Famous in his own day, his work was subsequently eclipsed for close to a century, only to re-emerge in recent times as "the most important gay visual artist of the pre–World War I era" according to Thomas Waugh.
Although von Gloeden claimed to be a minor German aristocrat from Mecklenburg, the von Gloeden family and its heirs have always insisted that no such person existed in their family records and his claim to The Barony von Gloeden was without warrant; the barony became extinct in 1885 with the death of Baron Falko von Gloeden. Wilhelm von Gloeden was the son of head forester (Forstmeister) Carl Hermann von Gloeden (1820–1862) and his wife Charlotte née Maassen (1824–1901; from 1864 von Hammerstein).
After studying art history in Rostock (1876), he studied painting under Carl Gehrts at the Kunstakademie in Weimar (1876–77) until he was forced by lung disease (apparently tuberculosis) to interrupt his schooling for a year, convalescing at a sanatorium in the Baltic Sea resort of Gröbersdorf. In a search for health, he travelled to Italy (1877–78), first staying in Naples before moving on to Taormina in Sicily. He lodged at the Hotel Vittoria before buying a house near San Domenico.
Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden was a German photographer who worked mainly in Italy. He is mostly known for his pastoral nude studies of Sicilian boys. In total, the Baron took over 3000 images (and possibly up to 7000), which after his death were left to one of his models, Pancrazio Buciunì, known as Il Moro (or U Moru) for his North African looks. Il Moro had been von Gloeden's lover since the age of fourteen. Most of the pictures are now in the Fratelli Alinari photographic archive in Florence.
Apart from the period 1915-18 during World War I, when he was forced to leave Sicily to avoid incarceration as an undesirable alien, he remained in Taormina until his death in 1931. The mayor of Taormina in 1872-82 was the German landscape painter Otto Geleng (1843–1939), who had moved there in 1863. Through him, von Gloeden became acquainted with the local inhabitants. He set up his photographic studio in Taormina at first as a hobby and was exhibiting his work internationally by 1893 (London), including Cairo (1897), Berlin (1898–99, including a solo exhibition), Philadelphia (1902), Budapest & Marseilles (1903), Nice (1903 & 1905), Riga (1905), Dresden (1909) and Rome (World Fair 1911). His well-known study of two young boys clinging to an Ionic column was published in The Studio (London) in June 1893 (above a nude study of Cecil Castle by Baron Corvo), which brought his work to the notice of a wider public. In 1895, when the family fortune was lost through the "Hammerstein affair", he received as a gift from his friend and patron the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin a large-format plate camera. Soon his work brought him visitors from Europe, including royalty, industrialists, writers (Oscar Wilde in December 1897) and artists. In 1930, von Gloeden ceased work as a photographer and sold his house on the Piazza S. Domenico in Taormina in return for an annuity & residence rights.
Von Gloeden scrupulously shared the proceeds of his sales with his models, providing a considerable economic boost in this comparatively poor region of Italy, which might explain why the homosexual aspects of his life and work were generally tolerated by the locals. His cousin, Guglielmo Plüschow (1852–1930), also a photographer of nudes, helped von Gloeden get more familiar with the technical side of photography (until then von Gloeden had not been a hobby photographer). Other important teachers of von Gloeden were local photographer Giovanni (or John) Crupi (1859–1925) in the Via Teatro Greco and the pharmacist/photographer Giuseppe Bruno (1836–1904) in the Corso.
While today von Gloeden is mainly known for his nudes, in his lifetime he was also famous for his landscape photography that helped popularize tourism to Italy. He also documented earthquake damage in Reggio Calabria & Messina in 1908. This may also explain why the locals mostly approved of his work.
