Whilst waiting for a screening of Miklós Jancó’s The Round-up (Hungary, 1966) at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, I wondered onto an exhibition of photographs by Gabor Szilasi, a Hungarian photographer who emigrated to Montreal from Budapest after the popular uprising of ’56 and made a specialism of shooting Québécois filmmakers, often on set, always in context. The one on which my eye most lingered is the above, entitled, ‘Chambre de Louis-Philippe Yergea’ taken in Rollet, Témiscamingue, on July 1979.
At first glance I though, ‘this is what a gay man’s bedroom looked like in rural Quebec before the age of the internet’. I imagined Monsieur Yergea making annual trips to Montreal, buying the little porn then available and hanging it up on the walls and ceiling of his bedroom as object of veneration, worship, desire; fetish objects, wank material, make-do objets d’art; a bricolage of Yergea’s longings and desires. I can’t imagine anyone, rural or urban, having a bedroom like that now, with images proliferating in the internet and in the rest of our culture as they do.
A closer look reveals that it’s not only naked men on the walls; there are naked women also; we see a picture of the Virgin Mary, to the right of a naked man, above what might be Shirley Temple; below the naked man and to the left of Shirley Temple, is a glam shot of a couple, elegantly dressed, the woman bearing a striking resemblance to Faye Dunaway (an even closer look reveals that the couple is Johnny Halliday and Sylvie Vartan, French icons of the era). On the corner, above lots of spread-eagled young men is a holy portrait of Joseph and Child. The sacred and profane mingled together, mixed up with traces of pop-cultural icons; all surrounding the bed; a place for sex, dreaming, contemplation, rest and unrest, oblivion and wakefulness. What thoughts did those images and their placement give rise to? Why were they so meaningful that they necessitated nightly viewings instead of, say, being taken out from under the bed for easy arousal. Why the necessity of display, of having one’s mind fed by those images, nightly. Also, did anybody ever accompany Monsieur Yergea into that bedroom? Was it a private place, or was it occasionally open to others? Did he share the house with anybody; and if so, what did they make of the longings on display?
Simon Greenacre pointed out to me the similarity of Yergea’s room to Joe Orton’s: both are wall to wall cut-outs, imagery used as wallpaper, and both are in a bedroom (see Joe Orton’s below). One can feel the desire and inspiration both sets of images sought to evoke. But their differences are also very considerable. One is on the high-cultural side — roman statues, royal portraits, Van Gogh self-portraits. Some of Yeager’s are also icons of veneration and emulation but most of them are more low-rent and available: desirable men and women, offering themselves up to the camera, and presumably to Yergea’s gaze. The images of those anonymous bodies, coupled with the highly specific faces of the saints, brings out the play of the sacred and the profane, there to be worshipped but also as spur to defilement, a kind of ecstasy before death, or at least the ‘little death’ that is so concretised in Yergea’s bedroom.
Joe Orton’s bedroom
Mostly, the photograph (and indeed those of Joe Orton’s bedroom) once more underlined to me how powerful images of all kinds once where. I remember once entering a church in Seville, one which had previously been a mosque and before that a synagogue; going in from the grinding sun into the coolness of the church, and as one went into the darkness, the eye was entirely focused on an icon of the virgin, the only source of light descending as if from the heavens to illuminate it. The light brought out all the sparkles in the dress that costumed the icon so as to give it a glow, like an inner fire. It was like a mise-en-scène of religion and of desire, one that in this context, affected all senses, the smell of incense, the feeling of coolness, the removal of sound. I wondered then what it must have been like to grow up in medieval times and grow up with this being one of the few images one had access to seeing. The awe and wonder it must have inspired, the richness, the beauty, the desire, the sex, the heavenliness of it all. I felt we had lost that now that images of every kind are available everywhere. But it was still there for Louis Phillippe Yergea in his bedroom in 1976, if with the sexual element already clearly a dominant.