In a time where love between two men or two people of different classes was either illegal, punishable by death or the ruin of one’s standing in society, artists have found ways to show their affection and love through the medium of visual art.
Though debate still surrounds the sexuality of Caravaggio, it is generally believed the young men he used as models for his works were his love interests. Caravaggio looked back towards the paintings of the Roman-Greco period, where same sex relations were more open than his own time, and he depicted like the great classical works he admired, young beautiful male youth. Their poses are erotic and suggestive, and are usually almost, if not entirely naked. Roman art clearly showed homosexuality and often showcased the prime of the male form.
Caravaggio is believed to have been using his love of Roman art as a metaphor for his own unspeakable love. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the growth of Catholicism denied him and many others the openness of the lifestyle he much desired. But nethertheless in the secrecy of art, he made his lovers gods, even thought they was most likly poor young men living on the streets of Naples.
The hidden homosexuality in artists’ works continued until the last century. The American artist Rauschenberg mostly known for his collages, hid references to his sexuality in his work, most were personal to him and not about the wider movement of gay acceptance in North America.
Throughout his career, coinciding with the growth of gay people at large, his work became more and more overt. For his work Rebus, for example, he uses an article about how creativity is alleged to be more prominent in gay people, making it impossible not to read further into the subtext of the piece.
And around the same time here in the U.K, Francis Bacon used the men in his life, (most notable George Dyer, with whom he allegedly met whilst Dyer was trying to burgle him. A relationship which ended in tragedy as Dyer was unable to adapt to Francis Bacon’s way of life and ultimately killed himself) as his subjects for his work.
In a way, the public’s perception of homosexuality can be chronicled through visual art. From the suppression of Caravaggio’s time to the open references used by Rauschenberg. While some art forms all have similar scenarios, such as the depression and ultimate death of Tchaikovsky and the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II; which is based on the homosexual relationship of King Edward II and his lover Gaveston, visual art has the ability to make it visually aware (obviously, I suppose).
By the use of the artist’s lovers as the models of their work and by the use of homosexual writings as a feature of a work, the artist’s secret stance against the suppression of his time is revealed.