The majority of von Gloeden's pictures were made before World War I, in the period 1890-1910. During the war, he had to leave Italy. After returning in 1918, he photographed very little but continued to make new prints from his voluminous archives. In total, the Baron took over 3000 images (and possibly up to 7000), which after his death were left to one of his models, Pancrazio Buciunì (also spelled Bucini; his dates sometimes given as c.1864-c.1951 but probably should be 1879-1963), known as Il Moro (or U Moru) for his North African looks. Il Moro had been von Gloeden's lover since the age of fourteen, when he had first joined the household of the Baron. In 1933, some 1000 glass negatives from von Gloeden's collection (inherited by Buciuni) and 2000 prints were confiscated by Benito Mussolini's Fascist police under the allegation that they constituted pornography and were destroyed; another 1000 negatives were destroyed in 1936, although Buciuni was tried and cleared at a court in Messina (1939–41) of disseminating pornographic images. Most of the surviving pictures (negatives and prints) are now in the Fratelli Alinari photographic archive in Florence (which in 1999 bought 878 glass negatives & 956 vintage prints formerly belonging to Buciuni to add to its existing collection of 106 prints) and further prints (which fetch hundreds of pounds at auction) are in private collections or held by public institutions such as the Civico Archivo Fotographico in Milan.
Von Gloeden generally made several different kinds of photographs. The ones that garnered the most widespread attention in Europe and overseas were usually relatively chaste studies of peasants, shepherds, fisherman, etc., featured in clothing like togas or Sicilian traditional costume, and which generally downplayed their homoerotic implications. He also photographed landscapes and some studies were of, or included, women. His models were usually posed either at his house, among the local ancient ruins, or on Monte Ziretto (c.600m.), located two kilometres to the north of Taormina and famous in antiquity for its quarries of red marble. He wrote in 1898: "The Greek forms appealed to me, as did the bronze-hued descendants of the ancient Hellenes, and I attempted to resurrect the old, classic life in pictures. ... The models usually remained merry and cheerful, lightly clad and at ease in the open air, striding forward to the accompaniment of flutes and animated chatter. More than a few greatly enjoyed the work and anxiously awaited the moment when I would show them the finished picture."
More explicit photos in which boys aged between about ten and twenty, and occasionally older men, were nude (sometimes with prominent genitalia) and which, because of eye contact or physical contact were more sexually suggestive, were traded "under the counter" and among close friends of the Baron, but "as far as is known, Gloeden's archive contained neither pornographic nor erotically lascivious motifs".
The popularity of his work, especially in Germany, England, and America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can possibly be attributed to three major reasons:
- The Classical and painterly themes in which his work wreathed itself served as a cultural "badge of protection" and the studies were often described in exhibition reviews as models for painters and were used by ethnologists to illustrate racial types.
- At that time male-male love was unthinkable to many who saw his images.
- New printing technologies enabled the mass reproduction and sale of his work in postcard form from 1900 by reputable publishers.
Von Gloeden's cousin, Guglielmo Plüschow, similarly photographed male nudes in Rome, Italy. From an artistic standpoint, Plüschow's work is somewhat inferior to von Gloeden's as the lighting in Plüschow's works is often too harsh and the poses of the models look quite stilted. Plüschow was already a firmly established photographer when von Gloeden started doing photographs of his own in the early 1890s. It is even speculated that von Gloeden was taught the (then difficult) art of photography by Plüschow himself. However, von Gloeden soon eclipsed Plüschow, and later works by Plüschow were frequently erroneously attributed to von Gloeden.
Up until 1907, his assistant Vincenzo Galdi secretly made work which he tried to pass off as von Plüschow's own. However, Galdi's pictures lack elegance, often also feature females and generally tend to border on the pornographic.
In the 1870s, English art critic John Addington Symonds wrote about Michelangelo's and da Vinci's nudes, explicitly associating them with contemporary male-male desire. At the same time, in Sicily, German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden began taking photographs of local young male peasants in "classical" poses. His work with clothed models garnered popular attention in Europe and America.
Von Gloeden's more explicitly erotic photos of nude males, many of them in sexually suggestive poses, also gained attention among American and European men who identified as lovers of men.
