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American Art: Gay Male, 1900-1969

by Richard G. Mann
Encyclopedia Copyright © 2015, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.
Reprinted from http://www.glbtq.com

In the decades prior to Stonewall, homophobia was as prevalent in the art establishment as in other facets of American society. Most gay artists were closeted, and they seldom visualized gay subjects openly and directly. Because the idealized male nude had long been a venerable subject in western art, subtly erotic images of men could be displayed publicly; but for most of the period, sexually explicit gay works could be created only for a restricted audience.
Thus, wealthy patrons played a major role in encouraging the production of gay works.
Gay artists showed inventiveness by developing visual codes understood only by those “in the know.”
After 1945, however, some adventurous artists abandoned the mainstream art world and developed independent networks for the distribution of gay works.

Pre-World War I

At the beginning of the century, “Pictorialism” in photography fostered pastoral images of languid youths, posed with props intended to evoke ancient classical and Christian stories.
Among the practitioners of this style, F. Holland Day caused controversy through his intensely sensual photographs of ecstatic youths (such as Saint Sebastian, 1906). Day enjoyed the support of such wealthy connoisseurs as Edward Perry Warren, who also provided significant resources for the (later) study of gay history through his donations of ancient Greek and Roman male erotic works to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
In the years preceding World War I, young avantgarde artists found inspiration for their lives as well as their art in socially tolerant European capitals, especially Berlin and Paris. Prominent among them was Marsden Hartley, who fell in love with a young German officer,
Karl von Freyburg, an early casualty of the war. Returning to New York in 1914, Hartley mourned his loss in a series of geometric compositions, which evoked Freyburg’s memory through German military insignia, initials, and other motifs. When these works were exhibited during the early years of the war, the American press branded Hartley a traitor.
It is indicative of the virulence of homophobia in this era that Hartley did not defend himself against this charge and that he never publicly explained the love inspiring these works. More fortunate in his personal and professional life was Joseph Christian Leyendecker, a commercial artist, who developed one of the most successful advertising campaigns of the century: the Arrow Collar Man. This archetypal image of the clean-cut
American male was modeled on his life partner, Charles Beach. Exemplifying ways that gay men could “infiltrate” American society, Leyendecker subtly subverted heterosexist conventions through his popular illustrations, depicting rugged men gazing ambiguously at one another.
day_fred_holland_1864-1933_-_youth_sitting_on_a_stone_nicola_giancola_1907

Youth Sitting on a Stone, by F. Holland Day (1907)

day_fred_holland_photography

By F. Holland Day

Boy Piping by Day Fred Holland

Boy Piping By F. Holland Day

Emergence of a Gay Subculture

Gay baths and other institutions that fostered the emergence of a gay subculture in New
York and other large American cities between 1914 and 1929 were seldom represented in the visual arts. However, Charles Demuth, famous for his semi-abstract modernist still life compositions, frankly depicted the evolving “gay scene” in watercolors for his closest friends: sexual encounters in baths, sailors fondling one another while urinating, public sex at Coney Island. Historically, these works have great significance, for they visualize
the emergence of a culture very differently organized than “straight” society.
During the 1920s, the culturally and socially dynamic Harlem Renaissance fostered acceptance for gay people of all races in New York’s largest African-American neighborhood. Exemplifying the mood of tolerance are the elegant and dignified portraits of drag queens and kings made by James Van Der Zee, a prominent Harlem photographer
Richard Bruce Nugent, a visual artist as well as a writer, provoked controversy through his very frank depictions of gay sexuality; in his drawings for Wilde’s Salome and other works, Nugent created powerfully erotic images that fused diverse cultural traditions.
Mainstream exposure of African-American artists was limited by white patrons, who fostered only work that
both affirmed their social values and catered to their taste for the “primitive.” Carl Van
Vechten, a vocal white supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, lionized its leaders in dignified photographs and essays. However, in a series of erotic photographs made only for his personal consumption, he depicted white men “servicing” well-endowed black men, posed with theatrical “jungle” props. The racist stereotypes, evident in these works, would recur in images of men of color by gay white artists.

The 1930s and 1940s

During the 1930s and 1940s, American artists responded to the Great Depression and World War II with heroic images of ordinary people in the Social Realist style. Paul Cadmus was the only artist affiliated with this movement who devoted himself to recording the experiences of gay people. In monumental paintings at once satiric and celebratory, Cadmus depicted men cruising in gyms and parks. His Fleet’s In (1934) provoked such outcry that it was removed from an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C., in
a process that foreshadowed the response to Robert Mapplethorpe’s work in the 1990s.
Although Cadmus’ commitment to gay subjects limited his public exposure, he benefited from the support of Lincoln Kirstein, one of the most important American patrons of art during the mid-twentieth century.
Kirstein also encouraged the homoerotic work of George Platt Lynes, a successful fashion photographer. For a limited circle of wealthy clients, Lynes created elegant, titillating photographs of nude men, usually posed and lit so as to conceal their genitals. In official photographs of the New York City Ballet, produced under Kirstein’s patronage, Lynes captured romantic and sensual interactions among male dancers.
Ballet also stimulated the imagination of Hubert Julian Stowitts, whose bold, colorful tempera paintings received international acclaim. However, both poor health and increasing social conservatism contributed to the rapid decline of his career in the postwar period.
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