The Contested History of Queer Themes in American Art Exhibitions

Maria Bastos-Stanek, Art History and Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Major, UMass Amherst

On June 17, 2016, the Smithsonian American Art Museum unveiled its new exhibition dedicated to painter Romaine Brooks, a late 19th century and early 20th century American expatriate who lived in Paris, France, during the belle époque. Among the pantheon of queer women who lived during this period of particularly high artistic and cultural development–Gertrude Stein, Radcliffe Hall, Alice B. Toklas, Colette–Brooks is perhaps less well known and less likely to conjure romantic visions of Sapphic love but whose erotic depictions of nude women and the wealthy Parisian lesbian subculture will leave you rushing to the American Art Museum, or at least their online exhibition, to experience her art.

Figure 1 Romaine Brooks, Azalees Blanches (White Azaleas), 1910, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image taken by the author.

Romaine Brooks, Azalees Blanches (White Azaleas), 1910, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Image taken by the author.

The Art of Romaine Brooks” features a comprehensive retrospective of the artist, which includes 18 paintings and 32 drawings from the museum’s permanent collection. Brooks primarily painted portraits, a number of which were commissioned and others that include nude women. Brooks’ earlier works, such as Azalées Blanches (White Azaleas) (fig. 1), an oil painting from 1910 of a full-length reclining nude woman next to a vase of white azaleas in a domestic interior, sets the stylistic terms for her later and bolder works. The woman’s body faces towards the viewer in an openly erotic manner, while her face turns away in a three-quarter view that makes it difficult to gauge her emotions but suggests the possibility of a rich interior life. The work features Brooks’ characteristic muted color palette of blacks, greys, and whites. Her extraordinary tonal range is exemplified in the shading of the figure’s body and the brilliance of the white azaleas.

Perhaps what makes Brooks’ paintings so fascinating and daring is her status as a gender non-conforming masculine presenting woman artist. Although I hesitate to impose a modern term on a non-modern woman or time period, Brooks sustained several well documented long term romantic and sexual relationships with woman, making her someone contemporary audiences would recognize as a lesbian or otherwise queer. Brooks’ experiments with variations in gender and sexuality in many of her portraits instill a queer viewer with a deep sense of validation and satisfaction that comes from encountering a work of art that reflects one’s own experiences.

 Romaine Brooks, Peter (A Young English Girl), 1923-24, oil on canvas, image taken by the author.

Romaine Brooks, Peter (A Young English Girl), 1923-24, oil on canvas, image taken by the author.

Take, for example, Peter (A Young English Girl) (fig. 2), an oil painting from 1923-1924. Brooks depicts the British painter Hannah Gluckstein, who went by the name Peter Gluck. As the wall label for Peter says, Gluck “unapologetically wore men’s suits and fedoras, clearly asserting the association between androgyny and lesbian identity.”[1] In Brooks’ characteristic three quarter view portrait, the viewer encounters a young woman wearing men’s clothing, short, closely cropped hair, austere facial features, and a stern and serious gaze, all of which contribute to her aura of confidence and self-possession. The striking diagonal composition in which the top left corner is composed of primarily light greys and the fleshy tones of Gluck’s face and the bottom right corner which is composed of primarily dark greys and blacks with the exception of Gluck’s gold buttons, her emerald green waistcoat, and the gleam of her leather belt creates the effect of tonal harmony.

Romaine Brooks, Lethe, 1930, pencil on paper, image taken by the author.

Romaine Brooks, Lethe, 1930, pencil on paper, image taken by the author.

The exhibition unfolds over three rooms. The third and most expansive room displays a collection of drawings with surrealist themes. Although Brooks did not belong to any early 20th century Surrealist groups in Paris or elsewhere of the time, her drawings comprised of simple graphite on paper drawn from a continuous line in curvilinear forms recall the surrealist game of cadavres exquis (exquisite corpse), and demonstrate her mastery of multiple mediums.

Aside from all of the reasons mentioned above, “The Art of Romaine Brooks” is notable for several reasons. One is the exhibition’s un-hesitance to claim the queerness and erotic appeal of Brooks’ work in both the paintings themselves and in her own life. This fact should not be dismissed in our post-marriage equality era where supposedly queer people are equal now. The tragedy in Orlando painfully reminds us the most vulnerable members of our communities still face intense homophobic backlash and experience deadly violence.

