IGNACIO DARNAUDE: Don’t say gay — The erasure of queerness in art

In this article for the GAY & LESBIAN REVIEW I discuss how museums have historically erased the queerness of the artists in their collections.  If an artist is heterosexual, such as Picasso, exhibitions may disclose everything you always wanted to know about his female muses but, up until recently, if you attempted to bring up the impact of an artist’s queerness in their work, the museum’s response was usually that such talk was “irrelevant” or “reductive.” For more information and related articles, please check https://glreview.org/

For any art lover, Florida’s infamous “Don’t say gay” law is a painful reminder of how a similar policy, aimed at erasing queer visibility, has been a mainstay in Western art museums for centuries, all the way to present time. While there has been significant progress in the last few years, the presence and recognition of LGBT art in major museums is still somewhat tentative and far from secure.

What makes the art world’s erasure of queer art even more galling is the fact that LGBT artists have played a transformative role in Western culture throughout its history. You would never know that from visiting museums, most of which have held to a double standard when discussing an artists’ sexuality. If an artist is clearly heterosexual, such as Picasso, exhibitions may disclose everything you always wanted to know about his “female muses.” But up until recently, if you attempted to bring up the impact of an artist’s queerness in their work, the museum’s response was usually that such talk was “irrelevant” or “reductive.” And while it’s hard to place a value on the relevance or importance of any artist, the raw market value of a painting is at least one measure. Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe just sold for $195 million. Michelangelo’s David, anyone?

In the catalog for the exhibition In a Different Light, artist Nayland Blake explains why LGBT art has been at a special disadvantage historically: “Queer is the only culture and identity not transmitted through family. In fact, it contradicts family identity. The history of queer art is fragile, not meant to be written.” Nevertheless, despite the cultural taboos and intergenerational barriers, queer art manifests itself in virtually every culture and medium, from Egyptian tombs to Renaissance sculptures through modern performance art. But museums have avoided discussing anything related to gender identity or sexual orientation, afraid of creating controversy or losing funding from the generally conservative Boards of Trustees. Because of this erasure, there’s very little queer visibility and few positive images.

There are endless examples of this erasure by museums. One of the most glaring is their treatment of the intimate and crucial seven-year relationship of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, from 1954 to 1961, which wasn’t discussed openly by any major museum until the show Hide / Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture opened at the Smithsonian in 2010. Three years later, a MOMA show sent the couple back into the closet, describing them as “friends in dialog with each other.” A 2017 Rauschenberg retrospective, also at MOMA, described them as having an “intense partnership,” but chose to emphasize Rauschenberg’s child from a brief relationship with a woman.

Another example takes us back to the first Warhol retrospective at MOMA, in 1989, which excluded all of his groundbreaking gay-inflected work. Or take the 1999 exhibit titled The American Century at the Whitney, which avoided all mention of the gay artists’ sexuality except when they had a connection to AIDS. Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition The Perfect Moment, which opened at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery weeks after the artist’s death from AIDS in 1989, was canceled when Senator Jesse Helms succeeded in shutting it down as “obscene.” Following this scandal, the art establishment largely knuckled under to pressure from conservatives, mounting no major museum exhibition of queer art until Hide / Seek two decades later.

Artist Doron Langberg warns: “In art, depictions of heterosexual desire can represent war, peace, God, anything you want, but the erotic images constructed by queer artists are immediately pigeonholed as pornographic to straight eyes.” Philip Kennicott, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for The Washington Post, summarized it beautifully: “The art world needs to confront a long record of hiding the outstanding contributions of queer artists, keeping them in the closet.”

It doesn’t help that popular culture has been an active accomplice in this conspiracy. The Michelangelo biopic The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) obliterated his crucial relationship with Tommaso dei Cavalieri and focused instead on his connection with Vittoria Colonna. This travesty continues today. The New York Times review of the 2022 miniseries Leonardo notes that the plot is built around the artist’s romance with an invented female character, but the piece goes on to say: “In the 21st century, not to play one of history’s famously gay figures as notably gay seems borderline homophobic.”

