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by Patrik Steorn

The Art of Looking at Naked Men: Queering Art History in Scandinavia

In the summer of 2008, when Stockholm hosted Euro Pride, the term “queer” and the acronym “HBT” (Swedish for LGBT) appeared all over the Stockholm museum world. Several museums gave “queer tours” of their permanent collections, some museums presented queer “interventions” in their general exhibitions using temporary information panels, and a few institutions organized temporary exhibitions on queer themes. National media reported on these initiatives, the audience came in large numbers, the press reported on their success, and it seemed like queer perspectives made a successful entrance into the Stockholm museum world.[1]

Gender studies scholar Vanja Hermele pointed out that through temporary exhibitions and collaborations with feminist and queer artists and curators, Swedish art institutions tend to see themselves as much more radical than they actually are.[2] With a critical eye towards the museum world’s queer ventures in Stockholm 2008, my impression is that the exhibitions, tours, and interventions did not offer the necessary critical analysis of norms, tending to engage with queer perspectives only at a superficial level. The museum’s own role in producing and upholding normative interpretations had still not been dealt with, nor had the museums’ collection policies been evaluated with respect to sexualities. Subsequently, these issues were taken seriously by state institutions, and the National Exhibition Agency published two reports—one on museums and diversity (2014), one on museums and LGBTQ issues (2015).[3] These documents sought to support museums that wanted to engage with the issues, offering an international outlook. It seemed a consensus was being established around the importance of including these perspectives, but this was not actually the case.

In the fall 2016, writers in the culture pages debated Swedish museum priorities—is there too much ideology, what should actually be communicated, and how should collections be shown? Are museums favoring diversity and identity politics over conservation and traditional knowledge about objects? On one hand, the situation can certainly be interpreted as a backlash against progressive trends in the institutions, but on the other, it can also be seen as a resistance against state agencies setting agendas for cultural life. In my opinion, the intersection of these trajectories is where truly creative museum work occurs, when we can move beyond the seeming opposition between objects and stories, aesthetics and context, historical artifacts and contemporary perspectives. The challenge for museums lies in taking critical perspectives very seriously while at the same time striving to truly represent an object’s ability to reflect both its past and our present, while drawing connections between the two.

Against this statement of creed, I will focus on an exhibition that I curated in the summer of 2015, exploring the queer potential of a specific artwork at the art museum Thielska Galleriet in Stockholm, Sweden. The theme was men by water, and the rooms were filled with male nudity. The Swedish-Finnish artist Jan Hietala has since long devoted himself to exploring the artistic tradition of the male body through various media: painting, films, texts and installations. As the recently appointed director of the museum, I invited Hietala to show a selection of his works in order to evoke a contemporary perspective on one of the museum's most eye-catching paintings: The Navy Bathhouse (1907) by Swedish painter Eugène Jansson (1862-1915) (fig. 1).

Fig.1: Eugène Jansson, The Navy Bathhouse, 1907, oil on canvas, 301 x 197 cm. Photo: Thielska Galleriet/Tord Lund.

Eugène Jansson belonged to the close circle of artist friends around the art collector and banker Ernest Thiel, who founded the collection that would become the Thielska Galleriet art museum in the 1920s. The museum is devoted to Scandinavian art from the decades around 1900, installed in a purpose-built villa with interiors from the period. Jansson’s paintings had a dedicated wall in the gallery layout. Since the 1970s, however, the Navy Bathhouse had been stored in the museum's vaults, displayed only during temporary exhibitions. With the exhibition “Men at water. Jan Hietala and Eugene Jansson in dialogue” (June 13-September 20, 2015), I wanted to underscore that naked men would again have a permanent place at the museum.[4]

During my own research as a PhD student around 15 years ago, I had been denied access to the painting and museum archives. The male nude in Swedish art was my topic, studying how images of naked men became icons of masculinity in art and popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century, from a queer perspective.[5] My project apparently wasn’t deemed worthy of support from the museum. As the newly appointed Director I had the opportunity to open the storage, let in fresh air, and demonstrate that a variety of gazes and interpretations were welcome at Thielska Galleriet—a kind of art historical activism with a professional and personal significance both for myself and for Hietala.

