Published: April 1, 2005 By

Paintings are not mere illusions about the world but determined and produced allusions to it. Art history must acknowledge these complexities and work on these real social processes, significations and their interactions and relations. Art history which is also a practice of representation must provide complex accounts (Orton and Pollock, 318).

[1] Between the collapse of the Ancien Régime and its systems of representation and consumption, and the establishment of the July Monarchy, the French Academy, the nationally sponsored institution of official painting, had shifted its emphasis to the female body as a visual strategy to satiate the expanding erotic needs of the emergent bourgeois hetero-patriarchal society.  As a result of the displacement of the privileged position of both historical and mythological genres from their former glory at the apogee of the artistic hierarchy, the male body ostensibly no longer ‘figured’ within what had become a new visual economy.  Recounted both through canonical theoretical art texts of the period and feminist revisionist histories, the ensuing homogeneous understanding of the rise in visual prominence of the female body elides a significant and rather revelatory component of nineteenth-century French painting — the discursive potency of the male body.  With the emergence of strategies invested in overturning modernism’s epistemological strongholds, the male body, until recently, has been placed outside the once ‘alternative’ canons to accommodate political and ideologically driven histories. The significance and predominance of the female body(/ies) in the visual culture of late nineteenth-century France is not being challenged here.  Undeniable, however, is how the female body remains the essential(izing) component to the unremitting canonical heteronormativity of modernism.Paintings are not mere illusions about the world but determined and produced allusions to it. Art history must acknowledge these complexities and work on these real social processes, significations and their interactions and relations.  Art history which is also a practice of representation must provide complex accounts (Orton and Pollock, 318).

[2] Populated by some of the most acclaimed modern artists, the collective of Pont-Aven School, which centered around the mythic figure of Gauguin in the small Breton town of the same name, occupies a privileged position in the discourse, and yet there remains a telling lacuna in the extant scholarship. Within the homosociability of the artistic practice of the Pont-Aven colony, the male body illustrates a decisive psychosexual leakage of sorts, whose morphology contains within itself a potential to reveal dominant, marginal and even subversive narratives.  By constructing a distinct semiotic lexicon, space, bodies and time became internal to one another in an unconscious and conscious attempt on the part of these artists to situate Brittany as an “embodied utopia”(Grosz). Further to Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock’s incisive interrogation of the infective nature of the ‘vanguard’ as discursive formation, I specifically examine here the work of Paul Gauguin, Charles Filiger and Jan Verkade as a means towards a mise-en-abîme of how representations of both corporeal abjection and desire through somatic mysticism formed part of a queer visual culture. David Halperin’s notion of queer is useful here: “As the very word implies, ‘queer’ does not name some natural kind or refer to some determinate object; it acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers.  It is an identity without an essence” (Halperin, 62). Queer, therefore, refers to a sort of sexual alterity, a revision, alteration and/or ambiguation of sexual identity and representational codes identified as heteronormative.

[3] In his exhaustive analysis of the intersecting structures that enabled the codification of masculinity following the collapse of the Ancien Régime historian Robert Nye repositions the importance of ‘sex’ over what has become a highly politicized use of the term ‘gender’. Nye writes that, “Our ability to think of sex as a constructed identity therefore provides us with a valuable analytical tool for understanding sex as a historical artefact furnishing individuals with particular kinds of self-awareness and modes of social self-representation.”  This allows us to avoid seeing sex as “an adamantine and transhistorical category of being”(Nye, 4).  Moreover, Nye’s privileging of the discursive signifier of sex in many respects echoes or in the very least reinforces Judith Butler’s critical inquiry into whether ‘sex’ itself possesses a history, and if so what investments in objective “natural facts” are guaranteed and “discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests?” (Butler, 7)  Within this framework, the potential for difference between what the body ‘is’ and what the sexed body can achieve, namely through its (re)presentation within the scopic and visual regime(s), needs to be problematized.

[4] The depictions of the male body, namely that of the adolescent, must be considered within the parameters established in the emergent science of sexology, which heavily problematized the male body as a site of potential deviation, whereas the female body and her “sexuality was taken for granted.”  As a result of this a priori assumption, “far more space was devoted to the sexual dysfunction of men”(Nye, 68).  Pathological degeneration and disease comprised the two great preoccupations of the late nineteenth-century collective psychosexual psyche. The signifiers of degenerate masculinity (read: non-masculine ‘other’), understood within the medico-scientific community as residing deep within the physiological and psychiatric fabric of the male, legibly inscribed themselves on the surface of the body. “Genital morphology, secondary sexual characteristics, potency, and ‘moral’ behaviour were believed to be in rough correspondence with one another […] Any of the functional or physical qualities of hermaphrodites — impotence, effeminacy, untypical genitalia or body shape — were evidence of demasculinization” (Nye, 66). The seeming differences between surface manifestation and depth of condition in the medico-scientific discursive practices were not separate realities.  It is precisely these surface inscriptions that enable the embodiment of pathology as it provides the visual index of degeneracy. The health of the male body was firmly equated with the health of the nation, particularly the French bourgeois nation state. Nye argues rather convincingly that

The anxiety of health and numbers of population, the ideology of the family, and the ‘crisis’ in masculinity, played large roles in where the boundary between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ male sexuality was actually drawn…[Moreover] bourgeois ideals of masculine honor were similarly influential in shaping the nature as well as the social response to the perversions, in this instance through the projection of keenly felt masculine anxieties onto the bodies and minds of men who engaged in unconventional sexual behaviour (Nye, 100).

[5] Expanding Nye’s investigation of bourgeois ideological investments in male gender and sexuality, questions arise as a result of the normalizing narrative of sexual difference and its visual culture: How have art history’s epistemological and vested interests permitted a discursive space in which questions concerning the representation of the male body and sexual identity are purposefully and systematically elided, questions which threaten the very ‘authenticity’ of disciplinary claim(s) and truth(s)? What are the issues underlying representations of male bodies in and out of landscapes? What structures have been established that continuously disavow desire(s), pleasure(s) and embodiment and queer readings of visual culture?

