DUNCAN GRANT Two Interwoven Figures 3, ca. 1950 Ballpoint pen, pencil & watercolor on paper 12 x 14" The collection of Douglas Blair Turnbaugh
DUNCAN GRANT: Ivory & Ebony
Nov 07 - Dec 21, 2006
The Other Side of the Mirror Duncan Grant’s Homoerotic Art
by Jim Eigo
From THE ARCHIVE: No. 21: Autumn 2006
Duncan Grant, the most important English visual artist of the first half of the last century, had the eye of a magpie. Nothing in Western art was safe from Grant’s voracious gaze, and if he was still hungry he might turn East. When he’d had his fill, his facile hand would refashion the scraps he culled into his own remarkable art. Confronting that work today, the savvy student will find intimations of hundreds of past artists, loud and soft. From his teens until close to his death at 92, Grant worked daily, producing drawings, watercolors, oils, ceramics, designs for stage sets and fabrics, and interior decorations for walls, floors, screens, and every centimeter of every piece of furniture conceivable to an Englishman of his time. Grant was as promiscuous in his choice of media as in his visual influences.
Had Grant a drier mind or heavier hand, his susceptibility to art of the masters might have rendered his work academic. But Grant was the opposite of analytic. What he took in via the eye bypassed his head and poured into his work in a clear rush of pleasure. He once said of his friend, critic and painter Roger Fry, “I thought his ideas rather got in the way of the pleasure of looking at [the Impressionists’] pictures.” Grant let nothing get in the way of the enormous pleasure he took in looking at pictures, or in looking at the things of this world, or in making the things of this world into pictures. Duncan Grant was a sensualist.
In the years before the First World War, Grant gained his first fame with work that delights in pattern and luxuriates in rich and varied color, be it still life, landscape, portrait, or even the occasional abstract. Nudes up to this point had mostly been drawings, figure studies from a live model or sketches of famous paintings. An exception is Bathing (1911), a large mural panel in which seven highly stylized and tightly muscled, overlapping male nudes dive and swim toward a little boat. In the 1920s and 30s, Grant’s work in oil often turned somber as the artist concerned himself with volume. But his watercolors took on a new lightness and transparency and often evoked a fantasy world of nymphs and satyrs, pleasure and its pain. There’s lots of bare flesh, male and female, and lots of classical myth. The “unrequitedness” (or worse) at the core of these heterosexual amours ensures that every passion has its shadow.
In these works Grant develops a method of articulating flesh, whether male or female, as massed volumes. In contrast to his male bathers of a decade before, the figures are ripe, alluring. Many of these nudes decorate walls, fireplaces, furniture, and objects of everyday use. The whole of Charleston, the farm Grant shared with artist Vanessa Bell—and sometimes her children, and sometimes her husband—from the middle of the First World War until her death, and then lived in without her, was one extended, consistently mutating artwork.
Grant’s overtly homoerotic work was something quite other. Despite Grant’s brief affair with Bell (which produced a daughter) and his complex long-term domestic and artistic partnership with her, he was an avid and comparatively open practitioner of homosexuality his whole life long. He kept his homoerotica separate from Charleston’s domesticity, in his London studio, in a cache marked PRIVATE, hidden under a cot and gnawed at by the mice. In the late 1970s the artist entrusted that work to a young American, Douglas Blair Turnbaugh, who, in return, promised to care for it and publish it. (A book of that art, Private, appeared in 1989.) Turnbaugh’s interest in Grant had been piqued by a reproduction he’d seen of Bathers, a major Grant oil from the early 1930s. In it a group of nine gloriously naked, wet young men sit, stand, lie, bend over, or wrestle one another. To Turnbaugh the homoerotic charge to all this lush male flesh was unmistakable.
The works on paper that Grant stashed under the cot differ markedly from the traditional monochrome drawings of nude male figures from real-life models that he drew throughout his artistic life. The openly homoerotic sheets that he kept hidden are, for subject matter and execution, the far more remarkable work. They are fantasy watercolors (often with lines drawn in ballpoint pen) of men having sex with other men, or pencil studies for these watercolors. Probably from the decade following the Second World War, the watercolors retain a vibrancy, lightness, and joy that had largely drained from Grant’s more “official” work of that time.