All that said, there is some good news in the horizon. Some museums are finally stepping up by acknowledging the queer heritage in their collections. Inspired by the Tate Gallery’s 2017 exhibition Queer British Art, museums around the world, such as the Prado in Madrid, have followed suit. Helping the cause is the increasing number of LGBT curators in museums as well as a growing number of galleries showing queer artists like Christina Quarles and Louis Fratino. As these artists reach critical mass at galleries, some of their work will start to make it into museums, as that of Kehinde Wiley and Salman Toor has recently done. There are also a number of museums devoted exclusively to queer culture, such as the new Queer Britain in London and the venerable Schwules Museum in Berlin. And there’s the hugely anticipated American LGBTQ+ Museum, which is set to open in New York in 2026. These spaces will allow a broader and more reflective study of queer culture, showing young LGBTQ+ generations how they come from a magnificent lineage of queer trailblazers.

Ignacio Darnaude is an art writer, lecturer and film producer. He is currently developing the docuseries Hiding in Plain Sight—Breaking the Queer Code in Art.

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About Ignacio Darnaude
Ignacio Darnaude is an art historian and film producer. He is currently developing the docuseries Hiding in Plain Sight—Breaking the Queer Code in Art.

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Lizzie
Lizzie
12 days ago

I’m amazed at some of the comments below. Finally, someone is tackling this subject of ‘queer art’ which has remained hush hush forever, and it incites homophobia from the gay population, ignorance, and some bad joke? This straight woman is speechless. Bravo Ignacio Darnaude for doing your homework and for bringing these pieces of art history to life.

Art Gone Wild!🙏
Art Gone Wild!🙏
13 days ago

Two Roman Catholic Nuns were visiting the statue of David by Michelangelo and one remarked “ his penis is so small”🙄
The second Nun said: “and it’s so cold”🤣😂
What do you make of that Mr. Darnaude?🙏

Weho Art Lover
Weho Art Lover
13 days ago

I recently encountered two examples of the erasure this article explains so eloquently. The Cy Twombly show at the Getty Museum’s describes his crucial same-sex relationship with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg as “sometime lover”. Sometime?? Then, at a major museum, a card describes Toulouse-Lautrec’s relationship with a woman who is part of a crowd but, a few paintings down, it fails to mention that the young woman who posed for a loving portrait by the artist Cecilia Beaux was her lover. This not a coincidence, it’s a concerted effort to refuse mentioning artists’ queerness. Thanks for clarifying something I’ve known all… Read more »

Personal Dignity
Personal Dignity
13 days ago
Reply to  Weho Art Lover

You seem to be imagining things to support your narrative. People’s private lives should remain private, they are not public property. Try putting some dignity into your own life & accept the dignity of others.

WEHO FOREVER
WEHO FOREVER
13 days ago

So, let me get this straight (pun intended) , discussing Picasso’s female muses is additive and supported by museums but when you try to discuss a queer artist’s ilife and relationships and how they impacted their work is “undignified snooping” (your words, not mine). Good grief, Karen, go back to your homophobic cave and stop trolling WEHOVILLE.

Gorge
Gorge
13 days ago

Quit your fake news! You quote “Dont Say Gay” which means you are only quoting a bunch of woke gays that lied and made up that saying. As a gay parent I want to know how come people in our community of which, a huge majority will never have children, and who spend a majority of their time in sex clubs, want to tell people who have children how those children should be sexualized at a pre pubescent age? The Gays made up that saying, it doesnt exist in any language in any law in Florida. Seriously what is wrong… Read more »

Jja
Jja
13 days ago
Reply to  Gorge

Your comment: how to tell us you’re a self-hating gay RepubliKKKan without saying your a self-hating gay RepubliKKKan.

QUEER ARTISTS ARE THE FOUNDATION OF ART HISTORY
QUEER ARTISTS ARE THE FOUNDATION OF ART HISTORY
14 days ago

I was shocked to read the specific examples of museums’ deliberate erasure of artists’ queerness, not in the past but in recent times. An artist’s queerness is a crucial aspect of their identity and it unavoidably impacts their work, that’s why it needs to be discussed openly. By ignoring their queerness or calling it irrelevant, museums are discriminating and they are avoiding one of their most important duties, representation. Also, from a curatorial standpoint, they are refusing to tell an accurate story about their collections, depriving viewers from critical information and erasing positive images for the LGBT community. I’m glad… Read more »

Serious Question
Serious Question
12 days ago

Please tell us about the “Queer Artists” that you feel are the foundation of art history. Can we go back at least to the period of antiquities or earlier? This is a serious question.

