Robert Mapplethorpe's frank depiction of gay male sexuality both fascinated and shocked viewers when his retrospective exhibition, The Perfect Moment, opened around the U.S. from 1989 to 1990. In the past twenty years since that time, Mapplethorpe's renown has grown, but taboos surrounding the exhibition of his work remain. However, such taboos may suggest a lack of context, for even Mapplethorpe's most notorious photography belongs to the same homoerotic tradition as the artwork of Michelangelo, one of the most revered masters of Western Art.
This exhibition, Revealed: The Tradition of Male Homoerotic Art, not only shows the similarities between Michelangelo and Mapplethorpe; it also asserts a homosexual presence in Western art from the Renaissance to the present day by showing unambig-uous images of male same-sex desire. While such "homoerotic" imagery (defying time-restrictive labels such as "gay art" or "queer art") evolved over time from something secretive, suppressed, and suggested into something public, accessible, and explicit, its continuous presence affirms the importance of intentionally expressing homosexual desire in art.
Since the Renaissance, when sodomy was a crime for which artists could be arrested (as Botticelli, Da Vinci, and others were), recognition of the homosexual presence in art has been obfuscated by suppression, shame, and censorship. Michelangelo, who suffered all of these, nonetheless produced some of the most passionate love poetry by a man to a man and some of the most beautiful images of male sensuality. As with Mapplethorpe, four hundred fifty years later, the controversial nature of Michelangelo's work provoked censorship: his homoerotic poetry was quickly edited in favor of an opposite-sex love interest, while the nudity of the magnificent David and many of the luxuriant Sistine Chapel figures was immediately covered. Centuries of suppression followed, as critics perfunctorily denied his homoerotic intent. Knowing that Michelangelo defied the conventions of his time may now offer a wider range of homoerotic interpretations of his civic and religious art, but his drawing Ganymede, included here as a reproduction, leaves no doubt as to its homoerotic intent.
For centuries after Michelangelo, the sensual male nude remained the best means of expressing homosexual desire in art. However, artists often set their ever-inventive expressions of that desire in some kind of conventional framework that resisted solely erotic interpretations.
The trend of making merely suggestive work began to change in the late 19th century when the coining of the term "homosexual" provided a concrete identity around which a community could slowly form. However, artists typically created their most overtly homoerotic imagery in secret. To protect their reputations, they made private works exclusively for friends in an underground homosexual community. Thus over a half-century of striking but obscured artistic output emerged. Fashion photographer George Platt Lynes (1907-55), whose exquisite and elegant photography is featured prominently in this exhibition, helped pioneer the representation of the male nude as explicitly erotic. The famous Precisionist Charles Demuth (1883-1935); the avant-garde writer Jean Cocteau (1889-1963); the Magic Realist artists and one-time lovers Jared French (1905-88) and Paul Cadmus (1904-99); and the Russian-American artists Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957) and Andrey Avinoff (1884-1949) all privately created some of the first known artistic images of men having sex. While illustrations portraying homosexual sex acts exist from most periods of history, few purely artistic depictions of homosexual sex exist before these 20th century examples.
Meanwhile, "beefcake" photography in physique magazines served, more popularly, the same emerging gay community. Soon dispensing with the guise of physical fitness, beefcake had a whole new life by the 1960s, when mailing images of full frontal male nudity became legal. Artists such as Tom of Finland (1920-91) exploited the new possibilities with highly sexualized, hypermasculine drawings, while others such as James Bidgood (b. 1933), Arthur Tress (b. 1940), and Duane Michals (b. 1932) used the medium of photography to express new gay themes in the era of sexual liberation and gay pride. Their work begins to record a whole gamut of gay experiences, ranging from the social and sexual to the emotional and contemplative.
However, repression still largely defined the mainstream artists of the 1960s Pop Art era. Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and his lover Jasper Johns avoided portraying immediately recognizable homosexual themes – or even acknowledging the nature of their relationship. Andy Warhol (1928-87) achieved fame as the leader of a new kind of art scene at the Factory. However, his fame was rarely associated with his homoerotic production. Critics and viewers spent decades trying to desexualize Warhol, but the Sex Parts of 1978, exhibited here, offer one of the best examples of his dynamic exploration of homosexual subject matter at the height of his career.
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89), a brilliant photographer, created such explicit works that they un-leashed a national controversy. His growing notoriety as an artist unabashedly exploring themes of gay sadomasochism and leather culture in the 1970s, culminated in 1989, when the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., canceled his retrospective show, The Perfect Moment. This proved the "perfect moment" for the mainstream public to look directly at gay sexuality. The flawless aestheticism of his black and white photographs demanded that critics and the public confront an openly gay artist and unequivocal homoerotic art for the first time.
The gay pride movement after 1969, the public face of AIDS in the 1980s, and Mapplethorpe's exhibition all helped reverse the secrecy in which prominent homosexual artists had previously worked. On the heels of a newly liberated generation of fashion designers and photographers (note Bruce Weber's billboard for Calvin Klein underwear in Times Square in 1982), the professional prominence of Herb Ritts (1952-2002) and David LaChapelle (b. 1969) helped occasion a cross-over of homoerotic imagery into mainstream visual culture. Meanwhile, Rick Castro (b. 1958) brought the S&M sex that Mapplethorpe had spotlighted into his "fetish fashion," a genre that has become de rigueur with some editorial stylists. Finally, an underground form of sexuality, both gay and deviant, moved into public consciousness.
Mikel Màrton, an emerging young artist, represents a new freedom of direction for the 21st century. Combining elements of the traditional male nude with elements of self-assertive queer art and the rarely explored sexual allure of stereo-typically "feminine" men, his art represents an affirmation of eroticism and gay pride and masterfully pulls from a variety of iconic sources to achieve something fresh, colorful, and vivacious.
This exhibition demonstrates the privilege that gay art and artists have earned to be "revealed". Revealed in their tantalizing sensuality and naked beauty. Revealed as having sexual desire and showing a commitment to using their creative and artistic powers to express their desire. Revealed as having a longstanding artistic history and as contributing to visual culture. Revealed as having suffered suppression and censorship. Revealed as mattering.
The tentative recognition of homoerotic intent in both traditional and contemporary artwork reflects a mainstream rejection of homo sexuality, or the part of the homosexual identity that is intrinsically sexual. This is the same insidious homophobia that manifests itself in violence, bigotry, and civil-rights discrimination. As relatively recent studies documenting the history, development, and cross-fertilization of homoerotic art continue, this emerging area of scholarship will increasingly serve as a positive counterbalance to the more traditional approach to gender and sexuality in art history and art appreciation among our diverse society.
If this exhibition reveals more parts of the male anatomy than are usually seen in public exhibitions, it also reveals a need for recognition of and freedom of expression for homosexual artists. I hope the celebratory nature of this exhibition offers much to savor and reflect on long after leaving the exhibition space.
Central Connecticut State University