Philippe Jullian, connoisseur of the exotic


Monsieur Jullian as seen on the back cover of Dreamers of Decadence (1971).

Here at last is the long-promised (and long!) piece about the life and work of Philippe Jullian (1919–1977), a French writer and illustrator who’s become something of a cult figure of mine in recent years. Why the fascination? First and foremost because at the end of the 1960s he wrote Esthètes et Magiciens, or Dreamers of Decadence as it’s known to English readers, a book which effectively launched the Symbolist art revival and which remains the best introduction to Symbolist art and the aesthetic hothouse that was the 1890s. If I had to choose five favourite books Dreamers of Decadence would always be on the list. This point of obsession, and Philip Core’s account of the writer, made me curious about the rest of Jullian’s career.


An illustration from Wilson & Jullian’s For Whom the Cloche Tolls (1953). “Tata has called these his Krafft-Ebbing (sic) pictures of his friend Kuno, whatever that means.”

Philip Core was friends with Philippe Jullian, and Core’s essential Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984) has Jullian as one of its dedicatees. It’s to Core’s appraisal that we have to turn for details of the man’s life. There is an autobiography, La Brocante (1975), but, like a number of other Jullian works, this doesn’t seem to have been translated and my French is dismally pauvre. Core’s piece begins:

Philippe Jullian, born to the intellectual family of Bordeaux Protestants which produced the well-known French historian, Camille Jullian, was a last and lasting example of pre-war camp. His career began as an artist in Paris with a reputation for drag-acts parodying English spinsters. Snobbery, a talent for sensitive daydreaming, and a consuming passion for antiques, obscure art and social history, made a very different figure out of the thin and dreamy young man. Jullian suffered terribly during the Second World War; he managed to survive by visiting some disapproving cousins dressed as a maiden aunt, whom they were happy to feed. However, he made a mark in the world of Violet Trefusis, Natalie Barney and Vita Sackville-West by illustrating their books with his wiry and delicate doodles; this led to a social connection in England, where he produced many book jackets and covers for Vogue throughout the 1950s.

Having only seen Jullian in his besuited and bespectacled guise it’s difficult to imagine him dragged up, but the cross-dressing interest is apparent in his humorous collaboration with Angus Wilson and in a later novel, Flight into Egypt. As for the wiry and delicate doodles, they’re very much of their time, in style often resembling a less-assured Ronald Searle. One early commission in 1945 was for the first of what would become a celebrated series of artist labels for Château Mouton Rothschild. Later cover illustrations included a run for Penguin Books some of which can be found at Flickr.

Philip Core continues the story:

Elegant in the austerely tweedy way the French imagine to be English, Jullian exploited his very considerable talents as a writer, producing a series of camp novels throughout the 1950s (Scraps, Milord) which deal frankly but amusingly with the vicissitudes of handsome young men and face-lifted ladies, grey-haired antique dealers and criminals. One of the first to reconsider Symbolist painting, Jullian reached an enormous public in the 1960s with his gorgeous book, Dreamers of Decadence – where an encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre and its accompanying literature helped to create the boom in fin de siècle revivalism among dealers and museums.

An acerbic wit accompanied this vast worldly success; always docile to duchesses, Jullian could easily remark to a hostess who offered him a chocolate and cream pudding called Nègre en chemise, “I prefer them without.” Less kindly, to a gay friend who objected to Jullian’s poodles accompanying them into a country food shop by saying “Think where their noses have been”, he could also retort “Yes, that’s what I think whenever I see you kiss your mother.”

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The Feminine Sphinx



Work this week designing a CD of readings from Colette had me searching books for pictures of the author. Of the few I found this is the most interesting, one of several Colette portraits made by photographer Leopold Reutlinger and one of at least two from 1907 which Colette used to promote her Moulin Rouge pantomime, Rêve d’Égypte. (You can see another one here.) The Egyptian theme explains the sphinx pose and her costume but there’s no indication as to whether the pose was borrowed from Franz Stuck’s famous painting (below) or whether the resemblance is coincidental.


The Sphinx by Franz Stuck (1889).

Stuck produced two nearly identical paintings on this theme; the other version is here in a rather muddy copy. I like the frame design for this one which explains in pictures the secret of the famous riddle which the Sphinx asks of Oedipus, “Which creature goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three in the evening?” Stuck painted another sphinx picture three years earlier, The Kiss of the Sphinx, which portrays a less feminine and distinctly more rapacious hybrid.


Ida Rubenstein.

Colette was famously bisexual and so too was dancer Ida Rubenstein. In the same book as the Colette picture, there’s this photo of Ida recumbent in a sphinx-like pose in a very exotic boudoir. Photographs such as these are the material connection between the extravagances of the fin de siècle and the Decadent strain of early cinema in works such as Cabiria (written by Ida Rubenstein’s friend Gabriele D’Annunzio), Intolerance and (of course) Alla Nazimova’s Salomé.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Heidi Taillefer
Dorian Gray revisited
Beardsley’s Salomé
Lussuria, Invidia, Superbia
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé
The art of Giulio Aristide Sartorio, 1860–1932

The art of Giulio Aristide Sartorio, 1860–1932


Giulio Aristide Sartorio is generally counted as one of the Italian Symbolists, along with painters such as Giovanni Segantini. He’s also one of the few notable artists of the period to have worked as a film director.

I’ve been fascinated by the curiously erotic academic style of Sartorio’s early work for years but these paintings rarely appear in books (although there have been a couple of monographs) and there’s little decent attention given to him on the web. Philippe Jullian in his essential guide to Symbolism, Dreamers of Decadence (Pall Mall Press, 1971), describes his work as being “vast paintings… full of handsome warriors who are always naked and generally dead.” Gabriele D’Annunzio, who knew heroic camp when he saw it, became a fan when the pair met in Rome in the 1880s. Sartorio illustrated D’Annunzio’s Isaotta Guttadàuro in 1886 and they continued to collaborate into the 1920s. One possible reason for Sartorio’s falling out of favour may have been later association with Mussolini’s Fascists, something else he shared with D’Annunzio.


Diana of Ephesus and the Slaves (1893–98).

Much as I’d like to point you to a large reproduction of the bizarre Diana of Ephesus and the Slaves, there doesn’t seem to be one around just now. However, you can see a few gallery pages of Sartorio’s work here if you don’t mind the copyright label spoiling everything.

Update: A reasonable copy of the Diana painting has turned up. Click the image above.


Diana of Ephesus and the Slaves (detail).


Gorgon and the Heroes (1895–99).


L’Invasione degli Unni (no date).


Siren or The Green Abyss (1900).


Pico, roi du Latium, et Circé de Thessalie (1904).


Pico, roi du Latium (detail).


Ex libris Gabrielis Nuncii “per non dormire” (1906).

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The gay artists archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Angels 4: Fallen angels