LUST IN UNIFORM
Images of Military Homosexuality
Co-curated by James Saslow and Wayne Snellen
June 14 - 29 July 12 - 14 August 9 - 11
Opening Reception: Friday, June 14, 6 to 8 pm
The Old Basement Gallery 127-B Prince Street New York, NY 10012
LUST IN UNIFORM
Images of Military Homosexuality
Men have lusted after soldiers and sailors since the Greek hero Achilles was smitten with his fellow warrior Patroclus. And artists have created images of military sex, both real and fantasized, from ancient Athens to Tom of Finland and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Michael Sennett's "Two Sailors" embodies the erotic mystique of military life: physically fit men alone together, in an intimate band charged with mutual devotion. "Lust in Uniform" displays works on this venerable "butch" theme by a wide variety of artists from our permanent collection, many never exhibited before.
The topic is a timely one, now that the United States Congress repealed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in 2010. Thomas Adams's photograph of infantry officer Dan Choi, who came out on the Rachel Maddow show in 2009, represents the courage of those servicemen and women, and their allies, who dared to speak out and demand an end to the armed forces' longstanding opposition to gay/lesbian service members.
What attracts men to the "military type" is different across history. For some guys, it's the classical muscular body, bared for action, as in Josef Kozek's ancient Greek comrades; for others, it's the splendid male plumage of tight-fitting uniforms from the Napoleonic era, lovingly detailed by Yanaga Regan. Our first glimpses of this popular fantasy in art date back to Charles Demuth's record of World War I Brooklyn; by World War II, "physique magazines" photographed their models in soldier and sailor drag among many male archetypes like gods and bodybuilders.
The BLUE STAR MUSEUM Program
This exhibition is Leslie-Lohman's creative contribution to the 2013 Blue Star Museum program of the National Endowment for the Arts. Museums around the country are acting to support military personnel and their families by offering them free admission from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
This collaboration among the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, the Department of Defense, and a record-breaking 2,000 museums across America offers free admission to the nation's active duty military personnel, including National Guard and Reserve, and their families. The program provides families an opportunity to enjoy the nation's cultural heritage and learn more about their new communities after completing a military move.
The complete list of participating museums is available at: http://www.arts.gov/bluestarmuseums.
All works displayed here are from the Leslie-Lohman Museum permanent collection.
Of all the uniformed services, the navy fills up the most space in the queer imagination. From boyhood tales of explorers and pirates to literary classics like Herman Melville's Billy Budd, the alluring image is put before us of dozens of tanned and toned men thrown together for long periods, sleeping and dressing in close quarters, doing heaven knows what else. Sailors are proverbially lustful — a state symbolized by Edward Melcarth's "Porthole" — and likely to try anything once safely outside the harbors of civilization.
Off the ship, sailors have always used shore leave to pick up both men and women — a scene chronicled by gay artist Paul Cadmus is his painting for the U.S. Navy titled "The Fleet's In" (1933). Cadmus was heatedly criticized for depicting what everyone knew but would rather not admit, and the painting was removed from public display for decades.
In the pecking order of marine romance, there's a special niche for French sailors, known world-wide for their traditional striped shirts and pompommed berets as well as for their stereotypically French skills at l'amour. Tom Keogh's "French Sailors" captures them in their heyday; the "original" for his fantasy is represented by Jean Genet's French novel, Querelle de Brest (1947), with illustrations by the artist-writer Jean Cocteau — a collaboration between two gay giants of 20th-century French culture.
French artist Paul Dubois, working in the 1940s, drew the same sailors as Cocteau, with a rougher, darker tone, perhaps reflecting the mood of the World War II years.
Sailors routinely got tattoos long before body art became the rage of the punk/hip crowd. Let's admit it, tattoos are sexy: not just their design, but their creative process. To tattoo is to penetrate, to pierce into another body with a hard sharp object, over and over. Some love doing it, some love having it done to them. The artist Titolo explores the tattoo encounter in several lighthearted pages from his serial illustrated book, Kouros.
