By Claire Rosemberg (AFP) – Nov 3, 2009
PARIS — The sign hung at 12, rue Chabanais, in the days when the building housed the most prestigious of Paris' infamous bordellos, read "Welcome to the Chabanais: The House of All Nations".
With the brothels closed down 60 years ago, nowadays the skinny eight-storey building on a tiny street near the Louvre houses an employment agency and a bunch of flats. But right across the road, at number 11, a gallery is keeping its memories alive.
Nicole Canet, who runs a gallery-cum-boutique of erotic pictures and historic sex toys, is holding an exhibition there on the heyday of France's legendary "maisons closes", or authorised brothels.
"I love going back in time, playing detective," Canet, a 50-something former dancer, told AFP.
Along with a selection of whips in rhino-horn and other suggestive bits and pieces, the show revisits the life of the brothels from 1860 to their forced closure in 1946 in some 400 old photographs, etchings and books.
The Chabanais, for one, was a routine stopover for foreign dignitaries, who would be sneaked in secretly by French government officials. One of its most distinguished visitors was Britain's "Bertie", then Prince of Wales and soon to become King Edward VII.
"Bertie" had his own room there, as well as a giant copper bath -- with a half-woman half-swan figurehead -- that he liked to fill with champagne before jumping in, and a so-called "love-seat", a weird contraption said to be for threesomes.
Worlds apart from sordid back-rooms in cheap hotels, the high society brothels evoked in the show were luxury palaces with sumptuous decors designed to cater to any fantasy.
Old photographs of Le Chabanais show the entrance hall decked out like a primitive cave in bare stone. But inside, each room and parlour came with its own plush decor, from 18th century splendour to Moorish or Japanese overtones.
"The Indian room was for the Prince of Wales," Canet said. "The Chabanais was practically a national monument, it was listed as a site to see by the travel agencies."
The brothels combined the lure of private pleasures with chic bars and restaurants for party-goers, attracting stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Mae West and Marlene Dietrich -- whose favourite was the One Two Two, named after its address at 122 rue de Provence.
Photographer Robert Doisneau shot a series of elegant bedrooms and four-posters in the "One Two Two", which offered couples a musketeers' room, an African room, a pirate's room, a chamber of mirrors, and, like most of the high-end brothels, a torture chamber.
Writer Marcel Proust, whose tastes were male-inclined, joined other financiers in investing in two of the city's specialist brothels for men. The houses generally turned a good profit and some of its owners were creme de la creme society people.
On the cultural front, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who spent much of his time and drew much of his inspiration in the Paris brothels, offered Le Chabanais 16 paintings depicting male and female centaurs for the Pompeii room.
Along with crops for spanking and erotic door-knockers, a large old-fashioned wooden box fitted with lenses known as a stereoscope is on show. It enabled patrons to view pictures of the girls on offer.
In most houses, tokens rather than cash were used to avoid problems.
With almost scientific rigour, Canet has meticulously scoured the lost world of the brothels for the show and for a book, from its lingerie, to its tokens, literature and specialist painters and photographers.
"I can tell from the backdrop now which photographer took which picture, even when there is no name," she said. "And I've discovered there were probably only five men in Paris who posed for photographers specialising in men."
After collecting old erotica photos and selling them at a Paris flea market stand when she gave up life as a cabaret artiste, Canet a decade ago -- "by chance", she says -- opened her gallery opposite the site of Le Chabanais.
"I love going back in time, discovering the stories behind the pictures," said Canet, who has walked the city checking addresses on old documents.
"It is the work of an archaeologist," she said
Regretfully, the one item missing in her collection is a copy of the famed "Guide Rose", or Pink Guide, a slim pocket-size list of establishments of pleasure "in Paris, the Provinces, the Colonies".
"I know two old grandfathers who have copies, but they won't sell. They're rare and people just won't part with them."
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