Monday, January 23, 2017

Tenndresse from Les Chansons de Bilitis by Georges Barbier

This lovely illustration is by French artist Georges Barbier (1882-1932).  Barbier didn't have his first exhibition until he was 29 years old but it was a great success and led to a career doing book, magazine and fashion illustrations.  He also worked on theatrical set designs and costumes, including for the Folies Bergère.  He also designed glass and jewellery.  He died, comparatively young, at the age of 50.

These pictures come from a 1922 edition of Les Chansons de Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs.  This work consisted of 143 prose poems with a lesbian theme which Louÿs claimed were translated from the works of an ancient Greek female poet and courtesan called Bilitis, who was a contemporary of Sappho.   At the time they were first published, in 1894, they were accepted as translations of genuine ancient texts but in fact they were all created by Louÿs inspired by an encounter with a dancing girl in Algeria.  In fact the dancing girl in question, Meriam ben Atala, even received a dedication as 'MbA' in the book.

It's theme was controversial, not least because his treatment of lesbians is non-judgemental and sympathetic whereas most lesbian characters in French literature had been portrayed in a less positive manner.  Baudelaire (who was the subject of a censorship trial in 1857 for his work Les Fleurs du Mal, over lesbian themes) had referred to them as "damned women".  Many books which tried to address lesbian themes or had lesbian scenes were banned in France in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Louÿs got away with it by his erudite, sensuous and elegant writing and the fact that people believed that they were reading a translation of a genuine ancient text with historical distance making the whole thing acceptable.  The same applied to his novel, Aphrodite, published two years later and also featuring lesbian characters in Ancient Greece, 

The first illustration in this post accompanies the following text from the poem Tendresse:

Ferme doucement tes bras, comme une ceinture,
sur moi. Ô touche, ô touche ma peau ainsi!
Ni l’eau ni la brise de midi ne sont plus
douces que ta main.

Aujourd’hui chéris-moi, petite soeur, c’est
ton tour. Souviens-toi des tendresses que je
t’ai apprises la nuit dernière, et près de moi
qui suis lasse agenouille-toi sans parler.

 Close your arms gently, like a belt,
on me. O touch, O touch my skin so!
Neither the water nor the midday breeze are not anymore
as sweet as your hand.

 Today cherish me, little sister, it is
your turn. Remember the tenderness I
Taught you last night, and get close to me
Who is tired, kneel down without speaking.

The wonderful Art Nouveau illustrations by Barbier complement the text perfectly.