It turned out that Hietala had engaged in an artistic dialogue with Jansson's work for 15 years, which opened up Jansson’s work for consideration with new eyes. Many of Hietala's works had not been shown before in Sweden, and some of them were actually executed on the Thielska Galleriet’s premises. The exhibition texts were written by the artist, furthering the personal perspective. Given Jansson’s and Hietala's common interests in naked men and creative processes, the exhibition came to be an exploration of a complex artistic affinity over time.

The Artistic Attractions of the Bath
Male nudity in art has since antiquity been associated with divine and heroic beauty—paintings and sculptures filled with idealized and exquisite bodies. As the bathing nude alternates between social and private situations, its motion and rest provides new opportunities to observe and depict the naked body. As a motif, men who bathe have the capacity to make nudity at once more noticeable and less formal. Jan Hietala enters an historic tradition across the entire history of art that has consistently drawn his attention.

The versatile environment of the bathhouse can already be found in Albrecht Dürer's woodcut from 1496. Here, the naked men are remarkably well-trained, with chiseled bodies and wearing only thin cloths artfully draped and tied over their hips, although some also have stylish headgear that cover their heads. A few of the men are playing instruments and drinking beer while a man on the left throws ambiguous glances at the others. The water tap at his crotch seems to indicate a certain erotic interest. In the background, a younger man is looking in over the fence observing the motley, undressed group. This lively motif situates the idealized, classic body amidst everyday life in a German city with a jesting eye.

Nude bathing out of doors has long attracted artists, interested both in the hygienic effects of the bath and the liberated playfulness and erotic attraction it entailed. French artist Frédéric Bazille’s summer scenes in monumental format with young men in striped swimwear or a tall, completely naked fisherman throwing his net conform to this ideal, while in a more abstract mode, Paul Cezanne's bathers seek to break with the classic ideal. Both artists were exploring a new, modern beauty in the male body, situated in nature and often in the company of other men. The intimacy of an indoor bath is represented by Gustave Caillebotte, with a bather having just left his zinc and copper tub, drying himself with a linen towel, his back turned to the viewer.

Naked men also crowd the scene in Eugène Jansson’s painting Navy Bathhouse (1907). One of the men makes an acrobatic dive before other young men who stand, sit, or lean in different poses, grouped around a central pool. Their eyes are directed at the diver, but the figure is indistinctly painted, occupying more or less the background. The naked, sunlit male bodies and their shameless watching are the real focus of the painting. The men’s poses express no physical exertion, but rather warm, sun-lit relaxation and the mental focus of observation. We, the painting's viewers, are intimately placed under the sun roof together with the gazing men—and they are our visual focus, not the diver. Our observation of their gazing turns into a kind of double voyeurism.

The collector Ernest Thiel bought the painting directly from Jansson when it was completed in 1907. Thiel himself enjoyed swimming in the Stockholm archipelago: “The pure salty baths in the summer refreshed both physically and spiritually.”[6] He always wanted to swim alone, so one of his grandchildren reported, and the bath could be understood as an intimate meeting between body and nature, at least to Thiel, it seems. It was probably a similar vitalist ideal that inspired Thiel to place the painting in the prestigious Munch Room at the Thielska Galleriet—where the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s portrait of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche held the most prominent place. The combination of powerful sunlight, strong bodies, and an unconventional, straightforward perspective lends the work the immediacy of the elan vital. But when the museum wanted to modernize its displays in the 1970s, the aesthetic qualities of the painting were considered too weak, and it was sent off to the storage. Not coincidentally, it had also become more widely acknowledged that Eugene Jansson was homosexual, a development coinciding with the growth of the gay liberation movement.[7] In this context, the painting’s homoerotic subtext probably became more apparent to the audience, and it became controversial.

