Friday, June 21, 2013

Art, Sex, and Influence: Part 1

I have long been meaning to write an article about the gay male artists/writers/filmmakers who inspired and influenced me during my formative years (generally my teens, though some are from a bit earlier and some a bit later). Pride month seems as good a time as any to tackle this deeply personal subject for me and I’ve decided to expand this into a two-part article. If I seem to be leaving out any artists you think were influential (such as Andy Warhol and George Takei), remember that this is a list of people who are especially important to me, without whom I simply would not be the person I am today.

Growing up, I had very few female role models and even fewer women in my life that I could relate to. Sexuality was a gray area, at least until I discovered a number of gay male artists, all right around the same time (puberty, surprise). Though I had some straight male role models, they were far outnumbered by gay men, especially gay male artists hidden in unexpected places, artists who just happened to be gay and did not make their sexual identity the focus of their art. They just happened to be different and, well, so did I. This fascinated and inspired me and still does. It seems particularly relevant now, when the issue of marriage rights and bullying are finally being recognized within this country (the Supreme Court makes their ruling on DOMA next week), despite the best efforts of some offensively moronic conservatives.

Here is a list of 20 of my biggest role models in chronological order. I've broken this down into two parts for readability. 

Arthur Rimbaud (1854 - 1891)
“I found I could extinguish all human hope from my soul.”

This teenage French poet, enfant terrible, master of symbolism, and, alongside Charles Baudelaire, one of the most influential poets of the Decadent movement, became a major influence on later writers, artists, and musicians, the Surrealists in particular. Known for his rebellious, anti-authoritarian attitude and libertine lifestyle, Rimbaud’s incredible verse is particularly stunning because he began to turn out some of his finest work at the age of fifteen. He also became famous for his tempestuous romantic relationship with the Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, who was married when he first met Rimbaud. After an alcohol-fueled affair that tested the limits of Verlaine’s sanity, Verlaine shot Rimbaud, and the 17 year old wrote one of his greatest works, Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). During a later relationship with another poet, Germain Nouveau, he wrote Illuminations, his finest collection of poetry. He stopped writing just before he turned 20 years old to spend almost two decades traveling the globe, until he died of cancer at 37. To learn more about one of my favorite poets, check out his complete works (and selected letters) in this excellent bilingual edition. I also highly recommend the Rimbaud biography by Graham Robb

Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)
“The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.”

This Irish novelist, theorist, poet, playwright, wit, and dandy is one of the world’s most important gay icons, one of the Victorian era’s most essential writers, and one of my biggest artistic influences (I’m currently in the middle of getting a Wilde-themed tattoo sleeve, for example). Today he is known for his plays, such as The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan, and Salome, among others, as well as his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, most of which are still widely read and adapted for stage and screen. In addition to his long hair and flamboyant fashion sense, he was known for his decadent lifestyle and almost constant self-mythologizing. He is also known for his belief in “Greek love” and numerous relationships with men, particularly a relatively open, long-term relationship with his younger lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Though their relationship was often toxic, it lasted for nearly all of Wilde’s adult life. His sexuality landed him a prison sentence for “gross indecency” and effectively ruined his life. The prison health conditions, along with his personal misery, contributed to his death a few years later. I highly recommend Wilde’s complete works, though it is certainly a large volume, as well as this  biography by Richard Ellman, one of my favorites. 

James Whale (1889 - 1957)
“To a new world of gods and monsters!”

I’ve already written a lengthy article about the career of British director James Whale, one of Universal’s most important horror directors. In addition to his classic films Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Old Dark House, among others, Whale got his start directing theater and worked across a wide range of film genres. He helped bring the style of German expressionism to American cinema, which went on to profoundly influence the noir genre and, subsequently, almost all American thrillers and crime cinema. His use of suspense, horror, and black comedy was also a likely influence on the later films of Alfred Hitchcock. Whale was also one of the first openly gay directors in Hollywood and lived with his partner, Hollywood producer David Lewis, for over 20 years. Though modern critics have tried to imprint a gay reading on many of his films (particularly Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein), it cannot be denied that many of his main characters are loners and outsiders, and subverting normative morality and heterosexual couplings was a regular feature of his films. In addition to his movies, check out James Curtis’ impressively researched and extensive biography, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters. I also recommend the fictional biographical film Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen as Whale in the later years of his life. 

