While music-lovers were extolling the sweep and drama of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Pierre Louÿs, true to form, was imagining the sex lives of the great Wagnerian heroines – Elizabeth, Elsa, Freia, Fricka, Senta, Venus, and all the other Rhinemaidens. He penned a set of poems entitled Le trophée des vulves légendaires: neuf sonnets sur les héroïnes de Wagner rêvés au pied du Vénusberg en Août 1891 (The Prize for Legendary Vulvas: Nine Sonnets on Wagnerian Heroines Dreamt at the Foot of the Venusberg in August 1891).

Like so many of Louÿs’ many erotic manuscripts, Le trophée des vulves légendaires was not published until long after his death, in this case in 1948 ‘Aux dépens d’un groupe de bibliophiles parisiens’ (at the expense of a group of Parisian bibliophiles), in a small edition of 300 copies.

Elsa, a spread from the book

Though the book bears no mention of Hertenberger as the illustrator, and the eighteen etchings are far from the detailed, almost architectural style of much of his work from the 1940s, it was always known among book-collectors that they were by his hand. Their immediacy can sometimes verge on the gynaecological, but they match Louÿs’s verses perfectly, and are woven into the text on the page to produce a satisfying layout.

As a humorous touch, the limitation page of Le trophée des vulves légendaires is laid out as a typographical phallus, a neat coda to a stylish collaboration.

We are very grateful to Hans-Jürgen Döpp for these images; Hans-Jürgen, the compiler of many books on erotic art, curates the appropriately-named Venusberg online gallery and bookshop, which you can find here.