The Advocate has a nice slideshow of paintings by Henry Scott Tuke, a once highly-regarded member of art’s Cornish School (after a few years in my much-loved Newlyn, he did most of his work in Falmouth) now mostly enjoyed by collectors of so-called ‘gay art’. (Elton John has many of his originals.)
Writing about Tuke hedges carefully over the question of his own sexual orientation, merely noting his friendships with the likes of Oscar Wilde (who was, of course, gay) and John Singer Sargent (who many people think was). But while Tuke produced painting after painting of boys bathing nude, there’s very little in his work that you’d call homoerotic in the strict sense - or erotic at all. There’s no playful splashing about and certainly no touching. The boys in Tuke’s paintings are enjoying each other’s company, but they’re not enjoying each other - and neither is the viewer invited to, except in the wholesome sense that we’re invited to enjoy the body of Michaelangelo’s David. Indeed, unlike in the case of David (or, for that matter, Sargent’s most famous male nude), there’s no actual sex organs in sight in Tuke’s sunny world by the sea.
It would be naive to suggest the popularity of Tuke’s work with modern gay men is entirely based on an aesthetic appreciation of Tuke’s pleasant brushwork. But the popularity of images such as this, of innocent, sexless, homosocial nudity, with gay men raises all sorts of interesting questions. (Tuke’s work has surely influenced the ‘Porn Harvard’ school of painting that adorns the stores of Abercrombie & Fitch, a brand that’s very popular with gay men, all over the Western world.)
After all, being a gay man means that your image of sexual desire will be an image of a nude man; but it also means that your experience of the sight or image of a nude man is likely to be coloured by sexual desire. When you’re a teenager, like the boys in Tuke’s paintings, this is most true and most painful: just at the moment both you and your friends are most self-conscious about your bodies, your hormone-flooded flesh finds itself sexually drawn to practically anything that moves. And, just to add to the angst, the institutions of your life - school, sports clubs - throw you and your friends together in agonizing nudity with awful regularity.
As you get older, of course, the shock wears off, and nudity becomes par for the course. But I think most gay men have a distinct memory of their blushing confusion the first time they looked around a changing room and felt a strange feeling they knew that no-one else in the room was feeling, and which they didn’t dare admit.
Andrew Sullivan, for example, recalls his own such moment in his 1990s book Virtually Normal: “In front of me, he took off his shirt, and unknowingly, slowly, erotically stripped. I became literally breathless, overcome by the proximity of my desire. The gay teenager learns in that kind of event a form of control and sublimation… in that moment, you learn the first homosexual lesson: that your survival depends on self-concealment.”
So I suspect that the disproportionate interest shown in Tuke’s work by gay men isn’t mostly down to erotic attraction to the boys portrayed, or the suspicion that subtle sexual undertones lurk in a glance between two of the figures. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Carefree same-sex nudity, be it in rivers or the sea or the showers after football, is something many gay men feel they didn’t experience as youths, because they were too busy fighting, fearing, or simply being distracted by sexual attraction. Images like Tuke’s, dating from a time when it was assumed same-sex nudity was innately free of sexual attraction, speaks to a part of us that remembers a time when we desperately wished it could be.
So in the end, it’s not the fact that Tuke’s boys are touching or gazing at each other that makes them stirring to look at. It’s the fact that they’re not.