenes of sex – something that today much sexual imagery lacks; ‘Notice the rapture on the faces of the women, something not usually seen today, where everything is hot and furious, and a woman’s pleasure is often depicted as secondary to the man’s (and the viewers’). What’s more, the images reveal a total lack of pretence or shame. Whatever is being shared and experienced together is mutual and pleasurable,’ says Bernard.

As Bernard goes on to say, a further historically and culturally significant aspect of Avril’s works is that they raise important questions around the blurring of art and pornography – that is, while his illustrations are undoubtedly sexual, they are still beautiful, anatomically correct and representative of Avril’s talents as an artist however they were received at the time of their production; ‘Perhaps at the time they were distributed, in the late 1800s, the establishment was outraged. Today, Avril’s creations are a colourful expression of sexuality from a bygone era, as well as evidence that lines between art and pornography have been blurred before,’ asserts Bernard.

Édouard-Henri Avril can then be judged as an important contributor to 19th century erotica – an artist whose sexual, sensual and beautiful works are particularly telling of attitudes – both public and private – towards sex during this era and an artist who skilfully blurred the distinctions between art and pornography.

See more: theculturetrip.com

Katsushika Hokusai

Hokusai was born on the 23rd day of 9th month of the 10th year of the Hōreki period (October or November 1760) to an artisan family, in the Katsushika district of Edo, Japan. His childhood name was Tokitarō. It is believed his father was the mirror-maker Nakajima Ise, who produced mirrors for the shogun. His father never made Hokusai an heir, so it’s possible that his mother was a concubine. Hokusai began painting around the age of six, possibly learning the art from his father, whose work on mirrors also included the painting of designs around the mirrors.

Hokusai was known by at least 30 names during his lifetime. Although the use of multiple names was a common practice of Japanese artists of the time, the numbers of names he used far exceeds that of any other major Japanese artist. Hokusai’s name changes are so frequent, and so often related to changes in his artistic production and style, that they are useful for breaking his life up into periods.

At the age of 12, he was sent by his father to work in a bookshop and lending library, a popular type of institution in Japanese cities, where reading books made from wood-cut blocks was a popular entertainment of the middle and upper classes. At 14, he became an apprentice to a wood-carver, where he worked until the age of 18, whereupon he was accepted into the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō. Shunshō was an artist of ukiyo-e, a style of wood block prints and paintings that Hokusai would master, and head of the so-called Katsukawa school. Ukiyo-e, as practiced by artists like Shunshō, focused on images of the courtesans and Kabuki actors who were popular in Japan’s cities at the time.

After a year, Hokusai’s name changed for the first time, when he was dubbed Shunrō by his master. It was under this name that he published his first prints, a series of pictures of Kabuki actors published in 1779. During the decade he worked in Shunshō’s studio, Hokusai was married to his first wife, about whom very little is known except that she died in the early 1790s. He would marry again in 1797, although this second wife also died after a short time. He fathered two sons and three daughters with these two wives, and his youngest daughter Oyei eventually became an artist like her father.

Upon the death of Shunshō in 1793, Hokusai began exploring other styles of art, including European styles he was exposed to through French and Dutch copper engravings he was able to acquire. He was soon expelled from the Katsukawa school by Shunkō, the chief disciple of Shunshō, possibly due to studies at the rival Kanō school. This event was, in his own words, inspirational: “What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunkō’s hands.”

Hokusai also changed the subjects of his works, moving away from the images of courtesans and actors that were the traditional subjects of ukiyo-e. Instead, his work became focused on landscapes and images of the daily life of Japanese people from a variety of social levels. This change of subject was a breakthrough in ukiyo-e and in Hokusai’s career.

See more: katsushikahokusai.org


The Eternal Idol

François Auguste René Rodin (12 November 1840 – 17 November 1917), known as Auguste Rodin, was a French sculptor. Although Rodin is generally considered the progenitor of modern sculpture,[1] he did not set out to rebel against the past. He was schooled traditionally, took a craftsman-like approach to his work, and desired academic recognition,[2] although he was never accepted into Paris’s foremost school of art.

Sculpturally, Rodin possessed a unique ability to model a complex, turbulent, deeply pocketed surface in clay. Many of his most notable sculptures were roundly criticized during his lifetime. They clashed with predominant figurative sculpture traditions, in which works were decorative, formulaic, or highly thematic. Rodin’s most original work departed from traditional themes of mythology and allegory, modeled the human body with realism, and celebrated individual character and physicality. Rodin was sensitive to the controversy surrounding his work, but refused to change his style. Successive works brought increasing favor from the government and the artistic community.

From the unexpected realism of his first major figure – inspired by his 1875 trip to Italy – to the unconventional memorials whose commissions he later sought, Rodin’s reputation grew, such that he became the preeminent French sculptor of his time. By 1900, he was a world-renowned artist. Wealthy private clients sought Rodin’s work after his World’s Fair exhibit, and he kept company with a variety of high-profile intellectuals and artists. He married his lifelong companion, Rose Beuret, in the last year of both their lives. His sculptures suffered a decline in popularity after his death in 1917, but within a few decades, his legacy solidified. Rodin remains one of the few sculptors widely known outside the visual arts community.

Like so many others, the two figures of this group came from The Gates of Hell. Circa 1890, Rodin combined them to form a new independent work, which must have been an instant success, since a bronze was cast in 1891 and an enlargement, carved in marble,was commissioned in 1893 by Rodin’s friend, the painter Eugène Carrière. The plaster shown here is a cast of this marble, made at Rodin’s request because he liked to keep track of his works in this way – or possibly because he wanted to rework the group in other versions.

The title, The Eternal Idol, is very much in the Symbolist vein explored by Rodin at this time. For him, however, the form was always more important than the subject, and poetic titles like these were only given after the work was completed, sometimes in the course of discussions with writer friends.

See more: musee-rodin.fr