The Methodology of the Desiring Look
In art history, nudity has generally been associated with female models and it is only recently that naked men have been the subject of museum exhibitions.[8] It is apparently difficult for a male body to even be perceived as erotic in art. Art historian Anthea Callen exemplified the problem when she interpreted Caillebotte’s bather as an utterly masculine, self-sufficient, autonomous figure, making his body inaccessible for other more intimate and sensual perspectives.[9] Callen mentions in a subordinate clause that only a homoerotic look could possibly challenge the authority of his male strength.

In contrast, Jan Hietala’s focus is on men who look at other men with erotic desire, one of his defining artistic themes. This perspective becomes a tool that opens the subject for all sorts of viewers, regardless of gender or erotic interests, who can then devote themselves to unrestrained visual exploration of a naked man's body. By taking a pronounced position where desire can lead the viewer to a position outside norms and conventions, Hietala invites his audience to shape their own position, rooted in their own interests and desires.

As part of his artistic research, Hietala has developed a method for searching for lost, unknown, or enigmatic fragments in historical documents.[10] When he turns his eye to art history, he selects and recodes images in light of his own desires: the antique Barberini Faun, the Faun by Swedish artist Johan Tobias Sergel, and British artist Frederic Leighton's sculpture The Sluggard are all caught in the web of his indiscreet looks. Embedded within lines and color fields, the bodies become more abstract, less palpable, but they seem to echo a complicated network of personal glances, gazes, and perspectives, filled with the energy of saturated color.

Even more conventional genres of art open up through this artistic method. The opening scene of the film Tall Grass (2004/2015), showing a lonely but strong, lush tree in an open field, can reflect both the open-air painting of Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Hill and the national romantic motifs by Swedish artists Nils Kreuger or Karl Nordström. But the landscape in Hietala’s work also proves to be a playground for men looking through the high grass, seeking contact and cruising for casual sexual meetings out in the open.

With Eugène in the Bath House
Eugène Jansson used the Navy Bathhouse at Skeppsholmen in Stockholm both as a sports venue, a source of creative inspiration, and a place for social and erotic meetings.[11] Archived photographs show him in the role of a trained and tanned athlete along with the other sunbathers. About 30 photographs from the Navy Bathhouse are preserved at the Royal Library, Stockholm, in the archive of Nils Santesson, a decorator who was convicted for homosexual acts in the early 1900s. Jansson appears himself in about 20 of the pictures (fig. 2).

Fig.2: Unknown, Knut Nyman, Eugène Jansson and two unknown men at the Navy Bathhouse at Skeppsholmen, Stockholm, c. 1905, photograph. Photo: The National Library, Stockholm.

Fig.3: Jan Hietala, After Eugène No. 4, 2002, watercolor on paper. Photo: Jan Hietala.

A similarly lustful search for visual pleasure seems to have directed Jan Hietala's work in his series of watercolors After Eugène (2002) (fig. 3). The starting point was that series of photographs from the Navy Bathhouse, filled with naked men in every imaginable pose. Hietala has made a selection of these figures and focuses on their genitals, chest, and thighs, reproducing these motifs with a tender hand and voluptuous brush strokes. The rich contours give these works an intimate sensualism, and Hietala paints the caressing glances that we suspect were exchanged not only between the men in the photographs, but between these images and some of their audience even today.

The photographs have continued to serve as a creative archive for Hietala in his quest to come closer to Jansson, through time and space. Historic accounts concerning Jansson often emphasize how eagerly and enthusiastically he indulged in the bathhouses of Stockholm.[12] In his Self Portrait (1910), Jansson appears fully clothed as an artist who is paying a visit to the Navy Bathhouse, as if a guest from the outside. The photographs on the other hand tell a different story, showing the artist naked, posing for the camera. In several of the pictures he seems very much like one of the regular customers, a man who loves to swim and sunbathe in the nude with other men.

