Balanchine, Lynes and Orpheus


The photo above has appeared here before—it’s one of a number of dance photos taken by the great George Platt Lynes—but its subject has (for me at least) always been the source of some confusion. Since I dislike being nagged by petty conundrums I make a cursory search every so often to see if more details might be found. Five years ago all I knew was that the picture appeared in Philip Core’s Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984) where it was credited as showing dancers from Balanchine’s Icarus. Additional confusion was sown by a photo site showing the picture below with a statement that it was a) a Lynes photo (correct), and b) from Balanchine’s Die Fledermaus (wrong). No dates were given. The presence of a lyre made Orpheus seem a more likely subject: Balanchine wrote an Orpheus ballet for a Stravinsky score in 1948 but photos of that production showed very different dancers and costumes.


It turns out that these photos are indeed for a Balanchine ballet on the Orpheus theme, a short-lived production, Orpheus and Eurydice, from 1936 based on music from Gluck’s opera. The dancers are Lew Christensen, William Dollar and Daphne Vane. What’s most surprising now is having found a photo that’s almost but not quite the one from the Core book; photos from this session are elusive, with searches hampered by other photos taken by Lynes of Balanchine’s later ballets. There may be more in this series.

Pinterest is a good place to see more of Lynes’ photos which range from fashion shoots and celebrity portraits to moody, and occasionally surreal, homoerotica.




Previously on { feuilleton }
The end of Orpheus
The recurrent pose 17
George Platt Lynes

Frederic Leighton’s sculptures


An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877).

The python wrestler by Frederic Leighton (1830–1896) has appeared here before, and it’s one sculpture that always catches my eye for having appeared in my adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu in 1988. It’s now one of the Leighton works available for close viewing at the Google Art Project although only from a single angle, something that seems a flaw in web presentation of three-dimensional art.


The Sluggard (c. 1895).

In the same collection is a copy of Leighton’s The Sluggard from the Yale Center for British Art. What’s notable about this piece is that it’s generally offered as Exhibit A for the homo-prosecution during discussion of the artist’s sexuality. The Sluggard to which most people refer is the life-size bronze which is a lot more robust and muscular than this lithe and twinky specimen. According to a note at the V&A Yale’s copy is one of many cast from the clay model for the life-size version. What was excused at the time as a late Victorian exercise in contrapossto looks even more camp—in the Philip Core definition—than the finished piece which makes me wonder whether Leighton beefed up the original to disguise something. Core defined camp as “the lie that tells the truth”; camp art always pretends to be one thing whilst simultaneously telegraphing a very different message about its creator. Leighton’s sexuality is a source of continual speculation which means it’s unlikely now to be resolved in any direction, and the artist himself would loathe our prurience, but it’s only by reappraising works in this way that we’re able to show that gay people didn’t magically erupt via some process of spontaneous generation in 1967. If Leighton had any dalliances whilst holidaying in the gay resort of Capri then he was perfectly circumspect. Back at home, as a President of the Royal Academy he had a rather pompous and remote reputation, being memorably described by Violet Paget as “something between an Olympian Jove and a head waiter.” For more camp, see The Narcissus Hall in the artist’s incredibly lavish home, Leighton House in London, where 1st Baron Leighton, PRA, lived splendidly alone.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Angelo Colarossi and son
Men with snakes

Philippe Jullian, connoisseur of the exotic


Monsieur Jullian as seen on the back cover of Dreamers of Decadence (1971).

Here at last is the long-promised (and long!) piece about the life and work of Philippe Jullian (1919–1977), a French writer and illustrator who’s become something of a cult figure of mine in recent years. Why the fascination? First and foremost because at the end of the 1960s he wrote Esthètes et Magiciens, or Dreamers of Decadence as it’s known to English readers, a book which effectively launched the Symbolist art revival and which remains the best introduction to Symbolist art and the aesthetic hothouse that was the 1890s. If I had to choose five favourite books Dreamers of Decadence would always be on the list. This point of obsession, and Philip Core’s account of the writer, made me curious about the rest of Jullian’s career.


An illustration from Wilson & Jullian’s For Whom the Cloche Tolls (1953). “Tata has called these his Krafft-Ebbing (sic) pictures of his friend Kuno, whatever that means.”

Philip Core was friends with Philippe Jullian, and Core’s essential Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984) has Jullian as one of its dedicatees. It’s to Core’s appraisal that we have to turn for details of the man’s life. There is an autobiography, La Brocante (1975), but, like a number of other Jullian works, this doesn’t seem to have been translated and my French is dismally pauvre. Core’s piece begins:

Philippe Jullian, born to the intellectual family of Bordeaux Protestants which produced the well-known French historian, Camille Jullian, was a last and lasting example of pre-war camp. His career began as an artist in Paris with a reputation for drag-acts parodying English spinsters. Snobbery, a talent for sensitive daydreaming, and a consuming passion for antiques, obscure art and social history, made a very different figure out of the thin and dreamy young man. Jullian suffered terribly during the Second World War; he managed to survive by visiting some disapproving cousins dressed as a maiden aunt, whom they were happy to feed. However, he made a mark in the world of Violet Trefusis, Natalie Barney and Vita Sackville-West by illustrating their books with his wiry and delicate doodles; this led to a social connection in England, where he produced many book jackets and covers for Vogue throughout the 1950s.

