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A queer approach to 3. Christopher Wood

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 6 Sep 2018, 08:49

A queer approach to sexual preference labelling in art-history: looking at case studies in British mid-twentieth century art: 3. Christopher Wood

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, hence this blog is a start in a later reading project. This blog goes back in time to examine Christopher Wood (1901-1930), one of Sebastian Faulkes’ ‘Fatal Englishmen’.

I first discovered Christopher Wood’s now classic ‘Nude Boy in a Bathroom’ on visiting the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art[1] where it forms part of the permanent collection. Only since working on Wood, have I discovered that there are at least two preliminary studies or companion pieces. In the one not shown, which I have never seen reproduced, the model stands facing the viewer frontally (Cariou & Tooby 1997: 53)[2].

However, before looking at these pictures, completed in the year of his possible violent suicide, it’s important to see how and why Wood’s case is particularly suited to a queer theory approach. Extant criticism known to me plays games with labels – dubbing Wood ‘conveniently bisexual’ (whatever that means, it was said by novelist Anthony Powell cited Norris 2016:28[3]), mainly homosocial if sometimes homosexual, repressed gay man or an innocent perverted by a rich European homosexual clique or even the Parisian art-scene (perhaps especially Cocteau)).  All of these labels come with some peculiarly nasty imposed value sets which reduce Wood to something lesser and stop us looking at his intriguing but very queer painted surfaces (even ones apparently not so such as Dancing Sailors, Brittany (1930)). Wood painted some very sensual female nudes and had several sexually consummated love affairs with women and he idealised the married love of Ben & Winifred Nicolson, although its bitter end was in sight before he died.

However, he also created some images that are inescapably 'gay', although I do not include his last male nudes in this number. Compare, for instance, Exercises (1925) and his portrait of Constant Lambert, Composer (1927), a gay icon of the period working with Diaghilev, helping to produce performances which revelled in the male body.

These pictures need no comment. They both record, and perhaps, in the case of Exercises comment, on the issue of homo-eroticism in ways that also participate in it at the ocular level. In as far as art sublimates desire in these pictures, it does so at a very shallow level (the composer’s pen and violin being conveniently phallic and placed in a way that advertises the substitution being made).

But next to these in this short career we could place images that appear to create a heterosexual fairy-story (such as The Bather (c. 1925-6) which bristles with phallic symbols surrounding the female semi-nude) or the more sentimental pictures of family deriving from Wood’s experience of the Nicholson marriage at St. Ives (the lovely The Fisherman’s Farewell (1928) for instance).

Queer theory sees no point in ‘seeking the homosexual’ but rather sees the various performances of diverse sexualities as to be expected and in no way in direct relation to an artist’s essential being. Wood then is its ideal subject. We can stop now trying to see if his relationship to the diplomat, J.A. Gandillaras, was predominantly homosexual or homosocial

In my view the Nude Boy in a Bedroom (1930) is best examined using queer theory. It is, of course, probably necessary to report that it is usually thought that the nude boy is a portrait of Francis Rose (about 21 at the time), friend of Gertrude Stein and Toklas (the latter’s Cookbook illustrator) and, at this time, visiting Brittany alongside Wood and gossip says ‘a noted homosexual’[4].  It is set in what we believe to be Wood’s hotel room. But that aside, it is not a ‘sexualised’ scene. The ginger-headed boy at his morning ablutions (we can see by the strength of the penetrating sun it is morning) turns from his sink and towel (the latter still in his hand) to gaze at a picture of a Breton maiden. On the bed lie three Tarot cards – the same  ones appear in Calvary at Douarnez (1930)  and predict, Norris (2016:153) argues, ‘financial and romantic insecurity, as well as alluding to danger.’ Nothing in the picture makes us conscious that the ‘boy’ is aware of being seen. This picture bears nothing of the portrait of Lambert above. It cannot be described as homoerotic (although it is, I would say, homosomatic).

Yet if not ‘homosexual’ in orientation it is definitely queerly homosocial. A man gazing at a woman is being gazed at. There is kind of liminal sensuality about the bedroom and we notice the soft edges of this body, defined only in the display of the right buttock. The room is partially darkened by shades but where it is not dark, where the boy isn’t, a queerly distorted chair is on display and brandishing Wood’s favourite ‘yellow’ (a colour he felt only great artists handled well). This boy is neither ready for nor certain that he wants the light of day to make himself known by. And the feminine shapes of the metal balcony and the bed show a boy who may find it difficult to step up to be a ‘man’. All this unsettles – is this boy’s nudity innocent or erotic or neither? Is he unwilling to take a seat or to stand in the light? Are we tantalised by that, whatever our own sexuality or gender-position as viewers? The smeary browns in which the boy stands disturb and clash with the pastel shades of white, green and purple (on the walls). We wonder at the half-open shades. Has he stood there to partly open them? Whose view does he disturb?

As you can see, I am a long way from getting past open questions on this one, but Wood disturbed Minton and Vaughan too, I am sure. And this is very suggestive about the open-endedness of the male nude to queered vision.

All the best


[2] Cariou, A. & Tooby, M. (1997) Christopher Wood: A Painter Between Two Cornwalls (text by Steel-Coquet, F.), London, Tate Gallery Publishing (for Tate St. Ives)

[3] Norris, K. (2016) Christopher Wood London, Lund Humphries & Chichester, Pallant House Gallery

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