New York

Félicien Rops

Huntington Hartford Museum

Steven Marcus, in his assessment of pornographic literature, The Other Victorians, describes “Pornotopia” as that “vision which regards all human experience as a series of exclusively sexual events or conveniences.” Félicien Rops (1833–1898) is the Belgian illustrator who best provides the visual counterpart to this sexually referential Utopia.

To the student of late 19th-century arts, particularly those of Symbolist persuasion, Félicien Rops is a familiar figure, although at this date the exalted esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries is difficult for us to grasp. The reason for this consideration owes chiefly to a little-remembered fact of Rops’s career—that he collaborated with Baudelaire. (Even Mr. Reade, the curator of Prints and Drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, glides over this major detail in his checklist to the exhibition). Garmented in multiform self-deceptions, this event made the otherwise severely critical figures of the day oblivious to the blatant failings of Rops’s work. For, in fact, a deep cleavage separates his keener literary sensibility from his visual imagination.

Rops took his earliest lead from Daumier and then Courbet, whose fleshy Flemish nudes Rops could have known first hand in Brussels. Although he nowhere approaches the formal achievements of his masters, his work is not entirely devoid of, as Rops called it, “pornocratic” merit.

Two catalogues raisonné are devoted to Rops’s production, the Ramiro catalog and its supplement (1887, 1895), and the Exsteen catalog in four volumes (1928). The latter, being fully illustrated, is in a certain way duller than Ramiro, who constrained at not having illustrations had to find sly tongue-in-cheek proprieties to conjure up the sexual acrobatics of the plates he is collating. Still earlier, Rops was feverishly admired by J. K. Huysmans who consecrated a lengthy essay to him in Certains (1889), the tapestried prose of which aimed at paralleling the artist’s vaginal fixation. The same aspirations were present in Joséphin Peladan’s long encomiums to the Belgian master whom he repeatedly “saluted in absentia” each time Rops failed to make an appearance at the annual Salons of official art in Paris. In short, by the 1880s the young poets of the Symbolist generation had recognized Baudelaire as the greatest figure of the earlier Parnassian one, despite the fact that Baudelaire was still being slandered as a pornographic satanist. Baudelaire’s frustrated life became the central and painful myth against which the young bohemian could measure his work and achievement. To have known Baudelaire was a kind of celebrity insurance. Such was Rops’s good fortune.

Baudelaire put out the Fleurs du Mal in June of 1857. They were suppressed the following month on account of the first six poems which are primarily occupied with Lesbian themes now called les Epaves. Braquemond had etched the first frontispiece according to Baudelaire’s program but had entirely missed the theological implications of the flowers of evil strangling the tree of knowledge and goodness. This medieval slant was better realized in 1866 when Rops etched the second frontispiece in Brussels for an edition which still included the suppressed poems (Brussels being the seat of the Republican and pornographic presses then aimed at a French-speaking clientele).

These events were familiar literary episodes to the young authors of the 1880s with the result that Rops became the patented illustrator of a certain ilk of “Baudelairian” author for whom erotic situations were the staple ingredient in a savory perked up with philosophical posturing and deft turns of phrase. The successful and daring young moderns found in Rops the tangible exhibition of their fashionable masturbatory erethism: the pelvis as a moth for Peladan’s Initiation Sentimentale; the domino-masked buttocks for Gustave Guiche’s Pudeur de Sodome; not to mention beribboned turtles, dildoid flowers and so forth.

Typically Flemish, Rops doted on scatology and anti-clericalism, and more universally, so far as pornography is concerned, woman’s so-called adoration of the phallus. The Madelaine swoons before a crucified penis; Eve gently cups a scrotum from which the tempting serpent grows; Le Beau Paon depicts a female transfixed by the vision of the phallus preening its peacocky pubic-hair, etc. etc.

Just as the male in 19th-century pornographic literature had been transformed from the man into the penis, likewise Rops transforms the female into a vagina. On inspecting Rops’s plates one feels as if one is reading My Secret Life, an endless, but ever-contemptuous, paean to cunt. One must always keep in mind that at the same time that Rops was the patented illustrator of the popular erotic novel, Redon too, was creating book illustrations, to Poe, Flaubert and a bit later, to Mallarmé. But they are of another order. They evoke but do not depict. Rops depicts.

Robert Pincus-Witten