Tuesday, February 12, 2013


The title of Eros andAdonis could not more clearly state its theme.  Eros, the impish deity of carnal love; Adonis, the epitome of masculine beauty.  The two together unambiguously spell homoeroticism.  Subtitled “The Male Figure in Art History, A Compilation of Articles from The Art of Man,” the book is edited and largely written by Grady Harp, himself a champion of figurative art and a prolific book reviewer.  (Disclosure: Grady Harp has written enthusiastically about my recent publications.)  The essays range from those devoted to a single theme—“The Influence of Apollo”—to mini monographs of individual artists—Agnolo Bronzino, Guido Reni—and cover a vast range of world art, from Renaissance Italy to Edo period Japan and contemporary America.  They offer ample evidence that the fascination with the human form, in this case specifically with the male form, is nothing short of universal.

Belvedere Apollo, after Leochares, 130BC
I’ll begin with the thought that homoerotic art is not necessarily nor exclusively gay art.  Straight men and women, I believe, are as curious about the bodies of their fellow men and women as their gay counterparts.  It is human to compare.  We compare ourselves with each other all the time—and often, regrettably, unfavorably; we set up ideal mental images of masculine or feminine appearance and invariably do not come up to scratch.  As Eros and Adonis amply demonstrates, for the greater part of human history our artists have more often than not concerned themselves with embodying these cultural ideals and offering them to pleasure the eye and mind.  They projected the image of ourselves as we wished we were: for men, strong, muscular, imposing in stature, lean, and so on.  It is only relatively recently (since Caravaggio?  Where is he in this book?) that artists have worked to represent men and women as they really are.

But let’s not forget that representations of the human form are not merely ideal but also, yes, erotic and arouse erotic response.  Again, it’s my belief that same-sex response is not limited to gay men and women.  It’s simply human.  There is much denial on this subject, but even the most macho football fan, I’d suggest, is succumbing in part to the power of an ancient gene that stems at the very least from the days of Greek games and Roman gladiatorial events.  As that great scene in the movie version of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers suggests, close combat is but the flip side of that other close body encounter, sex...

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, "Dante and Virgil in Hell," 185  
Those of us who love art—from its origins to the present day—would be fooling ourselves if we failed to acknowledge a pleasurably erotic response to homoerotic art; and would be failing, also, in our response to the art itself. 

That said, kudos to Grady Harp for bringing these matters to our attention.  He does so in a book that is rich with illustrations that establish at once the common ground of naked masculinity through the ages—the body strength, the up-front sexual apparatus, the incipient fertility—and the differences in our nature.  Art, it turns out, can tell us by reflection a great deal about what it means to be a man; each work is in some sense a mirror in which we (men) see who we are.  Grady’s texts, while far from academic, give us a real sense of the artists about whom he writes and, importantly, the historical period in which they worked.  His prose flows easily, as good prose should, and is at once eminently readable and informative. 

I do have a couple of nit-picks.  Admittedly, this is a huge subject and volumes could be filled with images and texts, but some of the choices—and omissions—do seem strange to me.  I mentioned Caravaggio, above.  Given the subject matter and the title, my mind connects immediately with this genuine, if mercurial master of the genre.  And where is Michelangelo’s “David”?  And his “Moses”?

Michelangelo,  "Moses"
—those two great, iconic representations of male energy, one at the spunky beginning, the other approaching the retrospectively reflective end of adult male life?   I’d also question the inclusion of several relatively unknown artists interspersed between the likes of Reni, Thomas Eakins, William Blake…  These outliers seem to have been included more for their modernity (and their explicitly gay subject matter) than for their historical standing. Their merits notwithstanding—and they are frankly hard to judge without first-hand experience—they make for odd bedfellows (excuse the levity!) with the great painters of the past.  And if the concern is for modernity, why not consider David Hockney?  Lucien Freud?  Or even Francis Bacon?

One last nit-pick: lacking chronological arrangement of the material, I found it hard to make sense of the order in which the essays were presented.  Perhaps I was looking for logical coherence where a simple patchwork was intended, but I would personally have been grateful for clarification on this point, if only to give me some sense of direction and purpose.  Still, we sense that this is a work of personal passion and commitment, more of a journal or scrapbook than a treatise, and as such it is replete with sudden insights, interesting turns and odd juxtapositions.  And to leaf through it is pleasure to both eye and mind.

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