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