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  • Writer's pictureTOM HENDY


Having won the prestigious Prix du Rome in 1834, Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, a pupil of Ingres, journeyed to L’Academie de France to learn the techniques of the Renaissance masters. It was at this point that Flandrin painted “Figure d’Étude” (1835-6), a simple study to become his most renowned work. 

Some fifty years later, John Addington Symonds published a series of articles in Fortnightly Review: “Realism and Idealism”, “The Model” and “Beauty, Composition, Expression, Characterisation”. Together, these presented Symonds’s novel theory of art. From out of the shadow of the Labouchere amendment, it is only now that readings of Symonds can uncover his once oblique intentions in seeking a trans-historical homosexual community and canon within art history.

The focus of this essay will be “The Model” where Symonds applies his methodology to Flandrin’s “Figure d’Étude”; a homosexualist approach through psychoanalysis. An approach defined by Davis as:

The Euro-American tradition of self-consciously – if obliquely – highlighting the homoerotic personal/aesthetic significance and historical meanings in a work of art.

Symonds’s theory states that neither the polemic aims of realism and idealism can operate independently; an artist will invest idealism in his process regardless of how accurate the mimesis. In comparing the photograph and painting of the “Figure d’Étude”, Symonds claims that if realism was the aim, then the photograph cannot be excelled. Yet, when the painting is created the artist will add in his/her character. Getsy assesses this approach as being based upon psychoanalytic principles, stating that the artist’s intention in the piece needs not to be overt but can also be created unconsciously so that the “residue of the artist in the artwork was not just inescapable, it could also be unintentional”.

“The Model” proposes that corporeal investiture, present in “Figure d’Étude”, is a vehicle through which the spectator can identify a cross-connection of sympathetic subjectivities, namely sexual identity. Something that was intuitive: 

"the diagnosis is difficult & dangerous. The aura, when I feel it, seems to me very distinct."

This intersubjectivity inevitably results from the artist’s production when his/her “aura” of homosexuality is invested through painting to be subsequently detected by sympathisers. A skill that is purely subjective; this cross-connection in crude terms reflects an ‘artistic gaydar’ as identified by Edwards:

[Symonds] also documented the belief that antique men had ‘their own means of mutual recognition’

Therefore, Symonds theory remains original and distinct in light of queer theory, putting forward an essentialist approach to the study of art, through the establishment of a ‘homo-aesthetic’. Queer theory is “by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant…it is an identity without an essence”. Essentialism as a method, is recognised as a powerful tool in forming identity and fostering community, which in turn “is politically useful for empowering minority groups by giving them a sense of solidarity grounded upon a sense of identity…homophobia is the construct” . 

The novelty of Symonds’s approach is evidenced by its deviation from traditional essentialist theory, avoiding a biographical or historical grounding for establishing the ‘essence’ and allowing for “the possibility of self-alienation”. Essentialism generally manifests itself in the creation of a female or homosexual canon and has been met with fierce criticism from queer theorists including Butler who argues that both gender and sexuality are performative acts:

An identity instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.

Yet even Butler, in this article recognises the use of gender essentialism:

“Feminists need to rely on an operational essentialism, a false ontology of women as a universal in order to advance a feminist political program.

Likewise, the homosexualist approach was a stage towards emancipation from heteronormative social hegemony, even if now it appears “amateurish – naïve, self-interested or apologetic”, queer theory is indebted to it. Although having now established this gay identity, the approach cannot escape its anachronism. This ‘stepping-stone’ theory reflects a historical process fixed in temporality and is inapplicable to contemporary theories of art history.

Focusing more intently on the mechanism for realising this cross-connection, the limitations of Symonds’s intersubjective, or psychoanalytic approach of the ‘aura’ in art become apparent. The serious problem this approach faces is its over-reliance on a viewer’s ability to achieve this cross-connection. Objectively unverifiable, it functions similarly to Kant’s fourth moment of modality, which states:

“Since an aesthetic judgement is not an objective or cognitive judgement, this necessity is not derivable from definite concepts, and so is not apodeictic”

Such verification is founded solely on subjective response; it is bound temporally, as transient as the viewer’s own perception. This emphasises the specificity and anachronistic nature of the approach. Symonds, aware of this flaw, sought to fix the ‘aura’ in the object enabling the transformative connection with the artist’s subjectivity to move through time. Having the artwork ‘speak’ to the viewer, this “fantasy of communication” is an art historical theory entrenched from Romanticism to Abstract Expressionism. As Davis advocates, this seems counter-intuitive, “no matter how substantive its mediating role…artworks are never subjects, but always objects; only subjects are subjects” and so remains a challenge to Symonds’s approach.

