Sunday, 9 June 2013

The Sissy and The Thug

In preparation for the LGBT tour of Tate Britain (Sunday 30th June) I've been looking at some works by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Sargent is probably best known for his portraits of society ladies and dashingly distinguished men - he was the most lauded and sought-after portraitist of his day - and, as you can see from this self-portrait, a bit of a hipster who knew how to wear a hat. 

Self Portrait, John Singer Sargent

Sargent’s sexuality has been a matter of conjecture for many years. He stayed a bachelor his whole life and had no children, whilst remaining very secretive about his private affairs. He certainly hung out with lots of openly gay men, as many artists of the time did, painting them as well as socializing with them. Another painter, Jacques-Emile Blanche, declared after Sargent’s death that his sex life had been ‘notorious’ and called Sargent a ‘frenzied bugger’, though Blanche himself was one of the most notorious and untrustworthy gossips in Paris. 

Jacques-Emile Blanche (1886), Sargent

Certainly, Sargent’s lesser-known but equally celebrated paintings and drawings of male nudes seem to reveal a way of looking at men that eroticizes them, in contrast to his paintings of women, which tend to represent an exotic ideal of beauty. In his 1994 biography of Sargent, Trevor J. Fairbrother wrote:

'Sargent's art is the best "evidence" of his personality, and the homoeroticism of some portraits and many informal studies has been prudishly avoided by most scholars. If, indeed, Sargent balanced a public career with a repressed sexuality, his conflicted social-sexual identity may be a key to the successful tensions within his art... I propose that the visual emotional volatility of his work may have been shaped by his attraction to male beauty.'

It's also worth noting that Sargent thought of these male nudes as private work - he never exhibited them or showed them to anybody outside of a close circle during his lifetime - so it's possible to think of this as 'closeted' art.

Nude Study of Thomas McKeller (1917), Sargent

Study from a Nude Model (after 1900)

Male Nudes Wrestling (after 1900)
Even the infamous Portrait of Madame X (1884) that so scandalized Parisian society that Sargent felt moved to decamp permanently to London, whilst having a certain allure seems to be more about charisma than sex. Sargent famously re-painted the strap of the dress that had fallen loosely down from her shoulder in an attempt to make the painting more 'respectable,' though it's subject, Madame Virginie Gautreau, was always meant to be shown, in my view, as sexually 'free' rather than sexually 'available.'  

Portrait of Madame X (1884), Sargent

Tate Britain’s Portrait of W.G. Robertson (1894) is, for me, a representation and celebration of the sissy, with Sargent and Robertson collaborating to produce an image that is both unashamedly effeminate and codified as queer. Robertson is posed in the same full-length-with-a-twist-at-the-waist stance that many of Sargent’s female subjects used, because he and they knew how this flattered the figure. The dark, floor-length coat lengthens and slims the body, but also, I think, makes Robertson appear more youthful. He was 28 when this picture was painted but looks as if he’s playing dress-up in adult’s clothing. 

Portrait of W.G. Robertson (1894), John Singer Sargent

The jade-handled cane is not only camp and dandified, it’s a definite signal to those in the know that Robertson is one of them/us (isn’t that handle and the way Robertson’s fingers encircle it a bit, well…suggestive?) And where to start with the poodle lying at Robertson’s feet – Mouton it was called – a delicate pink bow tying the hair away from its eyes? Camp doesn’t begin to cover it…

As a bit of a sissy I’m very drawn to this portrait as a reflection of my own effeminacy. Of course, nowadays I see nothing wrong with any of that, but I haven’t always felt that way about myself. I had identified the sitter of this portrait as gay before I knew anything about him or the signals contained within it, and it also confirms for me the existence of an undoubtedly gay gaze in Sargent. It is Robertson’s hand on the hip that particularly resonates. How many times have we seen that gesture used to imply, represent, and accuse in relation to gay male sexuality? How many times in gay men's lives do we catch ourselves, stop ourselves, from executing it, and how often do we gleefully perform it? It’s not only the placing and positioning of the hand, it’s the hand itself – long, delicate and pale – a distinctly ‘sensitive’ hand.

