This past Thursday, Florida International University History Department professors Ken Lipartito and Rebecca Friedman brought to the Wolfsonian library Judith Surkis, a visiting professor from Columbia University who specializes in French cultural, colonial, and gender history. Ms. Surkis has taught at Harvard University, has authored Sexing the Citizen: Morality and Masculinity in France, 1870 – 1920 (published in 2006), and is presently working on another work titled “Scandalous Subjects: Intimacy and Indecency in France and French Algeria, 1830 – 1930.”

Our own rare book and special collections library, of course, has great holdings on the subjects of gender and sexuality in France (including many limited edition books published in the aftermath of the First World War). In fact, some of these materials were showcased in a library exhibit put together some year’s ago entitled “Fashion and Passion: Deluxe Pochoir Editions.” In the so-called roaring twenties, publishing houses in France began to produce deluxe edition books and portfolios for collectors that made use of the pochoir (or “stencil work”) technique for producing vibrant color prints. Fine pochoir editions combining Orientalist themes with erotic illustrations proved popular among upper middle class male book collectors in France—that is, of course, until the Stock Market crash of 1929 and onset of the Great Depression rendered these time and labor-intensive and financially expensive projects unaffordable.


Ms. Surkis seemed particularly taken with the stencil work portfolio Elphie et son éléfant, an obvious parody of the popular Babar the Elephant series of French children’s books. This particular work, however, was designed for adults, as its eleven color pochoirs by Wynn Holcomb chronicled the affair of Elphie and an adulterous elephant.

The visiting scholar was also shown a very small sampling of the Wolfsonian Library’s extensive holdings of rare books and ephemera originally printed to inspire pride in France’s overseas empire in the interwar period. The library, for example, has a wealth of works produced for the many colonial expositions held in Europe, and some years ago I had put together a display of colonial materials for use by a class I taught at FIU on the subject. Thursday’s impromptu display for Ms. Surkis focused exclusively on works documenting the French colonial presence in North Africa, and primarily included materials from the Exposition nationale coloniale held in Marseilles 1922 and the Exposition coloniale internationale in Paris 1931.

Color plate from Eight Days at the Colonial Exhibition at Marseilles, depicting a simulated native loom in front of Orientalist building


There is an abundance of materials on the representation of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and other colonies of the Maghreb region, whose post-colonial states have recently returned to the spotlight in wake of the year-old “Jasmine Revolution” that rolled across the region.




In addition to vintage postcards and photographic portfolio plates depicting the “Orientalist” buildings designed by French architects for the Paris 1931 Colonial Exposition, the library also possesses a unique portfolio of watercolors with Pierre Falké’s imaginative renderings of “colonial encounters” at the fair grounds.


We only hope that this will be the first of many more visits by Professor Surkis and that other scholars focused on such themes and our collecting period will also be inspired by this post to come to the Wolfsonian to research these materials.


~ by "The Chief" on January 14, 2012.

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