These depictions of men caught in the act draw from two of Grant’s many influences: the tradition of Attic pottery (cradle of Western art) and the fresco tradition of the Italian Renaissance. From the latter, Grant’s watercolors manage to evoke both the simplicity of that tradition’s cartoon studies and the pure, light color of its finished frescos. The Attic tradition was openly, vigorously homoerotic; from the Renaissance tradition Grant had to excavate the homoerotic subtext and bring it to the surface.
Grant’s homoerotic watercolors are as drastically simplified as the Greek pottery or Renaissance cartoons they call to mind. The men (with trivial exception) are naked and posed in empty space. The flattened volumes of the Attic tradition (translated as patches of watercolor here) are sometimes skillfully stacked in a way that suggests Renaissance depth. The palette has been reduced to skin tones, modulated blocks of pink and brown. Their massing can suggest flesh in motion or repose. Occasionally Grant models the flesh of his black subjects with lavender highlights on deep brown.
Grant’s decorative impulse, central to most of his work across genres and media, employs elaborate patterns and a wide-ranging palette. Here it’s radically chastened. Grant’s homoerotic work subsumes the decorative impulse into the figurative. Whether straining to assume the position or impossibly intertwined, these men, often extended beyond anything you’ll find in the bedroom, are not so much idealized as drafted into a decorative scheme. Their bodies recall earlier bodies in Grant’s work, dancers and athletes, the vaunting arcs they cut part of a grand design. Here they are themselves the design—the design of desire. The decorative impulse becomes in these works the equivalent of the erotic impulse.
In these watercolors you won’t find the dark underside you find in most artists’ explicit depictions of sex. Grant’s homoerotic watercolors retain the lightness he learned to impart to the medium when painting all that heterosexual flesh in the 1920s and 30s. Yet these guys, unlike their straight forbears turning in their eternal round, actually consummate! Their pleasures warm these sheets. For a homosexual man who came to maturity as the British state was hounding Oscar Wilde to his ruin for his love that dared not yet speak its name, Grant’s depictions of homosexual acts remain notably shadow-free. No matter the specific sex act depicted, all partners in these watercolors (mostly couples and threesomes) are equally avid pleasure-seekers (even in four decorative evocations of SM), whether top or bottom, whether black or white.
An arresting aspect of these watercolors (executed in the decade in which England’s African empire was coming apart) is that they compound the taboo against the homoerotic by depicting interracial sex. Having a black figure and a white one in every watercolor ensures a striking contrast of skin tones, rich brown and bright pink. But it does more. The very deployment of skin color paradoxically asserts the essential “color-blindness” of these partners, absolute equals in lust and love, and it seduces the viewer, through its color, into a similar color-blindness, a radical stance in any decade.
Grant’s homoerotic watercolors, especially when taken together, also make an existential statement (whether intended or not). Implicit in the figures’ similarities and contrasts is a counter-argument to the Freudian view on homosexuality that had taken root by mid-century. Homosexuality was deemed the fate of childish human psyches that for some reason stalled in the “mirror stage” of development. Male homosexuals were essentially desperate Narcissists on the prowl for themselves, a quest foredoomed to failure.
How different from this grim stereotype are the men in Grant’s work! They seek pleasure and actually find it—unlike all those endlessly chasing satyrs and nymphs, gods and goddesses of his earlier heterosexual erotic work. In the homoerotic work, instead of staring into a mirror, a man confronts someone who is starkly other and engages him. He manages to find the self in the other: the way each figure, black and white, so often echoes the other clinches the affinity visually. Within Grant’s couples individual men often read as positive and negative charges of the same overriding erotic impulse.
In one watercolor (that Turnbaugh has titled, Two Couples) Grant posits two kneeling, loving, naked, mixed-race couples in the same otherwise empty space. Each caresses the mate he faces. The posture of each couple, while not identical with the other’s, closely reiterates it, though neither couple, utterly self-involved, acknowledges the presence of the other. The figures are arranged (left to right) black and white, white and black, so that each couple reads like the other’s imperfect reflection, or maybe its development in time—a flip-flop. The toes of the two white men more than touch: they virtually merge into a shared foot. The corresponding feet of their black lovers push out of frame, suggesting, beyond the scope of this work, a chain of male couples, coupling, loving. Where will this implicit chain-bang end? Why should it ever have to!
Jim Eigo is the editor of Inches magazine and a frequent contributor to The Archive.