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Love Story


The Art of Sex

by Laurel Avery

Paris is often referred to as the most romantic city in the world. Romance does pervade the air here and naturally, the erotic is never far behind.

The Erotic Museum was opened in Paris in 1997 by Alain Plumey and Joseph Khalifa, who had amassed their private collection of over 2,000 items of erotic art over a span of 30 years. The majority of the museum's 170,000 annual visitors are mainly women, proving my completely unscientific opinion that women are really more interested in sex than men are.

Located in Pigalle, the red light district of Paris, it comprises seven floors of exhibits, from primitive to contemporary, encompassing many different artistic media. It is a pleasant oasis from the seedy establishments all around it, with its marble floors, brass banisters and professionally displayed exhibits.

The first two floors are mainly devoted to pre-Colombian, Peruvian, Etruscan, Greek and Asian fertility icons. As one moves up through the floors, the exhibits become more contemporary and "western." The top two floors are devoted to revolving exhibitions, mainly featuring present-day artists.

In addition to paintings and photographs there are moving wood sculptures, chairs outfitted with revolving tongues, wire sculptures by James Chedburn that move suggestively when you turn a small crank at their base, and tiny erotic tableaux, made up like doll-houses into which you can peer voyeuristically.

Just after passing through the entry turnstile one encounters a video screen playing the film "Polisson et Galipettes," which enjoyed a run in theaters a couple of years ago. It is a collection of erotic silent film shorts compiled by Michel Reilhac that were made in France between 1905 and 1930, recently restored by France's National Center for Cinematography. They were one-reel films which were apparently used to "warm up" the patrons of Paris's famous brothels, or "maisons closes." Its location just at the entrance to the exhibit may be for the same purpose.

The third floor of the museum is devoted to exhibits about prostitution and the "maisons de tolerance," brothels registered by the State which operated legally from the early 19th century until they were banned in 1946. In 1810 there were 180 approved establishments in Paris alone. Some of the most illustrious figures of the early 20th century patronized the best of them, such as One-Two-Two and Le Sphinx, which, in addition to its available ladies, provided cabaret entertainment in an opulent setting, attracting the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Mae West, and Edith Piaf.

Le Chabanais -- named for its address at 12, rue Chabanais, near the Louvre -- was the preferred brothel of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, who would bathe in a copper tub filled with champagne, after which he would retire with a lady or two to his special "siege d'amour," which was an elaborately constructed chair comprised of two tiers of seat with various arms and stirrup-like attachments. One can only begin to contemplate how this item of furniture was used.

Each room in Le Chabanais was sumptuously decorated in a theme of its own, ranging from Moorish to Louis XIV, and their Japanese room won a prize for design at the Universal Exhibition in 1900.

It is well-known that Toulouse-Lautrec spent a great deal of time in Paris's brothels, as can be seen in some of his greatest drawings. Though his lower body was stunted by a genetically inherited disease, he retained full measure of everything else, and sometimes quipped "I may only be a small coffee-pot, but I have a big spout!" He gave Le Chabanais as his address and allegedly paid his rent there in a series of 16 paintings that have since been dispersed to private collectors.

Indispensable to anyone visiting Paris or the provinces looking for a fun evening's entertainment was "Le Guide Rose," first published in 1922, which was a small pamphlet providing a list of "society houses" and "love salons." The guide also carried advertising, running the gamut from shoes to prophylactics.

The maisons closes were eventually replaced by other businesses, and the one at 106 Boulevard de la Chapelle was transformed into a Salvation Army welcome center. This created some embarrassment and confusion when former clients visited the place and thought the ladies now working there were brothel workers in disguise.

The Erotic Museum provides a nice mix of sex, history and art, and can be a pleasant alternative if you don't want to fight the crowds at the Louvre on a rainy day.


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