Classically Inclined

June 10, 2011

Naked youths, Barthes and the semiotics of the classical

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:29 am
Tags: , , , ,

Working on the article I sent off to my editors last week on queer theory and classical reception introduced me to a number of new and exciting people engaged in producing classical receptions, one of whom was Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden [NB – definitely not safe for work], who lived on the Greek island of Taormina at the turn of the twentieth century. During the day, he took photographs of local youths in various poses (and normally very few clothes), and in the evenings his house was the scene of riotous parties. Although I encountered the work of Von Gloeden and his fellow photographers in the context of a broad history of homoerotica, I was quite interested in the classical codes that they used to provide a setting for their work. So to learn a bit more, I’m following up with an article that was cited in a footnote, and lo and behold, an interesting paragraph leaps out at me:

Perhaps a more serious appraisal of von Gloeden’s work is that of Roland Barthes (1978), which nevertheless mixes real insight with hermeneutic subjectivity. Barthes accuses the baron of “overloading … the code of antiquity … and mixing up signs without thinking about it … It seems he takes without any irony the most worn-out legends for cash value. Il est surtout Kitsch.” All this seems to add up to what is in fact the general response to von Gloeden: he was a silly old man who took sentimental naughty pictures; an amateur explotative, voyeuristic pornographer whose work is “soft-core” and amusing if one has the right kind of humour. (B. Russell. 1983. “Russell Wilhelm von Pluschow and Wilhelm von Gloeden: Two Photo Essays.” Studies in Visual Communication 9.2: 60.)

Now, what’s really interesting for me here is the Barthes quote. “Overloading the code of antiquity” is precisely the sort of thing I’m thinking through in terms of queering reception, and indeed reception in pop culture in general. That there is a code is indisputable – that the code is being used by von Gloeden to mask what could otherwise arouse the ire of the censors with a veil of classical learning is also pretty clear. I also feel that Barthes is being slightly unfair with his comment about “cash value” – von Gloeden was selling his photographs in order to support himself and his step-sister following the political disgrace of his stepfather, and one would expect him to photograph things that would sell for that reason alone. (Apparently Barthes also objects to the models in the photographs having swollen foreskins as this does not live up to the model of the ideal alabaster ancient Greek youth, an objection which Russell swiftly demolishes as an expectation based on unhelpful preconceptions formed by art from the eighteenth century.)

Putting aside Barthes’ artistic prejudices, I want to concentrate on his suggestion that it is possible to create a semantic overload of classical signs. From my perspective, reception studies tends to think about what a reception does with its interpretation of the classical, and what that can tell us about both the reception and whatever is being received. But the question of whether it is possible to receive too much, too indiscriminately, as Barthes seems to be suggesting von Gloeden does, is not one I’ve seen articulated. This is probably because a lot of pop culture reception work is interested in fighting against an elitist idea of what counts as a ‘reception’ and thus deserves study, and Barthes’ argument looks suspiciously as if it belongs to the other camp. It may, however, be a useful idea for me in terms of thinking about what one might uncharitably call ‘unimaginative’ elements of classical reception. Of course, I’ll have to chase down the Barthes quote in context to see whether it is actually useful, but it strikes me that if he’s saying what I think he’s saying, then there’s a very interesting point here about how we might approach classical reception in pop culture (which von Gloeden was, in the 1900s) – it might help explain the broad brand of classical semiotics which relies on shallow codes and symbols to signal an ancient setting.

Sadly, Russell’s article doesn’t do the kind of classical reception work that Barthes’ dismissal seems to invite, although it is jolly good from an art history point of view. L’annee Philologique doesn’t appear to record anything on von Gloeden or his contemporary von Pluschow. There’s clearly an opportunity here for some aspiring young reception scholar. I have to admit that I’m not particularly interested in von Gloeden himself except as a data point, an interesting example and some context for the tradition of using classical motifs as a figleaf for male erotica. (If this is the sort of thing you are interested in, then do go and find Thomas Waugh’s Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall, which is where I first came across von Gloeden and his contemporaries. And if you can find a copy that hasn’t had a significant number of the illustrations removed, as the well-thumbed copy from Rutgers had, so much the better.) However, if ever a justification was needed for following up interesting references hidden in footnotes, this is it – if my hunch turns out to be right, Barthes might give me a very useful framework for tackling a certain kind of classical reception in Barbies. Stay tuned…

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