When I was thinking about all this I immediately thought of another very different but equally stunning portrait in Tate Britain; The First Lord De la Warr (c1550), at one time attributed to Hans Holbein but now labelled as by an ‘unknown painter of the British School.’ The picture below is of the painting before its recent restoration. 

The First Lord De la Warr (c1550)

The identity of the painting’s subject is also not totally certain but, as the title suggests, it's thought to be of William West, a Tudor nobleman who was known as ‘The Thug.’ West had been banned from court and from inheriting titles after he tried to poison his uncle. He was pardoned later on and welcomed back into the fray. 

Like Robertson, de le Warr has his hand on his hip, but it couldn’t be more different – clenched into a fist and placed forcefully, not languidly, against his waist. 

Unlike Robertson his body faces straight ahead though like Robertson he is dressed in black to emphasise his wealth and his fine (distinctly manly) figure and, unlike many other Tudor portraits of young men, he’s all about strength not beauty. He’s less of a Courtier than an Action Man, as his ruddy cheeks and knuckles testify.

The other hand is the same but different too (hands really are a give away, aren't they? A student who couldn't remember my name once described me to a colleague as 'the one with the glad hands.' Note also the pinky ring on Jacques-Emile Blanche's little finger). The luxuriously beautiful gloves are scrunched so tightly against his sword hilt that de la Warr clearly doesn’t care about spoiling them. Not for him Robertson’s loosely teasing, tickling hold.

And if that cane handle is suggestive then de la Warr’s codpiece is positively, shockingly inviting - Look at me! it shouts. Not only does it protrude massively towards the viewer, the black velvet is slashed at the tip, silk teased out at the crown to recreate the shape of de la Warr’s bell-end (sorry, there’s no other word for it).

Seen together in this way both of these portraits become about the sexual politics of gesture. The hands and stance in both portraits are doing the same thing: producing an attitude of, and towards, the body (and by extension the personality) of the subjects, one distinctly ‘masculine’, the other stereotypically ‘feminine.’ In both cases it’s possible to look at the men in the picture with the gay male gaze – perhaps more knowingly in the case of Sargent’s picture of Robertson. In the portrayal of de le Warr, the painter has produced a kind of Tudor Physique Pictorial – an invitation for men to look at another man (because it’s not for women he’s showing off his cock), and to feel admiration, intimidation and, yes, desire. 

Self-Portrait (1906), John Singer Sargent

Friday, 31 May 2013


On Sunday 30th June my good friend, the poet and art critic Cherry Smyth, and I will be leading an LGBT tour of the newly unveiled re-hang at Tate Britain. We’re going to Queer the Collection and, believe, it’s not been difficult to find material to talk about – in fact, the issue has been which artworks to leave out, such are the riches on offer.

Portrait of David Hockney in a Hollywood Spanish Interior (1965), Peter Blake.

How important is it to offer up queer readings of large public collections in this way? Do we even need to do it given that contemporary audiences for art have surely seen it all, and most don’t much care about the sexuality of an artist or their subject? Well, it’s surprising to me how often large art institutions gloss over gay relationships that are relevant to an artwork’s conception, execution, or provenance, either choosing not to mention them at all, or neutralizing relationships by referring to them as 'intimate friendships' or to lovers and partners as 'companions.' As Arts Editor of Polari Magazine I've also come across the same kind of unease in the commercial sector. It’s not hard to guess at the motivations for this – they’re the same as the motivations in wider society for running scared of discussing sexuality – fears of offending people's religious and/or moral sensibilities or worries particularly around children asking awkward questions. It can dis-comfort people, un-settle them, marginalize the artwork and the artist as a result – but these aren’t necessarily bad things. 

An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877), Frederick, Lord Leighton.

