lundi 11 octobre 2010

Eugène Jansson and the men

By the beginning of the twentieth century, painter Eugène Jansson (1862-1915) had achieved both critical acclaim and financial success. He modified his relatively simple lifestyle, becoming an active participant in the sophisticated nightlife of the Swedish capital. Between 1900 and 1903, Jansson traveled for the first time outside Sweden. He visited the Universal Exposition in Paris and traveled to Italy and Germany, reporting to friends that he enjoyed visiting the bathhouses in Munich more than touring museums. The study of ancient classical sculpture during his extended trip to Italy in 1903 is thought to have had a major impact on Jansson's change of subject matter : he suddenly stopped producing the nocturnal cityscapes that had been so eagerly sought by Swedish collectors and devoted himself to depicting young workers, sailors, and athletes, usually shown nude. For three years, Jansson systematically sought to retool himself as an artist, mastering the skills needed by a painter of nude male figures. He did not exhibit any of his new works until 1907. The poses and gestures of some figures in sketches that he executed from life between 1904 and 1907 recall ancient classical statues that he saw in Italy. Despite his use of ancient classical motifs, he succeeds in infusing his life studies with a naturalistic vitality, suggesting movements of muscles even in depictions of seated and standing figures. The soft, subtle handling of light and shade intensifies the sensual appeal of the sketched figures.

Jansson's paintings of nude men differ from those of artists associated with Open Air Vitalism, which encouraged nudity as a mean to intensify contact with the rejuvenating forces of the sun and natural forces. Seeking to express this union of men and nature, Johan Axel Gustav Acke (1859-1924) and other Swedish artists deliberately blended figures with their environments, utilizing almost identical brushwork for bodies and vegetation. In contrast, Jansson represented men in urban settings and interiors and clearly distinguished figures from their settings and emphasized their muscles and other anatomical features, including genitalia (which are depicted in a notably generalized fashion by Acke). Jansson's decision to focus upon the male figure corresponds with a period in which he seems to have been more open about his attraction to other men than he had been previously. Because of its association with Wilde and other cosmopolitan homosexuals, the costume of the dandy, adopted by Jansson during these years (a white suit and shirt, worn with sandals), can be regarded as a public indication of his sexual preference. In the 1890s, Jansson repeatedly was characterized by his professional colleagues as very reticent about his personal life. However, by the early 1900s, Jansson is no longer described in this way, and his public association with younger working-class men is noted in private papers of his associates. For instance, letters exchanged by Nördstrom and Bergh in 1903 note with amusement the promenades that Eugène and his homosexual brother Adrian routinely made that year at Sandhamn (then an elegant "summer colony" of Stockholm) with their younger live-in companions, referred to only by their nicknames, Stomatol and Azymol.

His paintings eloquently reveal the strong attraction that he felt for his subjects. The artist developed close personal friendships and relationships with several of his models. In looking at Jansson's drawings, one can understand why he insisted that his subjects were "voluntary models" and friends, rather than studio employees. Most of these men gaze at the artist/viewer with an intensity that is unusual in professional studies. In Seated Young Man (1906), for example, there is a definite implication of desire in the way that the model (Carl Gyllins) looks up at the artist/viewer. Produced in 1906 and exhibited in 1907, the Young Man Standing in a Doorway is the first large-scale painting of a nude male figure to be completed by Jansson. This work commemorates a major turning point in the artist's life, both professionally and personally. Knut Nyman (1887-1946) is shown in the center of a large interior doorway, arms lifted and outstretched to the doorjambs. He stands in a sensually curved contrapposto pose (most of his weight on one foot so that his shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips and legs), with his right knee projecting out toward the spectator. Sunlight streaming into the room behind him (apparently through unseen windows on a higher level) glistens on his flesh. The erotic appeal of this figure is undeniable. The paintings on the heavily shadowed walls in the gallery in the background resemble views that Jansson produced up to 1904. By turning his back to these paintings, Nyman indicates the artist's literal abandonment of his previous subject matter and his intention to develop his work in new ways. But Young Man in a Doorway also can be understood as a declaration of the artist's love for Nyman. As if to encourage this reading of the picture, Jansson placed Nyman's name directly below his own signature on the canvas. Inscribed underneath the names of Jansson and Nyman, "1906" signifies not only the date of the painting's creation but also the year in which the two men began their relationship. Jansson and Nyman became acquainted at the Flottans badhus, where they both enjoyed nude sunbathing and swimming. Photographs taken about 1910, showing Jansson and Nyman relaxing at the baths with friends, reveal the pleasure that they took in one another's company. By 1907, Nyman had taken up residence in Jansson's studio, and they lived together until 1913. During this time, they were regarded as an inseparable couple in artistic circles. They were frequently seen together at elegant restaurants and other establishments in Stockholm. Jansson provoked scandalized rumors by rejecting invitations to any events that did not welcome his partner. By refusing to conceal his relationship with Nyman, Jansson challenged the restrictive social and sexual conventions prevailing in his society in much the way that he did in his late paintings.

