Homosexuality in the gallery

Robert Aldrich, The University of Sydney

R.B. Parkinson A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World, London, British Museum Press, 2013 (128 pp). ISBN 0-71415-100-9 (paperback) RRP $19.95.

Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer Art & Queer Culture, London, Phaidon, 2013 (410 pp). ISBN 9-78071484-935-5 (hard cover) RRP $85.00.

Sex, like beauty, is (at least in part) in the eye of the beholder. One image or object that looks innocent to some will appear suggestive or salacious to others. One that will cause offense or provoke violent outage in one society or situation will pass practically unremarked in another. In Australia, Bill Henson’s accomplished portraits of nude young people created much controversy, and one can think of earlier debates about works by such artists as Juan Davila. Even the heterosexual chocolate-box figures of Norman Lindsay would not be shown in some galleries around the world, and one could argue that an artist such as Donald Friend, at least during his lifetime, never received quite the acclaim he merited because of the homoerotic nature of his works.

I do not know where or when the first public exhibition of ‘gay art’ (or ‘queer art’, as one of the books under review here puts it) that was so titled went on show. A homoerotic tradition, however, goes back to the most ancient artworks. R.B. Parkinson begins his A Little Gay History, a book organised around objects in the collection of the British Museum, with a question about a stone carving from circa 9000 BCE found in Palestine. It is, he says, the earliest known figure of a couple making love, and is generally supposed to represent a man and a woman. But how and why, Parkinson asks, should it be assumed that the two small facing figures, their arms and legs entwined, are necessarily two individuals of different gender?

The ambiguity of homosexuality in representation and in life is also well illustrated in photographs of men (or women) together. Chris Brickell has recently compiled a fine little book on pictures of men in pairs (Brickell 2013), which follows on from his history of male homosexuality in New Zealand (Brickell 2008)—one of the best studies of gay history to be found—and a book on the photographer Robert Gant (Brickell 2012). Two-by-Two presents several dozens of photographs of 19th and early 20th century men posed together. Some are dressed in work clothes, others in military uniform, or are outfitted as dandies. They stand stiffly in a photographer’s studio or lounge casually in nature. Brickell knows the names of a good many of these men, but seldom does other information exist. Body language follows conventions of the time, with Victorians more apt to touch and drape themselves over one another than men in later periods. There are tantalising intimations of close, perhaps erotic relationships as an elbow touches an arm, hands join to light a cigarette, two men nestle together on a beach while one plays a ukelele. Gestures range from blokey arms gripped around broad shoulders to men passionately kissing—the sort of images that Robert Gant included in his extraordinary private album of homoeroticism. (A thespian, he also included pictures of men in dress-up and in various mises-en-scène. He also had a thing about shoes.) The photographs manifest comradeship, friendship and affection. Brickell’s interpretation is careful: ‘Photographs are one means of commemorating men’s togetherness … Some were brothers, some friends, a few workmates, and a number were lovers. These categories could mix and intertwine’ (2012, p. 15).

One image or object that looks innocent to some will appear suggestive or salacious to others.

The mixing and intertwining of postures, desires and poses is evident in much painting, photography and sculpture now arranged in a metaphorical gallery of gay art. After more than a generation of serious new academic research into the history of same-sex attraction, it is certain that modern categories of homosexual and heterosexual did not obtain in much of history, though it is also clear, pace Foucault, that a sense of homosexual self-definition did not appear only with the invention of the terminology in the late 1800s. Representations of hermaphroditic deities and of gods who change sex in Hindu and other Asian iconographies evidence the porous boundaries between genders and the multiplicity of desires. We now look back to Greek and Roman statuary as the templates for the erotically desirable man, and Sappho is the mother of lesbians. We know, however, that classical attitudes towards sexuality, masculinity and femininity, relations between men and women, and the philosophical and pedagogical aspects of pederasty were very different from those of the modern world. They were also different from the way they were sometimes imagined by later homosexuals looking back over their family tree for Platonic and Sapphic ancestors, the queer game of ‘who do you think you are’ that provided legitimation for reprobate desires.

