Monsieur de Bougrelon by Jean Lorrain

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A reprint edition from 1909.

In 1881 there arrived from Normandy a good-looking young man with an unfortunate habit of painting his face: Jean Lorrain. He spent five years of his life in Montmartre, five years that were also the most dazzling ones for the hill whose chronicler he became. A brilliant journalist with an eye that missed no blemish, no absurdity, but could fill with tears on seeing beauty in a picture, a profile, a gown. From his first poems, Modernités, this fin-de-siècle Petronius evoked the whole life of Montmartre: transvestites, lesbians, go-betweens, outrageous bluestockings, failed poets declining into pimps, wrestlers, part-time gigolos for either sex.

Philippe Jullian in Montmartre (1977)

Among the books that Philippe Jullian wrote about notable fin-de-siècle personalities is a biography of Jean Lorrain (1855–1906), a volume which—to my continual frustration—has yet to be translated into English. If Lorrain is a neglected figure in contemporary France, he’s hardly known at all in the Anglophone world which is why the news last month of the first English translation of Monsieur de Bougrelon was so welcome.

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Jean Lorrain (1898) by Antonio de la Gandara.

I say that Lorrain is unknown but only to the general reader; to anyone familiar with fin-de-siècle Paris he’s an unavoidable presence, a chronicler of the city’s excesses and also one of the great characters of the period. Portraits and cartoons show the dandy but fail to communicate the reek of ether—he was an addict throughout his later years—which attended his presence. His drug-taking helped contribute to an early death at the age of 55 but, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Lorrain managed to combine several years of indulgent pleasure-seeking with serious industry, producing over 40 literary works. Like Fassbinder he was also open about his homosexuality. The Paris of the 1890s wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about this but the Code Napoléon had never made homosexual acts a crime which is one of many reasons that Paris (and France in general) was a haven for the beleaguered British. In his sexual proclivities, his dandyism, and his aesthetic connoisseurship Lorrain is a good contender for a French equivalent of Oscar Wilde, another of Philippe Jullian’s biographical subjects. Lorrain wrote novels, plays and poetry, while his columns of journalism combined gossip and satire with tips for the aesthetically minded. His taste in people was (again) Fassbinderesque:

I have a great fondness for hoodlums, fairground wrestlers, butcher-boys and assorted pimps, both ordinary and extraordinary, who, along with some absolutely exquisite women and some men of talent, such as yourself, are the only company that I keep in Paris.

This life, and some of the author’s character, is reflected in Monsieur de Bougrelon, a short novel published in 1897. The story is narrated from the point of view of a pair of unnamed French visitors to Amsterdam who encounter their extraordinary compatriot when he makes a dramatic entrance into a cheap bordello. Monsieur de Bougrelon is an aged roué and purported aristocrat whose startling antique dress sense is dandyism gone to seed: swathed in old furs, bedizened with fake jewellery, and with dripping face-paint that prefigures another tragic figure in a city of canals, Thomas Mann’s Von Aschenbach. The French tourists have been made despondent by the dreariness of Amsterdam in winter so they welcome Monsieur de Bougrelon’s offer to lead them around the city, taking in museums, the city’s docks and the less reputable areas. While Monsieur de Bougrelon is present he maintains a running commentary, offering his opinions on the sights—Dutch art is amusingly dismissed as “bourgeois”—the people (“ugly”) and his own splendid life and lost loves. His tales about himself are tall and eventually verge on the improbable, but his presence engages the Parisians with its parade of lively invention, “imaginary pleasures” and phantom presences. Chief among the latter is Monsieur de Mortimer, de Bougrelon’s life-long friend, now dead and possibly the love of de Bougrelon’s life.

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This last matter is explored in an afterword by Eva Richter, the translator. While Monsieur de Bougrelon claims to be interested in women he has always been devoted to Monsieur de Mortimer, and the pair survive various affairs and obsessions to remain in each other’s company. Lorrain alludes to the true nature of the relationship when de Bougrelon compares himself and de Mortimer to Achilles and Patroclus. The surnames also offer clues with Mortimer signalling death while Bougrelon is a combination of the French name Bouglon and the word “bougre” whose equivalent in English is “bugger”. The French may have been more accepting of certain behaviours than the British but there were still limits, and Lorrain’s dallying with obscenity and homosexuality is decades in advance of Proust, Gide and Genet. But this isn’t the full substance of the novel. Monsieur de Bougrelon may be short but it contains some marvellous flights of fancy and torrents of description; it’s also blackly humorous in parts, although the dominant tone is of melancholy and a nostalgic regret for vanished days and lives. Melancholy and the omnipresence of death is a common theme in Decadent literature; Lorrain alludes in passing to another short melancholy story set in a city of canals, George Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte (1892).

Spurl Editions are to be commended for resurrecting this neglected novel which is diligently translated and annotated. Monsieur de Bougrelon will be published on November 1st when it will join Monsieur de Phocas and Nightmares of an Ether-Drinker (aka The Soul-Drinker and Other Decadent Fantasies) in being one of the few works available in English from an exotic bloom of the French fin de siècle.

