Aug 19, 2021

Dierich Bouts: Medieval Beefcake Painter

A scary monster is carrying away a naked guy.  I guess we're supposed to feel terror, but when I was a kid and saw this painting in my friend Greg's house, the only thing I could think of was "I can see his wiener!"

It was just a small painting in his father's study, so I didn't see it often, but it was memorable, probably because my reaction was so different from the one expected of me.

I just tracked it down: A segment of  La chute des damnes (The Fall of the Damned), paired with L'Ascension des √©lus (The Ascent of the Elect), painted between 1468 and 1470 by Dieric the Elder, now in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, France.

But don't get excited. There are a few butts, but no more wieners.

We don't know when Dieric Bouts was born (probably between 1410 and 1420), or where he studied (his work suggests the influence of Flemish painter Rogier van den Weyden).

We know only that he became the "official painter of Leuven" (now in Belgium) in 1458 or 1459, that he was commissioned to do a lot of portraits and religious art, that he married twice and had four children, and that he died on May 6th, 1475.

And that he was interested in muscular male bodies.

Check out The Martyrdom of St. Hippolyte, the center panel of a tryptich that Dierich painted for the altar of the Sint Salvator Kathedral in Brugge about 1470 (now in the Groningen Museum).

Looks like the same guy as the one being carried away by a demon.

His beefcake model got a monk's haircut in The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, the central panel of a tryptich in the Sint-Pieterskerk in Leuven.

Dieric definitely had a type.

His two sons, Dieric the Younger and Aelbrecht, both became painters.

Aug 17, 2021

Balkan Ghosts: A Lost Gay World

When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, teachers and textbooks never mentioned the Balkans, except for a few guarded references to the Soviet Bloc.  So in my earliest childhood, my information was scattered and spotty, dreamlike, whispering that the countries of the Balkan Peninsula -- especially Yugoslavia -- constituted a "good place."

1. My Village in Yugoslavia (1957), one of the Sonia and Tim Village Booksabout a shepherd boy named Marco, from the mountains of Macedonia, who had muscles and hugged his best buddy with joyful abandon.

2. A Cold War tv commercial displayed a boy with a rusty iron cage around his head, while the narrator intoned a list of countries enslaved by evil: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and finally Yugoslavia!  I ignored the message to concentrate on the enslaved boy, his dreamy angelic face and the promise of a muscular physique.

3. A Serbian folktale about a young prince who stumbles across a secret room in the castle, and inside a naked man, Bash Tchelik ("True Steel") bound with chains.  Bas Celik begs for water, and when the prince accidentally spills it on the chains, he breaks loose, develops enormous muscles, and flies away.  He turns out to be the villain of the story, but I was busy thinking about a naked man with enormous muscles.

4. A Serbian story about a boy named Biberice, who remains very small while his peers grow big, but when his village needs him, develops superhuman strength (picture is from a Serbian comic book).

5. One summer at a music festival at a small Lutheran college in Iowa, I came across a book of Serbo-Croatian poems in English translation. One depicted the ache of desire the poet felt as he accidentally watched a beautiful youth, or maybe a nature spirit, swimming at night, his body glowing in the moonlight. I never found the book again, and I don't remember the poet's name.

 6. Skanderbeg, the national hero of Albania, who fought for freedom from the Turks, is commemorated in this beefcake-heavy statue in Debar, Macedonia.

7. Le Feu aux Poudres (The Day the Earth Shook), by Jacqueline Cervon (1969). Four French cousins, vacationing in Yugoslavia, offer the Macedonian Filip a ride to Skopje.  Tragedy strikes when Filip is bitten by a snake, and Eric offers first aid.  Then an earthquake strikes, and Eric goes missing.  Filip goes off in search of his "breath brother."  They finally find each other and fade out into each other's arms.

This was before I moved to West Hollywood and dated the insanely jealous Bulgarian bodybuilder, before discussions of Bosnia and Kosovo became commonplace, before we learned of the war and terrorism and genocide, and the staunch homophobia of the Balkan governments.  When boys with muscles could still hug their best friends, and poets could still write about the ache of same-sex desire.

Aug 16, 2021

Superman: You'll Believe a Man Can Fly

Superman first flew in 1938, and for the next 40 years he had comic books, movie serials, cartoons, and radio and tv series, but no feature films.  Nor, for that matter, did any superhero except for the tongue-in-cheek Batman (1966).

That all changed in December 1978.

 It was a dreary winter, dark, cold, and snowy, with movies about angst, tragedy, and lost love: The Deer Hunter, Same Time Next Year, California Suite, Moment by Moment, Oliver's Story.  I was depressed; a semester into college, and I hadn't met any gay people, or learned of any gay writers except Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.  Superman was a bright spot, a cozy childhood memory (though it too had a cave of ice).

Director Richard Donner was careful to include every familiar aspect of the Superman myth: the doomed planet Krypton, the elderly farm couple of Smallville, the Daily Planet, Perry White, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, the Fortress of Solitude, Lex Luthor. And some from the familiar TV Superman of the 1950s, who used to change clothes in a phone booth (no old-style phone booths left in 1978).

Indeed, everyone was so busy checking off their list of Superman conventions that they forgot to pay attention to the plot: Lex Luthor plans to drop a nuclear bomb on the San Andreas Fault, thus causing California to slip into the ocean, whereup he will get rich by selling prime oceanside real estate in Nevada.

Ok, that was ridiculous even for a comic book.

The Man of Steel was played by 26-year old Christopher Reeve, a virtual unknown (he had one movie credit and a few tv appearances). He was hired for his muscles, his square jaw, and for his uncanny ability to be both sexy and wholesome at the same time.

He didn't disrobe during the movie, but he favored us with some beefcake shots in teen magazines and in the faux-gay After Dark.

 He was interviewed in gay magazines, an almost unprecedent act of solidarity in the 1970s, and in 1982 he played a gay character, the protege of playwright Sidney Bruhl (Michael Cane) in Death Trap.  I can still remember the gasps of shock when the two characters kissed on-camera.

Gay-positive Christopher Reeve and his studly physique provided the only gay interest in Superman.  No buddy-bonding in high school, no boy pal, no subdued homoromantic sniping with Lex Luthor.

It was a heterosexual love story, and rather a sappy one.  Audiences twittered and squirmed when Superman and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) flew endlessly through the skies of Metropolis hand in hand, while Lois thought: "Can you feel what I feel? Do you know what you're doing to me?"

On the other hand, she wasn't a complete Girl Scout.  She asked, "How big are, I mean, how tall?", leading to considerable speculation about the Man of Steel's package.

Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in an equestrian accident in 1995, and died in 2004.  Margot Kidder died in 2018.  They're both gone, but that magical night in the midst of a cold, dark, dreary winter lives on.

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