Was a homosexual life as public before WW2 as now?

Mar 26, 2012

Right now the Tacoma Art Museum is the only place on the West Coast where you can see the controversial exhibit, Hide-Seek, Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.

The show covers nearly 150 years of art from the gay and lesbian perspective. It also explores the theory that the gay and straight worlds intermingled more freely before World War II.

Gays and lesbians can get married, have families and hold high level government jobs while being out. We might think that today is more progressive than a century ago.

Hide Seek co-curator Jonathan Katz argues that while the past wasn’t perfect, there was a time when gays and lesbians weren’t socially segregated from the straight world.

“What I wanted to show is that this is not just gay art or gay works, but that gay and straight are indistinguishable. And that a number of the straight figures of American art made work of directly homoerotic social import because before 1950 gay and straight were much more familiar with one another than they are today.”

Katz says a print called Shower Bath by George Bellows from 1917 is an example of how arrogant we are to assume that that past looks like us.

“The past is very, very different and this makes that clear. What’s going on here, George Bellows, the most significant artists of his era, making a homoerotic picture in which a homoerotic relationship is front and center.”

In the picture, it’s clear that there is a very strong attraction between two men; one has more effeminate features, while the other looks, like a gruff, no nonsense type: a straight man.

Homoerotic bestseller

Katz says the fact Shower Bath is a print and not a painting is also very telling.

Prints are sold on the open market. It proved so popular a print that it went through two different states. It was one of his best sellers. How do you explain the fact that a homoerotic piece of art by a straight artist is a best seller in 1917?

That’s the question that animates the show!

All of this interwoven culture between gays and straights ended end when Hitler and Stalin came on the scene and it vanished under Senator Joseph McCarthy. But whatever it was in the American social fabric that allowed the Shower Bath print to be so accepted before World War II also played out in music.

Ma Rainey and other women

Take blues singer Ma Rainey for example. At Hide Seek we see an old advertisement for her 1928 hit record Prove It On Me Blues. Katz says its title song is about Rainey almost getting caught having a lesbian orgy in her apartment.

“Everybody knew this, word travels fast in 1920’s Harlem. What does she do? In 1928 she releases the album, with the lyrics, ‘They say I do it, aint nobody caught me, yall gotta prove it on me.’  She then in the lyrics of the song, she goes through a series of stereotypes of lesbians. ‘Yes, I don’t like no men, yes I wear a collar and a tie.’ Then she does an ad campaign, Madonna like. It shows Ma Rainey with two svelte black women and two cops looking on. This is the number one record of 1928.”

The more modern works of Hide Seek reflect the cultural shift after World War II when being gay was definitely something to hide. There are also several pieces that were created in the late 1980’s and early 1990's when AIDS was a death sentence.

The 'Fire' controversy

The most controversial in is a video by David Wonjnarowicz called A Fire In My Belly. It was pulled from the exhibit when it opened a year and a half ago at the Smithsonian's National Gallery because a crucifix with ants crawling all over it offended a few Christian organizations.


When Stephanie Stebich, the Tacoma Art Museum’s director, heard about this there was no question in her mind that she would include the piece. 

“The image of Christ on the crucifixion is a classic symbol of suffering. He too was suffering and concerned about those suffering from AIDS and that’s how he used that imagery and as I like to say if you take a work out of an exhibition it’s like ripping pages out of a book."

Artscape” is a weekly KPLU feature covering Northwest art, performances and artists. The feature is published here on Sundays and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Monday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition.