“I have fallen into an abyss. I live in a world so curious, so strange. Of the dream that was my life, this is the nightmare.”
— Camille Claudel to Eugène Blot, Montdevergues Asylum
The late 19th century sculptor Camille Claudel is best known for her relationship to the sculptor Auguste Rodin. But whereas history has painted her as Rodin’s muse (and indeed she was), she was a top artist in her own right and many scholars believe that it is her work that shaped Rodin’s even more than she influenced his.
Claudel met Rodin at the age of 19 when she was studying at the Academy Colarossi in Paris with the sculptor Alfred Boucher. When Boucher returned to Italy, he asked Rodin to take over Claudel’s instruction.
Salvador Dalí, The Great Masturbator (1929)
Salvador Dalí’s fears and obsessions inspired some of his most famous works. Explicit sexual themes, in particular, recur with a regularity seldom seen in mainstream art.
As a schoolchild, Dalí compared his penis to those of his schoolmates and found it “small, pitiful and soft.” For a long time, he believed himself impotent. On reading a pornographic novel in which the protagonist said that he enjoyed “making women creak like a watermelon,” Dali worried he would never be able to do that himself.
During Dalí’s youth, his father attempted to “educate” him with a book showing explicit photos of people suffering from advanced untreated venereal diseases . These photos of grotesquely diseased genitalia fascinated and horrified Dalí. He began to associate sex with putrefaction and decay.
Earthquakes… floods…. a seven-headed beast from the bottomless pit. No, it’s not the latest Hollywood blockbuster, it’s the Bible, specifically, the Apocalypse of Saint John the Apostle from the Book of Revelation. And you can see it depicted in all its gory details in the 14th century Apocalypse Tapestry, housed in the remains of the magnificent Chateau d’Angers in France’s Loire Valley.
The silk and wool Apocalpyse Tapestry is the oldest surviving French medieval tapestry. Commissioned by Louis I of Anjou (brother of King Charles V of France) and produced between 1377 and 1382, it originally consisted of 105 individual panels with alternating backgrounds of blue and red. Its overall length was 551 feet (by 19 feet high), and would have taken between 50 and 84 years of man-labor to weave. By way of comparison, the Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Conquest of England, is just 230 feet long (not to mention that it isn’t actually a tapestry — it’s embroidery.)
A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, Normandy, France
“I know it when I see it.” — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, famously trying to define obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964).
Governments have long struggled with identifying what material is so offensive to morals that publication and/or possession of it should be outlawed. One of the earliest attempts in the English-speaking world dates back to 1787, when England’s King George III issued a Royal Proclamation “For the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.”
The Proclamation proved ineffective, despite organizations such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice. That organization was founded in 1802 to “check the spread of open vice and immorality, and… preserve the minds of the young from contamination…”
It wasn’t until the Victorian era, however, that an increasingly prudish government really cracked down. The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 sought to punish men such as William Dugdale. Dugdale published guides such as Yokel’s Preceptor, which advertised gay cruising spots in the form of a warning to country folk about places they’d do best to avoid.