Frydman on Rexer (2021)

Rexer, Raisa Adah. The Fallen Veil: A Literary and Cultural History of the Photographic Nude in Nineteenth-Century France. U of Pennsylvania P, 2021, pp. xii + 300, ISBN 978-0-8122-5286-6

Judging by Instagram’s ongoing ban on photographic—but not sculptural or painted—nudity, including notably the sight of “female nipples,” it would seem that photographs of women’s bodies can only be objects of sexual commerce or titillation, lacking artistic significance. Like the artists who decry Instagram’s policies, Raisa Rexer, in her deftly argued, productively unsettling book, refuses to accept this state of affairs. The Fallen Veil compellingly combines historical and literary methods to recount the nineteenth-century story of how the art value of the photographic nude was shut down, leaving behind obscenity as the only available meaning to be extracted from this unprecedentedly “real” representation (or reproduction) of nude flesh, quite unlike the hairless “ideal” female bodies central to artistic representation since antiquity. 

The book comprises two chronological parts—“The Second Empire” and “The Third Republic”—that recount the legal, cultural, and literary processes by which photographic nudes became that against which art was defined. Part one examines early nude photographs, which entered a world where the “real” female body still had the possibility of being art. The first chapter gives a historical overview of nude photography from its inception (circa 1839) through the end of the Second Empire, focusing on censorship laws that instituted a form of legal nude photograph: académies, which were ostensibly artistic studies, but often difficult to distinguish from illicit photographs. Under the Second Empire, the nude could be art, but when it was not, the artistic potential of photography writ large was called into question.

The following chapters illuminate the importance of nude photography in efforts to define art in a photographic age. Chapter two shows how discussions about photography centered the model as a body for sale, as filth, as a moral crime, but also, despite this earthy, flawed materiality, as a transcendent work of art. Chapter three recounts the first steps toward the foreclosure of this transcendent potential. In his poetry and art criticism, Baudelaire sought a way to balance the real and ideal to show the “modern beauty” of the nude; rather than finding this beauty in nude photography, he reacted against the “obscenity” of such photographs that he saw as capable of depicting only natural bodies, naked of signification, untouched by the artist. 

In chapter four, we see how the Goncourt brothers’ Manette Salomon takes up Baudelaire’s vision of modern beauty only to deem it wanting. For the Goncourts as for Baudelaire, realist artistry required something more than reproducing reality as photography supposedly did; unlike Baudelaire, they remained anxious about whether the modern artist, seeking to turn modern life into art, could avoid being “compromised by [photography’s] preponderance” (118). Nude photography might just kill art altogether. 

Under the Third Republic, concern about nude photography’s destructive nature moved out of the realm of art and into that of the social. Chapter five charts the “rise of an international industry,” examining how the Republic’s abolition of older censorship laws ended the distinction between legal and illegal nudes; as a result, “discourse about nudes focused on their nefarious social effects to the complete exclusion of questions of art” (124).

Despite pictorialism’s attempt in the 1890s to resuscitate the photographic art nude (part of a campaign to elevate photography to the status of painting), the nude photograph was increasingly well-entrenched in a discourse that saw it as a form of obscenity infecting city streets and leading to the degeneration of the French population (as chapter six explores). In this age of morality leagues, nude photography was simply obscenity, akin to prostitution and dirty books, ads, or engravings, which had to be swept away for the good of the nation; its art value had become unimaginable. 

Zola’s Nana, as chapter seven shows, contributed to this view. Reading Nana as a nude photograph posed for men’s consumption, Rexer reorients readers’ view of the novel, illuminating Zola’s emphasis on the danger that comes from above, in the form of a market in sexual services and goods put into place from the top echelons of society. If Nana is undeniably the danger from below, it is elite men who bought, sold, looked at, and passed her around. Nana, decried as pornographic, reveals the unpleasant reality of a society in which commercial sex is everywhere.

This negative conception of sexuality seems to disappear in the last chapter, which turns to René Maizeroy and his “feminist” photo-novels that, to his (female) readers’ delight, represent women’s sexual desire through the written word. His defense of women’s embodiment, however, does not extend to the photographs central to the photo-novel genre. For Maizeroy, as for Zola, nude photographs could not help but crudely objectify women and thus were a masculine mode of representation, irredeemable for any project seeking to give voice to female readers’ wants and needs. 

Taken together, these chapters show how, in arrogating to non-photographic artists the possibility of representing the female nude without entering the realm of obscenity, authors as diverse as Baudelaire, Zola, and Maizeroy were all implicated in casting the photographic female nude as obscene and thus in excluding the real female body from the domain of art. These literary discourses, the conclusion shows, have had serious, enduring repercussions, casting women’s bodies as shameful and creating unconscious bias in the way we interpret visual information.

Perhaps, then, we might read the proliferation of photographs reproduced throughout the book as a counter to the nineteenth-century narratives explored textually. The book’s eighty-seven figures collectively make the argument for nude photography’s visual interest. Rexer never lets us look away or give in to our knee-jerk response (conditioned precisely by the history she charts) to write these photographs off as smut. Some images are smutty, sure, but the vast majority are beautiful and, even if the reader only glances at them, the composite they form is undeniably significant and arresting, much more complicated than the word obscene suggests. This is an important book that will help readers re-think where our most common-sense aesthetic judgments come from and consider whether it is time for them to change.

Hannah Frydman
University of Washington