Statutes of Apollo and Antinous (to stay with the boys) embodied the ideal man of the ancient world, and their legacy was potent. Renaissance artists—most of them ambisexual, as were their non-painter peers—sought inspiration in Antiquity, and then Johann Joachim Winckelmann again revived the antique models in the Enlightenment. Winkelmann gushed incontinently in praise over the Belvedere Apollo as the summum of ancient art. Caught by Casanova in flagrante delicto with an Italian lad, Wickelmann stammered that to understand the Greeks fully, he must also understand their sexual desires. The image of the fit, sleek teenager or twenty-something man as the object of passion comes down through history, through 19th century academic studies to the brightly kitsch works of France’s Pierre and Gilles in recent decades (Greer 2003). Indeed, an exhibition of the male nude at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, which opened in October 2013 (Musée d’Orsay 2013), juxtaposed images by Pierre and Gilles with earlier pictures of the Greeks. This highlighted their appropriations of Antiquity in paintings of modern hunks as Achilles, Hercules and Mercury. Even a picture of a trio of naked men posed as members of the French soccer team—a triumvirate of white, African and West Indian—not only commented on racial politics in France, but also recalled a link between athleticism and erotics that goes back to the Greek palestra.

Statutes of Apollo and Antinous embodied the ideal man of the ancient world, and their legacy was potent.

That Paris exhibition provided a catwalk of naked men, arranged by such themes as classical nudes, heroic nudes, nudes in nature, and the injured and dead male nude. Many, if not most, of the artists and photographers in the Orsay show are known to have been homosexual or suspected of being so: Herbert List, Fred Holland Day, Gustave Moreau, Eugène Jansson … Others were not, such as Eugène Flandrin, the painter of the glorious figure of a youth on a rock, his arms and hands resting on his knees, which has become a gay icon (that much belaboured word appropriate in this instance), often copied by later photographers. The Orsay exhibition included some much less well-known works, too, one of the most suggestive Georges Leroux’s Les Baigneurs du Tibre (1909). Five men, all but one nude, disport themselves on the river-bank in Rome. One raises his arms to dive, saluting the sun shining on his chest, displaying his lithe body to the intent gaze of his mates looking up at him from the sand or water; next to him, a bearded figure clasps his arms about an ephebe. Here the design of the painter and the reception of different viewers over the past century may or may not coincide.

Despite the multiplicity of such works, the Orsay show and catalogue are somewhat shy about the issue of homosexuality, though any visitor to the exhibition could immediately see that it is a hit among homosexuals in Paris. The two books by R.B. Parkinson and by Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer directly face the question of gays in art, adding to a growing literature on the subject (Cooper 1986; Saslow 1999; Tamagne 2001; Fernandez 2005; Borhan 2006; Reed 2011). They are very different: Parkinson’s is object-oriented and targeted at general audiences, Lord and Meyer’s more theory-driven and aimed perhaps at students. Parkinson’s is compact, with short, pithy texts accompanying illustrations of items from the British Museum, much in the style of Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (MacGregor 2010). Lord and Meyer’s book is more than 450 pages, in large format and with a rather curious mise en page: the introductory section has historical essays by the two authors, and the third section comprises 150 tightly-printed excerpts from documents, and historical and art historical works, ranging from testimony at Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial to a catalogue essay by a Chinese artist in 2012. Both sections are printed on salmon-coloured paper and are sure to be of great use for lecturers seeking tutorial readings. The large middle section of the book devotes a page each to a large number of art works covering the years since the 1880s, each with by an extensive caption written in art historical language. There is a weighting to the post-1945 period, with works produced over the last several decades featured.

Renaissance artists—most of them ambisexual, as were their non-painter peers.

All authors must make a selection, Parkinson’s governed by the objects in his museum’s storerooms, Lord and Meyer’s by their attempt to illustrate various political, social and art historical styles and moments (and their decision to use only a single image for each artist). Parkinson ranges over the world, although Lord and Meyer’s coverage is somewhat surprisingly focused on Western art, especially American works. A couple of Australian artists make the cut, notably Agnes Goodsir—it is good to see this undervalued painter—and Juan Davila. There are several Japanese works by contemporary artists and some South American and Latino artists in the United States. However, the rest of the world is little covered. A painting by the Pakistani Anwar Saeed is an exception and one of the most impressive from the last few years: a colourful drawing of a naked man and a nubile angel, accompanied by a reproduction of a Greek-looking torso, superimposed on a text written by a homosexual deported from France under the Nazi occupation. The layering of images, themes and allusions bespeaks the hybrid nature of homosexual, gay or queer sentiment, especially outside of the West.

