Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gibson's Queer Sculpture

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I received a travel award from CLAGS in support of a conference presentation I will be giving in a few days. The conference is the annual meeting of the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA), and will be held at Yale University. There are going to be many great sessions, chances to hear some wonderful speakers, and opportunities for people to network. I thought I would share a bit about my paper. I'm speaking about John Gibson (1790-1866), a Welsh-born sculptor who spent nearly fifty years living in Rome producing works that Victorian Britain came to know and love. He was elected a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1836 and submitted this work you see here, Narcissus, as his diploma piece (the image comes from the Royal Academy Collections). Gibson was inspired to create this work after seeing an Italian boy gazing at his reflection in a fountain in Rome. Much of Gibson's work is classical in theme, and this is no exception. The subject comes from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful youth who, alas, had the ego to match, so he was cursed by the gods to fall in love with no one but himself. Gazing into a lake, he discovered his reflection and was so riveted by his beauty that he could not leave. And so he pined away gazing at his own reflection and suffering from unrequited love. The gods eventually had mercy on him and changed him into a flower, the narcissus, which bears his name. The myth was always seen as homosexually inclined (youth falls in love with another youth). Hence, it is but one example of the type of queer sculpture that I will be bringing up during my paper. Here is the abstract of my paper. Before reading, though, I think it's important to explain briefly about pederasty. The most important thing for you to know is that it has nothing to do with pedophilia. Pederasty was an all-male tradition in the ancient Athenian world, and it was directly associated with the raising of men to become strong, educated civic leaders. To associate it with the crime of pedophilia is to greatly misconstrue the foundation of democracy itself. And on that note, read away...

Channeling (Ant)Eros: John Gibson's Queer Sculpture

John Gibson (1790-1866) was born in Wales and raised in Liverpool, but he established a long career in Rome as one of that city’s—and Great Britain’s—most important sculptors. Gibson counted among his patrons Queen Victoria and the Duke of Devonshire, but he is best remembered today for reintroducing polychromy into sculpture in works such as his infamous Tinted Venus (c.1852). A follower of Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen, and a teacher of Harriet Hosmer, Gibson flourished into the mid-Victorian period espousing the wisdom of J.J. Winckelmann and ancient Greek art, and producing his own interpretations of the gods in marble. At the encouragement of friends, he began writing his memoirs in the 1840s. These autobiographical notes stand today as a source for understanding both the classical references, and their queer implications, in his oeuvre.

In his memoirs, Gibson discussed his vision of idealized love by drawing on the figures of Anteros and Eros as aspects of spiritual passion. Overshadowed by his mythological brother, Anteros was created to be Eros’s playmate; literally and etymologically, he was “returned love” for the passion of Eros. Their duality was linked to the ancient Greek pederastic tradition, cited by Plato and others, with Eros as the passion offered by an elder erastes and Anteros the returned affection (sometimes sublimated) of the youthful eromenos. Though Gibson never explicitly discussed homosexual love or pederasty in his memoirs, he channeled Eros (and Anteros) into many of his sculptures, revealing to classically educated audiences intimations of same-sex passion.

In this paper, I will examine some of these classical subjects, such as the group Mars Restrained by Cupid (c.1820) and single figures such as Love Tormenting the Soul (1839). I will consider these works using Gibson’s own writings on ancient Greek love and art, but I also will draw on the present-day scholarship of Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Whitney Davis, and others, contextualizing how Gibson used his Neoclassical origins to adumbrate the burgeoning homosexual identity seen in later Victorian art. By using coded visual language and imagery to channel (Ant)Eros in British art, Gibson helped pave the way for a conscious homosexual identity in the work of Simeon Solomon, Frederic Leighton, Hamo Thornycroft, Alfred Gilbert, and others.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I'm very keen to read your paper. I was looking at gibson's statue of eros preparing to torture psyche today at the walker and im interested to read yr impressions of the piece. My email is westonpk46@yahoo.com

best wishes

Michael noonan