The Pornography of Martin van Maële
An accomplished engraver with a sharp ironic eye and a whimsical imagination, Maurice François Alfred Martin van Miële, better known by his pseudonym Martin van Maële, was a French illustrator of early 20th century literature whose work rivaled those of his contemporaries, Felician Rops and Luc Lafnet.
Mostly self-taught, van Maële spent time working as a freelance illustrator in Paris and Brussels before meeting notorious English erotica collector and publisher Charles Carrington in 1899. Carrington immediately recognized in van Maële’s work the perfect visual complement to the risqué texts for which Carrington saw a ready market. Carrington then became van Maële’s patron and employer, and for the next few years van Maële was the most popular of Carrington’s illustrators, working on the most important of his publications. Carrington entrusted to van Maële at least eight of the flagellation novels that became a staple of the French erotic book trade. The high point of van Maële’s work however, came in 1905–1907, when he produced La grande danse macabre des vifs.
Carrington originally published 100 limited edition copies of the book, whose four portfolios contained some of the most poignant yet bizarre erotic illustrations to ever come out of the fin de siècle. The references to the industrial revolution, to the Victorian ethic, to the problems of youth with its forbidden erotic fantasies, and aged men gasping for their last leap at sexual pleasure, indicate a strong sensitivity on the part of van Maële.
Many of the works also bear captions in idiomatic French that are amusing and satirical, and several of the works bear dedications to friends of the artist. All of the works bear out a vivid imagination, a master’s hand with drypoint, and a great craftsman’s sense of the art of etching.
Alongside his trademark erotica, Van Maële also illustrated classics, starting with the illustrations for H. G. Wells’ Les premiers hommes dans la lune (The First Men on the Moon), published by Félix Juven in 1901; he also later illustrated some of Juven’s editions of Sherlock Holmes and fifteen powerful etchings for Paul Verlaine’s ‘erotic trilogy’.
Martin van Maële is still widely renowned today, even if he’s only remembered for his erotic illustrations, a few examples of which can be found on this page, which consists of illustrations from “La Grande danse macabre des vifs" (1905) and "La sorcière", de Jules Michelet (1911).
Eroticism is powerful. It always has been. And luckily we still have Martin van Maële’s art to prove it.