QUEER ARTISTS ARE THE FOUNDATION OF ART HISTORY
QUEER ARTISTS ARE THE FOUNDATION OF ART HISTORY
12 days ago

DONATELLO, LEONARDO DA VINCI, MICHELANGELO, CELLINI, LUCA SIGNORELLI, BRONZINO, BOTTICELLI…

Serious Question
Serious Question
12 days ago

Assuming you are correct, just how would you consider or expect the public to feel about their art if there was unassailable evidence which agrees with you? How would that fact change any of the value of their work?

QUEER ARTISTS ARE THE FOUNDATION OF ART HISTORY
QUEER ARTISTS ARE THE FOUNDATION OF ART HISTORY
12 days ago

The value of the work of queer artists doesn’t change by understanding it was created by queer artists, what changes is having an increased understanding of the work and how the artist’s sexuality impacted it , which is crucial. Eliminating this erasure would make the public at large aware and appreciative of the huge impact of queer artists in art history, This awareness would bring visibility, representation and recognition to the LGBT community, something that is lacking now in museums. This is what this article states beautifully in my opinion.

Serious Question
Serious Question
12 days ago

The reference to value was not financial. It appears you are willing to use a personal persuasion of your own mind to illustrate where the historians and museums have engaged in deliberate acts to exclude artists of particular sensibilities. Please point out the difference in viewing various works by the aforementioned individuals as to the intrinsic value of their work(s). The LGBT community are free to enjoy the work regardless of beliefs people hold as to the sexual proclivities of the author.

Weak Theory
Weak Theory
14 days ago

You appear to be on a mission of asserting that Museums have deliberately erased the “queerness” in their art collections to establish your own theory. That is your personal theory and appears to be used to promote your presumed position as a historian. Unfortunately, taking this tangent does not qualify you as a historian on the wider stage. Although many may have been aware of such personal proclivities of artists or other individuals through the ages, most were judicious enough not to make an issue of it and tended to behave in an acceptable manner letting their art or whatever… Read more »

Weak Theory (Thesis)
Weak Theory (Thesis)
14 days ago
Reply to  Weak Theory

Actually this should have been referred to as your thesis.

Jja
Jja
13 days ago
Reply to  Weak Theory

What you call incessant snooping and conjecture I call sometimes vital and illuminating information which enhances our enjoyment and understanding of art.

Weak Theory
Weak Theory
13 days ago
Reply to  Jja

What purpose does it serve other than satisfaction of personal snoopyness? The art can stand on its own .

Weak Theory
Weak Theory
13 days ago
Reply to  Jja

Small minds talk about people🙄
Mediocre minds talk about events😌
Great minds discuss ideas!🏆

Serious Question
Serious Question
12 days ago
Reply to  Jja

Could you give an example of how the impacts of the work of Michelangelo would be enhanced or not by knowing or speculating about his sexual tastes?

QUEER ARTISTS ARE THE FOUNDATION OF ART HISTORY
QUEER ARTISTS ARE THE FOUNDATION OF ART HISTORY
12 days ago

The drawings Michelangelo sent to his beloved Tommaso are considered some of his masterpieces, particularly the drawing of Ganymede, the God used by the Greeks to illustrate love for younger men. When Michelangelo’s nephew published Michelangelo’s landmark poems, many of them for Tommaso, his nephew changed them to pretend they were addressed to a female lover. This erasure was undiscovered for nearly 300 years. In Michelangelo’s drawing of The Archers, they aim their invisible arrows of desire into an erotic male symbol. Michelangelo’s iconic drawing of The Battle of Cascina is just a pretext to show the male form. The homoerotism… Read more »

Serious Question
Serious Question
12 days ago

And specifically who do you allege made this discovery of the presumed erasure?