Eugene Jansson's Back (2014) (fig. 4) is a flowing watercolor by Hietala, which may be interpreted as an attempt to peak behind the facade that Jansson erects in his pictures. The monumental triptych Eugène (2015) is an image of the artist posing, his body formed by a variety of supporting lines. At the same time these strokes distort the figure on the canvas. These lines seem to connote Hietala's own gaze, characterized by both scrutiny and admiration. In front of the finished work, we can see the similarities between Jansson's profile and Hietala's own appearance. The identification may have worked on an unconscious level, but it also served as one kind of artistic method, enabling structured forms and personal recognitions to convey a sensual life of feelings, desires, and sexuality beyond the social norms.

Fig.4: Jan Hietala, Eugène Jansson’s Backside, 2015, watercolor and pen on paper. Photo: Jan Hietala.

There are many accounts testifying to Eugène Jansson’s close relationships with his male models. They are referred to as companions in restaurants, on vacations, at dinners, and they also served as caretakers at the end of his life.[13] His studio at Glasbruksgatan in Stockholm did double duty as a gym. A photograph from Jansson's studio shows three athletes posing naked with barbells at their feet and the artist's paintings in the background. Besides this photograph, there are pencil drawings and oil sketches that appear to have been executed during these sessions. The sketch materials in different techniques gives the impression of his careful work, where the process, the observation, the drawing, and his eyes studying poses and bodily expressions had a value in and of itself. It is as if each sketch bears evidence of the artist's own visual pleasure—aesthetic and erotic at one and the same time.

The final meeting between Hietala and Jansson took place where Hietala's own work desk was situated in the middle of the room, in front of the Navy Bathhouse painting. The table’s surface was covered with letters written by Hietala, addressed to Jansson. Before the exhibition we had the opportunity to offer Hietala an apartment in an adjacent building, next to the Thielska Galleriet main building. In fear that it would be revealed that Eugène Jansson had committed homosexual acts at a time when it was prohibited by Swedish law, his brother Adrian, who was gay himself, carefully destroyed the bulk of letters, photographs, newspapers, and other material after the artist's death in 1915.[14]

When it comes to queer historical writing, it is especially important to think about what can actually be considered an archive, says queer American literature historian Ann Cvetkovich. Normative source material will often confirm a normative narrative. Instead, she theorizes the idea of ​​an emotional archive: “The archive of feelings lives not just in museums, libraries, and other institutions, but in other more personal and intimate spaces …”[15] Alternative archives, such as an Hietala’s intergenerational address, may even be able to contain emotional experiences that conventional documents and objects refuse or deny. With a queer feeling as its method, the exhibition restored a kind of archive of lost emotions—social stigmas as well as forbidden desires and bodily pleasures.

As a curator and museum director, the artwork made clear to me that the most important reason for letting an artist take on historical material was to capture aspects of this alternative, emotional archive. This is not necessarily because the artist, by virtue of their perspective, can see something completely differently than the museum professional, but because the artistic approach has a different set of objectives. Hietala has formulated this as follows: “An artist is inclined to strive for a certain amount of opaqueness in his or her work.”[16] By introducing an obverse principle than the transparency that often governs museal and academic work, Hietala explores the capacity of artistic research to enhance, dramatize, and intensify experience by letting unpredictable, emotional, aesthetic, bodily, and social aspects of objects and documents take on artistic form.

Museums with ambitions to be queer need to reflect on their role as institutions and as producers and reproducers of both power and normative meaning. They should allow for queer presences to occur on their own terms rather than co-opt LGBT culture into their favored structures and forms of exposition. Museums should instead facilitate the production of queer meaning in their collections through innovative display, groundbreaking research, and by encouraging subversive social events on their grounds. This will not only communicate with LGBT and queer audiences, but to all individuals who seek online and on-site museum encounters that can mobilize pluralistic passions and dissident, embarrassing emotions too often foreclosed in the standard picture gallery.