Having only seen Jullian in his besuited and bespectacled guise it’s difficult to imagine him dragged up, but the cross-dressing interest is apparent in his humorous collaboration with Angus Wilson and in a later novel, Flight into Egypt. As for the wiry and delicate doodles, they’re very much of their time, in style often resembling a less-assured Ronald Searle. One early commission in 1945 was for the first of what would become a celebrated series of artist labels for Château Mouton Rothschild. Later cover illustrations included a run for Penguin Books some of which can be found at Flickr.

Philip Core continues the story:

Elegant in the austerely tweedy way the French imagine to be English, Jullian exploited his very considerable talents as a writer, producing a series of camp novels throughout the 1950s (Scraps, Milord) which deal frankly but amusingly with the vicissitudes of handsome young men and face-lifted ladies, grey-haired antique dealers and criminals. One of the first to reconsider Symbolist painting, Jullian reached an enormous public in the 1960s with his gorgeous book, Dreamers of Decadence – where an encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre and its accompanying literature helped to create the boom in fin de siècle revivalism among dealers and museums.

An acerbic wit accompanied this vast worldly success; always docile to duchesses, Jullian could easily remark to a hostess who offered him a chocolate and cream pudding called Nègre en chemise, “I prefer them without.” Less kindly, to a gay friend who objected to Jullian’s poodles accompanying them into a country food shop by saying “Think where their noses have been”, he could also retort “Yes, that’s what I think whenever I see you kiss your mother.”

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The end of Orpheus


Orphée endormant Cerbère by Henri Peinte (1887).

It’s often difficult to imagine a perfectly innocent motive when looking at works such as these. Did the world really need another statue of Orpheus or is the true intention revealed by those carefully sculpted buttocks, with the mythology added as a convenient subterfuge? We’ll never know, of course, and that’s part of the fun. Orpheus, Narcissus, Icarus and the rest gave 19th century sculptors and painters the excuse to portray unclad men and youths in a manner which would have been highly suspect—scandalous, even—had the subjects been shown in a contemporary context. In Oscar Wilde’s definition, art reflects the spectator; in Philip Core’s definition, camp is a lie which tells the truth. Camp art, therefore, can tell a truth about the artist whilst reflecting the concerns of the spectator. As it turns out, this work by Henri Peinte (1845–1912) had its delights, camp or otherwise, concealed by a prudish sheet of cloth when cast in bronze, a common fate of reproductions intended for home display.


Orpheus by John Macallan Swan (1896).

The Encyclopaedia Orphica collects many of the numerous representations of Orpheus, including this equally lithe depiction by John Macallan Swan (1847–1910) with a pose reminiscent of Peinte’s sculpture. Swan’s painting of the poet charming the savage beasts combines two of his recurrent themes, wild cats and unclothed males. Was he another Uranian with a camp sensibility or is this mere academic innocence? Whatever the answer it’s easy to see why Jean Cocteau—who once said “I am a lie that tells the truth”—made Orpheus his pagan saint.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The gay artists archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Antonin Mercié’s David
Reflections of Narcissus
La Villa Santo Sospir by Jean Cocteau

Eonism and Eonnagata


The Chevalier d’Eon wins a fencing bout.

I’ve known of the cross-dressing Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Thimothée d’Eon de Beaumont—or the Chevalier d’Eon (1728–1810) to give him his title—for some time thanks to a typically witty and informative entry by Philip Core in Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984). The nobleman rubs shoulders there with the equally flamboyant Henry Paget (1875–1905), Fifth Marquess of Anglesey, known as “the Dancing Marquess”, and Romain de Tirtoff, better known as illustrator and designer, Erté, who we see in a photo dressed as “Claire de Lune”. Aside from his status as a historical curio, and a failed attempt by Havelock Ellis to borrow his name to describe transvestism—Eonism, the Chevalier seems less celebrated than he might be. So it’s a pleasure to hear that theatre director Robert Lepage has created a new stage production, Eonnagatta, based on the Chevalier’s colourful life:

For a long time now, the actor and experimental theatre director Robert Lepage has been fascinated by the life of the Chevalier d’Eon, an 18th-century French soldier who had a flamboyant career as a diplomat and secret agent for Louis XV, and spent much of his adult life dressed as a woman. Officially, the Chevalier’s skirts were worn as a professional disguise: his exceptionally fine features allowed him to pass easily for a woman, and thus move around undetected as a spy. But the Chevalier didn’t just do it for the job. He was a genuine cross-dresser, an 18th-century transvestite.

Lepage’s fascination has now led to Eonnagata, a daring collaboration inspired by the life of the Chevalier that gets its British premiere next week. The work has been put together by four very different, and internationally acclaimed, artists: there’s Lepage, the choreographer Russell Maliphant, the dancer Sylvie Guillem and the fashion designer Alexander McQueen. That’s quite a team – and the result is a unique hybrid of their art forms. How would they describe it? Maliphant gives it a go: “It’s not pure dance: it doesn’t have Sylvie doing splits or amazing falls. But it’s not pure theatre, either.” (More.)



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