[6] Amidst the nationalistic fervor of the French Republic (1870-1940) and its investment in the virile, strong male body, Paul Gauguin’s disavowal of his French bourgeois family and hetero-normative lifestyle, a disgrace on par with homosexuality evokes the counter-discursive aesthetic deployed by the artist in his representations of the male body. The work of Gauguin has been intensely invested in art historical signification and subsequently has been heavily commented and scrutinized. The extant scholarship on the ‘godfather’ of the nebulous Pont-Aven school has attended almost exclusively to the artist’s pioneering vanguard style as well as his masculinist depictions of the female body, while it adumbrates any importance that his earlier depictions of male bodies may have played in his oeuvre.  By far the least expensive of options, Brittany served as the first and perhaps most significant ‘exotic’ and ‘primitive’ location in which Gauguin, having first settled there in 1886, could establish his reputation as a vanguard artist and subversive radical.  Feminist scholars in particular have attempted to locate Gauguin’s psychosexual makeup strictly within his images of female and androgynous Tahitian bodies, naturally and correctly positioning Gauguin in what was a rather problematic and dynamic period in French colonial history.  These authors collectively elide the discursive function of bourgeois constructs of sex as an agency toward power. In any discussion of Gauguin (the man and artistic persona), as well as his artistic production can we legitimately speak of ‘sexual identity’ or is sexual difference more appropriate?  Purposefully contrary to the scientifically established and socio-politically motivated archetype, Gauguin challenged and subverted his own masculinity, while simultaneously attempting to locate a subjective position within a restrictive social structure. The notion of body as agency is critical as the artist also deployed the (re)presentations of abject male bodies as axiomatic of affective oppositionality.

[7] Gauguin’s deliberate recalcitrant status and alternative sexual identity marked a subjectivity established long before the ‘events’ in Tahiti and Martinique. Gauguin began to create an identity as a ‘savage’ as early as his first sojourn in the Breton town of Pont-Aven (see also Solomon-Godeau).  With its ideal conditions (cheap, easy access, thriving established folkloric traditions) Brittany was the symbolic site for locating and situating the artist’s own primitivism. By the time of his first trip, Gauguin had already developed, theorized and set in motion what had been conceived of an aesthetic program of the primitive rooted in the discreet yet now inseparable traditions of cloisonnisme (usually a decorative practice transformed here into painting which divides colors into separately defined, segmented areas), Japonisme (a love for all things Japanese) and French popular imagery. What the region did offer, nonetheless, were motifs, distinctly mystical and religious in origin.  Art critic, apologist for the Symbolist movement and Gauguin supporter Albert Aurier is worth a brief mention as his influence and impact on Paris-centered artists who would eventually find themselves in Pont-Aven can be clearly identified.

[8] Aurier’s conservative and anti-neo-impressionist critique vociferously championed an aesthetic of anti-naturalism and anti-materialism, the two theoretical staples underscoring the very nature of those who considered themselves, even loosely, as symbolists.  His disdain for naturalism was rooted in his repugnance for contemporary bourgeois society’s love affair with objective science.  According to the critic, the slavish copying of nature was not the goal, but rather it was in mysticism that critics and artists alike would find true inspiration. In what was ostensibly a call-to-arms against the insidiousness of science, Aurier theorized art as a powerful antidote. Aurier wrote that,

Yes, without a doubt, it is a matter of mysticism, and it is mysticism that is needed today, and it is mysticism alone that can save our society from brutishness, sensualism and utilitarianism.  The most noble faculties of our soul are in the process of atrophying.  In a hundred years we will be brutes whose only ideal will be the commodious appeasement of bodily functions.  We will have returned, through positive science, to a pure and simple bestiality.  We must react.  We must recultivate in ourselves the superior qualities of the soul.  We must become mystics again.  We must learn to love again, the source of all understanding (Aurier, 201-2, translation mine).

As this passage suggests, locations like Brittany can be seen as a place, or more aptly, a space in which the artists in Pont-Aven could negotiate a world far removed from the industrial, capitalist, restrictive, normative and corrupt life of bourgeois Paris as a means towards fulfilling their aesthetic program.  Brittany, as construct, assumed a vanguard status (despite its conservatism, traditionalism, Catholicism) as the quintessential oppositional space for Gauguin and his compatriot’s quest towards a politics and aesthetics of alternative identity-formation.

[9] Gauguin’s desire to unify with a primordial sex-less being, noted in his autobiographical novel Noa Noa(1893-97), was presaged in a letter of 1888 to Madeleine Bernard, in which Gauguin exposes a desire to engender a freedom through Christian asceticism.  He writes,

If … you want to be someone, to find happiness solely in your independence and your conscience… you must regard yourself as Androgyne, without sex.  By that I mean that heart and soul, in short all that is divine, must not be slave of matter, that is, of the body … crush all vanity, which is the hallmark of mediocrity, and above all, the vanity of money (in Eisenman, 116).

The archetype of the androgyne (or more exactly the ambivalent adolescent male) figured as a corporeal signifier and mystical conduit to attain a state of transcendence — a utopia.  Gauguin’s remarks also elicit a counter-discourse, fashioned to circumvent the materialism of bourgeois experience, which he eschewed in pursuit of his art and ideal.  Although Gauguin himself often fell victim to the politics of the male/female dichotomy, his statement cited above allows for a positive, or more poignantly, a utopian interpretation of the androgyne (Jirat-Wasiutynski, 146).

[10] Access to bodies also factored into this ideal representation of an androgynous Breton male body. As artists had difficulty procuring mature male models for their nude and semi-nude images, Gauguin had to content himself with gazing and glancing at the young boys who regularly swam in the Aven River.  Gauguin was fortunate to witness a purported spontaneous act of true masculine virility when two young boys began to wrestle, as depicted in Young Boys Wrestling (1888), a reworking of a theme he studied in 1886

 small boys wrestling

Figure 1

(Delouche, 130). Gauguin characterized the image when he wrote to Schuffenecker as “[T]wo boys wrestling beside the river, thoroughly Japanese, but seen through the eyes of a Peruvian savage”(Gauguin, 36). This brief extract highlights two important insights into the construction of identity and the manner in which Gauguin approached his art of the period.  The latter bears mention first as it relates to another, more celebrated work by the artist, the Vision after the Sermon (1888).  Not only does the style of the picture allude to Gauguin’s distinct, nascent Breton aesthetic, but it is also obliquely reminiscent of the work of the famed Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose 1815 sketches of wrestlers were exhibited at the Paris exhibition of 1867. The referencing of Japanese imagery allowed Gauguin to access an entirely foreign and exotic stylistic language, one rooted in a very different conceptualization and valorization of two-dimensional space as well as richer, more vibrant coloration, equally antithetical to Parisian academic dictates.

