Georges Bataille’s erotic novella L’histoire de l’oeil (Story of the Eye) was originally published in 1928, but it was not until the early 1940s that clandestine copies began to appear more widely; it was censored until the 1950s and appeared in English translation only in 1953. Narrated by an unnamed young man looking back on his sexual exploits, L’histoire de l’oeil describes the perversions of a pair of teenage lovers. Simone is his primary female partner, but the narrative includes two important secondary figures, Marcelle, a mentally ill sixteen-year-old girl who comes to a sad end, and Lord Edmund, a voyeuristic English émigré aristocrat. Though often portrayed as pure pornography, interpretation of the story has gradually matured to reveal considerable philosophical and emotional depth, its imagery built upon a series of metaphors which in turn refer to philosophical constructs developed in Bataille’s wider work on the erotic, including the eye, the vagina, the anus, the testicle, the egg, the sun and the earth – conventionally uncomfortable connections which clearly resonated with Lisa Zirner when she was commissioned to illustrate the story.

Bright colours provide a welcome foil to this potentially dark tale, which in Zirner’s hands becomes a place of play and exploration as much as pain and torture. In her mature imagination (these pictures were made when she was already well into her seventies) she sees sado-masochism as potential for freedom and self-exploration, much as Bataille intended. These are possibly the best and most appropriate illustrations that could have been created to accompany this classic of transgressive literature.


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