Even those institutions with a reputation for being more 'cutting edge,’ can indulge in the practice of placing artists back in the closet. Recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on a small exhibition entitled ‘Rauschenberg and Johns,’ using works from the 1950s in their permanent collection to explore the relationship between the two great American artists, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, describing them as being ‘in dialogue with each other.’ What the show’s curator failed to mention was that the two men were lovers for over six years during this time, even referring to them at one point as ‘friends.’ Johns and Rauschenberg were themselves coy about discussing their relationship and you could argue that MOMA was really just respecting this, but art history and art curators are not obliged to go along with the ‘authorized version’ of an artist’s personal history. They don't do it elsewhere, so why should they here?

The complicated nature of John and Rauschenberg’s relationship when discussing and contextualising their art is probably compounded by the fact that neither they, nor their work, fit into a pre-established stereotype of what ‘queer’ means in art. Young men showering in California, that’s obviously queer, right? But Rauschenberg’s Bed, his seminal work of 1955, is also queer, it's just that it doesn't immediately appear to be so, lacking the usual 'signals.' 

Bed (1955), Robert Rauschenberg

Bed is queer in form, breaking through conventional bounds of representation when, in 1955, Rauschenberg apparently took his own bedding and stretched it across a wooden frame, in place of, and so becoming, a canvas. Bed also explicitly references Rauschenberg’s two lovers, Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns, the first with looped scribbles in pencil drawn on the pillow - a direct reference to Twombly’s drawings - and the second with patches of bright paint on the quilt that mirror the colours of Johns’ famous Target paintings.

Bed (1955) Robert Rauschenberg (detail)

Drawing, Cy Twombly

Target with Four Faces (1955), Jasper Johns

By incorporating such artists into the queer canon, you blow open exactly what it means to categorize artists as queer and take it beyond the purely figurative, which is where the emphasis tends to be. But in order to do that, the institution and its curators need to give the relevant biographical information, just as they might tell you which of Picasso’s mistresses appears in a particular painting. MOMA’s website gives none of this information and you realize how far there is to go when even the biographical entry for Andy Warhol on the same MOMA website makes no reference at all to his sexuality, as if that wasn’t an intrinsic part of his art, a large part of which was explicitly gay and given that Pop Art is, arguably, intrinsically queer.

Jasper Johns
Could you imagine MOMA, or any other institution, failing to mention an artist’s gender or ethnicity (if those things were not immediately obvious) when that was a large part of their work’s thematic concerns? Rauschneberg’s Bed is considered an intimate portrait of him, and so it is, but it is one in which Cy Twombly’s head shares his pillow while Jasper Johns lays on the bedclothes – this shouldn’t be ignored and neither can it be separated from the work. Rauschenberg himself said “painting relates to both art and life…[and] I try to act in that gap between the two.”

Robert Rauschenberg
Cy Twombly

Rauschenberg, Twombly and Johns all hung out in New York with that other A-List Avant-Garde gay couple John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and at times they even collaborated on performances and artwork. This gives me an excuse to include a video here of Rauschenberg talking about creating 'Automobile Tire Print' with Cage in 1953.

John Cage, Merce Cunningham & Robert Rauschenberg
At Tate Britain they've taken the decision to remove all but the minimum information about works on display from the labels that sit alongside them and that’s a decision I support and which has been carried out consistently across the collection. You can, of course, find out any more information you’d like about a work or an artist on their excellent website and at appears that Tate, at least, have not closeted any of their artists. As Cherry and I prepare our talk I’ll be blogging occasionally on the works we’re researching and may well talk about - works such as this one, John Singer Sargent's Portrait of W.G.Robertson from 1894 - and it would be great if you came along.


Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Celestial Homework Club

This is my first blogpost, so, welcome to The Celestial Homework Club. The blog’s name references Allen Ginsberg, a man whose work and life I really admire and am inspired by. There’s a directness and honesty in his poetry that’s like someone speaking right into your ear in order to provoke and invite a conversation and that’s very much the spirit I’d like this blog to invoke.

