Von GloedenPioneer of Homosexual Photography
by Andrew Calimach
Taormina, named after Mount Taurus upon which it is situated, had originally been described by Goethe, said to have been its first tourist, in 1787, in his Journey to Italy. That may be more than a mere coincidence, as the great poet himself found the male body more beautiful and more perfect than the female, and the love of youths perfectly natural. Almost a century later, in 1863, a young German painter, by the name of Otto von Geleng, a lover of women, rediscovered it and made a specialty of painting landscapes that left viewers stunned by the unearthly beauty of the settings.
Von Geleng had married a local girl, had been elected mayor of Taormina, and was eager to let others know about the charm of the locality. On a trip back to Berlin, at a beer garden, he ran by chance into a friend of the family. He was 20 year old, had studied art history in Rostock and trained as a painter at the art academy in Weimar, but had to leave for a sanatorium on the Baltic as he had come down with tuberculosis. His name was Wilhelm von Gloeden. Geleng invited his friend to convalesce and pursue his artistic interests in Taormina. He may even have suggested that many marriageable girls were still to be had.
Von Gloeden, however, was gay. He doubtlessly was only too eager to flee the cold weather and the cold sexuality of his native Prussia, the most hostile to gays of all the German states, for the famously permissive south. With the approval of his doctor and the help of his stepfather who was to fund his travels until his own downfall several years later, von Gloeden embarked on a Grand Tour that took him through much of Italy, ending up in 1878 in Taormina where he took a house with a garden that was to serve him as home and studio for the rest of his life. He called it his "paradise on Earth."
As soon as he came he fell in love with a boy. The youth, a fourteen year old nicknamed Il Moro (The Moor) for his dark skin and curly hair, became his devoted assistant, friend, and lover. His name was Pancrazio Buciuni (mis-spelled in some biographies as "Bucini"). Their friendship was life long, though Pancrazio eventually married and raised a family. The Baron's villa became a social as well as artistic center. His models would double as performers, and he would put on shows featuring all male dances, such as the one witnessed by the Russian poet Zinaida Gippius in the summer of 1899.
Eager to pursue art, he studied photography with a number of experienced local practitioners. One was his cousin, Wilhelm Plüschow (1852-1930), who had a studio in Naples where he photographed erotic nudes of both sexes. Von Gloeden also learned from a pair of local photographers, Giuseppe Bruno and Giovanni Crupi. He then embarked on a career that spanned several decades, photographing the handsome adolescent boys of Taormina, and occasionally the men.
In 1895 his income suddenly stopped. His stepfather, Wilhelm Joachim von Hammerstein, editor-in-chief at Kreuzzeitung, had been discovered with his hand in the till, colluding with a paper vendor to inflate the invoices and pocket the difference. He fled to Greece with his family and 200,000 gold marks but was soon deported and served three years in jail. Initially the penniless von Gloeden and his step-sister, Sophie Raabe who had joined him that year, survived on the generosity of his neighbors, who made sure to leave food on their doorstep during the night. He, an aristocrat who until then had lived a life of leisure, found himself in the plebeian predicament of having to earn a living. His art became his trade.
By means of a new full-plate (30cm x 40cm) camera, a gift from Grand Duke Friedrich III of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, his father's old employer who admired and collected his pictures, he began photographing the picturesque landscapes of Sicily. It was not long before he began to people those landscapes with naked boys. The Taorminians, and above all, their sons, stripped naked and posed unashamed for the young photographer. In return, the Baron, as he was known in town, treated his young models with respect and professionalism.
His works sold well. One of his outlets was the picture post card business, with which he became involved around 1900, through the Berlin firm of Adolph Engel. The Baron paid his models royalties for their photographs, and opened savings accounts for them with the local back, so that they might have funds to start a business once they reached maturity. A number of them are also thought to have become his lovers.
Von Gloeden's homoerotic photographs were one of the pillars of the Victorian revival of homoerotic culture. They appealed to a range of tastes, from those of the Anglo-American Uranians who desired adolescent boys in the bloom of youth to the ones of the German third-sex movement who pined for muscular, well-hung types. His pictures are imbued with feeling – tenderness, longing, desire, passion, sadness, contemplation, humor and satire, and an appreciation of the natural innocence, and innocent sexuality, of a naked boy. He often places his boys and men among the ruins of old Tauromenium, a crown jewel of Sicilian architecture and culture in antiquity. His models wrap around the ruins like vines or flowers, flaunting unashamed their petals and stamens. They are often posed drowsy, languid, as if melting from the heat of the southern sun, or the fire of passion, or both. A number of them turn up their face, eyes closed, as if waiting to be kissed.
