Homosexuality on the canvas

By Erin Waks, and Margot McDonald

Visual Arts contributors contemplate a selection of paintings depicting homosexuality

Erin Waks: John Yeadon

British Artist John Yeadon is known for his work exploring politics, sexuality, food and carnival. However, it is his provocative work from the 1980s which has inspired the most critical debate. The reason? His choice of theme — male sexuality. This is evident in two of his major works, ‘Modern Art, Disco Drawing’, and ‘Happy Families’.

Diverges from the heteronormativity of much modern art

In the former, Yeadon brings to light the lived experience of gay people within society. Its anti-realist style provides an element of comedy and lightness to the piece. The colour, glitter and lights displayed on the painting create a sort of disco effect, as the title of the painting would suggest, bringing a carnival atmosphere to the piece. By depicting a relationship between two men, Yeadon’s piece diverges from the heteronormativity of much modern art, instead giving an insight into a homosexual couple.

By contrast, in ‘Happy Families’, which relates to Yeadon’s own fantasies, the artist becomes more explicit. Focusing on the male form, as well as the male relationship, this life-size series of drawings alternatively demonstrates Yeadon’s ability to elucidate the depth of these relationships through the medium. 

Ælfred Hillman: Tamara De Lempicka

As we recognise the impact gay art has had on the LGBT+ movement, it is important to reflect that in spite of the central role queerness plays in the artistic identities of many, no artist should be credited with the invention of ‘gay art’. The common cultural impulse to associate art with sexuality has certainly benefitted established artists. Inducting Michelangelo and Caravaggio into the LGBT+ corpus has only increased their contemporary relevance, but it equally risks making more recent arrivals no more than the sum of their sexuality. 

Pushing the naked human form into the Art Deco style

Interestingly, there are many queer female artists who have vehemently attempted to omit the depiction of overt sexuality in their works. Artists such as Gluck, Romaine Brooks and Tamara De Lempicka demonstrate an intriguing reticence in their depictions of their partners, flouting the brazen beauty of sexual freedom in order to resist the domination of the male gaze.

Tamara De Lempicka’s ‘Young Lady with Gloves’ illustrated by

Of the three, Lempicka is perhaps the most remarkable, because her female lovers are not distanced through the acclimatisation of male fashions. Her engagement with the masculine tradition of the female nude makes her work the easiest to interpret impulsively, in sexual terms. Yet the uneasy androgyny and reticence she employs, pushing the naked human form into the Art Deco style so it becomes unified with the propulsive flow of modern energies makes such a reading untenable. Lempicka’s queerness is reduced to only one contributing element to her vision of egalitarian voyeurism, blurring into the wider makeup of a privileged and distinct cultural context.

Margot McDonald: David Hockney’s ‘Domestic Scene, Los Angeles’

In the 1960s, a landmark moment where open discussion of gay rights started gaining ground, the British art scene was lucky enough to witness the birth of David Hockney’s most vibrant and controversial series of artworks – his self-proclaimed ‘homosexual propaganda’. He painted arrays of naked men inside immaculate showers and on the side of glistening turquoise pools on canvas.  

Mastery in the art generating an honest dialogue about gay intimacy

Painted in 1963, ‘Domestic Scene, Los Angeles’, sees Hockney boldly depict the theme of gay sexuality through the subject matter of two male nudes helping each other wash. The central figure of the composition, whose genitalia is covered by a minuscule towel, is placed in front of his partner. Although at first glance, the two men seem misplaced in such a surrounding — might ask why Hockney decided to place a shower inside a house’s lounge — the clear modelling of their bodies allows the viewer to forget these technical ambiguities. 

An air of sensual affection permeates the atmosphere of the painting if we appreciate the level of detail Hockney applied to the first male figure’s body language: his head is gently tilted, hand stretched out to scrub his partner’s back, fully concentrating on the naked form that lies before him. This undeniably demonstrates Hockney’s mastery in the art of generating an honest dialogue about gay intimacy. Although he does not mention his experiences explicitly, I believe he draws on the raw emotions he felt as an openly gay man in the 1960s, when being daring about such subjects came at a price. 

Illustrations: Victoria Cheng,

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