Feature - 11 Nov 1999
Men Without Women
The guests of Lukas Duwenhögger
‘The human beings of the circle and the circle as such existed for Jacob Cohen in a way private to him. The other boys of the circle often discussed each other, but seldom thought about each other when they were alone. They came together in order not to be alone, to escape from deviceless solitude.’
Delmore Schwartz, The World is a Wedding, 1948
From across the room, Henry thought the Irishman's posture a bit rude. With one arm dangling a coloured cloth behind his back, the man looked like he was leaning into some back-alley bawdiness. Henry felt compelled to turn to his neighbour for comfort. The woman to whom he imparted this keen observation had just the sort of character to appreciate his criticism. One had only to look at the large pink pearl stud adorning her son-in-law's cravat to suppose she was sympathetic. 'His body is just so', she said with her eyes boldly focussed ahead. Arching one bodiced shoulder and tilting her chin awkwardly, she puffed out what little chest and belly she had. Of course she didn't resemble him in the least, but the grotesque pose was très comique and Henry chuckled in agreement.
Washington DC was warm – even at night the heat was capable of inducing faint beaded moustaches on everyone, including the well-lacquered ladies. He was no exception. And look at his face powder, Henry pointed out. He found this immediately disagreeable and feminine and thought really Wilde should just go somewhere and have a look. Perhaps, Henry thought to himself, he might consider wiping the whole infernal face down. Then, maybe the pursed lips and arched brows wouldn't be so troublesome. To Henry that is; for it seemed as though others in the room didn't have quite the same feelings of repulsion as he. Knee britches, after all. And one didn't dare dwell on the horrid yellow handkerchief large enough to dine on, let alone the mauve-gloved hands constantly fiddling with a cigarette. Think about this: while in London, working on what would become Daisy Miller (1879), the interminable bachelor James dined out some 140 times. Whether at the home of friends or new acquaintances, in country homes or city flats, he engaged in social dialogue almost every other day.
It is not surprising that the guests who gather (or should we say 'are gathered') at Lukas Duwenhögger's table are men. Or that their problem in the aptly titled piece Probleema I (1995) is one that pertains to men. It is the 'problem' that allows them to convene. Without it, they might not. So the problem is the solution, which is just an upside down way of saying that Duwenhögger's work affords us a look at the complicated landscape of the mediation of desire. As in the world of Henry James, the feminine is held at bay. This is not to say it is not prodded and borrowed from, but that it is held up and away from touch. Unlike James, however, Duwenhögger does not circle around this refusal. Rather, like the politically spurned Ivan K, part of Richard Wagner's gay circle, he cannot be swayed from the core of his operations – his desire to be counted, noticed. So his focus on the male figure as it dashes, pouts or worries, is more defined, less cluttered with social window dressing. Never does he court approval or worship, but his paintings, with their firm use of colour and costume, seek to define through a set of mild codes the act of being present (or out) with one's associations intact, in discussion, in front.
Chéri (1999) would seem to be a cousin of Robert Mapplethorpe's Man in a Polyester Suit (1989). The act of performing of displaying – in one case the flair of a tap dance, in the other, the length of a penis – is dressed up in costume, so that performance is as much the activity as the modelling of a suited posture. However, these two homosexual icons, both portraits of a kind of other (Mapplethorpe's black lover Milton Moore, Duwenhögger's Latin-looking Gene Kelly clone) change radically in how and why they wear what they do. Moore, an AWOL sailor, models his best suit for Mapplethorpe, who in turn focuses the camera's attention on Moore's crotch and the shoddy tailoring of the jacket. Duwenhögger's portrait of male beauty is less antagonistic and a bit more enigmatic. What's up with Chéri? Is he really a dear and has he really stepped out of Collette's courtesan boudoir with a perfectly matched sunflower in the buttonhole of his sunny day suit? While every curve is accentuated in Mapplethorpe's work, Duwenhögger's figures seem particularly figurative, fey paper dolls to be played with and arranged, rather than supple bodies to fondle. While Mapplethorpe enjoyed the battle of domination over his boyfriend, Duwenhögger, a different kind of homosexual entirely, seems determined to make his Chéri miraculous, staging him on what appears to be a photographer's backdrop of seamless paper. Effortlessly on point, smoking, while shrugging his straw hat rakishly over his eyes, Chéri's litheness seems an apt compliment to Duwenhögger's melancholy rendering.
