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

Art Nouveau Revival 1900 . 1933 . 1966 . 1974


It was the slightly gamy residue of the super-elegant and exotic pictures of Aubrey Beardsley. I have always considered the 1900 period as the psycho-analytical end-product of the Greco-Roman Decadence. I said to myself: Since these people will not hear of aesthetics and are capable of becoming excited only over “vital agitations”, I shall show them how in the tiniest ornamental detail of an object of 1900 there is more mystery, more poetry, more eroticism, more madness, perversity, torment, pathos, grandeur and biological depth than in their innumerable stock of ugly fetishes, possessing bodies and souls of a stupidity that is simply and uniquely savage!

Salvador Dalí, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942).

More from Paris, whereupon it becomes necessary to ask: how much more groovy could this poster be? And the answer is none. None more groovy. Art Nouveau Revival 1900 • 1933 • 1966 • 1974 is an exhibition running at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, which traces the echoes of Art Nouveau through Surrealism into the revival of the 1960s.


Poster by Albert Angus Turbayne for Macmillan’s illustrated Standard Novels (1903).

Rejected and scorned in the decades following its brief flowering, Art Nouveau was spectacularly rehabilitated in the 1960s. This re-evaluation offers a particularly interesting interlude in the history of style in that many different areas were affected at the same time by this phenomenon: the history of art, the art market, contemporary creative work, particularly design and graphics.

There’s further detail here, along with photos of some of the exhibits. Verner Panton’s Visiona II makes another appearance and in addition to Dalí and company there’s the magic word “psychedelic”. The exhibition runs until February 4, 2010, and there’s a catalogue co-written by the V&A’s fin de siècle expert Stephen Calloway which I’m going to have to buy. Via.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Beardsley at the V&A
Michael English, 1941–2009
Temples for Future Religions by François Garas
Antonin Mercié’s David
Art Nouveau illustration
Dirty Dalí
Verner Panton’s Visiona II
Flowers of Love

Antonin Mercié’s David


David (c.1872).

I’d marked out this statue as a suitable addition to the burgeoning men with swords archive some time ago but it took the discovery of a piece of writing to prompt this post. Antonin Mercié’s statue of David resides today in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, but I managed to miss it on my visit there. Judging by the photos it’s situated at the end of the main hall near Rodin’s enormous Gates of Hell, and it was the Rodin which claimed my attention that day. It’s also the case that the D’Orsay hall (formerly a railway station) is such a cavernous space that free-standing works such as this lose their impact, they’d look far better in smaller rooms.

At the late 1870s, Antonin Mercié incarnated the young generation of French sculptors who, without breaking away from the traditional canons, wanted to make their figures more vibrant. He sought to combine the skilled composition and lively modelling seen in the great models of the Florentine Renaissance: hence the sweeping curves of the arm extended by the movement of the sword, the bent knee, and the graceful movement of this David. A spectator walking round it can appreciate the way the planes gradually modulate the space. Mercié carved himself an original path between modern classicism and explicit realism. (More.)


You tend to find with many nude sculptures of the 19th century that the original is the naked one while the copies have gained additional items of clothing. This is the case with Mercié’s David whose replicas like the one above from the University of Copenhagen has a wrap around his waist. It’s the nude condition of the Paris statue that lends a frisson to a piece of writing by French author Patrick Drevet which may be fiction or may be reportage. An Angel at Orsay describes an elaborate game of homoerotic voyeurism as the narrator wanders through the museum and stops by Mercié’s David when he spots a student boy sketching the statue. Drevet’s piece is a sustained reverie inspired by his act of studying the student who studies the statue in turn and then becomes engaged by another student boy, the latter deliberately placing himself on view gazing at the statue and hoping (so the narrator surmises) to be sketched himself. A meagre précis like this fails to do Drevet’s piece any justice, it really needs to be read in its entirety. I found it in the Penguin Book of International Gay Writing (1995), and it may well be available in a collection of the author’s work. It’s certainly enough to make me want to read more of Drevet’s writing.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The men with swords archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Behold the (naked) man