Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2008 Issue

<i>Hell at the Library</i> -- Where Hell = Sex

X

The French National Library is lit up like a big &quot;X&quot; to mark its exhibit of erotic &quot;art.&quot;


By Michael Stillman

Leave it to the French to employ reverse psychology to bring visitors back to the library. An exhibition is currently open at the French National Library entitled Hell at the Library. The devil is in the details. Amidst the living Hell of stacks upon stacks of dull, erudite tomes traditionally associated with a library, this collection is a brief glimpse of heaven. However, for over two centuries the library kept the heavenly bodies in this collection far from the leering eyes of its depraved patrons. It was open only to the responsible librarians, mature and intellectual enough to view it only for educational purposes.

This, of course, is an exhibition of books, prints, images, recordings, even old movies that can be classified as either art or pornography, depending on your level of honesty. "Hell" was the name librarians gave to the area that housed this collection over a century and a half ago. Evidently, they either believed that this was the appropriate place for such material, or where those who looked at it would go. Nonetheless, they seemed unable to discard the stuff either. We aren't sure why it all ended up in the library in the first place, though some reportedly came there after confiscation by the police. Still, it would be intriguing to know why it was kept for so long even though not made available to the public. I have a theory.

Among the items on display is a manuscript written by that pillar of high society and good taste, the Marquis de Sade. Marie Antoinette is pilloried by being displayed in various undignified poses, a reflection of the then brewing revolution which would leave her in the even less dignified pose of having one's head separated from her body. The clergy was granted no more quarter than royalty. A pamphlet from the same era contains a list of the names of priests who consorted with women of the night, including the names and addresses of those fine ladies. This, presumably, was for those who wanted to confirm the accuracy of these claims, rather than provide the ladies with additional business. In an aside to good taste and class, the pamphlet even describes the type of activities in which the priests and their women friends allegedly engaged.

A century later, they were still compiling lists of these businesswomen, though this time the report was prepared by the police. This accounting even contains a price list. Other items include inappropriate images behind peep show style paper doors, recorded readings of once banned poetry (wow, that sounds exciting) and some grainy old movies from the 1920s.

Frankly, it doesn't sound like any of this horse-and-buggy pornography would shock anyone today, but surprisingly enough, the French, who normally aren't upset by anything, are prohibiting anyone under age 16 from attending. My guess is this is not because the young would be shocked but because they would be disappointed. They have undoubtedly seen much better. This exhibit will be open until March 22 for those wishing to revisit that good old-time pornography.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>

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