“As Rome becomes more modern…he himself becomes increasingly more antique”, so Colm Tóibín describes Henry James in The Master. I share that sentiment, my Rome being the world at large, most specifically the online universe . A marvel of a place, where,without inching a bit from my armchair,I may explore worlds heretofore unknown to me.
Such is the case with that mighty culture unto itself, the realm of Queer Art. How does one actually define Queer Art? Such a broad and diverse realm, at least that is what I would imagine, for aren’t we the clever ones?
I hesitate to gripe, knowing full well the marvelous work being made by contemporary LGBTQ artists, in the here and the now. And yet, when I scroll my Instagram, I find myself bombarded by images so salacious I almost feel embarrassed . I’m not prudish, but the overload of comely boys with perky butts and winsome smiles romping about with bathhouse abandon (if an allusion to Jesus Christ or the Blessed Virgin can be added to the mix, all the better),has, and I have a hard time saying this, become tedious, boring and depressing . I follow a great many “queer” art collective sites, initially engaging with the host, hoping I suppose for some reciprocal interest in my work, but quickly concluding that my work is far from what is generally regarded as queer art. Nonetheless I employ the #queerart hashtag , knowing full well my work will not meet expectation.
With that, I find myself settling in with an anthology of early “queer” literature, Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850 to 1900, selected and with an introduction by Brian Reade, to say I feel right at home in this fin de siècle paradise is an understatement. The literary works explored in this anthology,first published in the United Kingdom in 1970, I find sincerely radical, far more expressive than the frequently vacuous reflections of an unreflective society…and yes, I refer to contemporary gay culture. One knows all too well the repression experienced in the 19th century (and earlier of course) and yet, given these suffocating restrictions, great works of art were made. By employing subtle (and not so subtle ) codes, desire, yearning and repressed intention was expressed, at least to a knowing audience . I certainly do not want to return to a furtive society, but yet, I do frequently feel impoverished by the orgiastic (?) abundance of an unfettered culture. We have now attained a level of freedom unimagined and the best we can come up with is salaciousness and blasphemy ? I think our collective experience is richer than that.
I don’t know what the answer is, this is merely the ramblings of a crotchety old gay guy but just as Henry James felt ( at least according to Tóibín) “He was old enough at fifty-six to deplore things with full conviction…”. Solidly fifty-six, I feel confident to not only deplore a great many things but to also be unflinchingly delighted. One such delight is the very queer of art of the fin de Siécle, most specifically the Symbolists, the Decadent Movement and at times the Pre-Raphealites and the Arts and Craft movement.
Simeon Solomon, both homosexual and Jewish, knew all too well the ugly heel of repression , yet his work expressed a poetic tenderness that often leaves me speechless. He frequently found himself in tussles with the law, seemingly unable to avoid public toilets, yet his work, possesses a languor that often feels chaste. I love this impish image of him, I feel I would have delighted in knowing him.
An early love is the same sex art couple Charles Ricketts (b. 1866, d. 1931) and Charles Shannon (b. 1863, d. 1937). Both painters, Shannon an accomplished portraitist ( a bit dry for my taste). But it is Rickets, who struggled with easel painting but found full expression in illustration, book, set and costume design, that I most relate to. Although never “out” in the modern sense, their open domesticity left little room for doubt, a couple (and their art) well worth exploring.
Ricketts line work easily rivaled Aubrey Beardsley.
Ricketts book design captured perfectly the perfumed excess of Wilde’s pleasure dome.
I mentioned Ricketts struggled with easel paintings, from the biographies I have read he was frequently frustrated, I imagine more so if he compared himself to the academic gloss of his partner’s conventional studio work. That said, I admire a great many of his paintings. Queer and odd indeed .
I mentioned above the great Beardsley, and although not clear as to homosexual or not, he certainly was magnificently queer . This odd fellow who described even his teeth being a little phallic (not to mention that coif) , this odd bird, made my grim childhood so delightful, so rich,so full of curious perverse wonder. My greatest desire is for there to be an afterlife in which I can thank him (and Wilde) for the innumerable gifts he has given me. Passing beyond tragically young, there has never been another Aubrey.
As a boy I haunted used bookstores with my mother, whilst she perused the Harlequin Romance pile, I explored the art and literature shelves. At nine I almost fainted when this image popped out of the pages of a Beardsley monograph- suffice to say I never showed the book to my mother.
I was recently asked to be in a group show of queer artist, I was asked to describe how I defined my art and my “queerness”; this is how I answered:
“In our identity obsessed society , where non binary fluidity is omnipresent, gender non-specific pronouns the lingua franca of our age and everyone of a certain age seems free to identify as queer, I feel a bit of an anachronism. A middle aged white man of dull and conventional gayness My work however , following the dictates of Flaubert :“BE REGULAR AND ORDERLY IN YOUR LIFE LIKE A BOURGEOIS, SO THAT YOU CAN BE VIOLENT AND ORIGINAL IN YOUR WORK” might express my queerest self . While probably not wholly original or particularly violent, it is heartfelt. It is in my reclaiming and re-contextualizing cultural archetypes ( almost exclusively Western ), which heretofore felt exclusionary , that I feel most inspired and free . For it is in finding the sacred in all beings , queer ones as well , that I can relinquish the shackles of shame and self loathing so present in my generation. Thankfully the youth of our day seem less burdened .”
This figure of Pierrot is what will be shown…I think with his pink satin peen he will be salacious enough to be considered queer.
I’ll close with another commedia figure, this by the great Beardsley .