From RUSSIA with Love

Moscow based artist Valeria Kemnits has permitted me to reproduce her rather lovely illustrations to Story of O.
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They have an unmistakably fairy tale style in keeping with how Pauline Réage (Dominique Aury, – born Anne Desclos) described her novel Histoire d’O:
“Story of O is a fairy tale for another world, a world where some part of me lived for a long time, a world that no longer exists except between the covers of a book.”
Valeria, a graduate of Moscow Folk Arts Higher School and Stroganov Moscow State University of Industrial And Applied Arts, tells me; “I chose this book for my diploma work because it’s kind of fairy tale, – a little bit. Unfortunately they were not published. That’s my big dream…”istoriya_O.indd

“I chose this book for my diploma work because it’s kind of fairy tale…”

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Since beginning her career in the late 1990s Valeria has exhibited widely. Soon after graduating in 2004 she exhibited in Sweden with over thirty works sold by auction, at the JFC cultural center in Stockholm. Exhibitions followed in Moscow (including «Hansa: Dream of time» at the Moscow House of Nationality) and in Sorrento, Italy.
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In recent times Valeria has turned her attention to interpreting the music of Metallica about which she maintains;13043401_994350610641192_7344386206319378298_n (2)
“Everything is there: suffering and hope, pain and happiness, love and hate, life and death, anger and serenity…”

All images © Valeria Kemnits



Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage with a foreword by Jean Paulhan, was initially published in an edition of 600 copies by Jean-Jacques Pauvert and appeared in Paris in June 1954. Some copies – nobody seems to know how many – carried a small engraving by German artist Hans Bellmer on the title page. Happy is the man who can afford to add the Bellmer-embellished edition to his library. One re-bound copy made available by the Christie’s auction house (in November 2014) fell to the hammer at UK£2,125.00 (US$3,326)


This is what Christie’s had to say about the first edition of Story of O:

INFLUENTIAL EROTIC TEXT OF THE 20TH CENTURY. One of only 600 copies, this one with the fine Bellmer etching found in less than half of the edition. Desclos began Histoire d’O as a private lover letter to Jean Paulhan, a towering literary figure, in part to
keep the attention of her lover, in part responding to his quip that women were incapable of writing erotica. Proven wrong, Paulhan urged her to publish, and took the manuscript to Pauvert who, after an overnight reading, exclaimed ‘it’s marvelous, it’ll spark a revolution’. Histoire d’O became an unqualified commercial success. The identity of its author caused intense speculation, many doubting that it could be the work of a woman, let alone the demure h-1200-reage_pauline_histoire-do_1954_edition-originale_tirage-de-tete_5_48276-3and bookish Desclos, who denied authorship for four decades. In February 1955 Histoire d’O won the literature prize ‘Prix des Deux Magots’, which did not stop French authorities from bringing obscenity charges against the publisher. These were dropped, but a publicity ban was imposed for a number of years. Number 471 of 480 on vergé paper. Cf. Pia Enfer, 634.


Currently a Swiss bookdealer has a copy for sale featuring the Bellmer vignette (and signed in a dedication by Jean Paulhan) priced at US$ 6,735.28 (plus shipping), and maintains the etching “would have adorned only 200 [copies] of the 480 announced”. Another bookdealer, this time in France, proffers, “the engraving of Hans Bellmer, theoretically reserved to the 20 first copies on Arches paper.”


Hans Bellmer (13 March 1902 – 24 February 1975) was a German artist, best known for the life-sized pubescent female dolls he produced in the mid-1930s. He was born in the city of Kattowitz, then part of the German Empire (now Katowice, Poland). After WW2, Bellmer lived the rest of his life in Paris. He gave up doll-making and spent the following decades creating erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, and paintings. The Ubu Gallery in New York rightly maintained;

Although most acclaimed for the life-sized
adolescent female dolls he produced and 1photographed, Bellmer was a master draftsman formally trained in engineering, design and perspective. His drawings evince exceptional quality of line and he is a worthy successor to the northern European classicists, such as Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald, whose “Isenheim Altarpiece” exerted such a profound impact on his creative psyche. He applied the precision of the Old Masters to his own distinctive figurative style of drawing marked by eros, duality, metamorphosis and abstraction. Bellmer succeeded in rendering a sexually-laden atmosphere that realized a personal language of desire which, in his own words, “made it possible to recreate physically the dizzying heights of passion and to do so to the extent of creating new desires.”


Bellmer lent his artistry to illustrate other works of literature. It was ‘O’ publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert who commissioned frontispieces for Histoire d’O and for Louis Aragon’s Le Con d’Irènehaving given Bellmer a little exhibition in Paris in 1952. Throughout this final period of his career Bellmer concentrated on engraving, leaving little time for painting. Amongst other works, he illustrated L’Anglais décrit dans le château fermé by André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Madame Edwarda by Georges Bataille, and texts by de Sade. Bellmer explained;

“To transfer my drawings on to copper and to print them on to a heavy Rives paper is the unique means of making good the enchantment, if I may so describe it, of my pencil lines.”

