“Queer Art” and Lesbians

Girls Night Out

As was explained earlier, after the Witch Hunts of the seventeenth century, women who were single, independent, and sometimes lesbian were able to function with more freedom from legal persecution than their male counterparts. So great was the imperative to marry and reproduce in the nineteenth century, men who were “straight” and did not wed were looked upon with suspicion for not doing their reproductive duty. Women, if they were single and presumably virtuous, were excused from such complains and were allowed to form female based households. However, due to an expansion of economic and social opportunities for women, lesbians, openly identified as such, are more a product of the twentieth century than the nineteenth.

The Great War ended the nineteenth century and along with it, the complex network of moral, religious and social restrictions that had restrained the lives of women. After the slaughter on the battlefields, it was impossible to take authorities seriously and this was especially true of male authority figures who had led millions to their futile deaths. With many women left without male protectors and on their own, the females of the post-war period cut their hair and skirts short, discarded underwear, took up smoking and drinking and fast dancing, and drove cars and sped away from their old lives. Some of these women came together as lesbian couples and entered into the intellectual worlds of art and literature as new voices for the newly liberated society.

Described in Tirza True Latimer’s book, Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris, Paris was a center for artistic lesbians, led by the famous couples, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas and Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. Confining herself to a discrete black, white and gray palette, Brooks painted restrained portraits of the lesbian community in Paris during the 1920s. Her early works, like White Azelas of 1910 are related to Art Nouveau but by the post-war decade, Brooks had found her own linear style. Sometimes, as with The Black Cap from 1907 there are earth tones in her paintings but her self portrait, with her flat black hat and sharp edged white shirt that is more common. As explained in Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and and Romaine Brooks, Brooks, a fragile personality, hinged her life on that of her flamboyant companion and leader of a glittering salon and, for a brief period, painted the inhabitants of a privileged world.

Bonnie Zimmerman wrote in Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures, long, a city fascinated by lesbians, that Paris was, from the nineteenth century, a place of refuge for communities of women who would not be allowed to live anywhere else in such freedom. The only other city that offered such opportunities was post-war Berlin. This brief period of cultural freedom in France, during which women could still not vote, was cut short by the Second World War and the writings and art of these talented lesbians, the “Sapphos” and the “Amazons” were marginalized. Not until the women’s movement of the 1970s did this remarkable community with the writers such as Radclyffe Hall and painters such as Romaine Brooks and photographer Claude Cahun were recovered. The portrait of Una, Lady Troubridge who appropriated male attire from the monocle to the cravat to the trousers to the stern expression seems to trenchantly sum up a brave and forward looking women who were far ahead of the their time.

The portraits of Romaine Brooks were the visual equivalents of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness. Today these sharp-dressed women, such as Peter, A Young English Girl, in their masculinized attire would be right at home in any fashion magazine. Another fifty years would have to pass before self-identified “lesbian artists” would be visible in the art world again. Although there are many lesbian artists, most women prefer to exist simply as “artists,” but there are those, such as Nicole Eisenman who have explicitedly lesbian content. Eisenman’s work ranges beyond lesbian content and is often a commentary on contemporary life in all its mindless absurdities and there is no doubt with its confrontational political content (lesbian or not) would not be well-received outside of the narrow art worlds of New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles and the international art fairs.

Eisenman is never precious about there art and is well-known for her bravura murals which she paints inside galleries and then paints them out when the show is over. Some of these murals comment, in the best Postmodern fashion, upon the history of art, especially art made by men. Other murals are amusingly anti-male and rather brutal in their assessment of the male of the species. In one series, Eisenman imagines a girl scout troop which has kidnapped a scout master from the boy scouts and have lashed him to a stake and used him as kindling for their campfire. Later in the series, the girls use penises for weenies in a weenie roast. Like her Los Angeles counterpart, Kim Dingle, Eisenman imagines an all female world, teaming with colorful and often violent inhabitants, on the move without men.

Dingle, who prefers to not be identified or limited as a “lesbian artist,” has created a world of wild girls, little girls in white dresses, a danger to society and to themselves. Free from adults and male authority figures these little girls live in the wild, like feral children. One of the veteran women artists who identified herself as a lesbian is Harmony Hammond who wrote a book on Lesbian Art in America published in 2000. On the cover is a photograph of Catherine Opie, a Los Angeles artist who produced a body of work on “butch” lesbian culture. Hammond was a stalwart of the feminist movement and became famous for her sculptures which features bonds and bindings, referring to the strictures on women and their lives.

Opie, a very intelligent artist from Cal Arts, showed a shocking side of lesbian life: one of tattoos, piercings, and cutting. There is a domestic side of Opie, who lives in a “transitional neighborhood” near USC with her partner and their children that has emerged in her later work with themes quite at odds with her earlier work which was equal to Mapplethorpe in its explicit portrait of homosexual life. When you go to her name on the internet, you will find a “report images” link for offensiveness. Opie who is a “leatherdyke” combines domesticity with transgression, showing herself as a lesbian and a devoted mother and a denizen of an underground of sado-masochism. Like many homosexuals, Opie was radicalized by the AIDS crisis as victims were “marked” by society and shunned.

The idea of “marking” as a form of “identity,” which categorized some people as untouchable is literalized by Opie through the tattooing and scarification of her own body in her photographs. Although it is this sometimes shocking subject matter that made her reputation, most of her work is a study of urban landscapes and suburban settings and the people who live quiet lives in America. The distance between Opie and Brooks is now a hundred years and the LGBT community has become more visible, more vocal and more politically active. But, as with Brooks and her lesbian community in Paris, the lesbian and gay communities are archipelagos, surrounded by an often uncomprehending America. Even in the twenty-first century, it still does not seem possible for men and women of whatever sexual inclination to simple produce “art,” without an adjective or a label.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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