Dr. Patrik Steorn is Museum Director at Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm, Sweden, and Associate Professor in Art History at Stockholm University.

See Patrik Steorn, “Queering the museum. Methodological reflections on doing queer in museum collections,” Lambda Nordica: Queer Methodologies No. 3-4, 2010, pp. 119-143; and Steorn, “Curating Queer Heritage: Queer Knowledge and Museum Practice,” Curator: The Museum Journal Vol. 55, No. 32012, pp. 355-365.

2 Vanja Hermele, Konsten – så funkar det (inte), KRO/KIF, Stockholm, 2009, p. 31.

3 Museerna och mångfalden – En analys av hur den svenska museisektorn kan stödja och ta vara på utvecklingspotentialen i det mångkulturella Sverige, Riksutställningar, Visby, 2014; Museerna och hbtq, Riksutställningar, Visby, 2015.

4 Jan Hietala ed., Män vid vatten/Jan Hietala, Appell förlag, Stockholm, 2017.

5 Patrik Steorn, Nakna män. Maskulinitet och kreativitet i svensk bildkultur 1900-1915, Norstedts Akademiska Förlag, Stockholm, 2006; and Steorn, “Staging masculinity and identity. Visual culture of naked men ca. 1900,” Contemporary Feminist Studies and its relation to Art History and Visual Studies. Proceedings from a conference in Gothenburg, March 28-19, 2007, Bia Mankell & Alexandra Reiff eds., Gothenburg Studies in Art and Architecture 28, Acta universitatis Gothoburgensis, Göteborg, 2010, pp. 91-111.

6 Ernest Thiel, Vara eller synas vara. Minnen och anteckningar avslutade 1946, Carlssons förlag, Stockholm, 1990, p. 179.

7 The first article to mention Jansson’s homosexuality was GRAND, “Blåmålaren i den röda tegelborgen,” Dagens Nyheter, October 14, 1965, p. 57. More on the historiographic reception of Jansson’s art: Patrik Steorn, “Eugène Jansson och den svenska konsthistoriens sexualitet,” Lambda Nordica No. 3, 2007, pp. 61-71.

8 Masculin Masculin: l'homme nu dans l'art de 1800 à nos jours, Musée d’Orsay/Flammarion, Paris, 2013. Exhibition catalogue; Tobis G. Natter and Elisabeth Leopold eds., Nude men. From 1800 to the present day, Leopold Museum/Hirmer, Vienna, 2012. Exhibition catalogue.

9 Anthea Callen, The Spectacular Body. Science, Method and Meaning in the Work of Degas, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1995, pp. 145-147.

10 Jan Hietala, Inconclusive Evidence. Spatial gender politics at Strawberry Hill 1747-58, Spurbuchverlag, Baunach, 2011, pp. 13-14.

11 Patrik Steorn, “Stadens män och modeller. Eugène Janssons figurmåleri,” in Eugène Jansson: blå stämning och nakna atleter, Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde/Carlssons, Stockholm, 2012, pp. 85-125. Exhibition catalogue.

12 Tor Hedberg, Minnesgestalter, Stockholm, 1927, pp. 128-129; Prins Eugen, ”Konstnärsförbundets män,” Ord & Bild, 1936, p. 467.

13 Greger Eman, “Bröderna Jansson,” Sympatiens hemlighetsfulla makt. Stockholms homosexuella 1860–1960, Göran Söderström ed., Borås, 1999, pp. 229-235.

14 Ibid., pp. 237-240.

15 Ann Cvetkovich, “In the archives of lesbian feelings: Documentary and popular culture,” Camera Obscura Vol. 17, No. 1, 2002, p. 112.

16 Hietala, Inconclusive Evidence, p. 180.

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