What is Lesbian Art?

It can be concluded that what we can classify as “lesbian art” developed to satisfy men. The male gaze is behind most art of this subject matter.  Am I wrong to like this art? I am a fan of several great painters who at some point in their career explored lesbianism.

What is more important, the artist or the message? Bringing me back to my internal question: what is lesbian art? Is it lesbian if a lesbian makes it? Does it have to be of two women embracing each other intimately? I plan to explore this topic over the next several weeks with, if you don’t mind, a survey of lesbian art. Upon my research, I quickly realized that several fine artists included female sexuality at the turn of the 20th century. Why were these men so fascinated with lesbians?

To begin, I must look at the famous painting Turkish Bath, 1862 by Dominique Ingres, which is full of female nudes. His male fantasy of what happens in a harem has become one of art history’s iconic works. Under normal circumstances, we would not be allowed to witness such an event. But Ingres is able to take us inside a fantasy, using classical style nudes and placing them in an exotic setting. Despite the abundance of naked women bathing together the only true lesbian nature of the painting is one woman squeezing another’s breast. We are not the only one who notices, as the guitar player to the left of them takes a glance as well. Ingres teases the viewer by cleverly hiding what is really going on between these two women. The artist was extremely interested in other cultures and took it upon himself to use exotic Turkey as a setting and place a male sexual fantasy within. No offense taken on my part, I feel as if Ingres is winking at the viewer, whether male or female.

Taking a giant step further, is Sleep, 1866 by Gustave Courbet, which was coincidentally commissioned by the same person who purchased Turkish Bath. Courbet’s Sleep, allows us to witness the moment right after a sexual encounter between two women. A broken hair brooch and snapped pearls indicated the lust the two women shared. In Sleep they are entangled and happily resting within each other. It can be concluded that this work was meant for private viewing by the commissioner for his own satisfaction. Lesbian art at this time was still directed towards men. These master painters did not depict crude representations of us females, but can we classify their works as lesbian art?

On the other hand, great artists of our past still used lesbian themes for other purposes. Such as, Henri Toulouse Lautrec, who was a minority himself. Lautrec was more or less a dwarf and had no real love life. Above all, he loved his art and his booze. He frequented a lesbian bar in Paris and was amazed by what he saw. Many homosexuals sought refuge to this part of France because their sexuality was celebrated by the artists who lived in and around Paris. His piece, Dans Le Lit. Le Baiser, 1892, is a quiet showcasing of two women embracing in bed. It is interesting to note that no nudity was needed for the artist. Toulouse was exploring actual lesbian relationships rather than putting on a show for men. One woman can even be seen as the “butch” one in the relationship.

Compare Courbet’s Sleep, 1866 with Kustav Klimt’s Girl Friends, 1913. The time span between the two and the political climate does not change how the two men depicted the sensual embrace of the two women. Both artists, as with many other male artists, play with the theme of lesbian sexuality. These works do invoke a male sexual fantasy and seem meant for the male viewer.  But as time was passing, it is important to note the different ways in which lesbians were realized in art made by men. Also, into the 1920’s a surge of lesbian artists do reveal themselves and will be explored in my next article…

In the meantime I would have to argue that lesbian art can be classified as art either produced by a lesbian or contains lesbian subject matter.  The artists mentioned paved the way for the subject matter and quite possibly female artists. As much as we can condemn them for creating art for a man’s sexual arousal, they were still breaking boundaries.

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