Le capitaine Costentenus
Poster for a sideshow type act at the Folies-Bergère, circa 1880s.
Recently I was at the ethnographic Musée du quai Branly in Paris. A post about some of the museum’s permanent collection of lovely, demented and/or terrifying masks will follow shortly, but the museum also currently have an exhibition on (until the middle of October 2014) called Tatoueurs, Tatoués (Tattooers, Tattooed) which is worth seeing if only to be reminded that there can be more to tattoos than spelling error tramp stamps, nonsense kanji, the ubiquitous badly drawn pseudo-tribal sleeve, and permanent disfigurements that are just plain wrong.
The exhibition has modern examples and historical images from all over Asia, Europe and Oceania, but for some reason the image that stuck with me was the one shown above, of ‘Captain Costentenus’. Maybe it’s just my general prediliction for Victoriana. He was an attraction at the Folies-Bergère, the Parisian cabaret that remains in operation to this day. The caption says “Tattooed by order of Yakoob-Beg, chief of the Tartars, with two million dots and 325 animal figures.” Did somebody actually count the dots? Maybe Costentenus did, as they were being poked into him.
Another colour lithograph, in English (below)– from the reliably kinky Wellcome Collection– gives further information about Captain Costentenus, describing him as a “Greek Albanian, tattooed from head to foot in Chinese Tartary, as punishment for engaging in rebellion against the King”… the king presumably being the aforementioned Yakoob-Beg. Chinese Tartary is an obsolete term, referring broadly to the areas such as Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria, which doesn’t quite match up with him being Greek Albanian although I guess he could have been travelling when he committed whatever transgression caused Yakoob-Beg to mandate such an elaborate punishment. Either that, or we’re looking at what we’d call nowadays creative PR.
19th century aquaria were evidently as much sites for general oddity as they were display facilities for fish.
Awkwaaaaaaard… ‘Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife’ by John Singer Sargent, 1885.
John Singer Sargent painted Robert Louis Stevenson three times, but never so oddly as he did in this picture that also (half) includes Stevenson’s wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, while decisively excluding and marginalising her. Stevenson wrote of the painting:
“… too eccentric to be exhibited. I am at one extreme corner; my wife, in this wild dress, and looking like a ghost, is at the extreme other end… all this is touched in lovely, with that witty touch of Sargent’s; but of course, it looks dam [sic] queer as a whole.”
Stevenson had also once told a friend that his marriage to Fanny had left him “as limp as a lady’s novel”, and it seems Sargent agreed. He painted Stevenson as an awkward prisoner in his own home, “the caged animal lecturing about the foreign specimen in the corner.”1 Fanny’s view of the painting or of Sargent calling her a “foreign specimen” seems to be unrecorded, but I think it’s safe to guess that her first sight of this painting was probably a bit awkward and left poor Louis with some explaining to do.
The strange case of Mr Stevenson and Mr Hyde
It was around the time of this painting that Stevenson came up with his most famous and enduring work, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He apparently did so while delirious and bed-ridden, although most likely not while completely whacked out on drugs as has sometimes been suggested. We’ll probably never know for sure, but it certainly seems that in his delirium Stevenson inadvertently outed himself in ways that Sargent already understood but Stevenson possibly didn’t, otherwise he wouldn’t have allowed Jekyll and Hyde to be published at all. This painting certainly portrays several memorable and salient features of the story: there is schizoid compartmentalisation, visually it recalls the dirty, neglected back door “with no knocker” that only Hyde ever uses (no, Louis, I don’t think you need to be any more obvious), and its staging evokes a sense of profound alienation from domesticated heteronormative life.