[11] In Young Boys Wrestling, the chance encounter of the viewer who witnesses a moment of masculine play and exercise in virile display, coupled with the upward tilt of the picture plane, unabashedly refocuses the relationship of the viewer to the figured objects in the image. Compositional simplification as well as a general reduction of the palette furthers this meaningful technical and conceptual spatialization.  The two wrestling boys personify at once both a highly prized and contested regional activity. This Breton male sport played an important socio-cultural role and through its performance guaranteed for its participants a distinctly provincial brand of virile masculinity.  Isolated and seemingly weak, the boy off to the right does not participate within this socially prescribed homosocial activity of masculine bonding; as such he serves as ‘other’, removed, distanced, ‘outside’ the domain(s) of a masculine socio-cultural political-economy.  The heap of clothing in the foreground, closest to the viewer, emerges as a redundant sartorial signifier for the viewer’s ‘oblique access to the bodies’ and emphasizes the flesh, the nakedness of these two boys.

[12]The significance of play and sport cannot be undervalued within the social and regional identity in which Gauguin navigated.  In the wake of the Third Republic’s purported democratizing efforts and nationalizing attempts to colonize these people, all provincial sports such as wrestling, quickly became contested activities as these performed vital roles “in the construction of Regional identities in France” (Dine, 112).  So intent was the Republic to suppress any pro-monarchist and neo-Catholic fervor that activities identified as regional, and hence contrary to the national best interest, were systematically suppressed. “Ar gouren” (Breton wrestling) was the most decidedly Celtic of sports whose origins in the region date as far back as the arrival of the Celts in the Armorican peninsula between the fourth- and seventh-centuries. The sport soon became the signifier par excellence not only of Breton masculinity, but Breton identity itself. As a consequence of the Republic’s campaign to promote ‘modern recreations’ such as cycling and football, wrestling became one of the many identifiably Breton cultural activities ethnographers attempted to ‘record’. An integral part to ‘pardons’ (religious ritual celebrations of forgiveness), which Gauguin himself depicted in his much celebrated and discussed Vision after the Sermon (1888), wrestling by 1903 was banned altogether (Dine, 117-8).  In Young Boys Wrestling Gauguin depicted a moment of Breton male intimacy and further reinforced a distance between the Parisian viewer and his rural subject matter.

[13] Male intimacy at once takes on both an erotic yet sickly undertone in the artist’s depiction of the awkward and angular Nude Breton Boyof 1889

 Nude breton boy painting

Figure 2

. The implication of a voyeuristic gaze, which avails itself of the intimacy of this innocent, ‘natural’ adolescence, renders the body of the boy emphatically and perversely erotic. The body appears sickly due in large to its putrid coloration and seeming submissiveness and isolation. Because the adolescent stood at the threshold of potential deviant sexuality, corruption and contagion, “the child [as] its own sexual category […] standing in juxtaposition to adult sexuality […] it is a danger as well as an attraction” (Gilman, 273).  The medico-scientific culture of sexology established that pre-pubescent bodies were implicated, by association, to “various forms of pathology” and as such became “even more oppressively a sign of disease” and simultaneously of sexuality under the scrutinizing lens of science (Gilman, 263).  The perverse beauty of the Nude Breton Boyfurther played into notions of the primitive that circulated throughout Paris. Silhouetted by an assumed (only by way of the title) primitive Breton landscape, Gauguin’s figure is one on which socio-political, racial and sexual tensions are inscribed.  The flattened picture plane and the boy’s awkwardly contorted limbs make the body more accessible to a distanced scrutinizing gaze. The primitivism, exoticism, unhealthy complexion and thus, the abhorrent eroticisation of this body through its objectification cohere within the visual economy of the Parisian bourgeoisie. The putative bourgeois gaze, removed from this otherness, was distanced only spatially within the composition as well as morally in its precarious relationship with Brittany and contagion. In Nude Breton Boy, however, Gauguin challenges and re-organizes this relationship.  The perversely powerful and blatantly unsettling voyeurism of the ‘other’ provides the quintessential oppositional relationship between the abject as object and the subjective positionality of the ‘I’ performing the viewing (Kristeva, 1).

[14] By migrating from the nascent suburbs to the countryside, the Parisian bourgeoisie sought to capture a type of illusive primordial essence personified by open skies and expansive green spaces.  Terms such as “health, wholesomeness, and security” were soon attached to these idyllic lush, environs; (Greene, 37) the landscape could no longer be viewed the same way. What surrounds this pubescent figure is an ironic abundance of fertile land. The figure, as if antithetical to this surrounding fecundity, lies on the ground, reiterating the identical pose (bent torso and downward stretched elongated left arm) of the dead Christ figure in the renowned The Breton Calvary of the same year.  In Nude Breton Boy, the body is imbued with a similar pathos and mystical intensity given its primitivized association with Brittany. While the elongated and attenuated arm of the adolescent, much like the singular, isolated male figure in the far right corner ofYoung Boys Wrestling could simply refer to Gauguin’s ‘modernist’ vanguard style, a corporeal ‘sign’ referring to a limp, dead effete body.  The artist’s symbolist anti-naturalism should perhaps be changed to an ‘un-natural-ism’.

[15] What then of the figure’s masculinity, which is suddenly and significantly called into question? How does the topos of the abject male body produce an aesthetic record of the natural and Breton environment as depicted in an image such as Nude Breton Boy?  The androgyne, sexless, as a perverse ‘sane nuditas’ type (blameless nudity) within Gauguin’s visual lexicon, was certainly not conceived of as problematic, but rather as natural, at one with nature, a pose which also referred to the body’s victimization, his sacrifice and more poignantly his mystical potentiality. Is Gauguin referring to culture’s (namely science and medicine) limits and imposition of nature’s abundantly varied bodies, a nexus clearly threatened by the adolescent’s blurred contours? Whether or not we can claim Gauguin’s figure as a hermaphrodite, the figure underscores the increased interest and public debate. By the 1880s the subject reached a dizzying climax with numerous articles published all over the country and generated an anxiety in regards to the public display of the male body and representation of masculine sexuality.

