The painter Paul Cadmus as soon as remarked that, within the Thirties, homosexuals in New York had been merely known as artists. How queerness got here to be synonymous with the humanities is known as a story of modernism
itself—one rife with personal codes and intimate patronage. Think of Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde coterie in Paris, or Natalie Barney’s contemporaneous Left Bank salon, or Cadmus’s personal circle in
New York. From at the least Oscar Wilde on, queerness and aestheticism have been linked within the public creativeness.
“The First Homosexuals: Global Depictions of a New Identity, 1869–1930,” an exhibition at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago, seeks to underscore that truth on a grand scale. The present was meant to be a single blockbuster survey till the pandemic pressured the curators—a crew of 23 students led by Jonathan D. Katz and Johnny Willis—to separate it into two components. The first half gathers some 100 works in numerous media from a number of (predominantly Western) nations; the second, bigger installment, which is able to add extra artists from the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia into the combination, opens at Wrightwood in 2025.
As its lofty title signifies, the exhibition begins with the troublesome phrase itself. Hungarian journalist Karl Maria Kertbeny is credited with coining the time period gay in 1869 to indicate a definite group of individuals quite than a conduct. The phrase had authorized and medical implications that had been extra helpful for bureaucrats than most of the people. But by the late nineteenth century, when British doctor Havelock Ellis and author John Addington Symonds wrote Sexual Inversion, their landmark examine of homosexuality, the time period was in wider vogue. Conceptually, “The First Homosexuals” goals to look at how the nascent phrase and its attendant id filtered into and influenced visible artwork all through the next many years. Did such work intimate or envision a self-awareness that written language couldn’t?
The solutions provided listed below are blended. In some methods, the exhibition’s incompleteness hampers its impression. The six many years charted present a temporal constraint with out narrative cohesion, a deficiency that even the overtly editorializing wall textual content can’t treatment. Instead of facilitating an aesthetic interaction and natural dialogue among the many chosen works, the curators go for a curiously anthropological strategy. This is mirrored within the exhibition design: every small room, painted a definite shade and linked to others by archways that evoke Stein’s or Barney’s bohemian salons, showcases one among 9 thematic classes: “Before Homosexuality,” “Archetypes,” “Desire,” “Past and Future,” “Public and Private,” “Colonizing,” “Between Genders,” “Pose,” and “Couples.” Work is hung nonchronologically, so there’s no sense of continuity or development, simply diligent eclecticism.
That’s to not say there aren’t gems on view. British painter Duncan Grant’s Bathers by the Pond (1920–21), a scene of languorous male sunbathers rendered in stippled paint and earthy tones, conjures up reverie. American painter Charles Demuth’s Eight O’Clock (Early Morning), 1917, is a young watercolor wherein two males—one sitting dejectedly in pajamas, the opposite standing imploringly in undies—share a second of ambiguous domesticity whereas one other (nude) man washes his face at a sink within the background. Bath House Study (no date), a drawing in black chalk by Swedish artist Eugène Jansson (1862–1915), depicts an nearly geometric configuration of nude males, every suspended in his personal erotic lull—a tableau that wouldn’t be misplaced within the late Twentieth-century oeuvres of Americans Patrick Angus or John Burton Harter.
Other works right here allude to deeper cultural currents. A wall of archival images paperwork the Elisarion, a neo-religious temple that poet and artist Elisàr von Kupffer inbuilt Switzerland along with his accomplice, thinker Eduard von Mayer. These pictures—a few of which function males in makeshift crowns and sarongs hanging poses in nature—evoke the utopian spirit that infused transatlantic queer life within the nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, as embodied by, for instance, American poet Walt Whitman and his British counterpart, Edward Carpenter. Growing Strength (1904), an imposing oil portray by the German artist Sascha Schneider, portrays a seasoned bodybuilder appraising the biceps of a younger acolyte—a precursor to the physique magazines and “cult of the body” that outlined homosexual life in midcentury and past.
To its credit score, the present additionally seems past a strictly male or Anglophone conception of homosexuality. Carte de visite images by the Norwegian couple Marie Høeg and Bolette Berg present the ladies dressed as males, or in additional androgynous garb. Likewise, images by Alice Austen, one of many first American girls to shoot footage exterior the studio, seize playful, if covert, moments of lesbian sociality. Paintings and scrolls by Japanese and Chinese artists, a number of of whom are unknown, provide the present’s most explicitly erotic interludes, as in a single print illustrating a sinuous mixed-sex orgy. Elsewhere, an unknown photographer depicts two Black actors, one in drag, dancing the cakewalk in Paris on the flip of the century. Louis Lumière’s silent movie clip Le Cake-Walk au Nouveau Cirque (1903), the oldest recognized recording of a drag efficiency, performs on a close-by monitor. Even greater than a century later, the footage of entertainers enacting a dance that originated amongst enslaved folks radiates a haunting jubilance that’s each carefree and tainted by the bigotries of its time.
A handful of items really feel adrift. American painter Romaine Brooks’s 1912 portrait of the Italian nationalist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, a sober likeness in Brooks’s attribute grey palette, is a puzzling selection. (D’Annunzio, an notorious womanizer, was not gay, and he looms in joyless hauteur over the room.) A Brooks self-portrait—or one among her many portraits of feminine contemporaries—would have been a stronger selection. With three work on view, the Canadian artist Florence Carlyle is allotted extra wall area than her elegant however in any other case uninteresting portraits of ladies advantage. And the present’s “Colonizing” part, which tries to discover how Western attitudes towards homosexuality diverged from these of Indigenous and Eastern populations, is undercooked. Wilhelm von Gloeden, the German photographer who decamped to Italy to stage pastoral fantasies with nude Sicilian boys, is included right here, though his position as a colonizer is debatable.
Ultimately, the exhibition has the tone of a sociology textbook: critical, pedantic, typically extra stately than intoxicating. The very premise feels misconceived. It will not be as if 1869 had been a eureka second that launched queer artists, en masse, into careers of self-representation. Increasing secularism, urbanization, and mass media did extra to outline gay id than did the invention of the phrase itself, but these realities stay both unexplored or indirect right here. Instead of tracing a again channel story of modernism, the curators ship a jumbled Wunderkammer. For a present that takes pains to border homosexuality as fluid, the thematic format comes off as inflexible and delimiting. Here’s hoping the second installment loosens up.