Tthe tale of Venus and Adonis has been used in various sexually ambiguous ways for centuries. Shakespeare adopts the voice of the goddesses in her long poem Venus and Adonis: she prays for her lover – or is it the Bards? – not to leave, not to go on the boar hunt, where he is doomed to die. Its poetry is reflected in Cy Twombly’s paintings, in which Adonis was his former lover Robert Rauschenberg. For the pioneering British modernist Duncan Grant, in a joyful exhibition in his mural-covered, biography-colored home in the East Sussex hills, Venus’ metamorphosing body allows for a change of identity. This is not a woman, but a constructed abstract form with which the artist can merge to express his own longing for Adonis.
In Grant’s painting Venus and Adonis from 1919, the goddess leans her head on her hand as she sadly sees her lover run to his death. Except her huge hand floats in front of her ear, on top of an onion-shaped arm that is only vaguely attached to a torso that even resembles a separate creature, with nipples to the eyes. Her large hips and orotund legs form a third independent creature that kicks in space. The only thing that holds her together is her bright pink.
Grant, the most talented artist in the Bloomsbury Group, showed this wildest painting in 1920 at his first solo show. Now it hangs at the start of a loving reconstruction of the exhibition, which collects as many works as possible as they were hung in London’s Paterson-Carfax Gallery. Which opens. It is a comedy about identity and desire. Venus is a discombobulated modern person who erupts into discontinuous fragments as she lies in a landscape resembling an unstable theater set. 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, painting colleague Vanessa Bell and author David Garnett. One of the most absorbing paintings here is a large sloping view of a room where they work. As Garnett struggles over a difficult translation from Russian, Bell concentrates on his easel and paints an arrangement of apples in a long-stemmed bowl and a white coffee cup.
We see the half-finished still life on Bell’s canvas, which we can compare to Grant’s much firmer, finished depiction of the rounded, geometric fruits and ceramics. He has a light touch that lets him get away with naked peeling off Cézanne. He assimilates the great French artist’s eye for structure, while he is clearly nothing like serious or introspective. Because Grant just wants to have fun.
His friends who bought paintings from the exhibition included historian Lytton Strachey and economist John Maynard Keynes, regular guests at this bohemian hideout, both housed by Grant. This show does a very good job for Grant as a queer modern champion. The publication of his erotic drawings has shown how intensely sexual his art is – and in that light, the seemingly calm domestic themes in many of his paintings are differently charged.
Grant adds something of his own to all the French modernist ideas he has squeezed. You can dismiss his nude photos as imitations of things Matisse did a decade earlier. But it is to miss the twist of subversive sexuality, he adds. His painting Juggler and Tightrope Walker creates two muscular, yet curvy characters whose exact gender is irrelevant: they are found in some modernist freedom utopia.
This exhibition shines with a sense of liberation. Grant had moved to the country to carry out the agricultural work required of him as a conscientious objector in the First World War. Yet even his paintings of cowsheds 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 gender, nature and country smell anchor Grant’s formal loans in the sweet scent of life.
After the war, everything seemed exhausted. But this exhibition was announced by the roaring 20s. It’s not that far from Charleston to Charleston either. As you enter, a glow of vibrant colors strikes you. It has the same redemptive beauty it must have had a century ago.