It wasn't until I was seventeen, before I understood myself to be homosexual. From what I read and hear, this is somewhat late to be getting a clue, but for reasons I've gone into detail elsewhere, I grew up in a kind of clueless cocoon regarding human sexuality. It was a cocoon woven in part from things I absorbed from my culture, in particular the idea that homosexuals were those rare, desperate psychopaths, who haunted the bushes around public restrooms, a thing I knew I was not. In part it was a cocoon woven from my own stubbornness. Once I latch onto a notion, it almost takes dynamite to dislodge it. Since I was none of the brutal, ugly things that I was taught that homosexuals were, I reasoned that I could not be one. Which meant that my tepid inner response to the opposite sex must be normal, and my fierce attachments to my male friends was only part of a boy's growing up...which meant that love and romance were icky, gooey, boring things, and all a guy ever really needed in life was his friends. It wasn't until I fell head over heals in love with a male classmate, that it finally dawned on me that perhaps what I had been taught about homosexuality was wrong in the first place, and that my inner responses to the opposite, and the same sex, needed a wee bit of closer examination.
As they say, hindsight is 20-20. I can look back across the years before that revelation, and see all the signs clearly. A handsome male classmate always yanked my eyes in his direction, a thing I would rationalize as merely artistic appreciation of beauty (it never occurred to me to wonder why I so seldom found myself appreciating it in women). And it wasn't just the flesh and blood examples that arrested my eye. Time and again I'd find myself in museums, or art galleries, completely besmitten by a portrait, or sculpture of a beautiful male. I believe it was in those wondering, thrilling, and thoroughly uncomfortable moments in museums and art galleries, that I began to experience my first stirring difficulty coping with same sex attraction, compounded almost certainly, by my not fully understanding it for what it was.
I remember my first trip to the National Gallery of Art on the Mall in Washington D.C. The public schools in the Washington suburbs took full advantage of the museums so close at hand, and over the course of my k-12 years I would visit them many times. But that first visit alone with my parents was awesome. Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa was visiting the city, and people were lined up all around the building to see it. I can recall to this day laying eyes on the thing, and being bewildered by all the fuss. She seemed like a nice enough lady...but it wasn't a picture I'd want hanging in my room.
As my parents led me out of the exhibit, and to a place elsewhere in the museum where they could sit down for a while, I was arrested by the abrupt sight of a sculpture of a male nude. Near as I can tell all these years hence, it was Donatello's Narcissus, or a reproduction of it at any rate, and I found it absolutely riveting.
The difficulty was, that even at that tender age I knew that guys shouldn't be that interested in other guys. Especially other guys who didn't have their clothes on. So as my parents sat wearily on a bench nearby, I wandered around the exhibit, looking here and there at the statues, always my eyes straying back to the beautiful bronze man. It was my first lesson in discrete guy watching, and in coping with a yearning I could not fully express; not simply for the man, but to be allowed to appreciate his beauty openly, like all the other people there were appreciating Mona's.
It would be years before I could walk up to a statue of a beautiful male in an art gallery, and feel completely free to appreciate it. That reticence lasted well into adulthood, well after I had come out to myself, and my friends, long after any qualms I had about being openly homosexual had been put aside. There was another closet I had to break free of. The art I loved most of all was the kind of art that has been bringing snickers from art critics since the turn of the century. It has taken me years to get past that drilling I got in my school years, while trying to seriusly study art, that romanticism was an unsophisticated and naive form of expression, and allow myself to appreciate the works of the romantics wholeheartedly.
In the film, Don Juan DeMarco, Don Juan tells Dr. Jack Mickler that there are four questions we must answer in this life. What is sacred? Why are we here? What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? Art, when it is good, attempts not so much to dispense answers to these questions, as to shine a light on them. To, in the words of Jacob Brownowski, make us see both justice and injustice, good and evil, means and ends, in frightful clarity of outline. It is the bane of representationalists, and particularly the romantics, that all too often people take their work at face value. A Fredric Church painting of a brilliant sunset, isn't so much about a beautiful sunset, as about spiritual exaltation in the presence of the Creator. The specifics of religion and faith can differ from one person to another, a Christian (Church was a Calvanist), a Shinto, an Athiest, can all appreciate the work at the level it is meant to be appreciated at. The content of the work is the emotional impact of spiritual awe. If all you can see in it is a beautiful sunset, you're almost completely missing it's content.
So I can hear the snickers now, when I say that it isn't simply sex that's on my mind when I look at a beautiful male nude in bronze or marble. Of course, at a gut level, you see enough skin and you're going to respond. That's just nature at work. But even in a statue like Rodan's 'The Kiss', which is an incredibly erotic work of art, the human form is only the means to get you to the place the artist wants to take you. All the elements of shape, texture and form that are at work in abstract expression, are also at play in a representational work, with the added layer of the representation itself. The artist tries to work all the elements into a harmony, with each element adding strength to the central idea. When it all comes together, the impact can be very intense.
As intense sometimes, as falling in love. One afternoon in 94, I was wandering up Howard Street in Baltimore city, along a stretch they call Antique Row, when I glanced into a window, and time just seemed to stop altogether.
It was a bronze statue of David, about three feet in height, and the first thing it put me in mind of was the one by Donatello. But I'd never seen this one before, and had no idea of what artist could have made it. As in the Donatello, this one was David immediately after having slain Goliath, and having cut his head off. Goliath's head, large, brutal and grotesque, rested at his feet, and David stood with one foot on it, calmly re-sheathing his sword. But where Donatello's David is a coquettish adolescent boy, this David was a beautiful young warrior. Wearing only a small turban and the very slightest of sashes around the hips, he stood re-sheathing his sword in an elegant and proud arc of motion. His face put me in mind of the drawing of a Persian Boy by Michelangelo; it had the same quiet nobility. He was self confidant, proud, victorious, and beautiful. I stared enraptured...I had never seen a sculpture so intense. I must have gawked at it for ages there on the sidewalk...all the while, to the degree that I could verbalize anything at that point, what was going through my mind was "...it says it all...it says it all..."
