Hockney Between the Covers: The Transgressive Power of Queer Bodies at Rest

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A guest post by Allan Madden, Lecturer in History of Art, University of Glasgow.

Introduction by Ruth Fletcher, Education Manager

Allan Madden, Lecturer in History of Art, has written this blog in his capacity as contributor and Working Group member of the partnership project: LGBTQ+/Queer Collections.

The Hunterian, Archives & Special Collections, student volunteers and members of University of Glasgow’s LGBTQ+ community are working together to explore the University’s heritage collections from an LGBTQ+ perspective. We aim to arrive at new ways to increase the LGBTQ+ presence across our heritage collections and programming in physical and digital spaces.

Anyone seeking to find out more or get involved should contact The Hunterian’s Education Manager, Ruth.Fletcher@Glasgow.ac.uk. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy Allan’s personal reflections on this work.

David Hockney, Two Boys Aged 23 or 24, GLAHA:19252 (1966), from Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from C.P. Cavafy (London: Editions Alecto, 1966). Etching and aquatint on paper. © David Hockney

This etching and aquatint, by David Hockney (1937–) is part of a series of illustrations that the artist provided for selected poems by the Egyptian-Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863–1933), held within The Hunterian’s collection. Hockney completed the illustrations, including this one showing two young men lying together in bed, in the space of a few months in 1966. The poems that Hockney, along with his collaborators on the project Stephen Spender and Nikos Stangos, chose to accompany his drawings are homoerotic in nature. They speak of stolen glances and secret assignations and of the ways men find to be close to one another. Sometimes explicit, and sometimes using the language that queer readers the world over have come to recognise, Cavafy’s poems map out spaces of queer love, sex and desire.   

This illustration is a depiction of a bed not just as a place of sex – which can be had almost anywhere as industrious queer individuals throughout history have taught us – but as a place of something far more radical than that; this is a queer space of rest. The sex is there of course, as tantalisingly close as the hands and faces of the two figures. Sex may have been had, or may soon be had, or both, but this doesn’t matter as much as the fact that these two bodies have lain down in rest together. Taking that time, and taking this space, to sleep through the night, or day.

The poem that accompanies the illustration, sitting opposite the boys on the page, tells of two young men full of youthfulness, joy, and sensuality, who, excited by a win at the casino, carouse around town. Rather than going to their own ‘respectable’ homes where, as Cavafy writes, tellingly, they were no longer wanted, they seek out instead a ‘place of ill repute’ where they get drunk and take a room together:

And when the expensive drinks were finished,
When it was nearly dawn,
Content, they gave themselves to love.

(Cavafy, 1966)

As well as Cavafy’s poem, there is a song by Perfume Genius called ‘Alan’, which I love to the extent that I will forgive the obvious misspelling in the title, and which makes me think of this scene. The opening lyrics are:

Did you notice
We sleep through the night
Did you notice, babe
Everything’s alright

(Perfume Genius, ‘Alan’, No Shape 2017)

The song, written by Mike Hadreas, is about his relationship with his partner Alan Wyffels. And there is so much beauty in the simple thought expressed in the opening lines. Depictions of queer lives in literature, art and film, are so often figured in terms of speed; they are frantic, rushed. Love, and sex, are usually fleeting. Happiness is short-lived just as, far too often, queer lives themselves are shown to be brief. When Hockney created these etchings in 1966, homosexuality in his native England was still proscribed by law, though some change would be coming the following year with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. But despite the contemporary injustices of queer existence that persist today, Hockney bids us nevertheless to take a moment to look at something as beautiful as these two boys – aged 23 or 24 – resting. They have the audacity to take the space of the bed and hold it beyond the moment of sexual encounter, keep it, and refashion it as a space of quiet domesticity redolent of queer sensuality.

Hockney’s domestic scenes are typically a mix of images lifted from Beefcake magazines and a good deal of comfy chintz. And his portraits of queer couples at home, most notably Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, sit alongside his naked swimmers and boys, together, clinging, to create a world in which queer people truly make themselves at home. The tension that is often seen in depictions of queer lives between the person they are at home and the person they are on the (usually, city) street, a tension present even in the accompanying poem by Cavafy, has been lifted here. These boys, whether they intend to be together for years, weeks or until one of them wakes, have stopped moving long enough to give this queer viewer – aged 33 or 34 (difficult to remember in these days of lockdown) – a glimpse of something truly beautiful. And I love them for that.

They sleep through the night. Everything’s alright.

Allan Madden

Further Reading:

David Hockney and Nikos Stangos (ed.), David Hockney, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976)

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