[16] Nude Breton Boy stands as emblematic of the difficulties of analyzing Gauguin’s depictions of the adolescent male figure.  However, it is precisely because it is not a mature virile male that is the object of depiction, but rather an adolescent with the potential for contagion and perversion that renders the body threatening.  The significance of the androgynous and the sexually perverse body lies in its ability to usurp power through and from the contemporary normative signifier and signified of sex; it subverts and unsettles the multitudinous boundaries established by bourgeois heteropatriarchal discourse. Julia Kristeva’s prescient theoretical definition of the abject is useful here as it designates that which is rejected from the body — from the ‘self’ — through a conscious and unconscious process of distancing from all that has the potential to elicit contagion, disease and impurity.  This ‘othering’ alienates and expels, while also being able to contain and circumscribe.  The otherness of the abject allows and assists in the process of consolidating control over identities through its power to adjudicate normative, and perverse sex and sexuality.  The androgyne, like the hermaphrodite, possesses a dangerous power to blur and cross boundaries as both passive/active, penetrating/penetrated.  Kristeva insists that the abject can never really be entirely obliterated because,

while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it — on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.  But also because abjection itself is a composite of judgment and affect, of condemnation and yearning, of signs and drives.  Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be (Kristeva, 9-10).

The image of the pubescent Breton male body with its elided penis and phallus disavows the potentiality of purging the abject from the body. As a consequence, the body itself passes through the process of abjection; after all an infant’s sexuality was percieved as polymorphously perverse.

[17] The representation of the ‘other’, or more appropriately, the abject is both threatening and repugnant and becomes a necessary and contingent typology in the classification and normalization of healthy sex and indexical masculinity.  The surface of the normalized body as well as the social body is required to be impermeable, a surface, which disallows the penetration into its depths foreign, alien or impure substances, while expunging from within, those substances deemed vile, grotesque, abject.  Masculinity, as codified and regularized by French medical discourse and assigned a corporeal outline and contour, requires the passing of semen from the male body in reproductive coitus as a biological sign of male-ness.  Thus, the absence of the phallus at once denies the adolescent boy’s currency in the economy of biological and hence social reproduction of bourgeois society.  The knowledge and social currency ascribed to surface and depth of the adolescent body possesses both a hope and a threat, whose future has as yet not been determined.

[18] Gauguin’s letter to Schuffenecker in which the artist briefly discusses Brittany reveals a deep-seated need or desire to construct himself as the savage. Within Gauguin’s visual ‘lexicon of difference’ the savage occupied a position of gender and sexual ambiguity and was closest to animals in their inherent dissolution of sexual difference. Gauguin was complicit with normative discourse by attempting to create for himself a perverse subjectivity as a means to circumvent, subvert and transcend the normalizing gaze. His attempts to locate resistance in and on the body is entirely rooted in the aestheticized morphology of that body, a body that he consciously and unconsciously positioned as ‘other’ and whose boundary ambiguously lay between the sexual and the aesthetic.  The artist’s deployment of inscriptive surfaces towards descriptive depth extends this theoretical transubstantiation into a discussion of desire, not in terms of lack, but rather in terms of desire as productive and generative—a way to achieve primordial harmony.  Abigail Solomon-Godeau has noted that during his lifetime Gauguin had gained his reputation as a man who had fled and abandoned his bourgeois existence and all that it entailed in order to fulfill yet another predominantly western white male “quest for an elusive object whose very condition of desirability resides in some form of distance and difference, whether temporal or geographical” (Solomon-Godeau, 314).  However, Gauguin cannot be entirely singled out for his all-consuming utopian quest for spiritual release and wholeness through ‘otherness’.  Two members of the Pont-Aven brotherhood, Charles Filiger and Jan Verkade, whose painting styles differed radically from Gauguin’s, also sought to attain an analogous state of grace for similar and yet entirely different reasons.

[19] The malaise felt by many in the decades leading up to the fin-de-siècle provided the emotional, psychical and socio-cultural groundwork for the re-emergence of mysticism, through which the specificity of one’s own time and locality were subsumed in an apparent communal, trans-historical union with God.  It was the figure of Christ that ultimately fulfilled the ideal of redemption, love and desire dissolving the barriers of sin and evil, social conflict and constructed divisions.  The impact of the return to religiosity by French vanguard painters is evinced in the work of Alsatian born Charles Filiger, whose depictions of primarily male saints, martyrs, young peasant boys and more significantly the dying/dead figure of Christ were vital to the manifestation of homoerotic, mystical desire. I would contend that it was not by chance that Filiger left his native Alsace-Lorraine to pursue his artistic studies and career in Brittany (Gibson, 170).  Apart from his obvious relationship with vanguard artists such as Gauguin, both Alsace-Lorraine and Brittany were considered the two most deeply and fervently Catholic regions in the country. It is also worth noting that Alsace-Lorraine become German in 1870, which may have also precipitated the artist’s migration.

[20] How and what sort of space was enabled or facilitated between Catholicism and homoerotic desire within the conservative precinct of Brittany at the fin de siècle?  Couched in a visual rhetoric of mysticism, whose theological and visual precedents date as far back as the Middle Ages, the image of the beautiful, yet dead Christ (Fig. 3) is the means by which to claim at once a position contrary to the dominant positivism of science and at the same time a visualization of personal desire through the abject body. These realities cannot be understood as mutually exclusive or antithetical to one another. Informed and formed by intersecting discourses, the contemporary conceptualizations of hysteria, homosexuality and mysticism were theorized and reduced to identical terms.  One need only turn to the work of critic and cultural commentator Max Nordau who, in his polemical text Degeneration, equated mysticism with the hysterical — the “principal characteristic of degeneration” (Nordau, 45).  Accordingly, it was the brain and its failure that was the essential core of the degenerate. Nordau wrote that, “Untended and unrestrained by attention, the brain activity of the degenerate and hysterical is capricious, and without aim or purpose” (Nordau, 56).  In his autobiography, Yesterdays of an Artist-Monk, Jan Verkade described his once close friend and colleague Filiger in parallel terms when he wrote the following:

His was a very complex nature.  He was a native of Alsace-Lorraine, and one of those unfortunate men who sometimes, through inherited weakness, cannot resist doing that which, being done, grieves and disgusts them unspeakably.  More and more discourages and embittered by their weakness, they finally take revenge upon themselves and society, commit the most frightful excesses, and try to drag others also with them down to ruin, with ever-increasing torment to themselves. They are men who suffer terribly, but to no purpose, for their self-love and pride remain unbroken (Verkade, 110).