Between 1907 and 1911, Jansson made several monumental paintings of men at Stockholm's Flottans badhus, where he had become a frequent visitor by the late 1890s. Photographs of ca 1900 show Jansson swimming in the bathhouse pool. It is interesting to note that some of these images capture Jansson in mid-air in the same pose that he utilized for the divers in Naval Bathhouse (Flottans badhus, 1907) and Bathhouse Scene (Badtavla, 1908). During the period that Jansson created his scenes of the Flottans badhus, existing Swedish laws against sexual acts between men were being enforced with increased rigor. The baths provided a refuge from oppression because nude sunbathing and swimming were widely regarded as healthful activities.

At the bathhouses, men could safely gaze at and associate with other naked men. By the early twentieth century, the bathhouses of Stockholm were widely known to be gathering places for men who desired other men, and they attracted numerous homosexual visitors from all over Europe. Although sexual acts seldom took place at the baths, contacts made there often led to liaisons elsewhere and even to long term relationships, as in the case of Jansson and Nyman. Jansson's procedure in creating the bathhouse paintings differed from the method that he had employed for his earlier cityscapes. Instead of painting from his imagination, Jansson made numerous preparatory sketches of men at the baths; one cannot help but wonder whether Jansson's intense attraction to his new subject matter led to this shift in process.

It should be noted that Jansson modified the sketched figures in some significant ways. For instance, at the baths, he drew men of different ages and of varying degrees of muscular development. In his completed paintings, Jansson populated the baths with the individuals whom he desired: handsome, younger, athletic men. In the previously mentioned Naval Bathhouse (1907) and Bathhouse Scene (1908), Jansson celebrates the beauty of the nude men swimming and relaxing around the pool. In both works, the prominent foreground figures stand in exaggerated versions of the elegant contrapposto pose used so effectively in Young Man Standing in a Doorway. The glistening light reflected on their flesh enhances the sensual allure of the men. Helping to create a joyful mood, the colors are bright and glowing. Although blues dominate as in Jansson's cityscapes, they are not muted by the dark tonalities that he employed in his earlier paintings. Through his skillful organization of figures, Jansson evokes the homoerotic desire that pervaded the bathhouse. Subtle inclinations of heads and other body movements suggest the glances exchanged among the men around the pool. Furthermore, Jansson has arranged the bodies so that one figure leads logically to the next. While preserving the harmony of the overall composition, he organized many of the men into pairs and groups of three. Within each of these groups, the poses of the men's bodies echo one another, thus evoking the sense of rapport that they experienced.

In Swimming Pool (Badsump, 1911), Jansson has employed a very low perspective, corresponding to the viewpoint of a swimmer in the pool that fills the foreground space. From this vantage point, the background figures standing alongside the pool seem almost diminutive. Upon first looking at Swimming Pool, one might suppose that Jansson's primary goal was to demonstrate the energy and prowess of the swimmers and divers. However, the pleasure that Jansson took in the sensual beauty of these men is expressed through the emphasis that he gave to their exposed buttocks and to their glistening flesh. Although comparatively small in scale, the spectators at the edge of the pool in the background contribute significantly to the homoerotic mood of the painting. Many of the background figures are dressed as seamen, and the nude men, scattered among them, stand out provocatively. At least one of the nude figures seems to be fondling his genitals. In the Self Portrait of 1910, Jansson depicted himself at the Flottans badhus in the company of beautiful young men. Although he routinely wore no clothes while at the baths, he depicts himself here in an elegant white linen suit, worn with sandals. The broad blue sash around his waist, the yellow tie, and the yellow and blue bands on his straw hat add lively color accents to his figure. By wearing a costume associated in Sweden with dandies, Jansson provides a clue to his desire for the men around him. Furthermore, the colors of his clothing associate him with the sailors scattered among the crowds around the pool. The sailors wear uniforms of white and blue, highlighted by patches of yellow light, representing reflections of the sun.

Between 1911 and 1914, Jansson also celebrated the nude male figure in numerous large-scale paintings of athletes lifting weights and performing acrobatic exercises in interior spaces. He executed these paintings in the provisional studio that he established at the Flottans badhus. His decision to base an important part of his artistic practice in a locale associated with the emerging homosexual culture provides yet another indication of his willingness to flout repressive conventions. Sailors whom Jansson met at the bathhouse served as models for many of the studio paintings of athletes, but he also featured his partner Nyman in some of them. In Athletes (Atleter, 1912), Nyman is shown seated on the floor in a pose that recalls the famous ancient Hellenistic statue Dying Gaul. Demonstrating his strength, Nyman supports a large iron ball with his right arm, extended straight upwards above his head. As in Young Man Standing in a Doorway, bright sunlight from an unseen source emphasizes Nyman's physical splendor by accenting the contours of his body. Seen from behind, an athletic young man standing in the foreground doorway admires Nyman.

