The 19th-century Painter as a Predator and a Victim

Looking at the work of Jean-Leon Gerome through a 21st-century prism is a violation of the history of art.

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Michelangelo Showing a Student the Belvedere Torso, by Jean-Leon Gerome (1849).
Michelangelo Showing a Student the Belvedere Torso, by Jean-Leon Gerome (1849).

Jean-Leon Gerome’s “Michelangelo Showing a Student the Belvedere Torso” is rife with homoeroticism. With his delicate hands, the young boy, his curvaceous figure heightened by the pink-and-white tights he is wearing, is touching the long, gnarled fingers of Michelangelo. Their positioning casts a shadow over the sculpture’s shattered genitals.

Gerome wants us to think about homoeroticism, but also about the impossibility of sex and about emasculation – symbolized by the sculpture’s “missing” sexual organ, the aged master and the innocence of the youth. A feeling of nullity hangs in the air. A sense of desire that emanates from sex but will not be satisfied within the framework of the sexual act. Oh, yes, and that other thing: art. By suspending the tension – artistic and narrative alike – Gerome leads us exactly where he wants.

Gerome is the ultimate victim of postmodernist art criticism. Even the text that accompanied a major exhibition of his work, at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2010, was apologetic and critical in the spirit of postmodernist theory, whose great strength lies in moral arguments that are projected backward.

By invoking feminism, for example, we can denigrate Gerome today as a chauvinist; by abusing the late literary critic Edward Said, we can flay the artist as an Orientalist. But not only is that too easy – it is also wrong and it doesn’t pay. For what shall we profit by going backward in time, voiding the history of art and robbing ourselves of heroes only because in their era they did not espouse our views?

For a long time, I’ve been planning to make Gerome the prime example of a rereading that will liberate us from postmodernist criticism. The genesis of this column lies in a brief study that I came across, dealing with what it referred to as one of Gerome’s “strangest” paintings – that featured here. The author casts a tangled web of contextual explanations relating to homoeroticism in Gerome’s circles of acquaintances, including his relations with teachers and with the school of Jacques-Louis David.

The researcher argues that the artist’s attitude toward his ancient models could be an indication of his attitudes toward homosexuality. In the case at hand, Gerome “emasculates” Michelangelo – who appears in the painting as a blind man, his tools laid idly to the side and his portfolio of drawings leaning against the base of the sculpture – in order to condemn the homosexuality with which the great master was identified. The painter also adds to this an ostensibly perverse reversal of roles: the teacher being led by the pupil.

Reading the footnote-laden text, with its references to supposedly relevant quotations and sources, I ask myself whether the author of the article (Doyle by name) is not familiar with conventions from the history of art. Doesn’t he know how artists use slight departures from conventions in order to express themselves? Doesn’t the angelic figure leading an old man by the hand remind him of any painting in the history of art? Does it stand to reason that Gerome will deride Michelangelo, the mythical giant of art history, because he is homophobic?

Please note in the painting, by the way, that the eroticism embodied by the youth appears to be “wasted” on Michelangelo. He is old and blind, like a prophet in a Greek tragedy who “sees” a truth which the eyes cannot detect.

Is it not far more likely – and this is my contention – that Gerome is using an existing convention, such as that of Caravaggio’s “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew” (particularly the Dresden version, which was destroyed in World War II), in which the erotic denotes divine inspiration?

And may I apologize for starting with the erotic and then suspending the realization of the promise, as this suspension is part of the painting’s content.

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