Coming of Age in Dulwich

by robertmcnicol

So as you can tell from the previous couple of posts, I was in Dulwich yesterday enjoying the softest hail known to man and freezing my eyelids off.

*blink* – *crack*

At the Dulwich Picture Gallery they have a very good exhibition on the emergence of American (and by that I mean US) art from the mid Nineteenth Century through to the middle of the Twentieth. Contained within four and a half rooms is an excellent variety of artists from and/or working in America; I’m no art historian (as the politicians say) but the movement from a strong European influence to a distinct and deliberate American voice is quite apparent (though of course this is Establishment America; no indigenous or native works here). I – predictably given my Proustian tendencies – liked the John Singer Sargent. Video talkies on the works exhibited can be found here.

Also at Dulwich they have one of the half dozen of so of Guido Reni’s portraits of Saint Sebastian in their permanent collection and have augmented this temporarily with five of the other authenticated versions. Plenty of writers have lyrically waxed about these paintings (Oscar Wilde, Charles Kingsley and many others) and lots of articles were written about this particular assembly of saints.

I find it difficult to really get excited about these paintings though. Whilst our modern sensibility has attached a strong homoerotic quality to these pictures, not to mention a touch of sado-masochism, this image has lost much of its power from over-exposure. Upon seeing these paintings I wasn’t so much ecstatically transported to a place where spirituality and sexual desire intertwine; up close, the boy is too much of a girl to be arousing, the flesh too cleanly pierced and the expression too pain-free to empathise or delight in the wounds inflicted.

So why did this historically inaccurate (though very beautifully painted) boy become such a touchstone for gay male iconography? I think two points are worth making.

One is the establishment nature of this picture. These pictures were not painted in a subversive fashion (there was clearly strong demand for these, given the numbers of versions and copies) and were bought and sold by the great and the good through the centuries. The desire through the late 19th and 20th Centuries to attach homosexual desire to a lauded image must have been strong, when homosexuality was increasingly being portrayed as perverse.

And secondly I expect the very ambiguity and androgyny of these paintings appealed. Who could possibly fail to be convinced of the safeness and reasonableness of gay desire when it was attached to such an inoffensive, unmanly image?

Of course, Jarman typically subverts the establishment, inoffensive imagery with his Sebastiane, making the homosexuality literally explicit. So hats and loincloths off to Derek as per usual.

Further reading here and here.