Before there was Tom of Finland, the Finnish artist whose steamy work moved from his private sketchbooks to national postage stamps, there was George Quaintance, an American artist born at the beginning of the 20th Century whose depictions of muscular men set the tone for homoerotic illustration for years to come. His illustrations are fabulously, overtly camp: flamboyantly made-up hairless Adonises, shining of skin and rippling of muscle pose with horses and fend off wild animals clad only in loincloths or faded jeans. George’s drawings scream of joy, sex and testosterone, hinting at mens’ health magazines and the Calvin Klein ads that would follow 50 years after their publication.
If all the lip gloss and the baby oil cloud the context they were created in, it’s important to remember that homosexuality was vehemently oppressed throughout the 40s and 50s when these works were created, rendering George’s work largely illegal and inherently dangerous to make. Denim stretched over bulging cocks was all that placed his physique paintings on the right side of the strict laws regarding the depiction of penises, and yet he successfully tiptoed around regulations throughout his career.
Born in Virginia in 1902, George worked as “a vaudeville dancer, a coiffeur designer, window dresser, magazine cover artist, photographer, portraitist, and ultimately the first great physique artist,” TASCHEN explains, celebrating him for his brazen openness about his sexuality throughout his life. “George Quaintance, the Master Painter of the Male Physique, was out in an age when out was not only risky, but largely illegal… In 1982, The Voice stated, ‘Quaintance was gifted with so much drive and artistic talent that he had the ability to transcend the puritanical restrictions of the times and leave us something of his daring imagination in his paintings.’”
His physique paintings depict ranch scenes, Greek gods and matadors, and amount only to around 55 works, all of which were commissioned by gay publishing pioneer Bob Mizer for the Physique Pictorial.
They’re largely traded between private collectors before they ever come to auction, which makes this new exhibition at TASCHEN’s LA gallery a rare and celebratory occasion.