Hell at the Library, Eros in Secret

The lighting is bordello red, but the librarians insist that their X-rated exhibition is serious.

Hell at the Library, Eros in Secret, which opened at the National Library in Paris last month, offers a peek at its secret archive of erotic art, putting on display more than 350 sexually explicit literary works, manuscripts, engravings, lithographs, photographs, film clips, even calling cards and cardboard pop-ups.

Croix Rouge metro station

Visitors to the library can listen to a modern-day recording of an 18th-century “dialogue” during sex and watch a six-minute excerpt from a grainy black-and-white silent pornography film made in 1921.

The handwritten manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s novel Les Infortunes de la Vertu (The Misfortunes of Virtue) is under glass here, as are 17th-century French engravings of “erotic postures”; English “flagellation novels” exported to France in the late 19th century; Japanese prints; Man Ray photographs; and a police report from 1900 that compiles the addresses of Paris’s houses of prostitution and what they charged.

To avoid complaints that a publicly supported institution is corrupting the country’s youth, no one under 16 is admitted.

“In an era where sexual images are a product for popular consumption, the library has decided to lift the veil on this world of imagination and fantasy,” Bruno Racine, the library director, said in an interview. “The library is a very serious institution, and the project was done with gravity. But we also perhaps are different from what you think — and there is humor here too.”

The items, on display through March 22, are drawn from a permanent collection created in the 1830s when the library isolated works considered “contrary to good morals.” They were put in a locked section with its own card catalog and given the name L’Enfer — hell. Many pieces have been consigned there over the years by the police for safeguarding, perhaps, and posterity.

The exhibition (and its 464-page catalog) comes at a time when France is struggling with a variety of societal issues: the limits of privacy for its public figures, censorship and the definition of good taste. A one-day scholarly conference at the library about the exhibition included a debate on the meaning of modern-day censorship. Library curators acknowledge that public morality is shifting.

President Nicolas Sarkozy himself is blurring the lines of public permissibility. His decision to revel in, rather than hide, his love affair with Carla Bruni, a model-turned-pop-singer, is, he said at a news conference last week, a break with the past and a sign that “France is moving forward.”

However, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist defeated by Mr. Sarkozy in last May’s presidential election, is calling for more decorum and discretion in public life. “Nicolas Sarkozy has chosen to turn private events in his life into public events, like Louis XIV: You have the king’s breakfast, the king’s lunch, the king’s bedtime, the king’s mistresses,” she said in a radio interview on Monday.

Even Simone de Beauvoir’s backside is not off limits from exposure and analysis these days. The decision by the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur two weeks ago to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of that feminist literary figure with a nude photo of her (taken from the back in 1952) has been sharply criticized and just as sharply defended.

Florence Montreynaud, a historian and feminist author who runs an anti-sexism organization, protested the photo by offering the magazine’s director, Jean Daniel, a choice: apologize or bare his own bottom. She also said the magazine should publish the bare buttocks of Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir’s long-time partner.

The fact that the cellulite on Beauvoir’s thighs and buttocks was airbrushed away added to the indignity. The media columnist for the newspaper Libération, Daniel Schneidermann, wrote: “The photo has even been retouched — the buttocks of Beauvoir — with makeup, to make them lose some kilos, some rolls of fat and to take off 10 years.”

The Paris metro system constructed a teaser for the show on its No. 10 line. Commuters passing by the closed Croix Rouge station get the most fleeting of glimpses of erotic engravings lighted up in shocking pink and partly hidden behind fluttering black curtain strips.

The newspaper Le Monde has run ads for the show (with a shocking-pink X) on its front page. The literary review Le Magazine Littéraire devoted its December cover to the subject, with scholarly essays on sex and aging, the last taboo of pedophilia and whether excessive public display of sex has made it boring.

Still, with France’s tough laws against pornography and one of the most aggressive law-enforcement campaigns against child pornography in Europe, the library has taken care to avoid falling afoul of the law. . . .

New York Times, January 16, 2008

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