Skip to content


The Culture Of Fashion Fetish Photography, Surrealism, & Gender Post World War One

Via Frequently Felt, I found this brief post of photographs taken by Man Ray in 1930, part of a series called The Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook. This prompted me to search for another Man Ray photo I’d recalled seeing…

Along the way I bumped into this work by the photographer:

Marjorie Seabrook wearing a Silver Collar; A Silver Collar attributed to Jean-Charles Worth is described as follows by the Leicester Galleries:

Living in Paris, Man Ray earned a living as professional fashion and portrait photographer of the Parisian artists between the wars and intellectual elite: André Breton, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Arnold Schoenberg, Henri Matisse, Ernst Artaud and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few.

In his more personal life however, the life in which he frequented the parties of William Seabrook, diabolist, fetishist and recreational cannibal, his photographs convey the unashamed raw sexuality of the circles in which he moved, a world where naked girls were chained to the stairs during dinner. Unblinking, Man Ray snapped a succession of Seabrook’s tableaux vivants and in these two photographs, he represents the high silver collar with studs designed at the request of William Seabrook for his wife Marjorie. The collar was designed to please his penchant for fetishism and, according to Man Ray’s autobiography: was to follow the line of the chin thereby impending movement and forcing the head to be held up high.(1)

Through William Seabrook, Man Ray met his mistress and muse Alice Pin, known as `Kiki de Montparnasse’ in 1921. Man Ray snapped hundreds of portraits of Kiki and many of his first `rayograph’ images were of her. Man Ray’s rayograph technique involved placing objects (in Kiki’s case body parts) directly on photographic paper and exposing them to the light. Man Ray’s imaginative energies led to the development of many new techniques and he dubbed himself a fautegrapher, a manipulator of straight photography.

It should be noted, however, that in Neil Baldwin’s book, Man Ray, American Artist, Man Ray himself is credited with the collar’s design — along with some additional fascinating information:

That summer of 1930 was also notable for the appearance on the scene of William Seabrook, and American writer Man Ray described as as “sort of Marco Polo” with a penchant for the exotic, both geographically and sexually. He always seemed to be en route either to or from the West Indies or Africa. His wanderings provided fuel for books and magazine serializations, for which he was paid extremely well; Ladies’ Home Journal offered Seabrook thirty thousand dollars for a multipart article on Africa after he returned from Timbuktu. He also amassed a distinguished collection of African masks at a time when primitive art was in vogue among the Surrealist crowd.

Seabrook’s other exotic interest lay in tying up or otherwise adorning and encumbering young women and then asking Man Ray to photograph them. He even went so far as to present his wife, Marjorie, with a silver dog collar designed by Man Ray. In this dubious area the two were true collaborators. One of Seabrook’s many notes sent to Man Ray by pneumatique mail from the Hotel Place de L’Odeon (where he always stayed while in Paris) goes into rapturous detail, enumerating a shopping list of custumes to grace the female body: “I’ve got some additional tentative ideas to go along with the black mask,” Seabrook breathlessly wrote Man Ray one morning, in anticipation of their meeting. “A black priest’s robe and priest’s shovel hat….Concealed beneath it a wasp-waist hour-glass corset finished either in some glittering fabric that looks like polished steel, or in a black leatherlike material to match the mask. Also boots or slippers with fantastically high heels….Unless I hear from you to the contrary,” he wrote, “I’ll bring the young woman by your studio for a little while around five-thirty this afternoon.”

All worthy of noting in its own right; however, that was not the photo I was seeking.

Eventually I found said photo — which would have been much easier had I recalled its name: Barbette.

Barbette, as well as (at least some of) the afore mentioned Fantasies of Mr. Seabrooke photos by Man Ray are included in Amy Lyford’s Surrealist Masculinities: Gender Anxiety and the Aesthetics of Post-World War I Reconstruction in France — a book which, after reading Michèle C. Cone’s review, I have just placed on my Amazon Wishlist. Since you are reading here, you might want to be reading there (the book) as well, so I give you a juicy snippet of Cone’s review:

As for Lyford, she observes that the Marquis de Sade was more important to Surrealist eroticism in the 1930s, and points to a number of rarely seen “pornographic” photographs by Man Ray such as The Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook, Lee Miller and William Seabrook and Homage to D. A. F. Sade, all with Lee Miller as protagonist. In the 1920s, more contemporary figures fascinated the Surrealists, she contends, citing Freud and his naturalizing views of bisexuality of course, but also a music hall performer named Barbette whose anatomy passed for that of a woman though he was endowed with a male sex organ. The point here is that when Man Ray photographs this creature wearing a girdle to compress his maleness, he “depicts Barbette’s manhood at the moment of conversion, a spectacular moment of self-inflicted if symbolic castration” (Lyford, p.171). In Lyford’s analysis, Barbette becomes a living metaphor of the new masculinity not only in being bisexual, but in giving the impression of being emasculated. Thus the erotic spectacle enacted by Barbette cannot be separated from the physical traumas engendered by World War I.

Emasculation, feminization and even images of necrophilia could well remain in the minds of men after the violence that many of them had witnessed and experienced in the trenches. One need only read or reread the epilogue of Les Thibaud by Roger Martin du Gard (the French classic novel about World War I) to understand that neither sexuality nor desire nor the erotic gaze would be the same for men who had fought in World War I. Even those artists who did not see the war up close, like Marcel Duchamp, could not escape its presence in the press. The epic adventures of women spies in World War I, from Mata Hari to Marthe Richard and Edith Cavell, made headlines in the newspapers during and after the war. The exotic dancer Mata Hari, who seduced men and women on both sides of the conflict and was condemned to death for passing secret documents to the Germans, remains to this day an emblem of desire and death in wartime.

What the new representations of eroticism in the ‘20s say to me is that the heterosexual sensualist, the ideal sexual performer who lived to give pleasure to women, and fed the imagination of frustrated wives, is tired. The gaze of the emasculated man is of necessity that of a voyeur looking for vicarious pleasure in whatever form it is offered, as in Salmon’s book. The survivor of trench warfare is open to heterosexual and homosexual advances with equal (lack of) enthusiasm.

*******

Now originally, my intention to post tonight (actually early morning) was to simply mention a quote from Paul Klee (another Bauhaus “character”), and ponder its potential insight into sexual behaviors as well; but, as you can see, I was sidetracked.

Or was I?

First, Klee’s quote:

The more horrifying this world becomes (as it is these days) the more art becomes abstract; while a world at peace produces realistic art.

Klee studied art before becoming an artist and teaching at The Bauhaus — one presumes he knew something of art history. And he lived during WWI (he served in the German war effort, but not at the front) — one presumes he knew something of war and its effects. And, while I’m no expert in such patterns, his statement sure seems to make sense to me.

His words feel so right, I began to think about if the current war and its horrors were affecting art today. I say “if” as the US of A in general is so disconnected from this war that I wonder — even if such patterns between art and horrifying times exist — if these times are horrifying enough at the home front to affect art.

This, of course, led me to think about what patterns of sexuality one might see as well. Are there more “realistic” sexual acts in times of peace and more “abstract” sexual acts during horrifying times, such as war?

And so it seems tonight’s detour to Ray and Seabrook — and specifically Lyford’s thoughts on art post WWI — has brought me somewhat closer to the answers.

Posted in Art, Artists, Babes, BDSM, Beefcake, Books, Essays, Photographers, Photographs, Sex History.

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , .


0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.



Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.