Verkade’s harsh moralizing tone for someone whose problems he shared but purportedly overcame is couched in the prevalent medico-scientific discourse and underscores the common assumption that men like Filiger suffered from a congenital condition that could lead to the depravity of others.

[21] The quest for an elusive utopia through symbolism and mysticism was not without its critics.  Steeped in medico-moral rhetoric, Nordau’s criticism emerged as perhaps the most strident attack against the symbolists’ spiritualizing program.  For Nordau the symbolist movement, imbued with neo-Catholic mysticism and contrary to the positivist program of the natural sciences, was deemed degenerate:

The Symbolists are a remarkable example of that group-forming tendency which we have learnt to know as a peculiarity of ‘degenerates.’ They had in common all the signs of degeneracy and imbecility: overweening vanity and self-conceit, strong emotionalism, confused disconnected thoughts, garrulity (the ‘logorrhea’ of mental therapeutics), and complete incapacity for serious sustained work (Nordau, 101).

Once again, Verkade echoes Nordau’s condemnatory diatribes, specifically relating them to Filiger:

[His] views indeed went, perhaps unconsciously to him, so far as to venerate art as a kind of divinity, of whom one thinks day and night, for whom one, occasionally at least, works oneself to death and suffers hunger, sleeplessness and self-torment, but a divinity who, in return for this devotion, gives one carte blanche to indulge in every sort of dissipation, even in positive debaucheries, and in such vices as were the appearance of virtue, as when one condemns the suppression of the passions […] (Verkade, 153).

[22] Filiger’s personal mystical aesthetic was greatly influenced by the overpowering character of Sar Joséphin Peladan whose initial Salon de la Rose + Croix of 1892 was one of many Parisian venues to exhibit Filiger’s work.  Peladan, whom Nordau considered to be the most diabolical amongst this group of degenerates, first burst onto the Parisian artistic scene with his initial mystico-erotic novel Le Vice Suprême(1884).  His most significant contribution was the influence he exerted over those artists who exhibited with him in the first Rosicrucian Salon exhibition. The dogmatic and strict requirements for selection to the Salon reveal the distinct trajectory of the works exhibited.   Among Peladan’s rules was the steadfast rejection of certain genres and subject matter, namely history, patriotic and military themes, portraiture, genre scenes of contemporary life, all landscapes and ‘merely picturesque Orientals.” Whereas among those subjects welcomed was “the nude made sublime”(reprinted in Pincus-Witten, Appendix II).

[23] The use of Brittany as an ideal, primitive landscape inevitably entailed a mapping of a corporeal and temporal ‘other’ formed via a matrix of experiences predicated on unconscious and collective desires for utopia. These representations of landscapes form what I would posit as a ‘cartography of becoming’ in which bodies and objects were situated in specific relationships to ideals of temporality and spatiality.  In Filiger’s Christ with Breton Youth (1895), the stock figure of the Breton male stands beside that of the Crucified Christ in a simplified generic Breton landscape, both figures occupying an unsettling and precarious proximity to the viewer.

 Christ with breton youth

Figure 3

In this picture Filiger positions the Breton male as a pious devotee, Christ-like in his faith affording the contemporary Breton viewer entry into this sacred historical moment.  The Breton, in his rustic simplicity, stands as personification of region and a sign of the signifying timeless and potentially universal state of Christian grace.  For artists like Filiger, as well as for the Catholic Revivalists, the country peasant embodied a romanticized ideal of “conservativism, piety, and respect for a hierarchal social order based on the pillars of traditional society of pre-capitalist epochs, the Church and the land”(Orton and Pollock, 328). In essence, the body of the peasant of Brittany was both temporally removed and spatially distant. Variously achieved through horizontal and diagonal distinct gradations, the highly regulated separations of space and color allows for the viewer to navigate the image eventually leading to the distant ship on the horizon — a steadfast symbol of the coastal region.

[24] Although the male body figures prominently in Filiger’s depictions of Brittany, his focus on the male body reveals more about his own relationship to desire than the dominant fiction ascribed to the region, the reality of contemporary religious practice or the specificity of theBreton landscape.  In contrast to his devout young man who stands near the crucified Christ, male participation in the Catholic Church had decreased significantly by the latter half of the nineteenth century.  The conceptualization of Brittany as feminine was in part a result of the province’s stereotype. To counter-balance bourgeois masculinist Parisian urban life it also served to reinforce the region’s perceived folkloric and ‘irrational’ mysticism, a decidedly female characteristic: it was primarily women who populated churches at the time of ritual celebrations. The “feminization of Catholicism” influenced developments in France in the latter half of the nineteenth century and paved the way for the rise of the ultramontane, with its “emphasis on affectivity, sentimentalism, and a rather saccharine taste in iconography”(Gibson, 182). This marked gendered experience of Catholicism caused regional religious and government authorities to safeguard the sanctity of the Breton way of life, its traditions, its religion and more exactly its autonomy by targeting Breton women in their campaigns (McDonald, 244).  Filiger’s utilization of the male body as embodiment of Breton spirituality belies the reality of the experiences of those living in the region as it inscribed an identifiably personal signification of desire.

[25] At the center of Filiger’s oeuvre is the male body, youthful, beautiful, spiritual, desiring and desirable. The figure of Christ, such as the one in his Christ Entombed (c.1890s), holds a very special place amidst the artist’s work

 Christ Entombed Painting

Figure 4

.  Christ’s body functions as the conduit of legitimizing a union with the divine. Through representation and ritual the body of Christ, within the Catholic symbolic order and more exactly the universalized experience of it, lies at the nexus of many negotiations. First, the viewer’s (centered, masculine-identified, male and Catholic) unidirectional apprehension of the viewed (Breton, peasant and primitive) reinforces the socio-political hegemony between center and periphery.  Second, the medico-scientific and dominant Parisian-centered nationalism vied equally with vanguard artistic practices to inscribe signification on the corporeal landscape of Brittany. Third, religious desire and erotic pleasures commingle in the figure of the divine male body. These highly complex matrices at play in the production of meaning encoded mysticism as at once universal and individualistic (Beckwith, 9).