I went through the shop door spellbound. I must have examined the bronze from just about every position possible in the cramped little shop. There wasn't an angle I could look at it from, that it wasn't beautiful. I walked back outside to look at it again from the street. I walked back inside and looked at it again close up. I glanced around for anything to indicate it's asking price and saw nothing, which should have alerted me. Eventually, starry-eyed, I asked the proprietor how much. He told me I could take it home for a mere nine thousand dollars. It's such grand bargain, says he, because the owner wants to sell it quickly.
There's a reason why stuff like this adorns the homes of the fabulously well to do. The asking price was alarmingly close to the selling price of my car when I bought it new, and there was no way I could justify the expense, even on so wonderful a piece. I asked a few questions about the artist, and made an inquiry about other works by him. The shop owner didn't have any others on hand, but directed me to a few books on bronze statues for additional guidance. He was very considerate, and if I ever get the kind of money that buys the things he sells I'll keep him in mind. I walked out of the shop, glancing back at the statue in the window for about half a block. I don't think I've been as heartbroken since my parents flatly refused to buy me that red Schwinn Starjet when I was nine.
That evening I took a trip to my local library, and began looking up anything I could on Antonin Mercie', and his work. I found very little...he apparently being one of those 19th century romantics the art establishment has scorned for nearly a century. I started scouring all the sources I could find for fine art reproductions, looking for anyone who might be offering a high quality copy of the work at a price I could afford. Whenever I hit the antique shows, I kept an eye out. I found absolutely nothing.
The more I researched the work, the more I began to analyze the feelings it evoked in me. After spending nearly all of my adult life under the shadow of anti-Gay hate, and organized anti-Gay political repression, it wasn't hard to see how the image of a proud and beautiful warrior defeating a powerful and seemingly invincible opponent struck a chord. But it was deeper, even then that. Here was male sensuality portrayed not as a symptom of inner weakness and decadence, but strong and noble and righteous. You spend a lifetime listening to your culture yap at you from every direction, that the slightest hint of sensuality in a guy means that he's vein and weak and morally flawed, and suddenly one day you see sensualism combined with courage and strength in such a way that you realise they're all part of the same thing, and it's exhilarating.
Somebody, somewhere, Must have produced reproductions of this piece at a price I can afford, I kept telling myself. But for five years I searched and searched, all to no avail. Few books on sculpture even mentioned Mercie', and when they did, it was usually another piece of his they showcased, the 'Gloria Victis', another amazingly dramatic and sensual work, but not the one I was looking for. I also ran across hundreds of copies of Michelangelo's David, offered to me by well meaning dealers who didn't understand that it wasn't the David I was looking for.
I kept scouting Antique Row from time to time, in the hope that maybe one of the other shops there would acquire a reproduction that was more reasonably priced. No luck. But one day while walking down Antique Row about a year ago, I stumbled across another wonderful bronze. To this day I don't know either the name of the piece, or the original artist. I've looked in dozens of catalogs and books, prowled numerous antique shops. Last month in San Francisco, I came tantalizingly close to getting some information on it. As I wandered the streets I came upon an antique shop with another one in it's window, a card I couldn't read at it's base, possibly giving more detail as to it's name and artist. But the shop was closed...it's owner out of town for the week.
I think it's a Cupid or an Eros. It is as if the spirit has suddenly embodied in the form of a beautiful winged young man. A pair of doves instantly gather at one of his feet, just where it lightly touches the earth for a single fleeting moment. His expression is neither jovial nor coy, as you usually see in the representations of Eros, but intently focused on what he is doing. His eyes are locked on a target, one arm reaches back to his quiver, the other grasps the bow, and in the movement his body radiates determination and purpose. He is a warrior, resolute and beautiful, fighting his own intense private battle, against...against whatever it is that Love struggles against...hate...alienation...prejudice...
It wasn't Mercie's David, but it was close. Once again I asked about the price, expecting to get another k++ quote. To my amazement the asking price was actually within my means. I already had a spot in my apartment picked out for the David, but it didn't look like I was going to find one. So I happily bought this one, and took it carefully home. I was now a collector of bronzes.
I spent days fussing with how to position it, so that the light coming in from my windows hit it just right. It stands in a spot where it can be viewed from almost completely around, and for months now I've felt somewhat satisfied that I had a good work of art was not only pleasing to look at, but meant something. There is an element of religious iconography to the placing of serious art in your home. You are making a statement about the Big questions. What is sacred? Why are we here? What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? Here I felt I had a piece that said it well...even if not quite as perfectly as the Mercie's David.
They say that persistence is what makes a difference in this life. The other day I was doing a web search for something I needed for work, and while I had my search engine still up, almost by force of habit, I entered once again the name Antonin Mercie'. The name of a foundry in California, that specializes in art bronzes popped up. I called up the web page, and there was the David in all it's wonder. The reproduction they were offering was about a foot smaller then the one I saw on Antique Row, but it looked perfect in every other detail, and even though the origional spot I'd picked out for it was occupied, I knew just the place to put it. I immediately made an inquiry.
What is sacred? Why are we here? What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? Soon I'll have a bronze sitting on one end of my desk, where I can glance up from my work to look at it, that says it all.
Cockeysville, Maryland. 1999
Update, November 2001
After a little creative web searching recently, I finally found out who made my first bronze. It is called, "Angel With Bow and Wings, and it's by another French sculptor named Jules-Felix Coutan, who worked around the same time as Mercie. I guess I have a thing for French bronzes...