Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise.
(La Rochefoucauld, Reflections, 1665)
We advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship.
And yet today, sex being everywhere, legitimized, we feel we are missing something. There is in fact a strange paradox about eroticism: the need to have a prohibition, in order to transgress it.
“Is sex dirty? Only when it’s being done right“, Woody Allen joked, summarizing how much the orthodox or religious restrictions have actually fostered and given a richer flavor to sexual congresses.
An enlightening example might come from the terrible best-selling books of the past few years: we might wonder why nowadays erotic literature seems to be produced by people who can’t write, for people who can’t read.
The great masterpieces of erotica appeared when it was forbidden to write about sex. Both the author (often a well-known and otherwise respectable writer) and the editor were forced to act in anonimity and, if exposed, could be subjected to a harsh sentence. Dangerous, outlaw literature: it wasn’t written with the purpose of seeling hundreds of thousands of copies, but rather to be sold under the counter to the few who could understand it.
Thus, paradoxically, such a strict censorship granted that the publishing of an erotic work corresponded to a poetic, authorial urgency. Risqué literature, in many cases, represented a necessary and unsuppressible artistic expression. The crossing of a boundary, of a barrier.
Given the current flat landscape, we inevitably look with curiosity (if not a bit of nostalgia) at those times when eroticism had to be carefully concealed from prying eyes.
An original variation of this “sunken” collective imagination are those erotic objects which in France (where they were paricularly popular) are called à système, “with a device”.
They consisted in obscene representations hidden behind a harmless appearance, and could only be seen by those who knew the mechanism, the secret move, the trick to uncover them.
Some twenty years ago in Chinese restaurants in Italy, liquor at the end of the meal was served in peculiar little cups that had a convex glass base: when the cup was full, the optic distorsion was corrected by the liquid and it was possible to admire, on the bottom, the picture of a half-undressed lady, who became invisible once again as the cup was emptied.
The concept behind the ancient objets à système was the same: simple objects, sometimes common home furnishings, disguising the owners’ unmentionable fantasies from potential guests coming to the house.
The most basic kind of objects à système had false bottoms and secret compartments. Indecent images could be hidden in all sorts of accessories, from snuffboxes to walking canes, from fake cheese cartons to double paintings.
Ivory box, the lid shows a double scene. XIX Century.
Inlaid domino game, in the manner of sailors decorations, with erotic plates.
Walking stick knob handle.
Paintings with hidden pictures.
A young woman reads a book: if the painting is opened, her improper fantasies are visualized.
Other, slightly more elaborate objects presented a double face: a change of perspective was needed in order to discover their indecent side. A classic example from the beginning of the XX Century are ceramic sculptures or ashtrays which, when turned upside down, held some surprises.
The monk, a classic erotic figure, is hiding a secret inside the wicker basket on his shoulders.
Double-faced pendant: the woman’s legs can be closed, and on the back a romantic flowered heart takes shape.
Then there were objects featuring a hinge, a device that had to be activated, or removable parts. Some statuettes, such as the beautiful bronzes created by Bergman‘s famous Austrian forgery, were perfect art nouveau decorations, but still concealed a spicy little secret.
The top half of this polichrome ceramic figurine is actually a lid which, once removed, shows the Marquise crouching in the position called de la pisseuse, popularized by an infamous Rembrandt etching.
Snuffbox, sailor’s sculpture. Here the mechanism causes the soldier’s hat to “fall down”, revealing the true nature of the gallant scene.
Meerschaum pipe. Upon inserting a pipe cleaner into the chamber, a small lever is activated.
In time, the artisans came up with ever more creative ideas.
For instance there were decorations composed of two separate figurines, showing a beautiful and chaste young girl in the company of a gallant faun. But it was enough to alter the charachters’ position in order to see the continuation of their affair, and to verify how successful the satyr’s seduction had been.
Even more elaborate ruses were devised to disguise these images. The following picture shows a fake book (end of XVIII Century) hiding a secret chest. The spring keys on the bottom allow for the unrolling of a strip which contained seven small risqué scenes, appearing through the oval frame.
The following figures were a real classic, and with many variations ended up printed on pillboxes, dishes, matchstick boxes, and several other utensiles. At first glance, they don’t look obscene at all; their secret becomes only clear when they are turned uspide down, and the bottom part of the drawing is covered with one hand (you can try it yourself below).
The medals in the picture below were particularly ingenious. Once again, the images on both sides showed nothing suspicious if examied by the non-initiated. But flipping the medal on its axis caused them to “combine” like the frames of a movie, and to appear together. The results can be easily imagined.
In closing, here are some surprising Chinese fans.
In his book La magia dei libri (presented in NYC in 2015), Mariano Tomatis reports several historical examples of “hacked books”, which were specifically modified to achieve a conjuring effect. These magic fans work in similar fashion: they sport innocent pictures on both sides, provided that the fan is opened as usual from left to right. But if the fan is opened from right to left, the show gets kinky.
A feature of these artisan creations, as opposed to classic erotic art, was a constant element of irony. The very concept of these objects appears to be mocking and sardonic.
Think about it: anyone could keep some pornographic works locked up in a safe. But to exhibit them in the living room, before unsuspecting relatives and acquaintances? To put them in plain view, under the nose of your mother-in-law or the visiting reverend?
That was evidently the ultimate pleasure, a real triumph of dissimulation.
Playing card with nude watermark, made visible by placing it in front of a candle.
Such objects have suffered the same loss of meaning afflicting libertine literature; as there is no real reason to produce them anymore, they have become little more than a collector’s curiosity.
And nonetheless they can still help us to better understand the paradox we talked about in the beginning: the objets à système manage to give us a thrill only in the presence of a taboo, only as long as they are supposed to remain under cover, just like the sexual ghosts which according to Freud lie behind the innocuous images we see in our dreams.
Should we interpret these objects as symbols of bourgeois duplicity, of the urge to maintain at all cost an honorable facade? Were they instead an attempt to rebel against the established rules?
And furthermore, are we sure that sexual transgression is so revolutionary as it appears, or does it actually play a conservative social role in regard to the Norm?
Eventually, making sex acceptable and bringing it to light – depriving it of its part of darkness – will not cause our desire to vanish, as desire can always find its way. It probably won’t even impoverish art or literature, which will (hopefully) build new symbolic imagery suitable for a “public domain” eroticism.
The only aspect which is on the brink of extinction is precisely that good old idea of transgression, which also animated these naughty knick-knacks. Taking a look at contemporary conventions on alternative sexuality, it would seem that the fall of taboos has already occurred. In the absence of prohibitions, with no more rules to break, sex is losing its venomous and dangerous character; and yet it is conquering unprecedented serenity and new possibilities of exploration.
So what about us?
We would like to have our cake and eat it too: we advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship, but secretely keep longing for that exquisite frisson of danger and sin.
The images in this article are for the most part taken from Jean-Pierre Bourgeron, Les Masques d’Eros – Les objets érotiques de collection à système (1985, Editions de l’amateur, Paris).
The extraordinary collection of erotic objects assembled by André Pieyre de Mandiargues (French poet and writer close to the Surrealist movement) was the focus of a short film by Walerian Borowczyk: Une collection particulière (1973) can be seen on YouTube.