George Platt Lynes and Jared French

(About art and sexuality. Not much language in it.)

Terry Castle, my Stanford colleague (in English literature), has been using Pinterest to compose a kind of history of modern art in pictures, specializing in drawings, paintings, and photographs of lgbt interest. Most recently, two photographs by George Platt Lynes, a photographer of (among other things) male nudes, from the 1930s-50s:

A photograph of a trio of men from Lynes’s artistic (often labeled “magical realist”) and homosexual (the term they used at the time) circle, George Tooker, Paul Cadmus, and Jared French:


And then a photograph of a “dancer in costume with animal skull headpiece” (as it is described by the Metropolitan Museum of Art):


On to some male nudes, starting with one that doesn’t have any officially naughty bits in it, so I can show it here:


Note: black men figure prominently in Lynes’s work, and in French’s. Here’s a Lynes featuring a black singer:


Then, on AZBlogX, three definitely X-rated male nudes: #1 an elegant formal composition, #2 a study in light and shadow, #3 a portrait of his friend French, with the painter’s intense gaze and his weighty penis anchoring the composition.

The Wikipedia article on Lynes emphasizes the importance to him of his circle of friends but also the great anxiety of his life in the closet, the fear that exposure might ruin his career at any time or subject him to imprisonment. He found a niche in fashion photography — and then his approach to his subjects was superseded by the work of fresh photographers, like Richard Avedon, Edgar de Evia, and Irving Penn. An alternately joyous and sad story, which I quote at length here:

George Platt Lynes (April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955) was an American fashion and commercial photographer.

Born in East Orange, New Jersey to Adelaide (Sparkman) and Joseph Russell Lynes, he spent his childhood in New Jersey but attended the Berkshire School in Massachusetts. He was sent to Paris in 1925 with the idea of better preparing him for college. His life was forever changed by the circle of friends that he would meet there. Gertrude Stein, Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler and those that he met through them opened an entirely new world to the young artist.

He returned to the United States with the idea of a literary career and he even opened a bookstore in Englewood, New Jersey in 1927. He first became interested in photography not with the idea of a career, but to take photographs of his friends and display them in his bookstore.

Returning to France the next year in the company of Wescott and Wheeler, he traveled around Europe for the next several years, always with his camera at hand. He developed close friendships within a larger circle of artists including Jean Cocteau and Julien Levy, the art dealer and critic. Levy would exhibit his photographs in his gallery in New York City in 1932 and Lynes would open his studio there that same year. He was soon receiving commissions from Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country, and Vogue including a cover with perhaps the first supermodel, Lisa Fonssagrives.

In 1935 he was asked to document the principal dancers and productions of Lincoln Kirstein’s and George Balanchine’s newly founded American Ballet company (now the New York City Ballet).

While he continued to shoot fashion photographs, getting accounts with such major clients as Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue during the 1930s and 1940s he was losing interest and had started a series of photographs which interpreted characters and stories from Greek mythology.

By 1946, he grew disillusioned with New York and left for Hollywood, where he became chief photographer for the Vogue studios. He photographed Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Gloria Swanson and Orson Welles, from the film industry, as well as others in the arts among them Aldous Huxley, Igor Stravinsky, and Thomas Mann.

… During his lifetime, Lynes amassed a substantial body of work involving nude and homoerotic photography. In the 1930s, he began taking nudes of friends, performers and models, including a young Yul Brynner, although these remained private, unknown and unpublished for years. Over the following two decades, Lynes continued his work in this area passionately, albeit privately. “The depth and commitment he had in photographing the male nude, from the start of his career to the end, was astonishing. There was absolutely no commercial impulse involved — he couldn’t exhibit it, he couldn’t publish it.” – Allen Ellenzweig, art and photography critic who wrote the introduction to George Platt Lynes: The Male Nudes, published in 2011 by Rizzoli. In the late 1940s, Lynes became acquainted with Dr. Alfred Kinsey and his Institute in Bloomington, Indiana. Kinsey took an interest in Lynes work, as he was researching homosexuality in America at the time.

