Paul Gaugin. D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? MFA 36.270. Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery (255).
Rosso Fiorentino, Dead Christ w i t h A n g e l s . M F A 5 8 . 5 2 7. Museum Council Gallery (254). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
important to elite Greek society. Once mature, the mentee will in turn become the mentor to an attractive ephebe of his own. There are also a number of homoerotic works in the museum from Renaissance Italy. Renaissance Italy was, of course, a Christian society and should not have approved of same-sex love; nonetheless same-sex love and gender ambiguity are common themes in Renaissance Italian literature and artworks, indicating (as do other historical sources) that society was more flexible or at least more complicated than you would expect. Astonishingly, many religious images are particularly homoerotic, and even more astonishingly, Christ in crucifixion and deposition scenes is frequently portrayed in a homoerotic way. Complicated theories have been proposed to account for this, but the most likely is simply that artists tended to treat any nude figure erotically. The MFA has one of the great examples of this theme, Rosso Fiorentino’s Dead Christ with Angels (1524-1527). In this painting, Christ does not appear dead. Rather, he seems to be lounging in the arms of a group of singularly beautiful angels. His body is sinuous and gender-ambiguous; this effect is heightened by the way his thighs conceal his genitals – although his pubic hair is visible, which is highly unusual. His nipples almost seem to be erect, and his facial expression indicates pleasure rather than pain. The markedly phallic candles held by the angels contribute to the scene’s almost lurid sexiness. We are much better informed about men’s private lives than women’s in most historical periods, among other things because so many writers and artists were men. As a result, female-female love is less common in museums. Nevertheless, the MFA does have a number of works referring to female-female relations. One, for instance (not currently on display, however) is the 18th-century Chinese painting
album Secret Spring by Meng Lu Jushi, which depicts women engaging in sex together in the privacy of the women’s quarters. At least one famous painting in the MFA also contains a person with a non-binary gender identity. This is Paul Gauguin’s monumental canvas D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?), completed in 1897-1898. The composition centers on a figure who is plucking a fruit from a tree, perhaps analogous to the Tree of Wisdom. The figure resembles the other women in the painting except for the lack of breasts. For this reason, the person is generally believed to be a mahu, one of the several intergender categories traditional to Tahitian society. Gauguin was fascinated by mahus and portrayed them numerous times in his works. So we have male-male courtship, a homoerotic Jesus, femalefemale group sex, and a genderqueer person in the center of a huge canvas. And this is a just a small selection of the many pieces of LGBTQ interest in the MFA. Not as conservative as you might have thought, eh? Andrew Lear, Classicist and gay historian, is the leading expert on same-sex love in ancient Greek art. He has taught at Columbia, Pomona College, and New York University. In 2013, he founded Oscar Wilde Tours (www.oscarwildetours.com), the first company to offer tours worldwide focused on gay history and art. During Boston Pride Week, Lear will lead a ‘Gay Secrets’ tour in the MFA. For more information visit the Pride Arts page.
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