Inventors of Gay: Wilhelm von Gloeden
Wilhelm von Gloeden
September 16, 1856 – February 16, 1931
Von Gloeden traveled to Taormina, for his health. Little did he know that the young men and boys there would inspire him to become a renowned photographer, and in the bargain make Taormina a stopping point for well-shod Europeans.
His German baronetcy may have been a bit sketchy, but his family fortune was intact. This was handy as health issues, most likely tuberculosis, forced him to move about the continent seeking healthier climes. He settled on Taormina in Sicily, buying a house near San Domenico, where he remained until his death in 1931. The mayor of Sicily was a German landscape painter who introduced him to the local inhabitants.
Von Gloeden’s cousin, Guglielmo Plüschow, was an early instructor as he also specialized in the young, nude male. But von Gloeden’s work soon surpassed his teacher’s and he exhibited widely through Europe and the United States.
Oddly enough, his work was seen at the time as ethnographic and aesthetic, representing an adolescent ideal of the ancient world. The idea of men having sex with men was so appalling that the concept rarely came up unless, of course, you were part of a more sophisticated groups of admirers and collectors such as Edward VII, King of Great Britain and the King of Siam.
The town of Taormina was very tolerant of von Gloeden’s life and loves and works, as the entire area experienced a financial boom from both the generous fees von Gloeden paid his models and the tourist traffic generated by his popularity.
World War I took the lives of many of his young models and changed the texture of life in Taormina. More modern and experimental photography techniques made von Gloeden’s work seem campy and out of date. He fell out of favor for years. In the ’30s, Fascists ruled Italy. Pancrazio Bucini, a former model, lover, and assistant had been entrusted with the estate, but the police raided it multiple times and Bucini was charged with selling pornography. About three quarters of the over 7,000 photographs and transparencies were destroyed.
Von Gloeden’s works saw a popular revival in the latter half of the 20th century, and is now highly sought after and collectable.
Friends and patrons:
Oscar Wilde— writer, martyr
Friedrich Alfred Krupp— steel manufacturer involved in notorious homosexual scandal
Richard Strauss— composer
Wilhelm II— German Emperor
Why we care about Wilhelm von Gloeden (left):
His work was hugely influential for 20th century artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Cecil Beaton, Andy Warhol, Bruce Weber, and Joseph Beuys. His work was so famous in his lifetime that expressing an interest in his young male ethnographic studies was a handy way of sounding someone out as gay-friendly. He legitimized the male nude in photography.
"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.