She is so tall, so slender; and her bones—
Those frail phosphates, those carbonates of lime—
Are well produced by cathode rays sublime,
By oscillations, amperes, and by ohms.
Her dorsal vertebrae are not concealed
By epidermis, but are well revealed.
Lawrence K. Russel (1896)
Nothing shouts sensuality and eroticism more than a beautiful set of bones (literally) reminding you of your own inevitable death. Well, actually no. We could say that for our modern standards that’s kind of creepy. I mean to start with, why would you want to be anywhere near a skeleton? Or even worse, why would anyone literally pose, touch, or interact with it? Why are there so many photos of nineteenth century models engaging in flirtatious poses with them? To be honest, Victorians weren’t really as prudish as we've been told. Photographs like the ones we're about to see shatter the perception of this extremely conservative society with the stiffest moral values. So, what was going on with the skeleton erotica?
During the Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century, there was an increase in medical analysis and investigation of the human body. However, for the medical community the female anatomy wasn't worth studying. Since there wasn’t too much information nor images of how women looked from within, that is, of their organs and skeleton, so many drawings began to circulate.
Basically, the only part of the female body scientists were interested in was the pelvis and reproductive organs because, you know, women were thought to be only valuable for conceiving children. However, by the late nineteenth century, these views changed and a sudden fascination towards the female body emerged. This didn’t happen only in the medical circles, but also in sociological, artistic, and historical disciplines.
Now, during this time there was also a quite disturbing fascination for the sexualization of the dead female body. Soon, the sudden bewilderment the X-Ray introduced by looking at the insides of a living person turned into an obsessive and kind of disturbing voyeurism that charged these images with a huge erotic load. As it happens with these things, many people were alarmed by the fact that this could be a terrible violation of people's intimacy (some smart visionaries even started selling fake X-Ray proof garments).
As Murray Leeder explains in his book The Modern Supernatural and the Beginnings of Cinema, this technological advancement was soon introduced to the artistic circles, creating impressive photographs of skeletons posing a la Andreas Vesalius (the sixteenth-century anatomist who created one of the most beautiful anatomic engravings). Naturally, due to the voracious appetite for erotica and pornography of the time, the motif of the skeleton as a symbol of pure and natural sensuality became extremely popular. But the image of the dead lady didn’t only emerge with the X-Ray camera, but actually decades before with the Romantics, who created and popularized a solid imagery around this figure.
The connection between art and death has always existed. There are so many depictions of its personification, the Angel of Death, or the many "Memento Mori" paintings that worked as reminders of our inevitable fate. The case with these photographs, as well as the relationship between sexuality and death, isn’t that far from this idea. I mean, up until then, the numbers of sex-related causes of death, like STDs and women dying during childbirth, were quite alarming. Then, these photos not only portray the erotic load of the body itself, but also worked as reminders of death through a kind of dark humor that reminds us of our vulnerability. Yes, they can be quite creepy, but it's amazing how sensuality and eroticism can be portrayed together with highly comical and satirical themes. So, if you ask me, I love these quirks of the awesome Victorians.
If you want to continue surprising yourself with stories debunking myths of the Victorian era, don’t miss these: