Figures of the Bay Area
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Published in: March-April 2024 issue.


A TRAVELING EXHIBITION titled Breaking the Rules, now at Memphis’ Dixon Museum, presents an enlightening narrative about the groundbreaking work of two remarkable gay artists, Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown, who ignited an artistic flowering known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement from their Berkeley studio. Wonner and Brown, whose 56-year relationship was forged during the McCarthy era, did break many rules, but they paid a high price for it. Their tendency to focus on the male figure discouraged critical attention and commercial success. Only now, through this retrospective, is their artistic contribution being duly recognized.

            Paul Wonner (1920–2008) and William “Theophilus” Brown (1919–2012), despite being recognized as Bay Area artists, hailed from Tucson, Arizona, and Moline, Illinois, respectively. They met in 1952 while both were pursuing a master’s degree in art at UC-Berkeley, and the rest is history. And yet, they had very different personalities. Wonner, who was shy and soft-spoken, thought the gregarious Brown was a bit of a snob, and he had a point. Brown graduated from Yale and had mingled with influential cultural figures like Picasso and Stravinsky during the postwar years, when Elaine and Willem de Kooning took him under their wing.

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Theophilus Brown. Standing Bathers, 1993.


            Wonner and Brown frequented the Yuba River, indulging in naked swims. Wonner’s paintings of nude bathers went unquestioned because they aligned with the established tradition of men bathing together. Drawing inspiration from Paul Cézanne, Wonner portrays the bathers as a dynamic mass of interwoven, predominantly male figures. Wonner sent a touching Christmas card to Brown in which he referred to himself as “Paul Cézanne,” an acknowledgment of the influence of the French artist on their work. In contrast to Wonner’s approach, Brown’s bathers, such as Standing Bathers (1993), which is the official image of the exhibition, stand as iconic, solitary figures within a surreal frieze reminiscent of classical and neo-classical artists. David Park, another member of the Movement, also explored nude bathing motifs that exuded sensuality but avoided overt eroticism. While they may seem tame to our eyes, Park’s portrayal of male nudes amid the stifling atmosphere of the 1950s was an act of defiance.

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Ignacio Darnaude, an art scholar, lecturer, and film producer, is currently developing the docuseries Hiding in Plain Sight: Breaking the Queer Code in Art.