French, carte postale. "Woman standing in exotic costume"

French, carte postale. "Woman standing in exotic costume", around 1905 © Art Gallery of Ontario, 2001

Naughty Ladies: Postcards from Paris

February 28 - June 24, 2001


Tantalizing images of female nudes had always been a painter''s prerogative, but in fin-de-siècle Paris, no man''s education was complete without the acquisition of artistic cartes postale, which meant naughty and erotic. Naughty Ladies is an exhibition of about 246 photographic postcards from the AGO''s collection that explore female representation in the stream of popular culture. The exhibition continues to May 27, 2001. With the invention of the postcard in Austria in 1869, a new era of social communication began. No longer limited to hand-worked pictures, mass production of images flourished. Paris, as the centre of commerce, industry and tourism, spawned the golden age of cartophilia. Seen as typical of the French, who were considered visually more libidinous, the erotic carte postale was accepted as a fitting cultural souvenir.

Sale of erotic cards was illegal, but the law was skirted by creating postcard images that emulated the art of the salons. Models appear draped, nude, or semi-nude in poses alongside classical columns and urns, and on pedestals. Other motifs included veils, exotic Orientalism, and indiscreet peeks into the boudoir. They provided not only erotic arousal, but alluded also to freedom of expression for the photographer and emancipation for the female (and male) model in a sexually suppressed society. While the more explicit trade of pornography remained underground, the erotic carte postale, until the 1920s, engaged a more open, yet anonymous network of photographers, models, decorators, artists and colourists, graphic designers, publishers, distributors and peddlers. Artistic skill and imagination were desired requirements - the cards had to quickly respond to fashion and taste - and as a form of popular art be within the reach of all classes of society. Yet, the artificiality of the content actually denied accessibility, and the ultimate eroticism could only be positioned in the imagination of the viewer.

See the associated exhibition:
Paris Itineraries: Photographs by Eugène Atget
Itinéraires Parisiens: Photographies d'Eugène Atget


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