BOOKS: The Body Most Beautiful; Male Desire - the Homoerotic in American Art by Jonathan Weinberg, Yale, Pounds 25/the Naked Truth, Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and Other Scandals by Various Authors, Prestel, Pounds 42

Article excerpt

Byline: Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

It has long been noted that states of sexual desire can signal a deep loneliness or, at least, a desire for empathy with the same sex.

The terms 'heterosexual' and 'homosexual' were coined in the mid 19th century to assert some kind of definitive control on ambiguous sexual feelings in a society - particularly in Europe and America - which grew ever more assertive and complex.

Men began to bond in Europe as women had bonded for centuries. It was nothing new, of course, since Shakespeare's sonnets indicate an affection for a young man.

But this was a strand which the 19th century found in novels and plays and, of course, in art and photography.

Sunday photographers snapped endless pictures of models dressed up as St Sebastian or Roman soldiers. Sometimes there was no need for a subject they simply photographed teenage males in the sunshine of Sicily.

The idea was to recreate with impoverished local boys the classical world of the ancients.

But much of the outcome of all this activity - the boys with grapes in their hair and nothing else on at all - was soft porn that was sold all over Europe.

The homoerotic element in emergent America particularly during the 19th century, was seen in all kinds of places, from New York office blocks to rodeos and on the great plains as the wagon trains moved to the south. Male bonding threw up photographs of young men posing together in affectionate attitudes, and it was exactly the same for women who enjoyed dressing up as cowboys.

How some of these things slipped past those who would condemn for religious reasons is astonishing.

But what you do get is a sense of complete innocence - feelings were simple and those who had the feelings found no problem in their friendships.

And, of course, they were painted a million times over. After the 1940s you had amazing American art bringing up these extraordinary pictures of beautiful men watched adoringly by frilly women. …