His works are original in their use of open air settings for his nude models. His tableaus are often erotic, even provocative but never crass, and reveal a rich vein of homosexual fantasy and experience. Von Gloeden was well versed in the complicated systems of silver salt, and also albumen, processing and printing. His pictures consistently show a high degree of technical mastery and stand out for his subtle handling of form and lighting.
Von Gloeden was one of several photographers specializing in what has come to be known as Arcadian photography, a style of homoerotic photography characterized by Classical Greek imagery and nude men and boys in artistic poses. In Italy at the time the other two principal artists producing such pictures were his cousin Plüschow, and the latter's pupil and lover, Vincenzo Galdi (1871-1961). Their works were marked by harsher lighting, stiffer models, and a greater number of female models. Galdi's in particular features some tasteless and quasi-pornographic poses. Unlike von Gloeden, Plüschow drew the attention of the authorities and served time in jail for relations with minors. The art of this group can be positioned within the school of Uranian art (named after Heavenly Aphrodite who was said to rule only male love, as opposed to Vulgar Aphrodite who was indiscriminate) being produced at the time, such as the photographs of Thomas Eakins and Holland Day in America and the works of Tuke, Frederick Rolfe and John Gambril Nicholson in Europe.
There was a large market for von Gloeden's oeuvre, which is estimated to have numbered between 3000 and 7000 images, and many famous individuals made the pilgrimage to the photographic studio in Taormina. Though the guest book recording their names disappeared (presumably destroyed to cover up the full extent of his audience) in the sixties, we know that among them were such famous gays as Oscar Wilde and Friederich Krupp, both of whom were later to come to grief over their sexual preferences. Among the others who enjoyed von Gloeden's nude boys and men, photographs that he did not trade as openly as his works depicting dressed models, were monarchs such as Kaiser Wilhelm II, Edward VII, Alfonso XIII, and the King of Siam, Paramandra Maha Chulalongkorn, as well as other luminaries of the time such as Anatole France, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Richard Strauss, Guglielmo Marconi, Rudyard Kipling, Will Percy, Nietzsche (who held that "in the best of times erotic attraction was always pederastic"), and countless others. His works circulated freely among the Uranian circles in Britain and the US, as well as among the German Korperkulture and Wandervogel movements.
Upon von Gloeden's death Buciuni, by then a family man, inherited the estate and with it the trove of photographic glass plates, close to 3000 in total. In 1933 and again in 1936 Buciuni was denounced to the Fascist authorities for keeping "pornography." The house was raided and most of the glass plates were confiscated and destroyed, 1000 plates and 2000 prints in the first raid, and much of the rest in the second raid. Buciuni, and the Baron's work, were exonerated during the course of a subsequent trial in Messina, where the judge found that the collection was artistic rather than pornographic. His pictures, though, remained forbidden in Italy until the end of the sixties. Now they are once again widely available, and sold by the best international auction houses. Photographs that as recently as the nineteen eighties were being peddled under the table for 25 dollars now command 1500 to 3000 dollars a copy. Nontheless, they are often the object of a subtle twist, best described as pederastic erasure or perhaps a gay mainstreaming, in which his fresh-faced pubescent models instead of being correctly identified as boys are often refactored as "men."
Those who bemoan such alleged abuse of power should instead consider whether they are retroactively disempowering and objectifying the youths who, by all accounts, became lovers and life-long friends to von Gloeden. "Protecting" youths who, to the best of our knowledge, were neither in need nor want of protection is itself abusive, a condescending intrusion and virtual "schoolmarm tourism" that infantilizes and deprives of agency the people, real, thoughtful and feeling, upon whom the "protection" is being imposed.
Charles Leslie, Wilhelm von Gloeden, photographer: a brief introduction to his life and work
Robert Aldrich, The seduction of the Mediterranean: writing, art, and homosexual fantasy
Robert F. Aldrich, Colonialism and homosexualityMichael Matthew Kaylor, Secreted Desires: The Major Uranians: Hopkins, Pater and Wilde
Alastair J. L. Blanshard, Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity
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