Suzanne Ballivet: Erotica Dimentica* ENG

literally translated: erotica “forget”, Rather than “forget” it would be more appropriate to write
“forgotten”, since that’s what it’s about.. Suzanne Ballivet was an illustrator, designer, erotic painter. Today we discover something about her.

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Suzanne Ballivet, portrait 1931

Historical notes

Suzanne Ballivet (1904 – 1985) was an illustrator, painter and costume designer. She was born in Paris, where she lived for a short time, but most of her life was spent in Montpellier, in southern France, where her photographer father worked and where she attended high school. There, in 1923, she began her studies at the School of Fine Arts and met those who would become her husbands – not at the same time, polyamory was not yet contemplated: Camille Descossy, painter, first and Albert Dubout, illustrator, later.

The 1930s and 1940s are the years of her career as an erotic illustrator. Through Albert Dubout, already an established satirical illustrator, she comes into contact with Colette, Marcel Pagnol – with whom she will maintain a long collaboration -, Pierre Louys; but she will also illustrate Baudelaire, “Venus in Fur” by Sacher-Masoch and the famous novel “initiation amoureuse” by an anonymous writer.

Variety of techniques and stories

The production of Suzanne Ballivet is very rich. Pencils, watercolors, lithographs and, of course, paintings are part of her range of skills; her knowledge of human anatomy comes not only from her attendance at the Fine Arts, but also from the drawings she used to make, to scrape together some money, at medical school; her skill in rendering the details of fabrics goes back to her work in costume design for the theater company of her friend Jean Catel.

Her illustrations appeared in many novels and short stories and it’s not hard to find her work on the web. Ebay, amazon and even IBS sell editions, especially Marcel Pagnols’s, with Ballivet’s illustrations. The problem is, in order to find out anything about her life and works, you need to recover what has been told about her (see the sources at the end of the article).

A pornographer woman is a woman who needs to be forgotten

[…]In this collection of erotic short stories, I was writing to entertain, under pressure from a client who asked me to “drop the poetry.” And so it seemed to me that my style was a product of reading male work […]. Eventually I decided to allow the stories to be published because they show the first efforts of a woman in a world that has been exclusively male dominated. […]

literal translation fromPreface of “Delta of Venus”, Anais Nin, Bompiani italian editions

Suzanne Ballivet places herself, with her work, in that neutral bubble that is the “erotic art” of the past, defined as such in our days, but which was nothing more than explicit pornography and which out of modesty today we take care to distinguish, so as to be able to hierarchize in terms of dignity.

This mainly means two things: apart from the most famous publications that have been mentioned, all the rest is stuff for private collectors and “cabinets de curiosité”, therefore not really thought for public audiences (consequently not even for the press and therefore not for a media diffusion that would lead to celebrity); moreover, like all creative domains, eroticism was a male prerogative: the commissioners are men of power who commission an imagery to male artists (do you remember the story of Khalil Bey and Gustave Courbet? ), who would take a woman seriously?

Suzanne Ballivet, despite an absolutely prolific career, finds herself engulfed in the coils of history that tells the man for the man and forgets the rest.

Chrono-erotica of Ballivet

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Suzanne Ballivet, les chansons de Bilitis. 1943

Which is a real shame: her work is by no means obvious. For Pierre Louys she illustrated “Les chansons de Bilitis” (the songs of Bilitis), 1943, a collection of erotic Sapphic poems, in which sex between women was portrayed with as much joy, mischief, and curiosity as any heterosexual scene.
This was the series that pioneered her erotic work.

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Suzanne Ballivet, Poésies Libres, 1948

For Apollinaire‘s posthumous publications, particularly “poésies libres” (free poems – explicit, in this case -),1948, Ballivet illustrated four plates that open to the verses of the modern poet, who died in 1918. The opulent clothes, round asses and erect cocks tell of a very common imagery among the upper class: the playful sex, almost always stolen from other household chores, of aristocratic people . There is always an atmosphere of celebration, but unlike erotic and intimate scenes aimed at “initiating love”, this type of porn not only gave the reality of sex, but also the fantasy of impetuous and voyeuristic passions.

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Suzanne Ballivet, Iniziation amoreuse, 1950

“Initiation amoureuse” (initiations into love), 1950. is the re-titling of “prélude charnel” (carnal prelude) and it’s probably Suzanne Ballivet’s most “famous” and heartfelt work. At the time of the commissioning of these panels she was dating Albert Dubout, the man who would become her husband, and it is possible that these erotic scenes were nothing more than evidence of their passion and sexual exploration. Women are often portrayed in wedding attire, and their mutual sexual attentions are always immersed in an intimate and romantic atmosphere.

By completely mysterious ways – or not at all – Suzanne Ballivet has disappeared not so much from history books – erotic art is not found in history books – but from memory altogether. I started poking around by opening Döpp’s erotic encyclopedia and then I found what little is left on the web, which of course I leave at your disposal, while here I remain with so many questions.

Translation by: Francesca Paola Plicato


Erotica Encyclopaedia, Hans Jürgen Döpp

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