French Postcards I: The Mysteries of Grundworth
The French have a well documented history of erotic art, and true to form they pioneered erotic photography in a format which became infamous worldwide as “The French Postcard”. In fact that description is something of a misnomer as the photographs (usually gelatin silver prints) were never meant to receive a stamp; rather the name refers to their size. Most were originally marketed in a monthly magazine called “La Beauté” that contained 75 nude images ostensibly targeted at artists too poor to afford live models. These images generally used professional models in classical poses, and were considered “tasteful” despite being heavily clichéd. Greek columns and crowns of oak leaves were predominant themes, and it was a genre that was followed by most photographers of the period both in Europe and the Americas (see Albert Arthur Allen).
But by the end of the 1850s the postcards began to moving away from the academic models to follow the more lucrative path, using more provocative poses and often having models partially dressed in stockings and lingerie. The government, with it’s fingers always on the hot throbbing pulse of the Nation, began to crack down; France instituted laws prohibiting the sale of nude photographs in 1850 and promulgated laws preventing their
circulation in the mail in 1862. Of course that merely served to drive the business underground and probably raised the prices.
During and immediately after the First World War the production of erotic postcards really began to flourish, reaching its “Golden Age” during the brief period between the wars when European society exploded with a new vision of art and decadence. Although several famous photographers openly published erotic works, the more risque tended to be distributed under pseudonyms or under the names of commercial studios. Among names like “Monsieur X” and “Studio Biederer”, (more on these in later posts) Grundworth stood out as being not only one of the most prolific but also one of the most bawdy.
The anonymous “Grundworth” appears lost to history although hundreds of images dating from the 1890’s through the 1930’s are attributed to this unknown photographer, or collaboration of photographers. The photographs have been compared to contemporary artist Robert Crumb, with a fetish for big shoes and big butts. But the poses rise beyond mere titillation, representing the congruence of high and low art typical of the period when the medium was transitioning from “artist models” to honest smut.
A likely theory is that Grundworth was a pseudonym created from various photographers who wanted to create more lucrative and bawdy images while maintaining their standard lines of more classical poses; an underground studio publishing anonymously could provide some protection against indecency charges.
The Swiss writer and photographer Serge Nazarieff is known to have handled some of the Grundworth negative plates, and postulated that the name may be an anagram of Albert Wyndham, a known photographer of the period who specialized in the artistic models. Grundworth and Wyndham used some of the same models, although this is hardly surprising. However, the pronounced variety in both technical expertise and composition in the many Grundworth sets combined with a span of almost 4 decades worth of published material makes it highly unlikely that the works could be attributed to a single artist. On the other hand, it is equally difficult to imagine how a collaborative effort of such magnitude could remain a mystery despite the number of historians and writers who have attempted to document it since then.
Academically, these photographs have been characterized as”…reflecting the breaking of social mores that divided classes and oppressed women…” In reality they were more likely simply designed to appeal to sexual instincts. Technically, however they represent superb examples of the genre, and despite their mysterious origins they have stood the test of time. The quality and sheer numbers of prints produced by this anonymous studio remain in circulation today, some of them fetching as much as $200 USD for a single original print.