Jean Cocteau (1889 - 1963)
“I am burning myself up and will always do so.”

This French filmmaker, artist, poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, and so much more was one of the most important artists from the ‘20s to the ‘60s and is associated with some of the most influential figures of the early 20th century, including Marcel Proust, André Gide, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stavinsky, Édith Piaf, Coco Chanel, and more, many of whom he collaborated with. He is known for his novel Les Enfants terribles and his cinematic Orphic trilogy, which includes Blood of a Poet (1930), Orphée (1950), and Testament of Orpheus (1959), as well as La Belle et la Bête (1946). His experiments with theater, sound recording, and film are incredibly influential. He is also known for his lifestyle, which involved an addiction to opium and a string of famous affairs with both men and women. His longest lasting and most impacting relationship was with his muse Jean Marais, a prolific artist and actor who starred in some of Cocteau’s most important films. Their relationship lasted until Cocteau’s death of a heart attack in 1963, the same day as Édith Piaf. Though I have yet to read any books on Cocteau, there are a few on my list: An Impersonation of Angels: A Biography of Jean Cocteau by Frederick Brown, Francis Steegmuller’s biography, and the academic collection Reviewing Orpheus about Cocteau’s art and films. The Criterion box set of his Orphic trilogy is an excellent place to start if you are new to his work. 

Christopher Isherwood (1904 - 1986)
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

Christopher Isherwood, often overshadowed by his more famous friend, the poet W.H. Auden, was the first person who ever made me wish I could keep a journal (reading his work still has that effect). An English journalist, novelist, and memoirist, Isherwood is largely remembered for his must-read short fiction book The Berlin Stories, the basis for the musical Cabaret, though he has received a semi-revival in recent years because his novel A Single Man, about a gay professor who loses his partner and contemplates suicide, was turned into an acclaimed film recently. Auden and Isherwood became friends and literary partners in their early 20s, traveled to Berlin in 1929, and experienced the full effect of the Weimar Republic, particularly its sexual freedom. Isherwood wrote some of his most famous novels and stories there and also collaborated with Auden on a series of plays. They later traveled to China to cover the Sino-Japanese War and then to New York City (and other places in the U.S.) where they would both spend WWII and remain for the rest of their lives. His work, both memoir and fiction, is an important record of life for artists before and during WWII, particularly openly gay artists. In addition to The Berlin Stories, I highly recommend his memoir, Christopher and His Kind

Cary Grant (1904 - 1986)
“Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. So do I.”

The star of many of my favorite films, to me Cary Grant has always embodied traditional Hollywood class and masculine glamour. It is probably controversial to include him on this list, as he had several wives and his bisexuality has never been completely confirmed, but growing up, I firmly believed he was bisexual. I watched a lot of Cary Grant movies as a teenager, most of them with my grandmother, who showed me North by Northwest and Arsenic and Old Lace for the first time and proudly told me that Cary Grant was a leading man and had affairs with men (despite the fact that she was a Catholic, she supported gay rights). So, in my mind, Cary Grant has always been a bisexual icon and reading about his life (and sexuality) helped me to discover other actors of his generation and that were also rumored to be gay/bisexual or openly admitted it: Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier, Rock Hudson, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, etc. It is believed Grant had a relationship with actor Randolph Scott, whom he lived with for several years, though Grant was always very private about his personal life and enjoyed stirring up drama. Regardless, the possibility of Grant’s bisexuality (along with his love of LSD) provides an interest dimension to one of Hollywood’s biggest romantic and comedic stars. This article further delves into his sexuality, as well as a tell-all Hollywood scandal book by Scotty Bowers, and this Grant biography

W.H. Auden (1907 - 1973)
“Collaboration has brought me greater erotic joy... than any sexual relations I have had.”

One of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Auden was born in England, but traveled the world to explore his sexuality and write with friend, occasional sexual partner, and writing companion Christopher Isherwood. After stints in Berlin and China, they moved to the U.S. during WWII, where Auden wrote some of his greatest poems, essays, and librettos, and where he would live out the rest of his days and meet the love of his life, the much younger Chester Kallman. (Isherwood would also spend the bulk of his adult life in America with a much younger muse and partner.) Auden’s poetry is so remarkable for its treatment of war and politics, as well as human experience and moral and philosophical issues. Many of the debates he played out within his poetry and essays inspired some technical innovations that would influence younger generations of writers. Though Auden was openly gay, his sexuality was not at the root of his writing, though love, and what it means to love, were common themes. I highly recommend this collection of Auden’s poetry and this biography, as well as one of my favorite books, The February House, which recounts Auden’s life in Brooklyn during WWII, where he rented a house with several other notable artists. 

Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992)
“All colors will agree in the dark.”

Though a lot of painters have inspired and influenced me over the years, certainly more than this list would suggest, Francis Bacon seemed the most obvious choice. This British painter’s largely abstract body of work is some of the most devastating produced in the 20th century, beginning with his 1944 work Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. His work is bleak, terrifying, and represents a subconscious unveiling of many of the horrors humanity experienced during WWII. His grotesque portraits and triptychs are intensely personal, though he actually got his start as a designer before graduating to painting in the ‘30s. In addition to early stories of cross-dressing, Bacon was known for being somewhat of a libertine and traveled in a circle with other notable artists of the time, including Lucian Freud. As with Auden and Isherwood, the young Bacon spent time in Weimar Berlin and became inspired by early innovative filmmakers, particularly Sergei Eisenstein, before moving to Paris and immersing himself in the art world. He had a series of older, aggressive male lovers over the years, though his most famous relationship is with the younger George Dyer, whom Bacon met while Dyer was breaking into his home, which he allegedly intended to rob. Though he painted Dyer during their relationship, Dyer’s suicide in 1971 influenced his later work, which is primarily concerned with death. Their relationship was dramatized in John Maybury’s film Love is the Devil (1998), starring Derek Jacobi and a young Daniel Craig as Dyer, which comes highly recommended. This is based on the biography The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, which is on my reading list. Also pick up a collection of his paintings

Jean Genet (1910 - 1986)
“Erotic play discloses a nameless world which is revealed by the nocturnal language of lovers. Such language is not written down. It is whispered into the ear at night in a hoarse voice. At dawn it is forgotten.”

This controversial French writer was raised by a prostitute before being put up for adoption. He became a teenage criminal, runaway, and prostitute, an image he later cultivated. He turned to writing in prison and soon completed my favorite of his novels, Our Lady of the Flowers, in 1944. He introduced himself to Jean Cocteau, who helped him get a publishing contract and who intervened to get his impending (potentially life long) prison sentence set aside. Genet turned out an impressive body of work during his lifetime, including novels, plays, political essays, poems, and criticism. His subject matter was generally concerned with celebrating evil, criminality, and homosexuality; as a result his work was often banned, particularly in the U.S. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a wonderful analysis of his early life and novels, Saint Genet, which is how I was introduced to his works. Later in life, Genet became a political activist and worked closely with philosophers Sartre and Foucault (who will also appear on this list). His work has been adapted many times, such as his novel Querelle of Brest, which was turned into a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (another person on my list) and director John Waters and his muse, the actor/drag queen Divine (both on my list), were likely inspired by the main character of Our Lady of the Flowers, a criminal named Divine who is referred to as “she” and socializes with other men called "aunts." Gay director Todd Haynes’ film Poison is inspired by Genet’s writing, and his plays The Balcony and The Maids were also adapted as films. Genet directed his own film, Un Chant d’Amour (1950), a black and white short about a gay prisoner fantasizing about a prison guard. 

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)
“It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness, of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.”

Composer, conductor, and pianist Benjamin Britten is maybe the most obscure person on this list, at least for contemporary cinema fans, but he was one of the most important personalities of 20th century British classical music and opera. He was a close friend of writers Auden and Isherwood and, like them, was gay, though he was much more private about his sexuality. With Auden’s help (and after the death of his mother), he was able to accept this part of his life and began a relationship with tenor Peter Pears, his muse and musical partner, which would last the rest of his life. One of his finest works, the dark opera Peter Grimes, about the murder of a young boy, deals with themes of sexuality, guilt, and violence and likely expressed a lot of Britten’s conflicted feelings about his own sexuality. After years of near successes, it was Peter Grimes that brought him international renown. Among many other operas and compositions, he and Auden collaborated on a number of works together and Britten also composed a song cycle inspired by Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations. “J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (I alone hold the key to this savage parade), one of my favorite lines, is his refrain. As with Auden, Britten is a subject of the group biography The February House, about a house in Brooklyn they shared with a number of notable artists during WWII. 

Stay tuned for part two next week. 

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