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The Art of Sex

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

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

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

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

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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