It may be helpful to note that Duwenhögger has written or spoken about the following: Ronald Firbank; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: Colette; Rosemary's Baby (1968); Pink (and its variation Parlour Pink); roses; Rosa Luxemburg; the Red Army Faction (RAF); The Great Gatsby (1925); Elsa Schiaparelli; and Willa Cather. So any homosexuality hinted at in this text is no accident. Duwenhögger is very clear in the articulation of his homosexuality; of his position as a German homosexual in particular. For those who are familiar with the sway and tulle of Ronald Firbank, and aware of his distinction between manner and mannerism, Duwenhögger's paintings and installations may sound cluttered, but they are not. His world is one of languid tension. Chéri may appear to be dancing in a severe costume, but notice how much is empty, how much space is left undecorated. The same restraint or economy is found in Zimmer für den Studenten mit Sinn für schöne Dinge, (Room for the student with a sense for beautiful things, 1995). Here is the bedroom of the slight aesthete. The contrast between the examination-style curtains and the brocade bed cover entice but leave much to the imagination. Whoever this student is, he is no raving queen holding court on a mound of feather pillows. Nor is he some Huysmans copycat, collecting bits and bobs, competing with Collette and Capote's collections of swirly glass paperweights – the only garnish is a gay history book by George Chauncy, purposely left out. The student is quiet and tasteful. The curtains suggest a vulnerable domain, a fleeting and unstable privacy; the space reveals less about the student and his proclivities, than it does about the reality of shared spaces. This student, one begins to think, lives at home. He has no love letters. He likes fine things, as the title of the piece suggests, yet he leaves little trace.
I cannot understand this, the larger man says as though he is putting his fist soundly upon the table. The young Moroccan boy hears the sound of the fist and brings a tray with sweets and tea. He hurries around the cabal of men, serving each a tiny cream-covered cake, pouring each a glass of shimmering amber tea. He checks the sugar bowl and adds a ladle full of cubes. He dusts some crumbs out between the elbows of one of the men and then disappears behind a white curtain.
The politicians sit for hours arguing over god-knows-what. The Moroccan boy certainly doesn't know. He leans sleepily against a column and thinks about the cook, whose breasts threaten to spill into the dandelion soup. The girl, an Italian from a mountainous province, is oblivious to his ruminations. She thinks of him like the rest and pays little attention to his sleepy eyes. After kneading a mound of dough she smoothes her apron, leaving distinct hand prints where hands might wander on the occasion of being invited or not. The boy loses interest, switching back to the forceful pitch of the men.
The whole house is seasonally warm, but the kitchen is warm from cooking, not nature, and the fumes of breads and doughs make the boy lazy and unresponsive to the cantankerous discussion. 'There will be no agreement and this we must expect', says one with a slight accent. 'Twice this year I have spoken on the very matter and not much has changed. I might as well have recorded my statement to be recited in my absence, while I sat in my chair at home with a pipe.' Sadly, and most unusually, no smoking is allowed in this particular den, due to the sensitive lung condition suffered by the primary occupant of the house.
The men pause as is customary after unfinished business is dropped and a new topic introduced. 'Have you seen the newest member of the Top?' (the nickname of the neighbouring riding club). They all agree immediately with various degrees of murmuring, that indeed she is a striking woman. 'Spanish I believe', says the man whose daughter lives in a house that might soon become a road. 'In the saddle she's at least five metres and no one can accuse her of wasting space', comments another man with another daughter in the way of another civil project (sewage most probably). 'Besides her grace on a horse', he says, 'she has the most beautiful way of speaking, tilting her head just so slightly so as to fashion a kind of kissing motion with the ends of her sentences. Quite pleasant, very pleasing to those whom the possibility of a kiss might not occur.' The men cluck on about the woman until the subject of her beauty, grace and riding skill is extinguished. By this time, the boy has awoken from his daydream and is at their side, waiting with another tray, this one stacked with grilled and dressed partridges on a bed of endive and grape seed dressing. As he leaves, he hears one man say to another, in his native tongue, 'I saw men in Italy who were handsomer than him, but none were quite as insouciant.'
Imagine Henry James' sense of consternation. He has gone all the way to Wilde's hotel to thank him for telling a Philadelphia reporter that he and Howells are the best American novelists. There he is, in the unclean beast's very rooms, trying to make conversation. 'I am very nostalgic for London', he offers as a starting point. Wilde, stretching each word as though it was a sash he had to get around his ridiculous figure, scoffed: 'How Provincial. You care for places? The world is my home.' There he was, poor James, revealed for the moment as a hopeless American Anglophile. Momentarily a Daisy Miller himself; an American girl snubbed by a trussed-up European. Of course, James' London was never Wilde's London, and thus Wilde could never be sentimental for James' vision. While they both may have dined in the company of the Russian Princess Ourousov, they wore their hair in an altogether different fashion. Beyond the complicated circumstances of the two Londons, one of the celebrated expatriate and the other of Wilde, the interaction drew close to James' secret desire to be the other: foremost of course, a Londoner, but, in the background, an intimate of another sort entirely.
Here is the continental conquistador, standing in Wilde's hotel room. Why is he in Wilde's room? He will ask himself that much later. He thinks he has come to thank Wilde, even though James, who is old friends with Howells, would not agree with his entire statement. He is there as a courtesy. He had expected more in the way of dressing gowns, toiletries and trunks. It is only the faint smell of lavender water which seems insensible and all too sensual.
First published in Issue 49