The tale 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 the Bard’s? – not to leave, not to go on the boar hunt in which he’s doomed to die. Its lyricism is echoed in Cy Twombly’s paintings, in which Adonis was his former lover Robert Rauschenberg. For the pioneering British modernist Duncan Grant, in a joyous exhibition at his mural-covered, biography-stained home in the East Sussex hills, the metamorphosing body of Venus allows a shift 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 1919 painting Venus and Adonis, the goddess leans her head on her hand as she sadly watches her lover run to his death. Except her huge hand floats in front of her ear, on top of a bulbous arm that’s only vaguely attached to a torso that itself looks like a separate creature, with nipples for eyes. Her big hips and orotund legs form a third independent being, kicking in space. The only thing holding her together is her bright pinkness.
Grant, the most talented artist of the Bloomsbury Group, showed this delirious painting in 1920 at his first solo show. Now it hangs at the start of a loving reconstruction of that exhibition, which reassembles as many works as possible as they were hung at London’s Paterson-Carfax Gallery. What an opener. It’s a comedy of identity and desire. Venus is a discombobulated modern person, bursting into discontinuous fragments as she lies in a landscape that is like an unstable theatre set. And in the distance is the naked male object of passion.
At the time, Grant was living in just such a modern and fluid way. At Charleston Farm in East Sussex, he cohabited with his two lovers, fellow painter Vanessa Bell and writer David Garnett. One of the most absorbing paintings here is a big slanted view of a room where they are working. As Garnett hunches over a difficult bit of translation from Russian, Bell concentrates on her easel, painting 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 with Grant’s much firmer, finished depiction of the rounded, geometrical fruits and ceramics. He has a lightness of touch that lets him get away with nakedly ripping off Cézanne. He assimilates the great French artist’s eye for structure while clearly not being anything like as 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 hideaway who both slept with Grant. This show makes a very good case for Grant as a queer modern master. The publication of his erotic drawings has shown how intensely sexual his art is – and in that light, the apparently placid domestic themes of many of his paintings become differently charged.
Grant adds something of his own to all the French modernist ideas he has pinched. You could dismiss his nudes as imitations of stuff Matisse was doing a decade earlier. But that is to miss the twist of subversive sexuality he adds. His painting Juggler and Tightrope Walker creates two muscular yet curvaceous characters whose precise gender is irrelevant: they exist in some modernist utopia of freedom.
This exhibition glows with a sense of liberation. Grant had moved to the countryside to do the farmwork demanded 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 sex, nature and country smells anchor Grant’s formal borrowings in the sweet smell of life.
After the war, everything seemed exhausted. But this exhibition announced the roaring 20s. It’s nor so far from Charleston to the charleston. Walking in, a glow of living colour hits you. It has the same redemptive beauty it must have possessed a century ago.