[26] In Christ Entombed Filiger depicts the Christ alone, semi-nude; his halo does not adhere to conventional style, but rather is informed by Breton folk craft.  In addition, the landscape visible through the window stylistically references the geo-social signification of Brittany as an intrinsically and deeply religious space. The stylized sensual simplification reiterates and reinforces the link between the body of Christ and the landscape.  Brittany was understood to be the last, remaining bastion of Catholic zeal and fervor in France and was characterized not only by its mysticism, but also by its apparent ‘obsession with death’. Within the collective Breton experience, unlike that of the rational modernity of Paris, there were no psychical and socio-cultural boundaries between the realm of the living and the dead, as the latter played a significant part in the mundane existence of the region’s people (Gibson, 176-7).  After all, Christian death guaranteed eternal life in Christ’s promised land.  While the body of Christ (crucified or dead) may have offered an expressive role in the at times pessimistic visual lexicon of Filiger, it was integral to Breton tradition and worship. The interpenetrating relationship between the erotic and the mystical, as it refers to Filiger’s work is best understood in terms of the complexity of Brittany’s identity, created by truth claims and perpetuated through fiction.

[27] Poignant is how Filiger merges a folkloric and purposefully archaicized rendering with a past pan-European tradition.  Here the figure of Christ becomes a type of ‘Christus pudicus’The prototypical depiction represents the Christ post-mortem, with lifeless hands cupping his genitals referencing his loss of vitality and his humanity, alone to be gazed upon in singular contemplation. The motif alludes to Christ’s humanity and was often an integral component in the depiction of the deposition in Medieval and Renaissance visual culture (Steinberg).  The visual allusion to Christ’s vitalism and (male) human-form by way of his elongated arms and the slight fabric covering his groin area also supports an erotic investment in the body and person of Christ. Situated in a contemporary Breton milieu, Christ is made flesh, and through Filiger’s idiosyncratic style this divine figure, like the male bodies believed to populate the Breton landscape, is humble, simple and decidedly sensuous. This fluid relationship between eroticism and symbolism was once again a charge advanced by Nordau:

Hence it comes that in most cases mysticism distinctly takes on a decidedly erotic colouring, and the mystic, for he interprets his inchoate liminal presentations, always tends to ascribe to them an erotic import.  The mixture of super-sensuousness and sensuality, of religious and amorous rapture, which characterizes mystic thought, has been noticed even by those observers who do not understand in what it is brought about (Nordau, 61).

[28] Scopophilia is not merely an ‘erotics of looking,’ but is contingent on the object/recipient of that gaze symbolically located at the figure’s genitals whether through concealment or display. It is strictly within the symbolic order that genitalia function as a crucial source of knowledge towards the psychosexual development and identification of ‘self’ and desire. There is, in essence, what I would posit as an ‘erotics of visual foreplay’ at work here, predicated on the concealment of the body through the civilizing forces of morality, social proscription, religiosity and excitation. Concealment acts at once as a moral imperative, whilst highlighting the body’s erotic currency in the visual economy of desire.  The curvilinear and attenuated, decidedly youthful beauty of the semi-nude saint in Filiger’s Saint aux Pleureuses(c.1890s) obliquely references the perceived feminine nature of religious devotion, but also more emphatically emphasizes the erotic nature of much of his Christian iconography.

 Saint aux Pleureuses

Figure 5

Turning his back on the two weeping women in the background who form a part of the landscape, the reclined and semi-nude male saint sensuously returns the gaze of both the artist and the putative male viewer. The gaze is, therefore, a mystico-erotic one as the semi-nude body functions as an embodied threshold, between this world and the next, illicit desire and licit contemplation.  Unlike Gauguin’s sickly adolescent body, grounded by/to the landscape that surrounds it, Filiger’s attenuated, curvilinear saintly male bodies seemingly bring the celestial paradise closer to home. In these terms, the Christianizing zeal of Filiger’s aesthetic program is invariably attached to the perverse, to ‘otherness’.  In the context of contemporary popular culture a young male involved in pederasty was characterized by a submissiveness and effeminacy. The pederast’s genital morphology was “placed near the hermaphrodite” where the male and female sex characteristics commingle to create a decidedly ambiguous and ambivalent corporeality (Nye, 108). Significantly, the morphology of the passive male partner in same-sex sexual exchanges was routinely characterized by way of curvilinear contours identical to that of a woman.

[29] The highly decorative drapery visually parallels the body of the saint and intersects it at the groin area allowing for the semblance of chastity and creates a psychosexual search for knowledge — inevitably the body is essentialized as an object of heightened desire. The penis, the knowing and knowable object, as well as the socially constructed and culturally determined phallus, is thus conveniently concealed and is fundamentally a homoerotic object of desire. This concealment coupled with the decidedly ephebic body, as non-masculine signifier, not unlike Gauguin’s defilement of the Nude Breton Boy

 Nude breton boy painting

Figure 2

, abrogates a bourgeois notion of sex as well as normative masculinity in these works. At the heart of perverse identities and bodies was not a “lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, systems, order.  What does not respect borders, positions, rules.  The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Kristeva, 4).  Filiger’s pictures are themselves objects of and for devotion.  Catholic contemplation provides a surreptitious venue, an avenue for a desiring gaze, which is at once mystical and erotic.

[30] In terms of a mystico-eroticism, the second coming of Christ is the return of the lover, the attainment of the Christian ideal. The resurrection at the time of the second coming is the decisive moment in which the re-unification of the body and soul is achieved.  In his diptych oddly titled The Last Judgment (c.1890s), Filiger depicts his utopia not as a place, but rather in the form of a desirable nude adolescent body, here positioned directly in the center of the host of saints.