A concentration on Western works nevertheless not only misses out on some important figures—the photographers Lionel Wendt, from Sri Lanka, and Yato Tamotsu, from Japan, are among my personal favourites (Aldrich 2012)—but gives a certain inflection to identity politics in art. Here there are some clever works: an American flag redrawn with the colours of the rainbow flag and an explicitly lesbian recreation of Orientalist odalisques. There are also perfectly banal photographs and some rather preciously self-conscious and gimmicky works of limited interest or craftsmanship. The selection of Lord and Meyer’s book is largely artists’ art, with little attention paid, except as illustrations in the salmon-coloured pages, to more vernacular imagery such as pornography, the graphics of gay periodicals, homoerotic advertising, more traditionalist figurative works or ephemera. (Parkinson has a nice page on gay and lesbian badges from the 1970s.) The descriptions help make sense of a few hardly legible works, though occasionally with either over-interpretation or omission. Perhaps it is too obvious to state that Jean-Marc Othoniel’s ‘Kiosk of the Night-Walkers’ that marks the entry to the Palais-Royal Métro station in Paris is a glitzy crown, but it could be worth noting that the Palais-Royal was a site of homosexual cruising as far back as the 18th century. This structure is a good example of the eye of the beholder phenomenon: rushing commuters may or may not know the history, or remark on the tiny statues of two men atop the crown. Lord and Meyer hypothesise that ‘the small rings that Othoniel welded together to form a railing suggest cock rings, the thousands of glass beads a flamboyantly baroque performance of drag’ (p. 204).

Some of the most fascinating contemporary gay art is being created in Asia, reflecting not only the spread of gay and queer ideas but also indigenous same-sex cultures. Japan, in particular, has an active group of affirmatively gay artists whose works often blur the boundaries between eroticism and pornography, and those between mainstream sexual practices and sadomasochism. But they reference, too, traditional Japanese portrayals of samurai and sumo wrestlers in a culture that was remarkably accepting of male homosexual relationships (Japanese Gay Art 2013).

Some of the most fascinating contemporary gay art is being created
in Asia.

One specific example of a significant contemporary Asian artist with homoerotic themes is Truong Tan (Naziree 2010). Born in Hanoi in 1963, he graduated from the Fine Arts University in 1986, three years after the socialist government’s decision to move towards greater liberalisation and opening to the outside world (doi moi). Truong Tan worked as a lecturer at his old university until 1997, by which time an exhibition with homoerotic overtones had provoked the disapprobation of Communist authorities. Since that time, he divides his time between Paris and Hanoi, producing most of his artworks in Vietnam. Truong Tan has exhibited widely—in Hanoi, Bangkok, New York, Paris, Venice and elsewhere—and his works now command dollar prices in five figures. Though not exclusively on gay themes, many of Truong Tan’s pictures refer to his open gay sexuality. Against vague backgrounds, stylised naked men float or swim, or seem to move weightlessly in the firmament. Bodies, drawn in basic outline, move towards each other. Occasionally, hands touch, and sometimes the scenography becomes more explicit. In one work, hands drop into the canvas, one touching a man’s head, the second touching a man’s erect penis. In another painting, perhaps inspired by a sex-on-premises backroom, a man lies in a sling formed by two serpents, one of which fellates him, while two naked bystanders watch. Truong Tan’s main theme, however, is not the corporeal pleasure of intercourse. It is the search for an individual’s place in the world and the quest for love, a love that forms part of the wider of experience of life, as exemplified by recent works on ‘Dynasty of Love’, ‘Dynasty of Loss’, and ‘Dynasty of War’.