De Mandiargues wrote in his study of Bellmer’s engraved work:

That the engraving, rather than the canvas or the sheet of paper under the brush, pen or crayon should be the ideal support for this grave eroticism from which is banished all facility, all slightness, all frivolity, is not at all astonishing. A biting and burning comprehension of the flesh could not be better served than by the stopped plate, the acid and the small, cruel tools used by the engraver. (Bellmer, OEuvre Gravé pub. 1976)



ALL GROWN UP? In Bed With Musubu Nakai

02_03_2016_my_room_by_musubunakai-d9trmteA fair number of artists, photographers and writers have taken Story of O as their inspiration. The result is a fascinatingly disparate range of imaginings, sometimes privately commissioned for the eyes of their client only. This, if I am not mistaken, is the case with artist/illustrator Musubu Nakai and his illustrations for Histoire d’O.

Musubu in the school playground and Musubu grown up

Catching a glimpse of Musubu in his signature pork-pie hat, hiding beyond a mirror’s reflection, or of his right foot (or simply his bed), one could be forgiven for believing Musubu Nakai to be something of a mystery man. But dig a little deeper across the internet and you will find numerous candid photos of the artist with friends, colleagues, and at exhibitions, or simply going about his business with youthful confidence and deserved self assurance.ynppwi6jzyw-2

I say deserved as Musubu is clearly a master of his chosen path and a fascinatingly fastidious talent. He has tapped into his homeland’s propensity for little-girl culture and identified himself completely with the subject matter of the old masters painters, poets and photographers the world over, that of the adolescent female as a supreme and sacred form of Beauty. The child-woman who inhabits a Wonderland limbo between childhood and adulthood, one whose sexuality hovers about innocence as fragile as a butterfly in first flight. And here there are butterflies and moths aplenty. Musubu alighting like a collector of butterflies, upon the inspirational examples of Balthus, Bellmer, Tenniel and perhaps Frau Wülfing and her young melancholic angels. One is impelled to enquire, as did Gilles Néret about Balthus’s young girls, “Are they real? Or are they puppets, dolls and automata?” 


Other inspirations are wide ranging, from The Cure, David Bowie and Kate Bush, to Joy Division and Steve Reich. From Victorian puppets and dolls, photographs by Irina Ionesco, pleated skirts, Anime, Manga, and tattoos, to Twin Peaks, and Blade Runner.iieuyh7eyauAnd it is not surprising that Musubu alights upon Histoire d’O with, in its closing pages, the adolescent hungry-for-adventures Natalie: “wonderstruck, smitten with desire and curiosity.” 

Musubu effortlessly transforms Dominique (Pauline Réage) Aury’s childhood phantasms into the world he makes his own. The novel’s text illustrated, and carefully bound, stitched together in hand made bindings. O’s world become fairytale, whip-marks and moths. The whole secretive and discreet. 

Of himself Musubu Nikai has written somewhat disparagingly;

“I became an artist in 2008. In reality, I do not want to do anything. Until now, like those that catch fish in the ocean to live, I scrounged for trash in the garbage area and sold it for money. But because laws changed I was forced out of the garbage area. Then I had no choice but to become an artist. Being an artist is like selling trash… pick up some good garbage and sell it to those who want it… It’s the same exact process. As an artist, my pleasure is to find beauty.”


“Although it is very enjoyable, finding beauty does not have much value. My goal in life is to die. Until that moment of my death, I have no choice but to live and kill time. I work hard and enjoy things that give me pleasure. The most pleasurable things are sex and stroking my cat’s head. That is why my drawings are composed of these things”


ABOVE: Histoire d’O: O in the library at Roissy, as portrayed by Musubu Nakai

PHOTOS: Musubu forever in the mirror/ in signature hat/ with sculpture by Bellmer/
finishing a large drawing/ “my right foot”/ Musubu’s unmade bed

Perhaps Musubu prefers to remain on the far side of the looking glass after all, slightly obscured, sometimes out of focus. He perhaps would insist to reiterate the demands made in 1967 by Balthus in a letter to the Tate Gallery in London, “No biographical details. Begin: Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures.”


Artist extraordinaire: Musubu Nakai

All images © Musubu Nakai

O at Sixty Two

Sixty years on, Story of O remains a powerful book, no longer as shocking as it once was, and no longer causing incredulity that it was written by a woman, Histoire d’O still occupies its unique position high in the pantheon of erotic literature.
“Published simultaneously in French and English, Story of O portrayed explicit scenes of bondage and violent penetration in spare, elegant prose, the purity of the writing making the novel seem reticent even as it dealt with demonic desire, with whips, masks and chains.”

Well thumbed… Histoire d’O

Peter Fryer, who wrote a book on the British Museum’s collection of erotica, described it as a ‘daydream transfigured by literary skill, notably by obsessive detail, Henry James’s “solidity of specification”‘.

“But beyond its merits as a literary work, its merits or limits as pornography, there lies the paradox that this incendiary book was written by a woman who wore little make-up and no jewellery, who dressed with quiet elegance, who lived out a polite, bluestocking existence in a small flat with her parents and son. Beneath this unlikely exterior raged terrible passions. In the end, the most instructive aspect of the book is that it demonstrates the demoniac nature of sexuality in any or all of us. This quiet, learned woman understood the power of sex. She knew that desire can ignite compulsions to commit sudden, arbitrary violence and induce a yearning for voluptuous, annihilating death.”
(Geraldine Bedell,
The Observer)

In memorium :
Dominique Aury ( born Anne Desclos, Rochefort-sur-Mer,
France, 1907, – died 30 April 1998 )