TThe story of Venus and Adonis has been used in various sexually ambiguous ways for centuries. Shakespeare adopts the voice of the goddess in his long poem Venus and Adonis: she pleads with her lover, or is it that of the bard? – do not go away, do not go hunting the wild boar in which it is condemned to die. Her lyricism is reflected in the paintings of Cy Twombly, in which Adonis was her former lover Robert Rauschenberg. For British modernist pioneer Duncan Grant, in a gleeful exhibition in his mural-covered, bio-stained home in the East Sussex hills, the metamorphosed body of Venus allows for an identity shift. It is not about a woman, but about a constructed abstract form with which the artist can merge, to express his own longing for Adonis.
In Grant’s 1919 painting Venus and Adonis, the goddess rests her head on her hand as she sadly watches her lover run to their deaths. Except that his massive hand floats in front of his ear, on top of a bulbous arm that is only loosely attached to a torso that itself looks like a separate creature, with nipples for eyes. Her large hips and rounded legs form an independent third being, kicking in space. The only thing that holds it together is its bright pink color.
Grant, the most talented artist in the Bloomsbury Group, showed this delusional painting in 1920 in his first solo show. Now it hangs at the beginning of a loving reconstruction of that exhibition, bringing together as many works as possible as they were hung in London’s Paterson-Carfax Gallery. What an opener. It is a comedy of identity and desire. Venus is a bewildered modern person, bursting into discontinuous fragments as she lies in a landscape that is like an unstable theater stage. And in the distance is the naked male object of passion.
At the time, Grant lived in such a modern and fluid way. At Charleston Farm in East Sussex, he lived with his two lovers, the painter Vanessa Bell and the writer David Garnett. One of the most absorbing paintings here is a large tilted view of a room where they are working. As Garnett bends over a difficult translation from Russian, Bell concentrates at his easel, painting an arrangement of apples in a long-stemmed bowl and a cup of latte.
We see the half-finished still life on Bell’s canvas, which we can compare to Grant’s much firmer and more finished depiction of rounded, geometric fruits and ceramics. He has a light touch that allows him to get away with ripping off Cézanne. He assimilates the eye of the structure of the great French artist without being so serious or introspective. Because Grant just wants to have fun.
His friends who bought paintings from the exhibition included the historian Lytton strachey and economist John Maynard Keynes, regular guests of this bohemian hideaway who slept with Grant. This show makes a very good case for Grant as a modern queer teacher. The publication of his erotic drawings has shown how intensely sexual his art is, and in that light, the seemingly placid domestic themes of many of his paintings are charged differently.
Grant adds something of his own to all the French modernist ideas he has tweaked. You could dismiss his nudes as knockoffs of things Matisse was doing a decade earlier. But that’s missing the twist on subversive sexuality, he adds. His painting Juggler and Tightrope Walker creates two muscular but curvilinear characters whose precise gender is irrelevant: they exist in some modernist utopia of freedom.
This exhibition shines with a sense of liberation. Grant had moved into the fields to do the farm work required of him as a conscientious objector in World War I. Yet even his barn paintings have a secret joy: who slept with whom in the hay? It helps that you can smell cow dung in this barn gallery. The realities of sex, nature, and the smells of the countryside anchor Grant’s formal loans in the sweet smell of life.
After the war, everything seemed exhausted. But this exhibit heralded the roaring 1920s. It’s not that far from Charleston to Charleston. As you enter, you are struck by a blaze of vivid colors. It has the same redeeming beauty that it should have possessed a century ago.