In the 1880s, Philadelphia painter and photographer Thomas Eakins did extensive work with the male nude, including a series of photographs of a probably eighteen-year-old Billy Duckett, who was intimately involved, and lived for five years, with Walt Whitman. (Eakins also took formal photographs of Whitman, including a traditional "wedding portrait" of Whitman and Duckett.) The Swimming Hole, Eakins's famous 1885 painting of five youths bathing nude on a lake, echoes Whitman's images of an eroticized pastoral scene from "Song of Myself":
An unseen hand also pass'd over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
Boston-based photographer F. Holland Day, considered by art historians to be one of the founders of American photography, also worked with the male nude at this time. Day's publishing company, Copeland and Day, printed works by the English Decadents, including works by same-sex-loving Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. In 1898 Day's nude portrait of Thomas Langryl Harris, Study for the Crucifixion, was the first frontal male nude to be publicly exhibited in Boston. Day, like von Gloeden, was interested in men of color. Some of his most noted works were of his chauffeur, Alfred Tannyhill, as an Ethiopian chief and in other poses that combined a forthright sexuality with dignity.
Renowned society painter John Singer Sargent, also in Boston at this time, was exploring the male nude in his public art and private albums. His use of Thomas E. McKeller, an African American elevator operator he befriended, as the model for many of his black-and-white nudes speaks to Sargent's impulse to rethink racial paradigms, even as he is caught in them. Day, von Gloeden, and Sargent are part of a tradition of negotiating sexuality and race through art, one that stretches back to Thoreau, Melville, and Stoddard. Art historian Trevor Fairbrother points out that Sargent's male nudes have a sensuous quality, often reclining in positions associated with the female nude. This pose is in direct contrast to patriotic statuary.
Technology and consumer capitalism helped bring some of these artists' images to a broader public. Inexpensive and easily available photographic prints - called studio cards - were now available through mass reproduction, and copies of artworks could be easily obtained by middle-class and even working-class people. This meant that art, once owned only by the wealthy, was becoming democratized and democratizing in a new way.
Most art historians agree that von Gloeden had sexual relationships with men and that Day, Eakins, and Sargent had romantic, if not physical, relationships with men. Women and men who desired their own sex had not found a significant level of freedom in America. But these female and male artists were able to live with a certain amount of visibility, with privileges the ordinary person did not have. --A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski
Amore e Arte (1)
Amore e Arte (2)
Terra del Fuoco
Wilhelm von Gloeden: Photography by Italo Zannier
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Alinari 24 Ore; Bilingual edition (April 1, 2008)
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The young German Wilhelm von Gloeden - barely twenty-two - arrived in Taormina in 1878 after a brief stop in Naples. He immediately became involved in photography; this new medium had fascinated him since his stepfather had given him a camera. This book features a collection of the pictures he took of the mythical landscapes around Vesuvius and Etna: the volcanoes on one side and the sea on the other, and, of course, the sun of the south. Also featured are many of his pastoral nude studies of Sicilian boys, which usually featured props such as wreaths or amphorae suggesting a setting in the Greece or Italy of antiquity. From a modern standpoint, his work stands out due to his controlled use of lighting as well as the elegant poses of his models.
Wilhelm Von Gloeden: Taormina by Ulrich Pohlmann
Hardcover: 80 pages
Publisher: Te Neues Publishing Company; 1St Edition edition (October 1998)
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Wilhelm Von Gloeden / Wilhelm Von Pluschow / Vincenzo Galdi
Paperback: 63 pages
Publisher: Janssen Verlag; 1st edition (1991)
Amazon: Wilhelm Von Gloeden / Wilhelm Von Pluschow / Vincenzo Galdi
Wilhelm von Gloeden by Roger Peyrefitte
Publisher: Editions T.G.; 1ST edition (2008)
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Wilhelm Von Gloeden by Peter Weiermair
Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Taschen (April 1, 1997)
Amazon: Wilhelm Von Gloeden
More Photographers at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Art
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