CITY OF PLEASURE: PARIS BETWEEN THE WARS
(Korero Press hardcover, £23.99/$37.95)
Reviewed by Tony Mitchell
City of Pleasure is the latest book (in English) from French author and subculture historian Alexandre Dupouy, a man also well known as the owner of Paris vintage erotica emporium Les Larmes d’Eros.
In its 176 pages, Dupouy documents the French longing for joy, lightheatedness and sexual freedom that followed the austerity, horror and bloodshed of World War I.
Copiously illustrated with 250 uncensored photographs and graphics, the book examines an era when both men and newly emancipated women rejected pre-war values and moral restraints to embrace new lifestyles.
Dupouy’s very readable text tells how a lust for extravagance, partying and erotic experimentation led to the first inter-war decade becoming known as the Roaring Twenties, and Paris acquiring the soubriquet City of Pleasure.
It may not surprise you to hear that quite a lot of the pleasures embraced in the French capital involved fetishistic or sadomasochistic pursuits.
Have you ever been fascinated by photographs of such scenarios in earlier books, reproduced from anonymous French sources?
If so, Dupouy’s painstaking research for City of Pleasure reveals the real identities of some of the originators — prolific Parisians who were photographing fetish and BDSM well before the genre’s more celebrated exponents of the 1940s and 1950s.
Also included are examples of work by illustrators who predated the kinky comic strip artists who came to prominence in America after WWII
City of Pleasure is divided into seven chapters, starting with Parties in Montparnasse. The district’s extravagant ‘art balls’, including the long-running Bal des Quart’z’ Arts (1893-1966), had dresscode themes very reminiscent of modern fetish parties, with slave girls and boys as frequent motifs.
Renaissance of the Nude concerns the massive impact on Paris of Josephine Baker’s arrival in 1925, and the growing popularity of music halls like the Folies Bergère with their increasingly risqué shows.
Among artists supplying cheeky music hall-themed illustrations to magazines at the time was one Charléno, better known to fetishists as Carlo, a pioneer of ‘fladge’ imagery who influenced many later fetish artists.
The inter-war years in Paris were also, Dupouy reminds us, the golden age of the brothel. The city became home to some of the most extravagantly appointed establishments seen anywhere in the world.
This demi-monde was notably recorded by a photographer Dupouy calls ‘Monsieur X’. His explicit yet charming images, captured in Pigalle in the 1930s, mirrored the work of the American EJ Bellocq, whose pictures had earlier immortalised the girls of New Orleans’ red light district.
The book’s fourth chapter, Glossy Kidskin Versus Patent Leather, details the rise of famous Paris lingerie and fetishwear mail-
order brand Yva Richard, which maintained a monopoly in its chosen field for some 15 years.
Yva Richard became as in-demand for its bondage, whipping and spanking photography as for the garments in its pictures. But it was later knocked from its top spot by Diana Slip, a luxury lingerie brand launched by sex shop owner Victor Vidal, using even more exotic catalogue and promo images.
It’s likely anyone possessing books about early fetish imagery will find some of the photography Dupouy has sourced from these two companies familiar.
In the same chapter, they might also recognise the style of a full-colour 1923 illustration by a certain Chéri Hérouard — better known to kinksters for the erotic and sadomasochistic artwork he created under the pseudonym Herric.
Amateur and professional photography both get dedicated chapters here. The rise of amateur erotic photography in Paris followed the appearance in the 1930s of magazines that began running photography competitions as an excuse to publish pictures sent in by exhibitionistic female readers.
Professional photography in the same era was nurtured by Victor Vidal, who published erotic books and magazines under the imprint Editions Gauloises.
Vidal published the photography of about a dozen regular contributors. Dupouy considers the most gifted and prolific of these to have been the Biederer brothers, both of whom would later tragically perish in Auschwitz.
Some of today’s best-known inter-war erotic, fetish and BDSM images were shot by the Biederers, represented in the book by a sizable selection of pictures.
Also showcased is the work of two other notable pro ’togs of the period: Grundworth, a fan of fladge and medical play, and Délices Joufflus (Abundant Delights), a devotee of shapely buttocks and Sapphism.
In the final chapter of City of Pleasure, Dupouy reflects on the libertinism that, in the inter-war period, was taking hold not just in Paris but also in Berlin under the Weimar Republic.
He notes that the inter-war years saw greater emancipation of women, more freedom and opportunity for the gay and lesbian communities and a proliferation of ‘deviant’ publications. However, he adds, the latter’s continued depiction of females in mainly submissive roles raised questions of what real gains women had made in the period.
He goes on to remind us that after WWII, a new atmosphere of morality swept the western world, seemingly intent on obliterating the freedoms the ’twixt-war years had brought.
This meant for example that Parisian publishers who tried to reprint classic fladge literature from the earlier period were immediately prosecuted.
But he believes this was just another cycle in the ‘cyclic nature of obscurantism and libertinism’ the city had experienced going back as far as the early 1700s.
So how does Alexander Dupouy view our current times? He contests that our easy access to swingers clubs or internet pornography is ‘just a straw man’.
‘We are going through a new dark age,’ he says, ‘threatened once again by the rise of religious barbarism, in which the development of new, uncontrolled tools of oppression will allow obscurantism to triumph again.’
However, he ends with the hope that ‘this confusion will give way to a new period of freedom and tolerance’.
I share that hope. But I suspect we’re not yet at the bottom of the current cycle, and things are going to get worse before they get better.
City of Pleasure: Paris Between the Wars is available worldwide from August 1.
Published July 31, 2019
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