In his effort to visualize the exertions of athletes shown in his studio paintings, Jansson occasionally sacrificed the graceful beauty that he achieved in the pool scenes. For instance, in two paintings of 1914 - Barbell Lifted with a Single Arm II (Pressning av stång på en arm II) and Barbell Lifted with Two Arms II (Pressning av stång på två armar II) - Jansson so strongly emphasizes the bulges of the strained muscles and tendons that the contours of the figures seem irregular and jagged. Furthermore, in order to enhance the impression of athletic exertion, Jansson employed a modified version of the distinctive handling of paint evident in his cityscapes. Among the formal devices that help to convey the strain of muscles are roughly applied, thick strokes of impasto (opaque oil paint) and jagged lines cut into the paint surface with the edge of a palette knife. In the stunning Acrobats (1912), an athlete standing on the studio floor uses his upraised arms to support the full weight of his colleague, whose legs are extended straight in the air above his head. As in his paintings of weightlifters, rough handling of paint and irregular contours help to emphasize muscular strain. Nevertheless, the fact that the figure suspended in air exactly echoes the appearance and pose of the acrobat standing on the floor serves to endow this work with an aura of almost Neoclassical harmony and balance - a serene mood.

Although not mentioned in any published commentary, the erotic power of Jansson's paintings of athletes was noted by the homosexual artist Gösta Adrian-Nilsson (1884-1965). In comments that he made in his diary shortly after visiting the Olympic Exhibition, Adrian-Nilsson claimed that the expression of sexual desire was the primary purpose of Jansson's late paintings. However, despite the fact that he shared Jansson's sexual orientation, Adrian-Nilsson condemned Jansson's focus on material beauty and his apparent disinclination to express higher spiritual ideals. It should be emphasized that Adrian-Nilsson's comments reflect his own commitment to abstraction and that he almost certainly was not condemning the artist's lifestyle from a moralizing perspective. These late paintings continued to be regarded with disdain in the years following Jansson's death. Thus, despite the strong advocacy of Karl Nördsrom, the prominent writer and collector Klas Fåhraeus refused to include any of Jansson's figurative works in the major exhibition of contemporary Swedish art that he organized at the Liljevalchs Gallery, Stockholm, in 1918. Fåhraeus justified the exclusion of these works by claiming that the Swedish public was not prepared to accept such naturalistic depictions of nude male bodies.

On January 16, 1915, Jansson suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, which left him paralyzed on one side. For the remainder of his life, he was cared for by Rudolf Rydström (called Rulle), who had been trained as both a wrestler and a nurse. Rydström had become well known in artistic circles as the model for the predominant nude figure in Carl Larsson's Sacrifice for Winter Solstice (1914-1915), a monumental painting, originally intended for the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Rydström perfectly exemplified the type of younger athletic man that most appealed to Jansson. In a diary entry of May 12, 1915, Nördstrom described a recent visit to Jansson's home. In eloquent prose, Nördstrom revealed how deeply touched he had been by the exceptional tenderness that Rydström displayed as he cared for Jansson, and he also noted the contentment that Jansson seemed to feel in Rydström's company. On June 15, Jansson died after suffering another cerebral hemorrhage. Shortly after Jansson's death, his younger brother Adrian (1871-1937) destroyed Eugène's private drawings and personal papers, presumably because he thought that these materials could tarnish Eugène's posthumous reputation. These actions are fully comprehensible within the context of his times. Adrian was a friend of Nils Santesson, whose highly publicized trial for sodomy in 1906 stimulated public outrage against homosexuality, which led to increased surveillance of homosexuals and to intensified enforcement of laws against same-sex sexual acts. The legal authorities resolved to make an example of Santesson, who, as the director of a leading pewter foundry, was well known in artistic circles. Therefore, he was given an unusually severe sentence of ten months hard labor for committing "unnatural" sexual acts. His reputation destroyed, Santesson was unable to resume his former career after being released from prison. Despite his association with Santesson, Adrian managed to escape detection in the police investigations of his friends and acquaintances. After Santesson moved to Paris in 1912, Adrian maintained a steady correspondence with him. Although Adrian managed to destroy documentation of his brother's sexuality, the letters he exchanged with Santesson were preserved, and these provide valuable insights into the homosexual subculture in Sweden during his lifetime.

Richard G. Mann, excerpts from

4 commentaires:

VoiceTalk a dit…

I so enjoy your blog! Thank you for posts which are as eloquently written as they are informative.

andrew1860 a dit…

Wonderful blog I did not know about this artist.

Anonyme a dit…

incroyable blog !interessant,passionant!!!.j'y lis et apprend des choses que je ne connaissais pas a chaque fois.par contre c'est dommage que certains articles en anglais n'ont pas leur traduction en francais,c'est tout une partie de votre blog qui m'est inaccessible,et souvent les articles les plus interressant.

antonio augusto a dit…

I've been learned so much about subjects that are extremely important to me since I've met this space. Thanks, Augusto from Brazil