 The last judgment painting

Figure 6

Within Filiger’s conceptualization, judgment is replaced by a heavenly ideal of (male) beauty, and aesthetic celestial perfection. The figure of the adolescent male succors a duplicitous, narcissistic role that is, “to love a boy and be a boy”(Vicinus, 91).  In contradistinction to Filiger’s emancipatory ‘Second Coming’, the clergy used the Last Judgment as part of the Church’s fear induced notion of sexuality — a discourse interwoven with death and damnation. The stock oval-shaped faced saintly figures of the Last Judgment (devoid of depictions of hell and damnation), are garbed in what are identifiably Byzantine vestments.  Filiger’s use of Byzantine motifs and iconographic tradition in its own distinct way signaled an entirely foreign, exotic, sumptuous, sensuous and transgressive visual vocabulary.

[31] The neo-Catholicism of the late nineteenth century provided a legitimate venue for mystical desire, a lengthy aesthetic tradition, an anti-bourgeois sentimentality and a visual language for a new artistic vanguard. Within myriad negotiations between the reality and experiences of Paris and the rural social and moral codes in Brittany, we must ask ourselves whether “homosexual,” as a historically contingent discursive formation existed in the regions, and specifically in Brittany? While no hard evidence has yet surfaced, noteworthy is that, between 1860 and 1870 32.3 per cent of the pederasts arrested in the French capital were born in Paris, whilst 58.5 per cent came from the provinces, and the remainder from other countries (Sibalis, 12-3). In contradistinction to this apparent migratory pattern, Filiger fled Paris in 1890 due to an “affaire de moeurs,” (Pincus-Witten, 125) and apparently to rid himself of the debauchery of urban, metropolitan life.  Beyond the confines of male codes, artists in general and specifically Filiger attempted to create a heterotopia (a space within a space) in which to live and sustain cultural production (See Foucault).  Traveling counter to the dominant currents of contemporary geo-cultural dynamics, Filiger wrote in 1904 that he journeyed “without ever finding one’s native land”(Musée Departmental du Prieuré, 16), longing for a type of religious, spiritual or in keeping with contemporary discourse, mystical union with the (male) divine.

[32] In the context of the Third Republic, many Catholic revivalist artists and writers navigated a rather precarious space and by default, through religious affiliation, assumed a self-imposed avant-gardist and counter-hegemonic subjectivity.  Two such figures were the writer Joris-Karl Huysmans and the artist Jan Verkade. Huysmans’ famed novel A Rebours, with which Verkade was very familiar, featured as its protagonist the young des Esseintes, “the perfect type of exhausted and degenerate aristocrat, a last anaemic shot from a once-vigorous warrior stock”(Nye, 119).  Huysmans’ archetype referenced the overwhelming fin-de-siècle topos of the ephebic submissive male whodoes not possess the virile, warrior qualities so coveted by the elite bourgeoisie. Huysmans’ life in many ways resembled that of the Dutch artist and much like des Esseintes paralleled the Christian figure of St. Sebastian.  Verkade formed part of the decadent symbolist movement that was the Nabis in Paris, while gradually moving to an aesthetic deeply rooted in Catholic pathos, precipitated by his conversion on 26 August 1892, to Catholicism (the same year as Huysmans). Among the many suspicions arising from Verkade’s conversion was the idea that his newfound religiosity was to satisfy his “aesthetic needs, and that the beauty of the Catholic ritual had fascinated” him (Verkade, 168). Both Huysmans and Verkade, through highly aestheticized programs, found a level of comfort and solace from the materialism of French society in the precinct of a Benedictine monastery — a move which, in itself, was counter-normative given the re-emergence in the 1890s of an extreme anti-clericalism and anti-monasticism in the Republic.
[33] Trained in the Dutch capital, Verkade was familiar with the most significant artistic developments occurring in other European artistic capitals, visiting among others the important exhibition of Les XX in Brussels in which Filiger exhibited some works.  Influenced by the recently published A Rebours, Verkade moved to Paris in 1890 where he came into contact with the leading figures of the Nabis and those associated with the Pont-Aven School.  It was with Mogens Ballin, a fellow artist whom he had met at Gauguin’s farewell party in 1891, that Verkade traveled to Pont-Aven, returning to Paris one last time in 1892.  On his return to Brittany later that year, to the remote town of Le Pouldu where Filiger had moved, Verkade converted to Catholicism.

[34] Verkade’s representations of St. Sebastian, mark a site on which a desire for the ‘other’ is re-produced.

 St. Sebastian painting

Figure 7

The hagiography of St. Sebastian is one of youthful conversion and martyrdom.  The mythology surrounding the saint that has attached itself to the morphology of the represented body of Sebastian, possesses a symbolic potency denoting erotic submission and abandon.  It was in large part due to the Aesthetic movement, which drew from the deep theoretic well of ‘l’art pour l’art’, that artists were influenced by the work of Pater, Wilde, Proust and Addington Symonds, all of whom embraced the Roman martyr as patron saint of embodied homoeroticism.  For the celibate monk or Christian recluse the saint was conjured as icon, object of devotion, symbolic conduit through which desire is passed and projected onto another world.  As Michael Hatt has argued, “the male nude has to be validated by a description that refutes any eroticism; for a male viewer to find pleasure in a male body, he has to find a response that effaces desire.  The homoerotic functions by concealing itself”(Hatt, 12). Celibacy is thus maintained and eroticism neatly subsumed in a rhetoric of spiritual devotion through aestheticization.

[35] In the images of martyrs and Christ, and in particular in the representations of St. Sebastian the viewer is made to become complicit.  Through what is a morbid complicity, the viewer is at once the subject of the gaze and voyeur; one designates power, while the other illicit desire and pleasure.  The arrows piercing the young, supple skin of St. Sebastian are difficult to locate visually, almost as if they are secondary to the narrative unfolding; this ambiguity reinforces the erotic nature of the body.  Sebastian, no longer really a saint serving a purely iconographical purpose, is transformed into a visual embodiment of the calamite, the passive partner in the economy of homoeroticism.  Both the curvilinear contour of the body as well as the stance is not unlike those of previous reclining figures meant for contemplation that slip rather easily under the gaze of illicit desire.

