Spring Break: ‘Artful Dodges’

Published in: March-April 2022 issue.


THE THEME of “Artful Dodges” (with apologies to Dickens) refers to the ways in which artists have set about to circumvent restrictions on the presentation of the human body alone or in combination with others. Long ago, the freedom of Greco-Roman art was jerked to an abrupt halt by the rise of Christendom, and it seems that artists ever since have been working on ways to evade the Church’s strictures.

            The great dodge of the Renaissance was not to violate medieval standards outright but to revive the styles and subjects of Classical culture. The use of mythological settings—think Botticelli’s Birth of Venus—gave artists a pretext for depicting what had hitherto been forbidden. Or take Michelangelo’s David, which broke all the rules of decency, but its subject matter was a biblical story, and it rendered King David in the heroic style of the Greeks, so the artist got away with it.

            Michelangelo’s work proved to be the nose under the tent for subsequent artists, who used the Master as a pretext for their own elaborations of the body. The fact that Michelangelo was pretty clearly “gay” in our sense added an extra dimension to this legacy. A drawing discussed here by Ignacio Darnaude depicts a large group of men bathing in the nude, a shocking display that slipped under the radar because it showed heroic soldiers cooling off in the Arno after battle. Darnaude argues that the “bathing” motif became a ruse for artists from Dom-enico Cresti in a 1600 painting all the way to the late 19th century, when Thomas Eakins (among other artists) used it to depict nude men in watery places.

            But that’s just one of many ploys that artists have used to tackle taboo subjects of various kinds. Andrew Lear goes back to the 17th century and shows how the Dutch master Frans Hals created a scene of revelry whose central figure is not a woman but boy in drag—a fact that art critics have conveniently ignored for years. Other works that skirted the censor’s eye include a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec whose lesbian overtones can scarcely be denied (though critics have tried), and a “portrait” by Modernist painter Marsden Hartley that reveals itself to be a tribute to his fallen lover, a soldier killed in World War I.

            Two 20th-century artists faced very different challenges in search of an artful dodge. Fernando Prieto of Spain, an artist of the so-called Generation of 1927 (which also included the poet Lorca), painted a number of same-sex interactions, including a series with two male mannequins making out in various positions—because who could object to a couple of wooden dummies getting it on? Photographer George Platt Lynes comes up in two articles stemming from Allen Ellenzweig’s new biography of Lynes, who became famous for his fashion and celebrity photos—but not so much for his many shots of male nudes. The latter were his true passion, but “standards” prevented their public display until long after he was gone.