QUEER ARTISTS ARE THE FOUNDATION OF ART HISTORY
QUEER ARTISTS ARE THE FOUNDATION OF ART HISTORY
12 days ago

The erasure took place in 1623. Things began to change in the mid-19th century, when British historians brought to light how homosexuality was key in Renaissance culture. Walter Pater (1839–1894) was one, the other was the critic John Addington Symonds (1840–1893). Symonds translated Michelangelo’s poems into English, the first complete translation. What he did, which was radically important at the time, was to look at the original manuscripts and not to base his translations on Michelangelo’s nephew published versions. Symonds found the discrepancies and let people know what Michelangelo really wrote.

Serious Question
Serious Question
11 days ago

Am not at all sure what “erasure” you allege took place in 1623. As far as John Addington Symonds, he was a well known homosexual of his time and promoted his own theory about Michelangelo. Even though he allegedly looked at the original manuscripts while discounting the translations of Michelangelo’s nephew, who exactly was the impartial arbiter of this act? Seems Mr. Symonds was the forerunner of Mr, Darnaude , out to make a name for himself based on his theory and Mr. Darnaude is using Symonds allegations to build support for an eventual film. In the end so what… Read more »

WEHO LOVER
WEHO LOVER
11 days ago

Wow, Karen, your vile comment, full of terms such as “alleged” and “theory” describing proven historical facts that make you uncomfortable, using the expression “well known homosexual” to denigrate the achievements of a historian and calling the discussion of an artist’s homosexuality a “desecration” reeks of deliberate misinformation, condescension and, more important blatant homophobia. Go back to your cave and stop trolling WEHOVILLE.

Larry Block
Admin
11 days ago
Reply to  WEHO LOVER

Hi Lover, – yes im sorry that comment posted. Some people think they are the expects in every subject and use that to belittle others instead of sharing insights that add to the comprehension or art. Because art in itself is subjective.

WEHO LOVER
WEHO LOVER
11 days ago
Reply to  Larry Block

Thanks for your note. There shouldn’t be space for misinformed hatred like that in Wehoville and, in our world for that matter.

Serious Question
Serious Question
11 days ago
Reply to  WEHO LOVER

Please see the comment above. Being one dedicated to balance, there is no hatred intended or implied. Facts speak for themselves and it is fair to weigh them.

West Hollywood presumably advocates this in representing itself to be a city open to balance, advocating respect for all.

Serious Question
Serious Question
11 days ago
Reply to  Larry Block

Unfortunately there was little patience for the questions and less for the insights of credible scholars, that I do not represent as my own although I sought to advance them. It seems fair to represent the total balanced picture and process. It might help us all to be more discerning in current affairs of the world without harsh judgements.

Serious Question
Serious Question
11 days ago
Reply to  WEHO LOVER

It’s unfortunate that you mistakenly seem to consider broadening the discussion as providing deliberate misinformation, condescension and blatant homophobia. This is not the case. The subject deserves to be broadened on a scholarly basis available to the public so they may be at least well informed and able to make up their own minds. The author seems to be presenting one aspect of the story devoid of the interactions of the period, specifically in this case relating to Michelangelo. Have had the very good fortune to study with one of the world’s most recognized scholars of The Italian Renaissance, historian,… Read more »

Serious Question
Serious Question
11 days ago
Reply to  WEHO LOVER

Please at least be informed about John Addington Symonds. According to biographies of him, he supported homosexuality “which he believed could include pederastic as well as egalitarian relationships” and wrote poetry inspired by same sex affairs. This is quoted without judgement, it is merely available information. The only interest here is that people be fairly represented which originated in comments about Michelangelo and the Italian Renaissance, nothing more.

ART LOVER
ART LOVER
14 days ago

What an eye-opening article. I just saw an interview with Elizabeth Taylor where she said that Hollywood wouldn’t exist without the creativity of homosexuals. Same can be said about art history, in spite of museums’ attempts to erase the artists’ queerness. Thanks for throwing light into this hugely important topic!

Gorge
Gorge
13 days ago
Reply to  ART LOVER

Labels are for canned foods and racists. How about the word artist attributed to the work. If it’s Basquiat, Warhol, or Mapplethorpe you can find millions of web pages about their sexual preferences. Maybe you should read more.

Personal Dignity
Personal Dignity
13 days ago
Reply to  Gorge

Well said!

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