Notably, intersubjectivity does enable the viewer to conceive of identity-establishment without resorting to reading homoeroticism into the piece, a worn technique in both queer theory and psychoanalysis that engenders a series of problematic conclusions about identity construction. 

“Symonds reminds us that the study of homoeroticism in art need not be categorized (and consequently regulated) as solely the cataloguing of images of appealing sexual objects.”

Flandrin’s study itself represents an admiration of the male form without reference to genitalia or eroticisation, something that has been highlighted by the work of Mapplethorpe in his photographic piece “Ajitto” [Figure 2] which by overt exposure of the male genitals highlights the desexualisation of “Figure d’Étude”. Symonds has taken this further by suggesting that through intersubjectivity, we can read homosexuality without reference to eroticism, as Getsy states that corporeal investiture “does not rest in the corporeal alone.” . Such avoidance of eroticising essentialist approaches in art and psychoanalysis, grants us a methodology that remains clear of marking homosexuality as at best erotically charged or at worst, as sexual perversion. It is in this way that we can seek value in Symonds’s approach even in light of queer theory.

Through the ‘aura’, Symonds also advances his second aim in “The Model” to carve and protect the position for art in the advent of photography, a motive traditionally associated with modernism. 

“The abstract turn (away from representational art) was an attempt by modernism to find a refuge against threats hurled against it by an increasingly capitalistic and technocratic modern world”

In combating this, Symonds shatters the realist-idealist dichotomy by focusing upon an artist-centred approach. “Figure d’Étude” is deemed “a poor and feeble shadow of the truth” in contrast with a photographic reproduction of a model [Figure 3]. Symonds states art should disregard truth, accepting the superiority of photography in mimesis. Art’s value lies in the infusion of artistic subjectivity, becoming “a painted poem”. For Symonds, the artistic subjectivity in the work’s form should be the focus for art historical study. Such artist-focused analysis faced challenges from post-structuralism particularly from Barthes’s “Death of the Author” claiming this focus incorrectly over-emphasises authorial intent:

“to give a text an Author and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it "is to impose a limit on that text…a text's unity lies not in its origins but in its destination”. 

In light of this, a methodology centring on the artist’s intention, may seem outdated but one can distinguish Symonds’s approach. Symonds does not glorify artistic intent in determining the meaning of “Figure d’Étude” instead he uses the artwork to read the artist’s identity. Thus his objective differs from that of semioticians. It formulates a new purpose for art, that of understanding people, identities and communities.

When searching for critical value in analysis from the past, one must be aware of the constraints of temporality of comment about sexuality or identity in a period of political oppression. Once the process of emancipation is commenced, the theoretical approaches within such art historical texts to engender this process, appear anachronistic and value is lost. The method in “The Model” in establishing a means of recognising sexuality through art and its use in creating a ‘homo-canon’ catalysed the essentialist approach and the movement toward reconfiguring the heteronormative impositions of oppression. Challenging this, as a historical event, it evidences the impetus for change and in consideration of post-modern queer theory; this essentialism reinforces traditional binaries and the performativity of identity. This anachronism is the most serious limitation in establishing value in Symonds’s work, yet it is argued here that this can be contested. 

What is ultimately of value in Symonds’s work is its potential for reconstructing sexual identity in the wake of deconstructive queer theory. Symonds produces a distinct approach to traditional essentialism and social construction theory, avoiding the temporality of biographical essentialism and the reductive quality of queer theory. This enables a way of looking at art and the world differently. By eschewing the conflation of sexuality with same-sex eroticism, it is taken “outside of the bedroom”. A methodology with potential when considering a post-kyriarchal reconstruction of sexuality circumvents the harmful reference to eroticisation that psychoanalysis dependently relies upon. Moving forward, Symonds grants us something of value - the possibility of reappropriating a sense of essence in the queer object through an almost phenomenological process when encountering the artwork. An experience of such cross-connection he argues, is to act as a catalyst for one’s own identifications, yet which fosters a community that need not be based on the traditional conception of sexual identity that endangers the emancipatory process.

The flaws in Symonds’s methodology do not obscure the value in his oeuvre. The reconception of the purpose of art for establishing knowledge of identity through corporeal investiture and as a recalibration of an outdated essentialism creates new potential and the possibility of recognising an infusion of essence in the creative act.

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