Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Just Jolly" (on the homoerotic photography of Carl Van Vechten) by Douglas Messerli

just jolly

James Smalls The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten: Public Face, Private Thoughts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006)


Since I have brought up the subject of Carl Van Vechten’s celebrity photographs, including their positive and controversial effects, I suppose I should also speak, briefly, on another body of Van Vechten’s work, not shown publically—except to a few close private friends—during the writer’s life time, but left to Yale’s Beineke Library, closed to the public until 25 years after the photographer’s death. For a full and academically adept discussion of this topic, I refer the reader to the book mentioned above, which was recently loaned to me after a brunch with Bob Holmes (former head of music rights at Columbia Pictures) and his companion Dave. Its author, James Smalls, visited our home for a brunch, along with several other scholars, in 1998 in connection with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s show Rhapsodies in Black: Art in the Harlem Renaissance, which my companion Howard Fox, coordinated. At the time, Smalls had just begun working on the homoerotic art, and had only recently seen the photographs and collages at Yale University for the first time (see the note to the essay on Richard Bruce Nugent in My Year 2008: In the Gap).     Although I have never seen this collection in person, it appears, given what Smalls reproduces in his book and what Edward White describes, that although the collection—which includes numerous collages and other related materials, may be rather large—its nude subjects are fairly limited to a pair of male black and white models, whom Van Vechten paid to pose several times, in the studio and outside in nature.
       Compared with modern male nude photography, such as the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and certainly when compared with contemporary gay pornography—an area which, at times, this body of work approaches— the Van Vechten photographs are generally quite tame, showing both models in various poses, some suggesting sexual interactions, but mostly alternating roles of subservience and power. A moments the Black figure appears to dominate the white, and a few of the photographs play with masks and issues of bondage, the white enwrapped, in one work, in a white muslin sheet, and in another the Black figure wearing it as a kind of headdress. There are also a few posed tableaus that remind one somewhat of Wilhelm Von Gloeden and other late 19th and early 20th century photographers of the male nude—one in which the white figure is serving the Black tea, another in which the Black figure is presenting grapes to the pleading white figure, and a couple of which play with the positioning of held globes of light—that seem, in their narrative expression— in opposition with the other, often more experimental nature of this art.
     Using theoretical discussions by many of the well known late 20th-century critical theorists and psychologists, Smalls assesses Van Vechten’s art in the context of all the issues it might suggest, including Black essentialism by white society, fetishism, sadomasochism, and pre-Stonewall homosexual aestheticism. It is clear that one might, indeed, “accuse” Van Vechten of any of these positions if he so wanted to. But the question on which Smalls finally focuses is based on the difference between who is viewing and through what lens, and what Van Vechten, who did not intend them for public viewing, meant them to be. Smalls argues, in the end:

                   I believe that these photographic scenarios were born out of Van
                   Vechten’s urgent social desire to legitimate and satisfy his fixation
                   on black culture and to simultaneously appease the need to vent
                   homoerotic desires. As such, they were extremely significant for 
                   defining and maintaining Van Vechten’s psychological link to a 
                   public social life. By focusing in on the homoerotic and on racial
                   distinction within a highly artificial and contrived atmosphere of
                   harmonious solemnity and implied sadomasochistic acts, images 
                   such as these heighten a sense of white capitulation in racial co-
                   operation between the races. The social and the erotic/sexual are
                   effectively linked to fantasy. In pushing the theme of utopic in-
                   terracial harmony in ritualizes gestures and mock settings, Van
                   Vechten’s photographs succeed at playing on a conflicted fusion
                   of power, fear, and desire.



     Although I might not want to argue with Smalls’ reasoned conclusions, I do feel that the concept that Van Vechten did not publically show these did not necessarily mean he did not want them, eventually or even contemporaneously, to be seen by others. In giving them to Yale and expressing, as I quote above, “Yale May Not Think So, but It’ll Be Just Jolly,” Van Vechten very much knew that, at least ultimately, they would be seen and evaluated. One must also remember that Van Vechten came from a generation in which, by publically showing them, he might have created not only a great deal of bad press and public consternation, but might even have been arrested, destroying his career far more significantly than did his publishing of Nigger Heaven. Certainly the egoist in Van Vechten might have loved to show this body of work—if only things had been different or had he lived beyond Stonewall into the sexual openness of our own times.

     The collages and other ephemera, moreover, appear, at least in the few examples I’ve seen, to be far more outrageously campy and provocative than the more serious-minded interactions between his Black and white models. These works not only include outrageous depictions of gay “products” to provide pleasure (titled New York’s Biggest Date!), iconic gay symbols such as St. Sebastien, new definitions of what he describes as “a gay family,” and even pedophilic depictions of a “Teen Sex Club” (Things for Children To Do). I am not suggesting that Van Vechten ever acted out any such sexual implications, but he certainly delighted in their possibilities, and took the time to amuse himself in creating such visual-linguistic constructions. If nothing else, these works confirm Van Vecten’s intense desire just to “have fun,” to challenge every cultural taboo he encountered. This spoiled child, unlike the Amberson boy in Orson Welles’ great film and Booth Tarkington’s novel, was spared any “comeuppance.”

Los Angeles, April 6, 2014

Reprinted in Green Integer Blog (April 2014).




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