Review: Gay Art: A Historic Collection by Felix Lance FalkonFelix Lance Falkon
Edited with an Introduction and Captions by Thomas Waugh
Gay Art: A Historic Collection
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press
Reviewed by Paul Kane
This is a new, expanded and partially self-censored (for more about this, see below) edition of a book that was originally published by Greenleaf Classics in 1972. In essence, it is a collection of (male) homoerotic art, mostly dating from the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s.
The first chapter, though, begins somewhat earlier, looking at homoerotic (and phallocentric) art in Ancient Greece and the ancient civilisations of Peru and India, before moving swiftly on to the Renaissance and the early 20th century. Although quite a rudimentary survey, some of the stuff here is quite fascinating. Such as a drawing of three sailors by Genet’s friend Paul Smara (in the same vein as some of the explicit paintings of sailors done by Charles Demuth, an artist not represented here) and another by Roland Caillaux that was apparently inspired by a passage from Genet’s novel Our Lady of the Flowers. The second chapter, entitled “Modern Musclemen”, concerns itself with the glorification of the mesomorphic male in physique magazines and the like.
The following chapters are the real gem. Chapters 3-9 are each devoted to a particular artist. The most well-known of these artists is (of course!) Tom of Finland and we also get Etienne, Hank and Blade (the pioneer and in many ways a presiding influence on all that followed). The use of pseudonyms is indicative of the fact that drawing dirty pictures, and indeed being gay, was a clandestine enterprise during this period (1945-1970); though such pseudonyms may also have been adopted out of choice, to establish a brand. Later artists, such as the deliciously nasty-minded Bastille and Oliver Frey with his “Zack” persona, also followed this practice. The remaining chapters (10-16) devote themselves to a particular theme, and titles here include “Orgies”, “Dungeons and Domination” (about sadomasochism), “The Super-Stud”, “Humour” (a lot of bestiality in this one!) and “Youth”.
Finally, the book addresses the question, Well, is any of this actually art? Of a sort seems to be the answer, which is probably fair enough. Using Kant’s aesthetic terms, one can say that the drawings here are agreeable and often beautiful (though beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say), but hardly sublime. For let’s be clear: these artists usually had a more modest and mundane purpose: to express and depict sexual fantasy and desire. Yet the best of them are also able (inadvertently, maybe) to capture a (sub)culture and evoke a world.
Felix Lance Falkon’s text from the original edition is intact, but a proportion of the original illustrations were unobtainable for copyright reasons. Also, seven of the illustrations included here have been cropped (i.e. self-censored); these all feature adolescent boys and sometimes (but not always) the suggestion of inter-generational sex. In his introduction, Thomas Waugh outlines the reasons for this in some detail (on pages 19-21) and it boils down to this: a warranted fear of prosecution under current Canadian and American law. It seems curious that illustrations it was OK to publish in 1972 cannot be reproduced 35 years later, but that is apparently the situation in which we find ourselves. And take note: unlike Nan Goldin’s recent absurd difficulties over the Klara and Edda photograph, these are drawings, acts of the imagination. Not photographs or video stills where an actual child, unwilling and unknowing, is depicted. There, one might well support censorship, of course.
Waugh does a good job of setting the book in its historical context and his captions are often erudite and witty, enhancing one’s enjoyment and appreciation of the pictures. I like especially his comment on Figure 59, an illustration by Graewolf (actually Felix Lance Falkon himself): “are these endless processions of smiling bodybuilders with spring-loaded hard-ons gay versions of [Henry] Darger’s hermaphrodite Vivian Girls?” Well, gay art is outsider art of a sort!
In summary, Gay Art: A Historic Collection, even in this slightly bowdlerised form, is an excellent book. It is a large paperback (measuring about 23 x 15cm), its 155 illustrations are well reproduced and at about £15 it’s great value. If you have any interest at all in homoerotic art you will get a lot of enjoyment out of it. Or perhaps, bearing in mind that Waugh calls the original edition of the book “the brazen-ur text of gay graphic smut”, you can think of someone for whom it would be an ideal Christmas present.
Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. Hewelcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org