Saturday, February 19, 2011

Paul Cadmus

The seventh entry in the series, “Social Realism and the Popomo (Post Postmodern),” in which I ask the question – Is there a continued interest in using artwork to point out and/or correct social injustice in the Twenty-first Century United States or has that practice become politically incorrect?

Paul Cadmus,"The Fleet's In" (1934) *1

Cadmus, Born in New York City of artist parents on December 17, 1904 was a relatively unknown artist working for the WPA (Works Progress Administration), Public Works of Art division when he entered his painting, The Fleet’s In! in a government sponsored exhibit of paintings at the Corcoran Museum in Washing ton D.C.. Today his work is included among the Social Realists though Cadmus himself described his work as “Magic Realism.” Cadmus was a personal hero of mine because he led an “out” gay male life during a time when homosexuality was taboo in our culture. He claimed that his homosexuality did not define his work, though the presence of “the gay” in his work created several controversies early in his
career.* 2 His painting technique, egg tempera with brush strokes following contours of the human form is reminiscent of the Renaissance artist, Luca Signorelli. Cadmus is just as famous for his nude charcoal drawings of his partner of 35 years, Jon Andersson. I found the best on line source for images of Cadmus’ work to be the “Ten Dreams Fine Art Galleries,” . Alas, my hero died December 12, 1999, a few days short of his 95th birthday.

The Controversy that Made Cadmus Famous

The Fleet’s In, 1934, serves to highlight Cadmus as a satirical moralist, who historically included depictions of homosexuals in his paintings. The painting is unified through the use of vivid, harsh colors, and shows a group of drunken sailors, several of whom are involved in attempts to pick-up women. Two sailors on the right seem to be meeting with success, while the sailor in the center is being rejected in violent fashion. On the left side of the painting, a young man is seen to be extending a pack of cigarettes toward another sailor seated on a stone wall that runs horizontally behind the tableau. Between these two men, a sailor has passed out against the wall, and a woman in a very tight, sheer, peach colored dress is pulling his arm. To the extreme left, a little old lady in a pillbox hat is walking her dog. The leash of the dog is rubbing against the legs of the lady in the tight, peach dress, causing it to lift provocatively. The dog is wagging his tail furiously, and he appears to be growling at the peach-clad lady’s right shoe.
The painting caused a furor and went far toward earning Paul Cadmus’ reputation as the enfant terrible of the art world. Admiral Hugh Rodman had the painting rejected from an exhibition of government-sponsored works, which had already been hung at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. I am reminded of the 1990 debacle over the works of Robert Mapplethorpe at the same site.
At the time of the Cadmus brouhaha, Secretary of the Navy Swanson was quoted in Time, (April 30, 1934) as saying “...[The painting] represents a most disgraceful, sordid, disreputable, drunken brawl, wherein apparently a number of enlisted men are consorting with a party of street walkers and denizens of the red-light district” (Kirstein, Paul Cadmus, 1980, 25). I doubt that such drunken escapades were the true cause of the Secretary’s diatribe. Instead, Swanson’s furor can be traced to Cadmus’ depiction of the young man offering a cigarette to one of the sailors. His red tie is a signal that he is homosexual, and the exchange of the cigarette is probably the preamble to a homosexual tryst. It is this encoded, homosexual pick-up event that aroused such anger and frustration, though at the time, it was taboo to discuss such things, as Jonathan Weinberg points out:

In retrospect, it seems likely that what disturbed Rodman was not so much that the painting depicted drunken sailors cavorting with women-- such episodes are celebrated in naval lore-- but that the picture also represents a homosexual pickup... The suspicion is confirmed by his bright red tie, a common code at the time for signaling the homosexuality of its wearer. (Weinberg 103)

The work is nonetheless, a satire of debauchery and wantonness on the part of all participants. The robust motion of the figures, the caricatured expressions of extreme, almost idiotic jocularity plastered across the participants’ faces highlight their depravity as part of the satirical program. Arms and hands are extended in a repetition of open invitation. The human form here seems to be overly round and ripe, as though trapped inside its own skin, the body about to burst through tight clothing. Cadmus’ overlapping brush strokes follow the contours of the forms and accentuate bulges, creating a humorous imitation of the ancient Greek sculpture technique of forming draped clothing close to the skin as though water-soaked. Body parts, legs and arms, overlap and intertwine in a parody of classical tableau. It is this parody in the tradition that includes Goya and Daumier that is intriguing. Nothing, nobody, is safe from Cadmus’ scathing brush, not even himself, as he demonstrated in his The Seven Deadly Sins, a series of self portraits.*3


Kirstein, Lincoln. Paul Cadmus. New York: Rizzoli, 1984.

Weinberg, Jonathan. Speaking for Vice. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993.


* 1 "The Fleet's Inn" is in the public domain as it belongs to the United States government, Department of the Navy.

* 2 I realize that “the gay” as used here is anachronistic because it is a late 20th Century cultural creation. During the first half of Cadmus’ life “gay” meant “happy.”

* 3 The Seven Deadly Sins are housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

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