Taormina, 1878: A 22-year-old painting student moves to the island of Sicily to treat his tuberculosis, just like so many other Europeans suffering from the disease. But Wilhelm von Gloeden did not make a short stay—he lived on the small Italian island until his death and became known for his nude male photographs.

Tuberculosis: the evil of intellectuals

Wilhelm von Gloeden was born in a castle near Weimar, a city in central Germany, in 1856. The young man, from an aristocratic family, studied art history at the University of Rostock and after that, painting in Weimar.

During this period, however, he gets tuberculosis. The disease goes by the name the "white plague" and is considered to be a romantic evil, a symptom of spiritual purity and artistic genius. To cure himself, the young man embarks on a trip to Southern Italy, starting from Naples, where his cousin Wilhelm von Plüschow lives.

And it is thanks to his cousin, who has long dedicated himself to shooting male nudes and occasionally female bodies as well, who teaches von Gloeden the rudiments of photography, that he moves to the small town of Taormina and begins to shoot.

The male nude tableaux vivant 

Inspired by the Sicilian landscape and by the romantic idea that Europeans have of Southern Italy, the photographer portrays the boys of Taormina in the form of classical figures, covered only in drapes. The subjects are always immersed in a natural environment or in the ruins of the area, recreating an idyllic world and idealizing the Greek glory and remnants of the island.

The male nudes by von Gloeden, who was openly homosexual, were accepted by the inhabitants of the island without too much trouble. What helped him was not only his discretion and effort not to exceed what was accepted but also that the proceeds from the sales made from the postcards with the young men were always shared equally.

In addition to the classical-inspired tableaux vivant, Von Gloeden also shot portraits of the Taorminesi and Sicilian landscapes. The postcards with his images contributed largely to the development of tourism both in Taormina (visited in those years by D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, and other great intellectuals) as well as the whole of Sicily. Through his photographs, von Gloeden also documented the catastrophic Messina earthquake in 1908.

The ancestor of photoshop

Von Gloeden's photographs are literally "pictorial" - not only because of the recent birth of this new art but also because they were a sort of an ancestor of post-production, as von Gloeden was among the first to correct the imperfections of the skin of his models or the shooting defects with color mixtures.

The artistic and technical value of his photographs, together with the novelty of the male nude, gives him a great reputation all over Europe. His works are exhibited in museums in London, Cairo, Berlin, Rome, and Philadelphia. The fame and esteem of the intellectual environment (it is said that his guestbook bears the signatures of Oscar Wilde and King Alfonso of Spain) are undoubtedly what allowed Gloeden to live his homosexuality and his artistic practice without too many repercussions: in face of being repeatedly reported, he was never condemned.

The destruction of photographs

Wilhelm von Gloeden abandoned Taormina at the outbreak of the First World War but returned in 1919. He lived there for the rest of his life together with his sister, who ran the house and took care of the guests, and Pancrazio Buciunì, "Il Moro" - lover and heir at the time of von Gloeden's death in 1931.

A large part of von Gloeden's photos and negatives, which were considered to be pornographic material - at that time illegal - were destroyed in a police raid in Il Moro's home in 1936. Il Moro was jailed but was later on released. However, only a third of von Gloeden's photographs survived the calamity.

Since the 1970s, von Gloeden's works have begun to circulate in the auction market. Many of his photographs have been sold for over 15,000 euros, far exceeding their estimates. In 2005, an album composed of 49 photographs of a male nude was sold at Christie's for € 16,800, about twice the initial estimate.

Some works by von Gloeden will go on sale at the Lempertz June Photography auction. The German auction house has a month full of auctions ahead.

Click on the links to find out more about each auction at the house or search Lempertz catalogs at Barnebys!

May 15: Decorative Arts auction

May 16: Old masters and 19th century

June 1: Photography and Modern Art

June 2: Contemporary Art Auction

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