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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden was born in Mecklenburg (Northern Germany) in 1856. His father, who died at an early age, was a forestry official in the service of the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Gloeden's mother married again, a conservative politician and journalist named Wilhelm Joachim Baron von Hammerstein. After his schooldays Gloeden began to study art history at the University of Rostock, but soon left to study painting at the art college in Weimar.

In 1878 he went to Italy, hoping to cure his lung problem. He settled in Taormina, a small seaside town in Sicily, which he was to call his 'heaven on earth'. There he regained his health, quite likely also as a result of the erotic fulfillment he found.

From the early 1880s on, he specialized in photographs of naked boys in bucolic settings, becoming a pioneer of open air photography. But it was not before 1895, when his stepfather lost his fortune and, consequently, Gloeden his allowance, that he turned professional. Before long he was selling his photographs on a large scale. He was helped in this venture by the timely gift of a large full-plate camera from Grand Duke Friedrich Franz III of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, whom he knew from childhood and who was a great admirer and collector of his work.

Curiously enough, his trade was not underground, as one might imagine, considering the prudish and notably homophobic atmosphere of the time. Many of the pictures were published in major photographic magazines and also shown at public exhibitions, where they were awarded prizes, even in England. It is true that Gloeden not only did nudes, but also portraits, landscapes, genre pictures and so on. Though he apparently never photographed anything openly sexual, the erotic implications of his nude pictures seem to be clear enough to make it downright astonishing that anybody could see in them nothing but 'ethnographic studies of young natives of the island of Sicily'.

Moreover, this admirer of the Greeks was genuine in his enthusiasm for the people of his adopted country--descendants of citizens of ancient Tauromenion, founded in 603 B.C. by Dionysus I, the Greek ruler of Syracuse. This origin often seemed to be confirmed by the perfect beauty of the male youth (though sometimes covered in rags). Drawing on the widely esteemed traditions of classical antiquity, Gloeden presented his pictures as 'illustrations of Homer and Theocritus', which was a useful subterfuge to justify his models' nudity and is also the reason for the camp style of some of his pictures.

On the other hand, the very incongruity between an idealistic attempt to match the balanced repose of classical statues, and the natural bodily reality of these young peasants, fishermen and shepherds, can be especially charming. A few photographs by Gloeden even give the strange impression that they were indeed taken in the ancient world of the Greeks.

There are also pictures that are not meant to express a specific idea, but show the dreamy state of vague expectation characteristic of adolescence, and these appear the most truthful and convincing.

Gloeden's talent in getting his models to pose gracefully when composing scenes, as well as the use of special filters and tints to enhance the effect of the pictures, added to the quality of his achievements. Thematically similar works by contemporaries, like his cousin Wilhelm von Plüschow, who lived in Rome, and his sometime assistant Vincenzo Galdi, though commendable in their own way, lacked the aura of Gloeden's pictures. However, they were sometimes much more blatant. Still, Gloeden's discreetly sensual message was well understood by those of similar interests.

Most likely, comparatively direct pictures, such as embracing couples, were published in special magazines (already existing, particularly in Germany), rather than in mainstream ones.

Gloeden's house, with its splendid garden, was one of the sights of Taormina and his visitors' book contained illustrious names--men of letters like Anatole France, Gabriele D'Annunzio and Oscar Wilde; the actress Eleonora Duse; European aristocrats and American industrialists, such as Rothschild, Krupp and Vanderbilt; royalty, such as Edward VII, King of Great Britain and the King of Siam. It was largely due to the photographer that Taormina, which at the time of his arrival had been forgotten and impoverished, became a main tourist destination. As a contemporary tells it:

'One has the choice among no less than eight hotels, from five Grands Hôtels, where distinguished German businessmen and excellencies dine with Englishmen and Americans in dinner jackets, to simple but really cosy painters' inns, where everybody feels quite free and there are no conceited globetrotters to be found, but serious and studious philologists with sharply focusing glasses, always looking for antique monuments and inscriptions, and artists and writers thirsting for beauty, ardently in love with the gorgeous land Italy.'

Gloeden paid his many models well and even opened bank accounts for them, which often made it possible for them to start some business of their own. It is said that there are still families in the area who owe their prosperity, next to their own work, to the impetus from the earnings of a great-grandfather who was a model for il barone.

Gloeden had to leave his beloved town in 1915 when Italy entered the First World War against Germany. His house was kept by a former model, then his assistant, Pancrazio Bucini (called il Moro), until the expatriate's return in 1919.

Many of Gloeden's models had lost their lives in combat. With the disastrous upheaval of the war, the changed social climate, and the dwindling importance of former educational ideals borrowed from antiquity, Gloeden's pictures appeared outmoded and were much less in demand. The catastrophe also left its mark on Gloeden, who mourned the loss of former models killed in the war. He reverted only hesitantly to the subject that had made him famous. The time of the Greek dream was over.

Wilhelm von Gloeden died in 1931 in Taormina. In his best days, from about 1890 to 1914, he had been so productive that the complete corpus of his male photographs was estimated to be up to 7,000.

Italy was ruled by fascism, and von Gloeden's estate, then owned by Bucini, was raided by the police in 1933 and 1936. Bucini was cha
rged with selling pornographic pictures, but acquitted in a trial in Messina. Nevertheless, about three quarters of the negatives were destroyed. However, today the work is slowly being pieced together from collections around the world. This site is a contribution to that effort.

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