Louis Couperus - non binary avant la lettre?

Louis Couperus - non binary avant la lettre?

27 January - 31 December 2023

In this memorial year we commemorate the centenary of Couperus's death. The 53d exhibition in our museum has a provocative title. The expression 'Non binary' refers to the diverse and inclusive nowadays gender world. It contains a rainbow of identities: from hetero to homosexual, lesbian, pan sexual or 'queer'. Some of Couperus's characters fit well within this description. In his books we find many individuals whom we can describe as having a fluid identity, and who could easily be classed under this new definition.

Bertie in Footsteps of Fate (1891), for instance, comes acress as a closet homosexual. Léonie van Oudijck in The Hidden Force (1900) is almost masculine in her unbridled nymphomania. Seven years before Jung invented his theory of the anima and the animus in human souls, Couperus explicitly mentions Elly's masculine and Lot's feminine qualities (in Old People and the Things that Pass, 1906). The theme culminates in De berg van licht (The Mountain of Light, 1905-1906), which tells the story of the rise and fall of the decadent Roman emperor Elagabalus; during the religious rituals which he has to perform when he is still Priest of the Sun in the Syrian town of Emesa, Bassianus, as he is then called, strives to incarnate into the original androgyne which lies at the base of creation in many gnostic religions in the ancient Middle East. Unfortunately, this wonderful novel was never translated into English.

In our exhibition, six installations look at various aspects of Couperus's life and work. We know that he presented himself as an impeccably dressed, feminine man - but was he homosexual? It has never been proven. The outside world charicatured his feminine side relentlessly. On the other hand, Couperus liked to dress down and go slumming in the more dodgy quarters of Amsterdam, Nice or Rome in order to observe life in pubs and brothels. His writing is anything but effeminate, on the contrary. In De berg van licht for instance, blood flows freely. Women trample their own babies in their frenzy to watch Bassianus dance. From a nowadays point of view one could say Couperus was, as it were: non binary: male and female combined.

We investigate the different types of men and women in Couperus's novels: from the military he-man (around 1900, The Hague was a garrison city), to the effeminate dandy, from the femme fragile to the femme fatale. Also, there is a link to the nowadays gender world. In the garden room of the museum we meet a number of icons of the 'queer' community. 

One of Couperus' bon mots is: 'If I am anything at all, I am a Hagenaar' (an inhabitant of The Hague). This saying contains a lot of irony, for he spent most of his time as far away from his native city as possible. In a more serious mode, we could urge our gender fluid contemporaries: 'If you are anything at all - then just be yourself.'

The exhibition was created by Josephine van de Mortel and Henk Boelmans Kranenburg. It was made possible thanks to financial contributions from Fonds 1818 and a Foundation that wishes to remain anonymous.


View of one of the installations: Couperus in a golden cage Photo Piet Gispen

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