When it comes to mid-century homoeroticism, one name comes to mind—Tom of Finland. His overtly homoerotic art defined a pre-Stonewall era, when overt gay art was not only not in vogue but flat-out illegal. Yet Finland and his contemporaries—Harry Bush and Etienne, among others less celebrated—had a precedent. George Quaintance, the 1940s and ’50s illustrator who set the parameters of gay art for nearly a half century—whose work will be on display with that of Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland at the Taschen Gallery beginning July 3—artists who explored the limits of the male physique before others dared.
Taschen released a book of Quaintance’s art back in 2010, but the objective was always to spotlight the L.A.-based artist with a show. Speaking about Quaintance’s output, Dian Hanson, editor of the coffee table book, states the paintings are “so big and impressive, and culturally vital, it was always intended to give them a gallery show.”
Before dying of heart failure in 1957, Quaintance’s work usually appeared in magazines that celebrated the male physique, including Body Beautiful, Demi-Gods and Physique Pictorial—publications that skirted tight content regulations by ostensibly appealing to bodybuilders and others with an acceptable and “healthy” interest in the male physique. His oil paintings featured full-color semi-nudes, pushing not only the homoerotic bounds of acceptability but the edges of polite society in the ’40s and ’50s.
BOB MIZER (American, 1922-1992), Nick & Blue Max Hensley, 1975,
© Bob Mizer, Courtesy of Taschen
“There really wasn’t anyone doing what Quaintance was doing in the 1940s and early ’50s,” says Hanson. “His painting Dashing was featured on the very first cover of Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial, and Mizer used his work on covers right up until his death,” over a decade before the modern gay rights movement found its mainstream footing.
“That same year, Tom of Finland’s first drawing appeared on a Physique Pictorial cover—a clear passing of the torch to the next generation,” she says. “No one worked in oil on canvas like Quaintance did, in the scale and with the facility he did, in the ’40s. Tom of Finland was a fantastic graphite, and pen & ink artist, but he did less work in color.”
TOM OF FINLAND (Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1970, Graphite on paper,
© 1970 Tom of Finland Foundation
One of the most invaluable resources was Tom of Finland Foundation, which held a large number of oils by Quaintance. “The Foundation tracked down the last residence of Quaintance’s partner, Victor Garcia, and found Quaintance’s lifelong scrapbooks in a carport in Hollywood, and Bob Mainardi and Trent Dunphy of The Magazine in San Francisco, who own many original sketches, physique photos and various ephemera related to Quaintance.”
Quaintance’s subjects veered from the mainstream, featuring many aspects common in the West. Spaniard and Mexican bullfighters and religious symbols populate his work, along with traditional oil paintings of cowboys and stereotypical masculine Western figures.
Despite his outsized influence, Quaintance was not a prolific artist, only producing 55 oil paintings during his lifetime, leaving a very potent seed of creativity but a dearth of material for progenitors to follow.
Taschen’s Quaintance tomb has many exclusive and pristine prints of the painter’s groundbreaking work, but while Hanson spent a long time putting together the edition, she recommends an in-person visit. “The results were a beautifully produced, large format book. It did justice to the work, but there’s nothing like seeing these big canvases in person!”
READ MORE ABOUT GEORGE QUAINTANCE – THE FIRST GAY CELEBRITY BY RICHARD HAWKINS