Allen Ginsberg

Recently, The Paris Review posted a copy of the reading list that Ginsberg drew up for students on the course he taught at Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Colorado. Ginsberg and another poet, Anne Waldman, had launched The Jack Kerouack School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa and his course was called ‘Literary History of the Beats.’ Ginsberg realized that a lot of his students hadn’t read many of the writers (“antient [sic] scriveners” he called them) who had influenced the Beats so came up with a reading list that he designated their “Celestial Homework.” It includes Yeats, Blake, Whitman, Poe, Dickinson, Shakespeare and many others, including some of the Beat writers themselves.

By taking Ginsberg’s phrase and creating The Celestial Homework Club I intend to write about those things that have influenced and inspired me – the books, art, music, films, etc. that make up my experience of the world – and would love to hear about yours. Here’s the first page of Ginsberg’s original reading list, with The Poetry Foundation's helpful links to many of the texts mentioned:

I love it when writers you like offer tips for reading and more of this is becoming available through online resources - I'd much rather them than Amazon! Wonderful writers such as Milan Kundera (in Testaments Betrayed, The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Encounter) and Alberto Manguel (in The History of Reading and The Library at Night) are like trusted friends leading you along the labyrinthine path towards becoming a better reader - by that I mean someone who's always searching to be challenged, stretched and stimulated by reading to become, in my case, a better writer. 

Milan Kundera

Alberto Manguel

I’m also going to write about myself – something I actually find quite difficult – because there have been some changes in my life recently. A year or so ago I gave up my relatively secure, relatively well-paid lecturing job at the University of Greenwich, to go freelance and focus on my own work. I loved teaching, and would never say I’ll not go back to it, but being in the classroom with Creative Writing students was becoming less and less what the job was about. It’s also the case that, try as you might, your own creativity takes a back seat to facilitating the work of others and, after ten years, that really got to me. It was a family bereavement that finally prompted me to change all that and, whilst I sometimes miss that regular salary, I’ve no other regrets at all. On top of all of that the Higher Education sector in the UK is changing, and not for the better (more on that, I’m sure, in future posts). I’m glad I got out when I did.

I've been lucky enough to get involved with the LGBT arts & culture online journal, Polari Magazine and was recently made Arts Editor. All of us who write for Polari do so for free because we believe in  what the magazine is doing - offering intelligent, interesting and creative content that's about lives and not lifestyles. 

The magazine's two founders, Christopher Bryant (Editor) and Bryon Fear (Designer), have worked like demons, again for no money, to produce the magazine since they set it up 5 years ago. It's growing in circulation and reputation and there are exciting things in the pipeline - watch this space!

Another big change coming up is that I’m going to live in Lisbon, Portugal, from August – though I’ll be making frequent trips to London (every month or so). I’m following my heart there after 2 years in a long-distance relationship. When considering where we should base ourselves my boyfriend and I figured out that it’s actually cheaper for us to rent a large flat in Lisbon and for me to commute to the UK than it is for us to get a one-bedroomed flat in London (he’s an artist and has even less money than me). That’s a crazy financial situation and one that I know a lot of other people struggle with. Surely it’s unsustainable?

It’s odd to think that I’m going to live in a country that is essentially picking itself up from bankruptcy but where the quality of life in many ways still seems pretty good – you can eat out and drink so cheaply there but it has all the advantages of being a capital city – and there’s a high level of spoken English generally (thank goodness as I’m still at the very early stages of learning Portuguese!) 

If you’ve never visited Lisbon I would highly recommend it – it’s a beautiful little jewel of a city that puts the shabby into chic and I’ve grown to love it over the past couple of years, as I’ve grown to love my partner.    

Talking of love, here’s Ginsberg reading one of his poems that I love – 'King of May' – in 1965 at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and sitting next to him is Neal Cassidy who Ginsberg loved.

Neal Cassady

The French novelist Emile Zola wrote, "If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I came to live out loud." This is an appealing and frightening idea for me - living out loud doesn't come naturally, but that's something I aim to change. I've become increasingly interested in the relationships between life and art and how art can be a portal to your own emotions, a way of talking about yourself when you talk about art, but also how it can create a cocoon as well as offer a sanctuary. It can be difficult to get the balance right. The Celestial Homework Club is somewhere I hope to explore all this and more. Living out loud.

Emile Zola (by Manet, 1868)