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A queer approach to sexual preference labelling in art-history:1. John Minton

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 30 Aug 2018, 17:09

A queer approach to sexual preference labelling in art-history: looking at case studies in British mid-twentieth century art: 1. John Minton

The aim of this group of blogs is to look critically at some of the publications relating to gay male artists in the mid-twentieth century. This is in part to begin trawling for a dissertation topic for my MA in Art History. My initial thoughts relate to focusing on one of these artists, although their contexts include each other, their treatment of male nudes in relation to the iconographic, contextual and stylistic features which propose such a subject for art (for some of the choices this will include photography as well as painting) and ‘queer theory’. This will look at the issue of labelling of course, particularly at the important terminology of ‘homosexuality’, which dominated the period. My hypothesis will probably be that such a term was, and remains, a means of marginalising, even to the point of negation, of such art. My probable choice of artist at this stage is probably Keith Vaughan, although my reading has just begun. My interest though was sparked by Mark Gattis’ splendid programme on John Minton shown recently on the BBC.

Frances Spalding re-issued, with ‘revisions’, her 1991 book on Minton in 2005[1], counting as most significant of the advances made in the literature since 1991 Hyman’s book on figurative art. However, unlike Gattis, she does not revise the terminology of her first edition with regard to sexual categories and the categorisation of sexual personae, which in 2005 (the year gay marriage was – from December only first made legal) meant that her statements on the subject again relied on her 1991 ‘Introduction’. This gives a taste:

… his fascination lies not only in his gaiety, generosity, creativity and wit, but also in the melancholy, disaffection, and despair that at times showed so clearly in his face. To reduce this man to an untroubled symbol would be manipulative and demeaning. It would also do little to increase the understanding of homosexuality.’ (3)

Whilst well-meaning, it is clear that it is difficult not to equate ‘homosexuality’ with the aetiology of a negative mind-set. It is clear too, in the whole book at least, that Spalding sees the ‘homosexual’ as the ‘subject of discourse’, where discourse is neither owned, controlled (even as a participant in discourse) by the ‘homosexual’. At one point she even characterises the difference between bisexuals (and self-defining heterosexual men willing to give it a go like Alf Sparkes) by naming Minton by the old-fashioned (even in 1991) but no less objectifying and marginalising term ‘invert’. The category of the ‘homosexual’ is defined external to persons, as a ‘subject’ that has the universality that Cartesian discourse itself allows it as an element in discourse. We need to ‘understand it’ but the subject that understands it remains a non-specified and non-particularised ‘subject’ that pretends to be neither male nor female, gay nor straight. It did not need Foucault to show us that such a subject was in fact constituted through power with the ability to define the difference between norm and ‘other-than-the-norm’ as part of that understanding.

We need to puzzle over some of the ways Minton’s cognitive-emotional-sexual life is presented to us. He did not ‘like’ homosexuals we are told (an issue that will arise again with Vaughan). He wanted the love of a ‘real’ man. These are not idiocies – I remember feeling them with all the pain they involved but they are prime examples where, as Paolo Freire shows, the ‘subject of discourse’ is ‘subjected’ to the power of norms that are actually the product of multiple other structures of power: majority status, ownership of cultural symbols, or enhanced visibility through symbols, for instance. They enforce that splitting of the person from which no gay man or lesbian was immune, whatever the claims made – often blowzily (‘I Am What I Am, and What I AM Needs No Excuses). If I am what I am, I am myself and other.

That is how Minton fed his self-loathing, projected onto other gay men and his preference for an extreme and aggressive maleness in his lovers, even to the point of invited violence (223). Of course, not that gay men and lesbians needed to ‘invite’ violence: it came uninvited as a means of people differentiating their normality from that which is (self-evidently it seemed) different and ‘odd’. I have no doubt that it is these structures of feeling, fed by structures of societal and ideological power, that exclaim Minton’s divided self in relationships, his ambivalence to the maleness in his lovers that he encouraged, even to the ‘provision’ of ‘women’ for them (when one of his lovers Kevin Maybury took on an older male lover, Minton went into a deep depression (236). We can infer that this was because this circumstance broke the tragic paradigm which explained ‘homosexual’ relationships to him and was thence unprepared for by the myth of the ‘homosexual’ (Maybury was the only one of his lovers who was predominantly gay and though a carpenter, was one who worked on stage in a theatre). It also explains his, and other middle-class gay males preference for lovers who were evidently less socially, intellectually ‘valued’ than they themselves were. It justified treating these young men (the ubiquitous sailors and guardsmen (and, it has to be said, students) in Minton’s life) as objects and predicted him finding them lesser than his normative self. We see this in E.M. Forster too but he seemed to find intelligence in his working-class lovers (the policeman Bob Buckingham for instance) as he aged.

But none of this is that clear to Spalding, who nevertheless clearly heaps maternal love on the poor boy of her biographical treatment. It feels to me that she therefore fails to understand the relationship (as artists and gay men) between Minton and Keith Vaughan, who became housemates. Their relationship was built on very different constructions of the relationship of art to homosexuality and the homosexual they were persuaded to see and distance themselves from in themselves: the former focused on necessitated but spiritualised tragic loneliness, the latter on a kind of Dionysian uniqueness, that enjoyed persecuting the vulnerable bit of the self just as social mores seemed to do. Both committed suicide but the differences therein also illustrate differences in their construction of their queer selves, the one based on a romantic (see Sleeping Figure (1941) & Landscape with Figure (1944) both of which remind me of David Jones as well as John Craxton) and the other on objectified visions of the male body that do male figures which, even more radically, Picasso does to female figures like Marie-Therese. But more on this in the Vaughan summary.

Minton might under different tutelage (had for instance he succeeded in splitting up the Two Roberts and involved himself with Robert Colquhoun as his aching heart longed for (since Colquhoun mastered extreme male roles as a gay man).

Yet I like both great paintings of Norman Bowler very much (Plates 18-19 in this book: Painter and Model (1953) and Portrait of Norman Bowler (1952)), which feel to me to have learned from Bonnard how to use painter and model with full consciousness of the role of both framing subjects in complex multiple contexts and the use of perspective to focus on what is meant by the sexual male. Gattis’s view that these techniques over-emphasise the domain of the male groin is, I think, only part of the story because at the same time embodied sexuality is cast from the foci of that domain by the fore-fronting (almost to the picture plane) of naked hands and feet. Minton’s men are more men when, in his great illustrations they form idealised working (and often working-class bodies).

If I am correct about this use of framing, this backs up in part Spalding’s reading of that wonderful Portrait of Kevin Maybury (1956)[2] in which she picks up the role of stage-setting tools, as well as easels and floorboards as ‘trapping’ Maybury (220). For me he is trapped but also the artist’s model framed in the act of manipulating the frames in which he is held by manipulation of the folding ‘ruler’ that governs all built frames – the architectures of stage and painting. Stage carpenters do that anyway. Isn’t this a wonderful picture though? One I would say is genuinely queer – escaping the constraint of the medicalised and marginalising label ‘homosexual’.

All the best


[1] Spalding, F. (2005) John Minton: Dance Till the Stars Come Down revised 1991 edition, Aldershot, Lund Humphries.

[2]  Tate Gallery website – John Minton page https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/john-minton-1644

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