Early 20th century erotic postcards
Nudity is a form of dress.
Seriously, anyone who claims that their actual interest in early 20th century erotic postcards is historical, sociological or aesthetic is joking, or lamely spouting perfidies. Which isn’t to say there isn’t some interesting history and sociology to be found in them, and aesthetically they are preferable to the stuff labelled erotica in magazines or on the Internet. Too bad too because once we admit what our real interest in erotica is we’ve more or less run out of anything sensible to say about it.
There are no doubt some carefully thought out, very sensible academic studies on erotic postcards but if researching the history and sociology of the cards is your thing, there are a few sources somewhat off the beaten track worth contemplating. One is a 1944 essay George Orwell wrote about Salvador Dali; Benefit of Clergy. Orwell touches on postcards in a few places – he calls them ‘filthy’ – and he admits he is no art critic, but he pins down something most critics would have missed. Dali’s rebelliousness depended on graphic violence, masturbation and scatology and Orwell found that childish and inept. He did think however that Dali was an excellent draughtsman and he identified a strong reference to Edwardian imagery (Dali no doubt called the era by a different name) in Dali’s paintings. More than that he sees the Edwardian period as elemental to Dali’s later obsessions. If Dali did have any idée fixe based on erotic ideals in the early 20th century, he probably found it in postcards. If you follow Orwell’s thinking, growing up in religious and repressive Spain, Dali identified the elegant, mildly tantalising images in postcards with everything unobtainable. To Orwell, Dali wasn’t a fraud and when he set out to shock people he understood the source of that desire. Above this paragraph is an apparently innocuous French postcard. Look closely however and the outline of the girl’s nipple is quite clear. That’s a detail immediately obvious to ten year old boys and parish priests.
And here is an actual Edwardian (as in English) postcard. There’s nothing erotic about this image. The best word for it is ‘saucy’, a very British concept. Presumably the man knows the woman – the idea of a complete stranger creeping up on a sleeping woman would have been too strong – but he’s silently pondering a relatively inconsequential part of her body, her stockinged ankle, his mind full of feverish possibilities. That’s a very Daliesque form of voyeurism.
The women, girls, who modelled for these images were not prostitutes as is often assumed. Most of them were dancers or chorus girls, or to give them their more poetic title, chorines. Some might argue there was a fine line between the dance hall and the brothel but if so it was still distinct. The chorus line was a place to begin a serious acting career. Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn and Paulette Goddard were all chorines, and in later life some of them did try to suppress evidence from their early, less public days but they didn’t sell their physical bodies for money, only the representation of them.
Julian Mandel is one of the best known names from the erotic postcard trade in the 1920s though there is a debate whether that is the pseudonym of one person or a group. He wasn’t different, merely better and more prolific than a lot of the others. One of his models was Kiki, of Montparnasse, and her Memoirs is another useful book for anyone thinking seriously about the genre. Not because the book is a literary classic – it isn’t – nor because she describes the business in depth – she doesn’t – but because she gives us an attitude at odds with common perceptions. It’s easy to think that if the men who photographed the models and those who bought the cards were predatory then the women were victims. Kiki has a different idea. Being a nude model was a lot better than most of the other work available to a girl from the slums. It wasn’t difficult, it paid ok and it gave her a certain status in the demimonde. And if she hadn’t been a model for Mandel and others she wouldn’t have come into the orbit of Man Ray and his friends like Jean Cocteau, Francis Picabia and Alexander Calder. Memoirs was banned in the US until the 1990s. Reading it now it’s hard to see why, except that she is utterly shameless about her life and adventures. Somehow, the idea that a woman might want to boast about her life as a model bothered some right thinking people.
The images in this gallery range from the saucy to the explicit (in 1920s terms). Some are barely erotic to our eyes but the sight of a cleavage was enough to justify moral outrage in some minds. Others clearly belong to the genre of artists’ models, as though the purpose behind them was to provide a physiological guide for painters. The four small, square photos were either sold as they were or used to create postcards. Note the use of the mirror, a popular device for suggesting an artistic sensibility while showing the body, front and back, in all its glory.
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