By May 1955, Lynes had been diagnosed terminally ill with lung cancer. He closed his studio and destroyed much of his print and negative archives, particularly his male nudes. However, it is now known that he had transferred many of these works to the Kinsey Institute. “He clearly was concerned that this work, which he considered his greatest achievement as a photographer, should not be dispersed or destroyed…We have to remember the time period we’re talking about—America during the post-war Red Scare…” The body of work residing at the Kinsey Institute remained largely unknown until it was made public and published in 2011. The Kinsey collection represents one of the largest single collections of Lynes’s work.

Lynes’s work began to surface in 1993 (in a book by James Crump), 1994 (in a book by Jack Woody), and 2000 (in a book by David Leddick), but didn’t get a full treatment until the 2011 book — 56 years after his death, and all of this was possible only through the good fortune of Lynes’s association with the Kinsey Institute.

The magic realist circle. Earlier on this blog,  a 3/31/11 posting “George Tooker” and a 3/22/13 posting “Surrealists” with a section on Cadmus and one on French. Now more on French. From Wikipedia:

Jared French (1905–1988) was an American painter who specialized in the medium of egg tempera. He was one of the artists attributed to the style of art known as magic realism. Other artists of this movement included George Tooker and Paul Cadmus [who was for a time French’s lover].

Born in Ossining, New York, French received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Amherst College in 1925. Soon after this he met and befriended Cadmus in New York City. French persuaded Cadmus to give up commercial art for what he deemed, “serious painting”. In 1937 French married Margaret Hoening, also an artist. For the next eight years Cadmus and the Frenches summered on Fire Island and formed a photographic collective called PaJaMa (“Paul, Jared, and Margaret”). During this period French painted murals for the WPA.

French’s early paintings are eerie, colorful tableauxs of still, silent figures derived from Archaic Greek statues. His later work shows “a kind of classical biomorphism,” strange, colorful, suggestive organic forms

(Of the four artists, French, Tooker, and Cadmus all lived well past the Age of Homosexual and into the Age of Gay; only Lynes died young.)

Two works of French’s from 1939, both unsettlingly strange (and both wth racial content). First, “Washing the White Blood from Daniel Boone”, set in something resembling the Holy Land, with Boone as a Christ figure:


Boone/Christ is in an extreme low-rise swim suit, with drawstring, while his attendants (dark-skinned, bald, and with space-alien eyes) are in thongs or briefs, framed so as to emphasize their packages and buttocks — to my mind, much more homoerotic than if all the men were nude and just happened to have their penises hanging out.

Then, with a Confederate soldier theme, “Stuart’s Raiders at the Swollen Ford”, a mural for the Richmond (VA) Parcel Post Office:


Buttocks and packages very much on display. Rough soldiers posing on the shore, men in the water who could at first be taken for bathers at the seashore, until you notice the horses. Apparetly French’s original sketch for the mural had the Rebs as hunky male nudes; hard to imagine how he thought he could get away with that, but in any case the idea was nixed by the federal official in charge of murals for public buildings, who insisted French had to put clothes on them.

The mural is, in principle, just a depiction of an actual Civil War event, but it has an odd, edgy feel to it, and it’s wildly homoerotic, a fact that has made commenters wonder about the word swollen in its title.


One Response to “George Platt Lynes and Jared French”

  1. Tim Evanson Says:

    In photo #1, from left to right: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and George Tooker (seated). Tooker won the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush, and died only in 2011.

    One wonders if Bush knew who Tooker was.

    Platt Lynes is an interesting person. I’ve read that he would hand-make books of nudes for his gay friends and give them away as Christmas or birthday presents. They are evocative of the “boîte-en-valise” (“museum in a box”) that Marcel Duchamp used to make for his friends. Nearly all of these hand-made books have disappeared, I understand.

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