Alexandre Dupouy is a writer and bookseller, described as ‘a leading authority on under the counter culture’, he is the owner of the Parisian emporium Larmes d’Éros (Tears of Eros). Most of the photographic material produced here is taken from that archive. City of Pleasure could be described as an account of underground Paris: the erotic story of the city, a record of the counter culture and of changing sexuality, a look behind the scenes.

This idiosyncratic social history, a guide to the erotically charged interwar decades in Paris, is an intriguingly presented photographic record of the period (posters and art are also represented). The book is loosely structured, this is not an academic tome. Many of the images have to speak for themselves, there is little accompanying information. This is not a fault just a fact that illicit material from hidden Paris was never properly identified and catalogued at the time. Still, it’s a fascinating archive. There is such a stark difference between this culture and the image we of the time we pick up from political and more conventional social histories but this contributes to our knowledge too. Here we see Paris in the way we have come to recognise Berlin in the same era by its sexual freedom and nightclubs. There is much to see here from the revealing of a more sexually open era to the erotic and the outright pornographic, sometimes crude.

The zeitgeist of a time always seems to pass most people by but that is what comes to signify the age in a way that ordinary life never does. Take, for example, the sixties in Britain, most people didn’t experience the hippy lifestyle, the Vietnam protests, the free love, Carnaby street et al. and yet those things have ingrained themselves in the memory as the culture of Britain at the time. This is the Paris that most never saw but lived side by side with.

There are two points that strike me. One is that this can’t be dismissed as a counter culture, the art world, the student world and the intellectual world all participated in this City of Pleasure. The other is that in promoting the spirit of the age there is little mention here of the darker side of sexual freedom. Poverty and enforced prostitution, victims and unwilling participants. This is a celebration.

The book is presented in five sections. Each with an accompanying essay, an engaging and thought provoking background to the photographic material. By 1900 Paris was a cosmopolitan world city, hosting the Exposition Universelle Internationale, a thriving growing metropolis but by 1914 everything changed with the war. WWI ended in 1918, 16 million people were dead, a quarter of the eligible male population was gone. The conflict had led to women acquiring new freedoms through work and through the rise of feminist issues. Women for the first time expressed their desire for sex and for diverse lifestyles.

Parties in Montparnasse – The sense of liberation that came with the end of fighting changed the way people saw the world. On the fringes some women decided they would be in control of their own destiny and not naturally succumb to a model of prescribed behaviour. The post war authorities tolerated a level of debauchery that accompanied the desire to celebrate as never before. The signing of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 ushered in the Decade of Illusion 1919, a happy period abruptly ended by the Wall St. Crash in 1929. Maurice Sachs: “We didn’t stop for ten years: ten years of parties, orgies, creativity and invention.”

The Bohemian life style of the Butte Montmartre, the artist and writer arrondissement, was always egalitarian, steeped in poverty and cameraderie, the memory of the Paris Commune was still alive and well. It was here in the cafes, cabarets, music halls, such as Le Chat Noir, that the pre-war moral strictures were first challenged. In the Place Pigalle every Sunday morning there was a model market, in theory a meeting place for artists and their muses but in truth it was an invitation to a party, to sex and sex for money.

The Ecole des Beaux Arts organised the Bal de Quart’z’ Arts annually (four arts ball), attended by students, these were grand affairs, the ending parade in the morning witnessed by crowds of spectators eager for a sight of the Bohemian revellers. The book has a series of photos from this party scene; happy crowds of people, semi-dressed, naked, unabashed, in fancy dress (Greek and Roman costume). There were prizes, medals, badges, committees. The poster art is extraordinary.

The Renaissance of the Nude – The end of WWI saw the end of restrictions on nudity, at the same time photography became more important, more accessible. Old Man Modesty checking that the Cancan girls at the Moulin Rouge wore bloomers became a thing of the past. The whole issue of acceptable nudity was smashed by Josephine Baker, an Afro-American performer. Her 1925 la Revue Nègre was an instant hit. The owners of the clubs became legendary impresarios, such as Paul Derval at the Folies Bergère and Jacques Charles at the Moulin Rouge.

The Golden Age of the Brothel. The Paris scene was dominated by two famous madames; Marthe Marguerite known as ‘Matoune’ and Camille Fernande Alfrédine known as ‘Dinah’. One brothel, The Sphinx, was a huge building that hosted parties, not necessary involving sex, there were rooms for hire, and celebrities attended: Colette, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Georges Simenon, Maurice Chevalier, Marlene Dietrich. The themed rooms and restaurants appear to be as grand as the finest hotels. Several photos show remarkable mock interiors of the Paris Oriental. Here the images are a strange mix of informative, playful and crude.

Glossy Kidskin Versus Patent Leather – There was a change in the presentation of lingerie, revealing the figure. This chapter covers fetish, the libertine age. A tailor by the name of Victor Vidal set up a chain of shop selling sex toys, clothes and photos. From soft sexy images to sado-masochism, some of the models achieving a measure of fame or notoriety.

Amateur Photographers – Sexual images and stories were getting into the news. Advances in photography meant that people could document the sexual side of life too. The images of life on film are coquettish, innocent, exhibitionist, voyeurism, erotic and pornographic, suggestive of sexuality particularly lesbianism. Other chapters are: Professional Photographers and The Rise of Libertinism.

Among the photographs we can see images that have a surreal quality, they are reminiscent of Manray and suggestive of Edward Weston more refined nude art. Which influenced which might be a moot point. The Second World War changed everything, by the 1950s many of the relaxations of morality had been re-imposed, Paris was a different city, now a parody/homage can be seen at the Moulin Rouge today.

Beautifully bound and presented.

English translation by Margaret Morrison.

Paul Burke 3/3

City of Pleasures by Alexandre Dupouy
Korero Press 9781912740055 hbk May 2019