Others like having other things done to them. The S/M fantasy behind "Reporting for Punishment" is clear enough. What isn't clear, regrettably, is why the two-sided drawing is folded to form an oversize greeting card: who sent it to whom, and why?
Still other sailor-types just want to be left alone. The two hunks dismayed at being "rescued" from their desert island paradise embody the little-boy fantasy of running away, maybe with your best friend, and escaping from the arbitrary rules of the adult "real" world like Robinson Crusoe and his companion Friday. Alone, together, beyond the reach of social convention, like the "bunkmates" Ishmael and Queequeg in Melville's classic seafaring novel Moby Dick — somewhere, over the rainbow.
WORLD WAR II
The war fought by the "Greatest Generation" from 1941-45 had a seismic impact on gay life in America. Young men and women from all parts of the country, thrown together in intense settings, living in same-sex intimacy, often became aware of desires and bedfellows undreamed of back home, unspoken, and un-image-inable. Americans were also exposed to pansexual foreign fighters overseas, like the French sailors of Paul Dubois, created in the war years. And a little boy named Tom of Finland was being dazzled by the invading Germans' uniforms (an exhibition in himself).
This war was thus the first from which we have first-person gay visual testimony, such as the scene by Bernard Perlin of a bomber squadron relaxing by their quonset hut, including his handwritten notes on just what they did in their spare time. Sailor Neel Bate, later to become infamous as the underground artist "Blade," had himself photographed in the South Seas, perhaps a do-it-yourself "pinup boy"?
Paul Cadmus, the dean of 20th-century US artists who dealt openly with gay subjects, painted Night in Bologna shortly after the war. In this darkly comic sexual triangle, the soldier is ogling the woman, who is checking out the man at the café, who himself is entranced by the soldier. We can only show this key work in reproduction; it is now enshrined at the Smithsonian institution in Washington.
The enduring mystique of WWII still activates the contemporary queer imagination, as visible in Jonathan Weinberg's re-imagining of the iconic victory photo that strips Our Boys naked into what suddenly looks like what used to be called a sexual "daisy chain."
Judging from the Museum's own holdings, at least, the army is the second-most popular arm of the military body. With its proverbial physical hazing and rigorous discipline, the army gives rise to all manner of fantasy scenarios in which men move from eyeing one another to tying them up, punishing, or whipping them (same for the navy, as seen in the Sailors 2 section). There's just something about uttering the words "Yes, Sir"….
The tradition of eroticized soldiers dates back to the ancient Roman legionnaire, Saint Sebastian, who was martyred in a nude saintly ecstasy by his fellow archers. In some versions, he was the lover of the emperor Diocletian, which makes his gay appeal all the more explicit. Our modern rendition of this longest-lived among gay icons descends from a distinguished line of Renaissance homo-imagery by painters like Botticelli. A man who loved men in Botticelli's Renaissance Florence — according to some sources, as many as two-thirds of the population — must have looked on the vulnerability of the handsome soldier much the way we would now gaze on a modern G.I. like Lombardi's, whose fantasy power is visible in the imagined lover he almost literally "wears on his sleeve."
For international comparison, Kobi Israel's photo of contemporary Israeli soldiers shows that the experience of men lounging together without much clothing is much the same there now as it was in Bernard Perlin's WWII unit. LGBT soldiers were legally accepted in the Israeli army before the US, though recent films have explored the ambiguous social position that remains for open gays. Of course, if no one knows about you, that's not an issue, and Michael Broderick illustrates one exciting element of the military mystique: you and your "army buddy" get to ride together in a jeep to someplace fenced and private, where you can both do what pleases you.
If sailors are hot, and soldiers are too, what happens when you get one of each? Cross-branch military sex has inspired numerous artists' erotic imaginations, including Paul Dubois (see Sailors 2). The triple explorations of this theme shown here seem to form a single narrative of mutual satisfaction. Unfortunately, for many works like this in the Museum's collection, research is still needed to track down the kind of detailed information about artists, patrons, and viewers that would help us understand the social and artistic worlds in which such images circulated.