The Smithsonian Institution is no stranger to controversy when it comes to exhibitions related to LGBT subjects in America. In 2010-2011, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) ran the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” that featured a 4-minute video by David Wojnarowicz, titled A Fire in My Belly from 1987. In the video, Wojnarowicz filmed the image of a crucifix crawling with ants as a metaphor for the experiences of people living with AIDS in the 1980s. The video offended conservative Republicans, who had just taken control of the House, and they pressured the Smithsonian to cancel the exhibition on the basis that the NPG receives public funds, regardless of the fact that the exhibition itself was funded by private donations. Smithsonian officials partly gave into pressure and removed the video, but not without reigniting old culture war debates about who is and is not considered part of the “public” in America, and what type of art is deemed deserving of public funding and display at public institutions.[2]

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One day this kid . . .), 1990, Photostat, edition of ten, image taken from Luna, UMass-Amherst-Art History Image Collection.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One day this kid . . .), 1990, Photostat, edition of ten, image taken from Luna, UMass-Amherst-Art History Image Collection.

Threats to public funding for the arts has a longer and queerer history, though. One of the first major exhibitions to deal specifically with the AIDS crisis and catch the indignant attention of Congress conservatives was “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” curated by photographer Nan Goldin and partially funded by a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The exhibition opened on November 16, 1989 in the New York gallery Artists Space. Public outrage was due in large part to artist David Wojnarowicz, who in the exhibition catalog essay “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” criticized Cardinal John J. O’Conner, senator Jesse Helms, and Representative William Dannenmays for their attempts to impede government and church funding for AIDS research and education. Facing public pressure and congressional threats to defund the NEA or to impose severe content restrictions on federally funded art, the NEA quickly denounced the exhibition and canceled the grant, only to restore the grant later on.

Public backlash to “Witnesses” paled in comparison to the Robert Mapplethrope controversy. What has now taken on mythic proportions in the cultural imagination about arts funding in America, “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment” started out rather innocuously intended as a retrospective of the openly gay artist, who ultimately died of AIDS-related complications in 1989. Organized as a traveling exhibition curated by Janet Kardon, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia in 1988, the ICA was unexpectedly thrust into the national spotlight and became a flash point in congressional debates about federal funding for the arts, since the National Endowment for the Arts partially funded the exhibition. The controversy surrounded the inclusion of Mapplethorpe’s X, Y, and Z portfolios, which contained sexual explicit imagery of gay men in bondage, among other illicit themes.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry and Bobby Kissing, 1979, photograph, image taken from Luna, UMass-Amherst-Art History Image Collection.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry and Bobby Kissing, 1979, photograph, image taken from Luna, UMass-Amherst-Art History Image Collection.

It is no surprise to contemporary audiences what happened next. The controversy culminated in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, canceling the exhibition just weeks before it was set to open, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and its director Dennis Barrie were charged with obscenity for hosting the exhibition and ultimately acquitted. After several stormy years, Congress eliminated the NEA’s ability to give out grants to individual artists in 1994.

These two different exhibitions–one put on by a local gallery based around a community of artists, and the other put on by a major art institution aimed at a national audience–both faced intense public backlash against LGBT subjects in American art. As the “Hide/Seek” exhibition reminds us, the legacy of the culture wars casts a long shadow in the art world. Decades later, Congress has not yet finished with their homophobic assaults against queer people, which is what makes “The Art of Romaine Brooks” even more remarkable.

“The Art of Romaine Brooks” does not feature such contentious images of sacrilege as did “Hide/Seek,” or explicit sexual imagery like in “The Perfect Moment,” but we should not dismiss that fact that an exhibition like this most likely would not have been possible at a public institution even six years ago. The American Art Museum’s relative accomplishment of not attracting controversy and receiving generally favorable reviews may signify a turning point in representations of queer people in public art institutions for the better. The exhibition is a triumph in recognition of Romaine Brooks, a powerful artist who should be remembered as such in her own right, but also as a demonstration of the rich quality of art made by queer people in America. The Art of Romaine Brooks is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through October 2, 2016.

[1] Smithsonian American Art Museum, exhibition label for Peter (A Young English Girl)

[2] “Video Yanked,” Art in America, Jan. 1, 2011


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