13 October 2010

George Quaintance (Part One)

George Quaintance Photo

Lest Old AcQuaintance Be Forgot:
The Legacy of
George Quaintance
by Donny Jacobs

The death of George Quaintance from a fatal heart attack on November 9, 1957 has brought sadness throughout the entire physical culture world. For many years a portrait painter, Mr. Quaintance began to do physique work just as a hobby. With the publication of his first group physique study, "Havasu Creek", in the first issue of Physique Pictorial, the name of Quaintance caught the country by storm and an insatiable demand for his work began. A perfectionist, he drove himself unmercifully, slaving days and nights(and taking Benzedrine to stay awake) to finish a painting or a sculpture piece. His body couldn't take the beating, and his health broke down many times . . . still he was driven by the indomitable drive to create . . . throughout the world, he has been acclaimed as the trailblazer of a (male nude art) culture which has been almost ignored for twenty centuries . . . but Quaintance will never really die. In each of his paintings, he has put something of himself; it is almost as if he played out his life before its time by giving up so much of himself. Few have been able to leave a legacy so rich as he has.

This eulogy, written in late November 1957 by Bob Mizer, legendary physique photographer and publisher of the seminal Gay magazine Physique Pictorial, was a fitting tribute to a man who, like Mizer, was a true pioneer. Today there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of artists who specialize in casting an erotic allure over the nude male form. These artists think nothing of depicting two or more nude males in graphically sexual poses. However, in the 1940s, when George Quaintance began creating art for a Gay male sensibility, homoeroticism wasn't graphic. It couldn't be. Attraction between two men could only be hinted at, because to actually visualize it was illegal. Being Gay was illegal, too.

So George Quaintance worked within the limits, turning out dozens of mildly homoerotic compositions for his largely Gay male clientele to drool over clandestinely(a clientele who hid behind the socially-sanctioned guise of "physical culture" enthusiasts) . . . but how he did it! Such vibrant color! Such mastery of light and shadow! Such elasticity of line! He was the first American painter who placed depictions of male-on-male desire on the same level as classic landscape and portrait artistry. George Quaintance's stellar craftsmanship has stood the test of time beautifully, and even though the best of his work in oil paint now looks quaint and dated, its restrained eroticism exerts a magnetic pull that fascinates to this day. A Quaintance painting is proof that what they say is true: Leaving certain things to the imagination can be ever so much sexier than showing it!

Spartan Soldiers, 1956

Honolulu-based erotic artist Douglas Simonson knows a thing or two about implied eroticism: His stylish renderings of native Hawaiian, African and South American men are in the Quaintance tradition of emphasizing physical beauty over graphic sexuality. Rarely does he veer into pornographic territory. "I've been familiar with Quaintance since probably the early '70s," he told me recently. "I wasn't particularly influenced by him in terms of artistic style, (but) like Tom of Finland and a few others, he inspired me simply by having been a portrayer of the male nude at a time when almost no one had the courage to do so."

George Quaintance has been mistaken for Hispanic, no doubt because so many of his paintings feature images of Latino men; others have clamied that he came from French-Canadian roots. Whatever his ethnic background, he was a country boy, born and raised on a farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His birthdate was 3 June 1902. When he wasn't busy helping his parents with farm work, he drew pictures every chance he got; the lush country setting inspired him. Some rural parents would have frowned on such unmanly activities, but fortunately for George, the Quaintances saw fit to encourage them; when he begged for art utensils, they sent away for some. Young George was overjoyed when the set of pencils, brushes and paints arrived. He began using them straight away to hone his budding talents.

At the age of 18, he traveled to New York City and enrolled at the Art Students League, a prestigious academy that Norman Rockwell, Jackson Pollock and Maurice Sendak would later attend. There he studied painting, drawing and both classical and modern dance.  His family was very wealthy, and able to fund his studies. Upon graduating, Quaintance embarked on a career as a commercial illustrator, sculptor and professional portrait painter. Some of the landscapes he painted during this period (such as 1925's "Home On The Farm") still turn up occasionally at art auctions. He also created superb Art Deco sculptures, an example of which appears below. However, his most lucrative work came from freelancing as an illustrator for movie magazines; believe it or not, the man who'd become famous for his male nudes drew "girlie" pin-up art during his early career. He was capable of far more ambitious things, though; in 1933, during a trip back home, he fulfilled his mother's request to paint a religious mural for her church in Stanley, Virginia. The tableau, which features a stunning rendition of Jesus Christ, still exists.

Quaintance Art Deco

But George Quaintance was like a fountain overflowing with creative energy; visual art could not contain his talent. In the 1920s and '30s, he toured the vaudeville circuit with a dance troupe called the Collegians. He also taught tap dance and ballet for a time. By the late 1930s, he had re-invented himself as a hairdresser based in Hollywood. He designed coiffures for major movie stars like Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson and Helen Hayes (years later, he would style the haircuts of his male models). Working in the film colony apparently triggered directorial ambitions within him; periodically, he would return home to Virginia, round up some local talent, and stage elaborate musical revues that he wrote himself. By the early 1940s, he had also became interested in photography. George Quaintance was nothing less than a wunderkind, trying his hand and excelling at any number of creative endeavors. The one endeavor he didn't excel at during this period was marriage. A hasty union with one of his vaudeville dance partners, Miriam Chester, lasted less than a year.