What is notable about Truong Tan’s work is the way that it draws on different artistic and social valences. To my knowledge, there is little of a gay tradition in Vietnamese art or literature, although the poetry of Xuan Dieu, now more remembered in Vietnam for his writings in support of Ho Chi Minh’s revolution and wars of national liberation, is an exception (Aldrich 2012). Truong Tan’s allusions to the wars in Vietnam’s past, the use of the Sino-Vietnamese vermillion, and the medium of lacquer that he employs for many of his paintings link with explicit gay imagery taken from the West but that nevertheless becomes more universal. Truong Tan adds a personal vocabulary, as in his 2010 Thavibu Gallery (Bangkok) exhibition ‘To Be an Angel’. In the Western and some Eastern traditions, of course, angels can symbolise purity and transcendence, but they have as well become something of a gay image, as exemplified in the Pakistani Saeed’s work mentioned earlier and no more so than in the paintings of the Greek artist Yannis Tsarouchis (Yannis Tsarouchis 2010)—angels are a transnational gay trope. Truong Tan may or may not have been familiar with Tsarouchis’ muscled Greek sailor-angels sitting around tavernas or sunning on the beach, but his angels bespeak an attempt to capture a gay spirit situated in the ethereal realm as well as in the material world. That is not unlike the artistic endeavours of European artists couching their homoerotic figures in the guise of the ancient gods.

Queer is passé. Gay is banal.

What of the future of gay or homosexual or queer art and culture? Dennis Altman has recently proclaimed (though with a question mark at the end of his title) ‘the end of the homosexual’ (Altman 2013). In major cities of Australia, or in Western Europe or parts of North America, neither ‘gay’ nor ‘queer’ is any longer provocative, dissident or shocking as a personal behaviour or an artistic expression. ‘Queer’, meant to be a protest against identity politics and exclusive sexual categorisation, itself became an identity, a label and now a tired euphemism. Queer is passé. Gay is banal. Gay marriage has been legalised by such countries as Spain and Portugal, Britain and New Zealand, though still not in Australia, where Liberal and Labor politicians join hands proudly to march in the rear guard in this area of sexual politics.

In some parts of the world, homosexuality does not provoke tolerant yawns, but violent actions. Iran executes homosexuals, Russia has passed legislation outlawing promotion of homosexuality, the Zimbabwean president has called homosexuals swine. Homosexual acts are illegal in the majority of the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations. Examples of homophobia proliferate. Gay men and women around the world have thus had to find their own avenues, public or clandestine, for artistic and literary expression. The internet, when it is not censored, provides a vital new medium; diasporas allow different sorts of cultural creativity. Brave groups mount gay protests, publish books and create art even under the most difficult circumstances, often using strategies of coding, allusion and appropriation to make their statements. In doing so, perhaps they are creating new ways of being gay and painting queer.


Aldrich, R. 2012, Gay Life Stories, Thames and Hudson, London, pp. 277–280.

Altman, D. 2013, The End of the Homosexual, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia.

Borhan, P. 2006, Men for Men: Homoeroticism and Male Homosexuality in the History of Photography, 1840–2006, Jonathan Cape, London.

Brickell, C. 2008, Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, Random House, Auckland.

Brickell, C. 2012, Manly Affections: The Photographs of Robert Gant, 1885–1915, Genre Books, Dunedin.

Brickell, C. 2013, Two-by-Two: Men in Pairs, Genre Books, Dunedin.

Cooper, C. 1986, The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

Fernandez, D. 2005, L’Amour Qui Ose Dire Son Nom: Art et Homosexualité, revised edn, Stock, Paris.

Greer, G. 2003, The Boy, Thames and Hudson, London.

MacGregor, N. 2010, A History of the World in 100 Objects, Allen Lane, London.

Musée d’Orsay 2013, Masculin, Masculin – L’Homme Nu dans l’Art de 1800 à Nos Jours, Flammarion, Paris.

Naziree, S. (curator) 2010, Truong Tan: How to be an Angel, Thavibu Gallery, Bangkok.

Reed, R. 2011, Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Saslow, J.M. 1999, Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts, Viking, New York.

Tamagne, F. 2001, Mauvais Genre? Une Histoire des Représentations de l’Homosexualité, E.M., Paris.

Japanese Gay Art 2013 [Online], Available http://www.japanesegayart.com [2013, Dec 6].

Yannis Tsarouchis (1910–1989) 2010, Benaki Museum, Athens.

Robert Aldrich, Professor of European History at The University of Sydney, teaches and carries out research in modern European and colonial history, including the history of France since the Revolution, the history of the French and British overseas empires, the history of ‘sites of memory’ and the history of gender and sexuality.

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