Love & war

Thursday, September 27, 2007
Visitors looked at drawings and posters that are part of the "Love, War and Sexuality," exhibit in Paris. (Associated Press)

PARIS -- Everybody knows the photo of the sailor sweeping a nurse into his arms in Times Square, two strangers sealing the end of World War II with a kiss. Their embrace may be the most emblematic image of love and war.

But what about the private mementos and photos, tucked into pockets and treasured in the trenches and battlefields? Soldiers -- both German and French -- sculpted delicate engagement rings out of melted shrapnel. Some French World War I soldiers inscribed declarations of love onto autumn leaves using hundreds of pinpricks.

A fascinating new exhibit at Les Invalides in Paris examines the effect of the two World Wars on relationships and sexuality, leaving no facet unexamined. Next to the tender trinkets of separated lovers are shockingly gruesome French military film reels about venereal diseases, meant to scare soldiers away from the whorehouses.

In one gallery, there are soldiers' sexy pinups, including a life-size painting of a topless blonde that decorated a Nazi bunker on the Atlantic. Another gallery is laden with memories of unspeakable humiliations -- such as the photo of a synagogue in western France that was turned into a brothel for Nazi troops.

The curators say "Love, War and Sexuality," which opens Saturday at Les Invalides in Paris, is the most comprehensive exhibit ever put together on the subject. Many of the mementos and documents had been collecting dust in museum storage rooms in Europe and the United States.

"We went to museums and asked if by chance they had any condoms that were distributed to troops during World War I, and we expected them to laugh in our faces," said curator Daniele Voldman. "But we found them. We couldn't believe how many things we found."

On display for the first time are Mata Hari's travel papers, featuring a glamorous photo of the exotic dancer-turned-World War I spy wearing a feather-trimmed hat and dangling earrings.

The exhibit, which focuses on European fighting, is thematic, not chronological. Russian, French, British and German pieces are grouped all together, not by country. The show opens with propaganda posters -- astonishingly similar in every country -- depicting comely women calling men to arms or embracing the heroes.

One exception is a poster from fascist Italy. It shows a soldier in a farewell embrace -- not with his lover, but with his mother. "A kiss for mama and hit the road," it reads.

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