If there's one thing George Quaintance's biographers can all agree on, it's the fact that he was a Gay man. Why on Earth would he marry up with a woman? He no doubt did so for one of the reasons Gay men still wed hetereosexually: Societal stigma placed on homosexual relationships; family expectations; the shame-based desire to force himself Straight; the delusion that his attraction to other men was just a phase. Certainly, Gay marriage wasn't even dreamt of in the 1930s: Men were expected to marry women, and that was that! Homosexual orientation was even less well understood then than it is today(the word "Gay" was relatively new, decades away from becoming common parlance). Nobody knew what it was, and few people knew what to call it, so it was easy for everyone to pretend that it didn't exist. As many Gay as Straight people took up this absurd pretense, and many still do.

If George Quaintance was one of these pretenders, he proved unable to make believe for very long. He found the female body aesthetically pleasing, but it held no erotic appeal for him. The male body was what excited him. In fact, his passion for male bodies was so strong, he would discover that he needed more than one lover at a time to satisfy it! When he began mixing business with pleasure later on in his life, that passion would come to dominate the kind of artwork he produced.

The Falconer, 1957

Several years after his marriage dissolved, Quaintance began studying physique photography under Lon Of New York, among others. Lon Hanagan, whose work is highly revered today, was one of the pioneer physique photographers. While tutoring him, Hanagan took advantage of Quaintance's painting skill; in those days when total male nudity in commercial photographs was verboten, fig leaves had to appear over a nude model's genitalia(I kid you not). Taking paintbrush in hand, Quaintance diligently added these modesty-preserving adornments to many Lon of New York photo sets.

In all likelihood, Hanagan introduced Quaintance to the man who'd become his life and business partner. Puerto Rico-born Victor García had been one of Hanagan's models. By the mid-1940s, Victor and George had set up housekeeping together. This relationship would last until the end of Quaintance's life, but not without amendments! In 1953, their pairing would turn into a ménage à trois after Quaintance added a third man, Angel Avila, to their household. Quaintance had hired Avila to model for a series of matador studies. Evidently, García didn't cotton to the three-way relationship, and Avila moved out; however, he would have to learn to adapt. There would continue to be another man (usually a physique model, and usually Latino) in Quaintance's life and home up until his death. Eventually, Victor García fully embraced polyamory and took a second lover himself. Tall, Nordic-looking Tom Syphers kept him company when Quaintance's amorous attentions strayed. By 1956, Garcia, Syphers, Quaintance and whoever his new flame of the moment was were all living and sleeping together at Rancho Siesta, an Arizona property which became the latter's studio and business headquarters.

Coral Reef, 1956

Much of importance happened before George Quaintance's love life took such an exotic turn, though. In 1948, he and Garcia relocated from New York to California. Quaintance had decided to concentrate on physique photography and paintings, and he no doubt had heard of the thriving bodybuilding scene at Venice Beach(then known as Muscle Beach). He wanted to be in close proximity to the best male specimens. By 1951, Quaintance had set up a mail order business in order to market his product; he'd been honing his male nude technique since the early '40s, and now he believed he finally had something commercial to offer. The first compositions he offered for sale were "Havasu Creek", "Young Stallion", "Kanaka Fisherman", "White Captive", "The Crusader", "Pearl Diver", "In The Arms of Morpheus", "Night In The Desert" and "Dashing."

He mainly advertised through Bob Mizer's Physique Pictorial, the most famous of several precursors to today's Gay skin mags. There was really no other place suitable for advertising the kind of work he did! His physique paintings typically featured semi-nude male couples or groups of men, captured in suggestive attitudes or poses. When they wore pants, the trousers were skintight, with visible bulges in the crotch. Although he necessarily eschewed frontal nudity, Quaintance pushed the envelope as far as he dared. The result was paintings that were considered much too daring for general exhibition. Truth be told, concentrating on the male nude destroyed George Quaintance's chances for a career as a mainstream artist; the stigma placed on homoerotic art was that strong. However, once his mail order business became as lucrative as it did, he might not have cared much.

The prints and slides he made of his provocative paintings sold like hotcakes! He and Victor García could barely keep any in stock. Quaintance's online biographers Ken Furtado and John Waybright have attempted to explain the huge appeal his artwork had for Gay men in the '50s. They wrote: "Quaintance's male physique paintings (made) casual nudity among men . . . so expressive and so connotative, with never a (penis) to be seen, as to assume a potency previously associated only with pornography."

To non-sympathetic eyes, it proved to be quite potent indeed! His painting "Aztec Sacrifice", which depicted two bare-bottomed Indian braves dying from arrow wounds, touched off a royal furore among postal authorities when it appeared as a Physique Pictorial cover image in August 1952. Its distribution was reportedly banned in some locales. The controversy gave Bob Mizer lots of headaches, but it undoubtedly helped send Quaintance Studio sales figures through the roof.

Sunrise, 1953

"The Legacy of George Quaintance" concludes with Part Two.