Previously on { feuilleton }
New Life for the Decadents by Philippe Jullian
Philippe Jullian, connoisseur of the exotic
Ma Petite Ville

Wildeana 6

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“The rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates.” Above and below: illustrations by Charles Robinson from The Happy Prince and Other Tales, an edition from 1920.

Continuing an occasional series. I’ve yet to see a copy of the recent annotated and unexpurgated edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray but Alex Ross wrote a marvellous essay for the New Yorker about the novel, its creation, its public reception, and Wilde’s decision to tone down the overt homoeroticism of its earlier drafts. This is one of the best pieces I’ve seen for a while about Wilde, replete with choice detail:

The gay strain in Wilde’s work is part of a larger war on convention. In the 1889 story “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” a pseudo-scholarly, metafictional investigation of Shakespeare’s sonnets to a boy, Wilde slyly suggests that the pillar of British literature was something other than an ordinary family man. In the 1891 play “Salomé,” Wilde expands a Biblical anecdote into a sumptuous panorama of decadence. Anarchists of the fin de siècle, especially in Germany, considered Wilde one of their own: Gustav Landauer hailed Wilde as the English Nietzsche. Thomas Mann expanded on the analogy, observing that various lines of Wilde might have come from Nietzsche (“There is no reality in things apart from their experiences”) and that various lines of Nietzsche might have come from Wilde (“We are basically inclined to maintain that the falsest judgments are the most indispensable to us”). Nietzsche and Wilde were, in Mann’s view, “rebels in the name of beauty.”

As for the novel, I’m feeling rather Dorian Grayed-out at the moment, having recently completed ten illustrations based on the story for a forthcoming anthology. More about that later.

Elsewhere, the William Andrews Clarke Memorial Library in Los Angeles has been running an exhibition, Oscar Wilde & the Visual Art(ists) of the Fin-de-Siecle, since July, and will continue to do so until the end of September. No word about what’s on display but this page on their website has details of their collection of Wilde materials which they say is the most comprehensive in the world.

Finally, the majority of visits to these pages in recent days have come from this post about Ivan Albright’s astonishing Dorian Gray painting in the Art Institute of Chicago. The post links to an earlier one of mine about the paintings used in Albert Lewin’s 1945 film of the book.

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Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Oscar Wilde archive

The art of Ludwig von Hofmann, 1861–1945

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Ludwig von Hofmann was a German artist whose work has already appeared via the above example from Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration. Many of Hofmann’s drawings and paintings appeared in that magazine’s rival publication, Pan magazine, for which the artist also provided a cover design for the collected editions, and vignettes for the interiors.

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Hofmann is also of note for those of us who search art history for potentially gay art or artists. A handful of his works turn up continually on forums where homoerotic artwork is posted even though I’ve yet to see any evidence that his desires ran in this direction. It’s true that many of Hofmann’s pictures focus exclusively on the naked male form, but it’s equally true that he painted and drew a large number of naked women. Males and females often appear together in Adam and Eve pictures, a theme which was so common in German art at this time it’s easy to assume that most artists were using the subject as the merest excuse to represent the unclothed figure.

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Ganymede poster design from Pan (1895).

Biographical details state that Hofmann married his cousin in 1899 although he still may have been  bisexual, of course. If I was making a case for a Uranian inclination in his art I’d point to his poster design on the Ganymede theme (a favourite among gay artists with its story of Zeus falling for a beautiful boy), his many drawings of bathing boys and naked riders on horseback (the latter seems an obsession), Thomas Mann’s admiration for his work, and at least one sketch of a boy from Capri, an island with a long history as a favourite holiday resort for the rich and famous homosexuals of Europe. Whatever the truth, many of Hofmann’s pictures remain homoerotic, intentionally or not, and a few further examples are posted here. I should note that two of the pictures have been cropped to focus on the male figures, and that many of them lack verifiable dates.

Continue reading “The art of Ludwig von Hofmann, 1861–1945”

Simplicissimus

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Every issue of the weekly German satire magazine—from 1896 to 1944—is available for download as a free PDF here. Amazing.

Combining brash and politically daring content, a bright, immediate, surprisingly modern graphic style, Simplicissimus featured the work of German cartoonist Thomas Theodor Heine on every cover, and published the work of writers such as Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. Its most reliable targets for caricature were stiff Prussian military figures, and rigid German social and class distinctions as seen from the more relaxed, liberal atmosphere of Munich.

Yes, the content is in German but Simplicissimus, like Punch, featured cartoons (some in strip form) and illustrations as well. Each issue also includes a couple of pages of adverts that are fun to look at. Lots of samples from its visual contributors, including the great Heinrich Kley, here. Via Design Observer.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Revenant volumes: Bob Haberfield, New Worlds and others
100 Years of Magazine Covers
It’s a pulp, pulp, pulp world
Vintage magazine art II
The art of Heinrich Kley, 1863–1945
Neville Brody and Fetish Records
View: The Modern Magazine
Vintage magazine art
Oz magazine, 1967–73