An extraordinary erotic bookcase has been lent for display outside Paris for the first time, in an exhibition on French Belle Époque prints at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. Designed by François-Rupert Carabin, it is surmounted by three female nudes modelled from prostitutes recruited at Montmartre brothels. Carabin (1862-1932), now largely known among cognoscenti, was a sculptor, engraver and photographer. His friends included Rodin, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec.
The 1890 walnut bookcase was commissioned by the wealthy engineer and amateur artist Henry Montandon. According to Fleur de Carvalho, the curator of the Amsterdam show, Montandon probably kept prized erotica in the lower print portfolio cabinet. The front of the cabinet is carved with two nudes in relief, one energetically astride a printing press and the other leafing through a print collection. An ironwork mouse serves as the cabinet’s handle.
Leaning over the top of the bookcase are three carved allegorical nudes. The central one, peering into a mirror, represents Truth and those in the corners Reading and Intellect. De Carvalho points out that the women are “striking, but by no means conventionally beautiful”. On the left side of the bookcase is a pile of James Ensor-like masks, representing sins such as Vanity, Folly and Hypocrisy. A snake is entwined in the ironwork foliage.
Carabin’s bookcase was rejected for the radical Salon des Indépendants exhibition in 1890, on the grounds that it would lead to artists “sending in chamber pots”. After being inherited by Montandon’s heirs, the Carabin was acquired for the Musée d’Orsay in 1983.
François-Rupert Carabin walnut bookcase (1890)
It was complicated to transport the three-metre high bookcase to the Amsterdam exhibition. At the Musée d’Orsay it is used to display ceramics, but at the Van Gogh Museum it is being returned to its original use, with leather-bound books now gracing its shelves. “We want to show the close affinities between prints and books, which provided a private world for collectors”, De Carvalho says. The bookcase is now on display along with 250 Parisian prints.
Even those who know of Carabin’s astonishing furniture may be surprised to learn of his collection of erotic (sometimes pornographic) photography, which he shot in around 1900 using models from brothels. Carabin was a friend of the architect and artist Le Corbusier, and Carabin’s daughter gave him over 600 of these photographs, which are now in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay.
• Prints in Paris 1900: From Elite to the Street, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, until 11 June