[36] In a discussion of Ganymede, equally relevant to Catholic hagiography, Martha Vicinus asserts that, “masquerade, duplicity, and concealment seem to go hand in hand with violence,” a topos which served decadent artists and writers well on either side of the channel.  The re-fashioning of a Christian classical past was in keeping with the Pont Aven brotherhood’s contempt for the purported insidious and rampant materialism of the day (Vicinus, 93).  The works of Filiger and Verkade, informed by Rosicrucian symbolism, provide a prototype for depicting the beauty of youth, the unattainable object of desire — the body itself — maintained as an ideal and kept at a distance through the death of their subjects.  The ephebic St. Sebastian elides the figure’s history as a soldier.  The facile penetration of the flesh by the arrows illustrates a level of submissiveness of this archetypal Christian saint.  Notwithstanding the decidedly eroticized absence of the saint’s penis, the body is penetrated by the arrow(s) as phallus, re-enacting the signifier of pederasty.  He stands as victim, submissive, penetrated.

[37] The figure of St. Sebastian (as a counter-discursive corporeal type) is a saintly exemplar of contagion in an era of intense fetishization of sexual and social hygiene.  The method of Sebastian’s martyrdom, allowing for the commingling of arrow/wound/blood, masculinized waste/femininized disease, followed by the throwing of his body into a sewer, the quintessential ‘carrier’ of disease, reinforce the abjection of the saint’s body.  The phallic penetration is achieved at the level of the symbolic, which designates wounds as an entry or opening and as such blur the rigid contours of an ideal, virile male body within the contemporary bourgeois imaginary.  In what was a representational system utilizing a synthetic, decadent visual vocabulary, images such as these of the saint standing alone without any sign of his executioners is stripped of all references to a hagiographic narrative. As purely decorative devices, arrows assist in rendering the body more femininized than its predecessors.  In the context of the final decade of the nineteenth century, the bound St. Sebastian stood at the threshold of this life and the next, erotica and Catholic piety, pure and impure, absence and presence, titillation and contemplation, masculine and feminine, inner and outer.

[38] As the frontispiece for an article by J. Jorgensen devoted to the much-celebrated Breton mystic Ernest Hello, Verkade’s final depiction of the saint 

 St. Sebastian engraving - "Ernest Hello"

Figure 8

was published in the Danish journalTaarnet (1894).  Unlike three earlier depictions he produced of the saint, which offered a stylized and highly decorative flora as a symbol of growth and posthumous rebirth, here the visual iconography is far more sinister.  Not only are the pubescent genitalia made visible, but the figure is now bound, eyes downcast, as if forsaking or unaware of his divine predestination. Striking is the unusual inclusion of the diabolic serpent and forbidden fruit, indexical of evil and temptation and reminiscent of the fall of Adam (feminine in origin). The nude and semi-nude male, as an embodied utopia and a renewal of a primordial Adam, fulfills a transcendental ideal detached from and devoid of spatial specificity. The body of the adolescent ephebic male possesses a “locality, a form of ambience, and a perceptual surround” (Hirsch, 23).  While Brittany may have provided an idyllic Edenic topography, it is the central representation of the nude and semi-nude adolescent male whose various depictions challenged the taken-as-given normalized understanding of sex categories that provided an ideal universal corporeal manifestation of desire, homo-erotic or otherwise.

[39] The representation of abject identity inscribed on the adolescent male body in Brittany functions as an embodied utopia; that is the conceptual and mystical locus for desire-production. This identity enlivened through geography and space marks a quest for utopia. It is this concept of utopia as it related to the artist colonies in Brittany that stands at the confluence of bodies, space and time.  As Elizabeth Grosz has recently noted, ‘Ou’, meaning not, and ‘topos’, meaning place, constitute the term utopia in its etymological origins.  In its totality a utopia simply and complexly signifies ‘no place’.  However, Grosz also notes the ironic interplay at work within the Greek term.  ‘Ou’ is paralleled with ‘Eu’, which means happy, good and fortune. The pun established by this parallel is one which positions a good place as no place, no place as a good place (Grosz, 135).  Thus, we must evaluate utopias logically, naturally and even purposefully as non-existent, pure phantasmagorical projections of desire—otherwordly.  Because utopias cannot be ‘built’ in the conventional sense of the term, what is created is a spatialization of a purported personal and communal memory through the projection of fantasy; an architecture, which controls not only the environment (read space), but time and bodies.  It is the projection of the future based on the past, which is the ideal: a ‘history of the past’ is unavoidably a ‘history of the present’.   Separately, collectively and in varying ways Gauguin, Filiger and Verkade projected onto Brittany a vision for the future, a reworked version of a primordial past and/or a reinvestment of Christian grace, a state of being mired by their contestations of the contemporary state of affairs of the bourgeois nation state. Brittany is converted and transformed to a universal sacred space, both primordial and atavistic.  The landscape of Brittany as counter-site mirrors, inverts, exposes, constructs (even), references, designates, validates and queers the site of normativity. Brittany is both real and unreal, but, within both of these, it is first and foremost constructed.

[40] The artists who arrived from Paris and abroad found the structures, landscape and people to be ideally rustic, delightfully simple and charmingly disarming. Tourism within the local Breton economy activated the socio-cultural avenue by which city (urban) and province (rural) colluded producing representations that (in)directly referenced this often precarious relationship. Brittany, as a definable and yet nebulous venue, mirrored the imbrication of socio-political and cultural identities and exposed how the male body was a site of multiple tensions, consolidations and layers within contemporary France.  Abjection has as an attendant effect the blurring between the object and the subject, the real and the unreal, here and there: a simultaneous unification and dissolution of sorts. The appropriation of the region by these artists provided a, or rather the, decisive embodied manifestation of modern ambiguity and ambivalence and formed an aesthetic genealogy rooted in a queer form of resistance, desire and pleasure.  The very stability of enforced boundaries is thus threatened both in the ‘self’ and within the socio-cultural structure. The vanguard corporeal landscape of Brittany re-constructed, re-imagined and re-imaged, served as the cultural milieu through and upon which historically specific power relations, tensions and signification were, at least on the surface, rendered idyllic, pastoral, and first and foremost … mystical.


I am grateful to Milijana Mladjan, Ann Kibbey and the anonymous readers of Genders for reading my text and for making insightful suggestions. In particular, I would also like to thank Vojtech Jirat-Waiustynski for our discussions and for his support of this project. Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders for the illustrations accompanying this article.

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