- Painted Men in Britain, 1868-1918: Royal Academicians and Masculinities by Jongwoo Jeremy Kim
Jongwoo Jeremy Kim can be added to the growing list of scholars who argue that narrow, twentieth-century definitions of modernism / the avant-garde should be expanded to include works conventionally excluded for lack of formal experimentation, i.e. academic art. In Painted Men in Britain, Kim focuses on paintings by British artists such as John Singer Sargent and Frederic Leighton, whose works he files between the categories of academic art and modernism / the avant-garde (terms he uses interchangeably). Kim performs a bit of linguistic gymnastics in defining the types of works he references: they neither "slavishly" follow academic tradition nor "blatantly flout" the academy. Instead, they demonstrate a "calculated misuse of academic convention"—à la Edouard Manet, one presumes, though Kim does not specifically mention him (7). Kim argues that, because they fall into this interstitial space, these British artists have [End Page 399] been invisible in conventional understandings of modernism / the avant-garde. While Kim does not ignore the formal aspects of the works under discussion, his interest lies more in the modern character of these works as defined by their attention to issues of gender, class, and sexuality.
In the introduction, Kim uses Henry Scott Tuke's A Woodland Bather (1893) to showcase his argument and methodology. The painting is fairly non-descript, and Kim notes that it fails as an academic work because of its lack of a clear narrative, its lack of a heroic male nude, and its lack of idealized naturalism (1). Kim works hard to make this painting a celebration of homosexual desire, and in the process he assigns it several different and often competing narratives. He argues that the figure represents all at once the biblical Adam, the bridegroom from the Book of Solomon, and Daphne from Greek mythology. The last reading gives him the chance to argue that unlike Daphne, whose female desire is forever imprisoned by her father's attempt to save her from attack, Tuke's bather is shown striding out of a "heteronormative cage of desire" (6). The painting may very well be about homosexuality, but Kim's argument fails to convince me.
In his first chapter, Kim looks at how a trip to Egypt in 1868 informed the works of Leighton, and particularly his depictions of men and masculinity, for at least two decades. One of the issues that Kim scrutinizes is how Leighton incorporated a variety of skin colors into his history paintings. Of these, I think the most convincing argument is the one concerning Daedalus and Icarus (c. 1869), where Kim successfully argues that the "racial division" between father and son is depicted through skin color and "marks the disruption in the patriarchal order" (21). In other cases, however, it is not clear that the depiction of a non-white/Caucasian skin color significantly influences or changes the meaning of a work. This is the case with Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis (1869-71), where the skin colors of the various figures depicted seem secondary to the narrative.
In his second chapter, Kim focuses on how class is depicted in the works of Luke Fildes, Frank Holl, Hubert Herkomer, and others. Kim proposes some interesting readings in this chapter. They are marred, however, by his assumption that "masculinity" refers to or describes only middle- or upper-class men, since those men who lose their social standing are seen also to lose their masculinity. While this assumption is fairly common in scholarship on the period, it is unfortunate in an argument concerning the intersection of class and gender. Nor does Kim attempt to define the assumed standard of masculinity from which the images he discusses deviate. The reading of Holl's The Lord Gave and the Lord Taketh Away (1868) is especially problematic: it is farfetched to argue, as Kim does, that Queen Victoria (who liked the painting) experienced a "middle-class widowhood" (70) after the death of Prince Albert. Though...