When Claudine Faifer unwrapped the 165 oil paintings that arrived at her Miami Beach home last May, the first thing she thought was, “ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod!” There, among the vibrant scenes of clowns, carnivals and cafés, were 65 erotic images painted by her father, the late Jacques Faifer, a little-known artist whose colorful works capture Parisian life in the mid-20th century.
“For years I’d been begging my father: Give me some paintings, give me some paintings,” Ms. Faifer told the Forward. Her father — a French Jew who survived World War II by hiding in a monastery — promised she’d inherit his work when he died. “He never thought his paintings were good enough,” she added. “It was like a child for him, painting, and he wanted to be sure the people would love [his work] and it would have a good home.”
A collection of Faifer’s paintings finally found their home: the World Erotic Art Museum (WEAM) in South Beach, Fla., where 35 nudes are on display through October 30. The exhibition, “Parisian Erotic: Paintings of the Erotic Pleasures of Paris,” bursts with color, spontaneity and charming scenes of life. A woman plays poker topless. Another poses nude, dripping in jewels and accessories, while onlookers gasp and sneak peaks. In a third painting, a red-haired woman is surrounded by a field of flowers so colorful it’s as if Faifer plucked the reds, blues and golds straight from a rainbow. With their pale, palpable skin, his women are at once serene and mysterious; often beautiful; sometimes perplexing.
In 1931, when Faifer was just eight years old, two seminal events occurred: He won first prize in a department store drawing contest, and met his future wife. He learned to sculpt while hiding in a French monastery during the war, and later put his artistic skills to use when he joined the French Resistance and forged fake identification papers for Jews. Although he continued to paint after the war, returning to Paris and opening a store in Les Puces, Paris’s flea market, it wasn’t until after his wife died in 1992 that he really indulged his artistic talent.
“My father was a recluse in the last 10 years of his life,” Ms. Faifer said. “He was painting. That’s all he was doing.” She remembers him as a bon vivant — a voracious reader, a jokester, a inspirational thinker and storyteller. “He loved women and I think he was very respectful of women,” she said. “I guess he just loved sex but…my mother was the love of his life, and that was it, period.”
So how did a collection of undiscovered nudes find its way to WEAM’s main gallery? Five years ago, Ms. Faifer met a woman who was opening an erotic art museum. As she told Examiner.com, “We were joking; she was trying to get permits, and she told me, ‘You are French. In France, they understand erotic art. Here they think it’s just porn.’”
That woman was Naomi Wilzig, a mother and a grandmother who has positioned herself at the center of one of the world’s preeminent erotic art collections. It all started when her eldest son, Ivan, requested “erotic conversation pieces” for his bachelor pad. Fourteen years later, after visits to flea markets and antique shops around the world, Wilzig opened WEAM in October 2006, with 4,000 pieces valued at $10 million. (Ivan, meanwhile, became a recording artist and competed as Mr. Mitzvah on Sci Fi’s reality show “Who Wants to be a Superhero.” His weapon of choice: a Star of David paddle.) Wilzig is also the widow of the late Siggi Wilzig, an Auschwitz survivor who became president and CEO of the Trust Co. of New Jersey and helped found the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
At WEAM, there’s something for everyone: A biblical and antiquities collections, the classical corridor, and a fetish- and masturbation-themed room, not to mention treasures from the pin-up, gay, lesbian and domination genres. Now Faifer’s nudes are part of that list. (Next year, a collection of his circus scenes will appear at WEAM.) And so, in his death, Faifer has found an audience for his work — and a contented daughter. “It was very soothing to get those paintings,” she said. “I’m at peace, because I enter his world.”