Coding in Queer Art: Hiding in Plain Sight By Liz Goldner
“Breaking the Rules: Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown” at the Laguna Art Museum (previously at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum) exhibits the work of two artists who formed a couple long before the Obergefell decision. They infused their finely wrought homoerotic paintings with coded imagery to disguise their sexual-orientation. Their coding methods, developed during the mid-century McCarthy era, might have saved their lives. As recently as 1948, Congress passed laws facilitating the arrest and punishment of people who revealed same-sex desires.
William Theophilus Brown, “Nudes on a Riverbank,” 1971, acrylic on canvas, 48 × 72”.
Collection of Martha Koplin, Los Angeles, CA.
Wonner’s and Brown’s methods included depicting male nudes abstractly, surrealistically, while swimming and engaged in other athletic activities, alongside animals and females, and as mythological and historical figures. They inhabited a tradition going back to the Ancient Greeks and later to the Renaissance of skillfully depicting male nudes, without revealing their gender identification. They hid in plain sight.
Yet their painting is merely the tip of the homoerotic iceberg, according to Ignacio Darnaude, a producer and self-described expert on “queer art.” Darnaude has been giving lectures on this genre, including a recent one at Laguna Art Museum. He talked about how Wonner and Brown (who were also significant players in the Bay Area Figurative Movement) continued the long legacy of creating queer art by depicting beautiful nude men in a coded manner. He explained that gay art is the longest cultural theme in the world; that it has appeared in every culture, from painting to sculpture to photography; and that many familiar images in American art and advertising were created by queer artists, including Thomas Eakins, J.C. Leyendecker, Grant Wood, and Andy Warhol. Warhol in particular because he is now an icon, and may well stand as one for centuries to come.
Darnaude has amassed extensive information about queer art, going back to the ancient Greeks, to Renaissance, 17th and 18th century art, to the work of John Singer Sargent, Andy Warhol, David Park and many others. With the exception of the Greeks, all subsequent artists, including Michelangelo, have used coded messages to depict homoeroticism, he says.
In his Laguna lecture, titled “Hiding in Plain Sight,” Darnaude led participants through a tour of the history and iconography of homosexual art. His visual, literate journey revealed how significantly queer artists have contributed to Western civilization’s legacy of great art.
Domenico Cresti, “The Bathers at San Niccolò,” 1600, oil on canvas.
Discussing Wonner’s and Brown’s work, he said that the McCarthy era was so homophobic that gay men could be imprisoned. Yet as Brown wrote, “Because of the constant opposition under which we live, I think we can become very strong … and I think we look deeper into things because we have to, we’re forced to.”
Their homoerotic work in the Laguna exhibition includes Wonner’s semi-abstract “River Bathers” (1961), two nude men lounging on a river bank, and Brown’s semi-abstract “Nudes on a Riverbank” (1971), of four men and one woman, the latter as a distraction, all displaying their genitals. Darnaude explains that gay artists since the Middle Ages have situated naked male bodies in swimming settings to circumvent society’s taboos.
To further emphasize the peril that gay artists have endured, Darnaude talked about Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). The English writer, on trial for his sexual preferences in 1895, referred to Plato, to the friendship between David and Jonathan in the Bible, and to Michelangelo’s poems to defend himself. The term “homosexual” became extant in Western society soon after that trial, rendering male nudes in art even more suspect than in previous centuries.
The ancient Greeks, Darnaude explains, revered relationships between older and younger men, and same-sex relationships were encouraged. These values influenced the creation of magnificent male nude sculptures. Yet from the 4th century on in Rome, the expansion of Christianity mandated that depictions of erotic male nudes were no longer acceptable in mainstream art.
Thomas Eakins, “The Swimming Hole,” 1885, oil on canvas, 27 3/8 x 36 3/8”.
Courtesy of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth.
Perhaps the most famous artist to produce homoerotic work after the Greeks was Michelangelo. His “David” (1504), the first marble statue of that era to employ classical, harmonious forms, portrays the biblical shepherd boy who slayed Goliath. According to Darnaude, Michelangelo depicted the qualities of virility, patriotism and virtue through the idealized male body. His artistry was so clever that viewers were unaware of his sexual orientation, and "David" became an instant icon.
The Italian artist Caravaggio further revolutionized art by depicting male adolescents exhibiting open sexual energy. Supported by Cardinal Del Monte, who gave Caravaggio free room and board in his palace after commissioning him to paint sensual male nudes, many for private consumption, the artist created numerous erotic paintings. “The Musicians” (1595) features four partially nude young men fervently playing musical instruments. “Bacchus” (1596), the Greek god of wine, is seductive with the subject’s robe slipping off his body. In these works, passionate musicianship and using the identity of a Greek god provided the ruse concealing the artist’s sexual preferences.
Italian artist Domenico Cresti’s “The Bathers at San Niccolò” (1600) is an erotic painting of dozens of young men skinny-dipping in Florence’s Arno River, a favored area for same-sex encounters. Cresti asserted that the artwork’s influences were not religious or mythological, but were inspired by the legendary 1364 Battle of Cascina, in which Florence brutally defeated Pisa — a scene which Michelangelo also painted.
Saint Sebastian (255-288), a Christian saint and martyr, was the subject of many homoerotic paintings during the Renaissance and later. Using the Saint’s martyrdom as a ploy, depicting him as being attacked and persecuted, enabled artists, including Guido Reni, Albrecht Dürer, El Greco, Botticelli and John Singer Sargent, to illustrate a magnificent, sensual naked body. Darnaude wrote, “During centuries of Christianity’s repression, thousands of images of Saint Sebastian were the only accepted ways to express homoerotic desire.”
Paul Cadmus, “The Bath,” 1951, tempera on composition board, 14 5/16 x 16 x 5/16”.
Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
In the 19th century, Thomas Eakins painted “The Swimming Hole” (1885), a composition of six men swimming naked in a lake. Rather than refer to the painting’s eroticism, he asserted that depiction of the human body was important to his artistic training.
Yet Paul Cadmus’s “The Bath” (1951), two gorgeous nude men in their shared bathroom, is so openly gay in its portrayal and expression that it remained in storage for decades before finally being displayed at the Whitney Museum. David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ (1972) of a nearly naked man in a swimming pool, with another man staring at him, is unabashedly overt in its sexuality. In 2018, the painting became one of the most expensive works of art by a living artist to be sold at auction.
Even Wonner and Brown became more sexually explicit in their work over the decades. Brown’s “Seated Nude with Man Holding Drape” (2002) and “Nude Self-Portrait” (2011) are both in the Crocker Art Museum catalog for “Breaking the Rules,” though not included in the exhibition. These are audacious figurative pieces, each illustrating a relaxed naked man with his genitals clearly illustrated.
Other contemporary gay artists depicting their sexual tendencies openly include Keith Haring, whose 2023 Broad museum “Art is for Everybody” exhibition contained references to AIDS and illustrations of penises. Lari Pittman’s lush collaged paintings, many featured at the Hammer Museum’s 2019-20 “Declaration of Independence” retrospective, transcend traditional gay themes to embrace abstract sensual and religious patterns. To view the exhibition by an artist who is openly gay was to go on a conceptual erotic journey, and to understand how far queer art has evolved since Michelangelo created "David" five centuries ago.