PORN ON PAPER at the Museum Meermanno in The Hague

The history of pornographic literature in the Netherlands might seem like an unlikely topic for an exhibition at the world’s oldest book museum – Meermanno, in the Hague.  But this is a highly informative, beautifully curated exhibition which charts the waves of taboo and tolerance associated with attitudes toward sexuality and its pornographic presence on paper through the ages.

In Porn on Paper, the history of Dutch language pornography and erotica from the 17th century to the present day is made available to the public in the first such exhibition of its kind in the Netherlands. Much of the material has been lent to the museum by private collector Bert Sliggers who became increasingly interested in the relationship between porn and power that he observed as his collection grew. Before 1800, pornography and social criticism were often closely connected  and together were banned or locked away in libraries across Europe in secret areas, literally called ‘Hell’ / ‘L’Enfer’ or ‘Giftschrank’, meaning ‘poison cupboard’ in German. Here in the Hague, the Koninglijke Bibliotheek had its very own ‘Hell’, and its existence continued right up until the 21st century.

The exhibition is organised chronologically via a series of interlinking rooms – texts locked up behind bars and hidden in small enclaves emphasises the secrecy and illicit nature of the material in periods of high censorship. But other effects like projections of nude female bodies from 17th century paintings on the beautifully embossed ceilings and a large double bed strewn with all manner of 1970’s porn magazines highlight periods of tolerance and freedom. Indeed the Netherlands’ first porn boom occurred toward the end of the 17th century, during which time Amsterdam is known as ‘the sex shop of Europe’. Much of the erotic material that is banned abroad is produced in the so called Free Republic. In the 1680’s texts begin to appear which claim that sexual desire rather than moral conviction is the driving force behind human behaviour. A desire to expose the hypocrisy often associated with the Church is a central theme in many of these texts and indeed the on-going rivalry between Protestants and Catholics is borne out in publications like The Black Nun written by priests from both denominations under pseudonyms in an effort to discredit their rivals.

The 19th century sees a strict clamp down on pornographic material of any kind however many of the social changes that began in the 1880’s influence the relationship between the sexes and this is reflected in the growth and development of pornographic texts. The arrival of contraception in particular and the influence of Neo-Malthusian proponents of birth  control encouraged a wider range of sexual relations. The appearance of the first feminists and the option of divorce were also influential. Explicit books are published in this period and three Amsterdam publishers contribute substantially to the growing market in reproductive health and information about sex in general. However the strict anti-vice laws that came into effect in 1911 marked the end of such publications and a period of strong restriction that dominated throughout the war years. Indeed in the run-up to the Second World War, there was a specialised police force, the Zuider Politie, based in Rotterdam, dedicated to publishing lists of books considered harmful to public morals and their confiscation. There were severe penalties for dealing in and/or writing pornographic texts including fines and imprisonment. These lists and pages of text with large sections crossed-out are all on display in this exhibition.

By the 1960’s the sexual revolution had begun and although it was originally Flanders that was the source of erotic literature, the publication of Ik Jan Cremer (I Jan Cremer) in 1964 helped to usher in the swinging sixties in the Netherlands too! The sleepy provincial city of Amsterdam developed into a red hot metropolis of freedom and tolerance. Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll take the Netherlands by storm and in 1968 magazines like Chick and Candy appear on the scene along with frank, personal ads that cater for a wide variety of sexual preferences. Many Nazi pulp publications are also popular in the sixties. They are on display with thoughtfully chosen titles like Explosive Blondes and Forbidden Fruit along with bold pop art graphics reminiscent of Warhol. By the 1970’s, there is consensus that pornography can only be forbidden if a demonstrable majority of the Dutch population found it objectionable. With this so-called Chick ruling, pornography is to all intents and purposes legalized. This includes making the public sale of contraceptives and the act of adultery, unpunishable. Indeed the 1970’s saw the publication of 200 different titles covering the whole range of sexual practises, in the Netherlands alone. However by the 1980’s many of these had disappeared as the domination of the internet grew and with it that of the image.

The exhibition ends with a wide ranging display of contemporary erotic and pornographic literature in the form of magazines like Oh aimed at the female reader and lesbian publications such as Sisterhood is Powerful. Many of these have provided a platform for writers of erotic fiction such as Dutch poet, Stella Bergsma, who acquired a following as a result of her contributions to Oh magazine and is now famous for her book Pussy Album.  Speaking with Nathalie Van Dun who assisted in the preparation of the exhibition and provided me with an excellent guided tour in English, she explained that it is only very recently that pornographic literature has broadened its scope and moved away from the powerful dominance of the so-called male gaze. This includes pornographic versions of popular comics such as Tin Tin and Suske & Wiske!  Porn on Paper is a genuine attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of this highly diverse and much maligned literary genre here in the Netherlands. Well worth a visit.     Souwie Buis     3rd June 2018

 

Porn on Paper continues until 24th June

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