Wilhelm von Gloeden

(1856 – 1931)

Born in Wismar, Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden was a German photographer who spent most of his career in Italy.

After studying art history in Rostock, von Gloeden studied painting in Weimar until he was forced by lung disease to interrupt his studies for a year, which he spent convalescing at a sanatorium on the Baltic Sea. There he met Otto Geleng, a painter and a resident of Taormina in Sicily, a key figure in turning Taormina into a cosmopolitan tourist resort, and was persuaded to take up residence there to fully recover from his illness in the warmer climate of Sicily. Apart from a brief period during the first world war, von Gloeden would remain in Taormina until his death in 1931.

At the time von Gloeden moved to Taormina the village was still small, impoverished and relatively unknown to tourists. Through Geleng, von Gloeden became acquainted with the local milieu, and in 1877-1878, he undertook his first photographic attempts, under guidance from local photographers. From Taormina von Gloeden traveled often throughout Italy and in Naples, where he established contact with photographer Wilhelm von Plüschow, a distant relative. Von Plüschow, a commercial photographer, taught him photographic techniques and inspired von Gloeden to dedicate himself to his photographic interest. Both von Plüschow and  von Gloeden shared an interest in nude studies, and both envisioned a revival of the classical antiquity canon via photographic composition: this canon, along with an homoerotic inspiration, would underlie the choice of subjects for which he is mostly famous nowadays, the male nude studies. Von Gloeden wrote in 1898:

The Greek forms appealed to me, as did the bronze-hued descendants of the ancient Hellenes, and I attempted to resurrect the old, classic life in pictures

As a gifted dilettante, von Gloeden started exhibiting his work internationally in London (1893 ), with subsequent exhibitions including Cairo (1897), Berlin (1898–99, a solo exhibition), Philadelphia (1902), Budapest and Marseilles (1903), Nice (1903 and 1905), Riga (1905), Dresden (1909) and Rome (World Fair 1911).

In 1895, when von Gloeden family’s fortune was lost, he turned photography into a proper profession. His output during this period, in which homoerotic inspiration is virtually absent, attracted widespread attention to von Gloeden’s work. His studies of peasants, shepherds, fishermen, depicted in traditional Sicilian costume, typical scenes of Sicilian daily life, with young girls and old men, water-carriers and priests, country roads and town squares are significant in terms of both formal composition and lyricism. These images, as well as his landscape photography, were often commercialised in postcard format, and thus contributed to developing a certain image of Sicily as a picturesque Mediterranean destination, as well as helping promote tourism in Italy and in Taormina in particular.

It is difficult to estimate von Gloeden’s output, but a commonly held figure is around 7 000 pictures. Of the 3 000 glass masters and negatives seized by the Italian authorities in the mid-1930s, only 25% were returned intact.

Most of the surviving pictures (negatives and prints) are now in the Fratelli Alinari photographic archive in Florence (which, in 1999, purchased 878 glass negatives and 956 vintage prints to add to its existing collection of 106 prints). The Kinsey Institute owns 250 pictures. The Historical Archives of the European Union has a number of von Gloeden’s pictures in its François-Xavier Ortoli collection.

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