Friday, September 24, 2010

Queering the Image 7: An Early 20th Century Advertisement Illustrated by JC Leyendecker


J C Leyendecker (1874-1951) was a highly successful  American artist and illustrator in the early 20th century. He is well known for his poster, book, as well as most significantly advertising images and produced over 400 magazine covers with 322 covers solely for the Saturday Evening Post.  His most famous advertising campaign, The Arrow Collar Man, ran from 1905-1931.  Here is just one example from this long enduring campaignWithin this mass culture image meant to sell consumer goods, shirts and collars, is inscribed a palpable, vibrant and perhaps surprising  homoeroticism which is strikingly quite visible.  It was probably quite evident to a contemporaneous (homosexual) viewer at the moment of the ad’s production as it is to my queer self in 2010.


The advertisement presents a narrative of desire, an erotic longing for physical contact perhaps fulfilled, perhaps frustrated between 2 men. On the porch of an elegant house with grand steps and classical columns laden with wisteria (0r is it the country club manor) a handsome, stylish man and a woman presumably his wife in a Gibson Girl ensemble sit casually next to each other.  Between the man’s legs rests a bag of golf clubs and his wife looks at the family dog while petting it.


On the right side of the illustration stands another good looking, beautifully dressed man sporting a red cap.  He strikes a jaunty pose with his left hand on his hip; his right hand is placed on his golf bag. 

Perhaps, the 2 men have just finished a round of golf or are about to play one; but, that action is either in the recent past or the near future.  Instead, the intense gaze between the 2 men animates this scene and comprises its true narrative.  It is not a simple or unknowing look.  It is a gaze of intense want, a desire for physical interaction beyond the sanctioned practice of sports which allows masculine men to touch one another within a homosocial space.  These 2 men covet each other, each holding their “clubs”,  ready to potentially consummate their mutual attraction.

kruger Untitled by Barbara Kruger 1983


The woman/wife and her dog are obliterated and made irrelevant by this dual male gaze.  Although she sits physically close to her husband, there is no intimacy between them.  Her need for bodily contact is fulfilled by the family dog and not her husband.

But, although irrelevant to the illustration’s narrative, she is perhaps essential to it function as an advertisement.  She is the needed screen, the veneer of heterosexuality in the ad in order to make it acceptable, to hid its jcleyendeckergaze homoeroticism while it simultaneously asserts this same-sex desire quite vividly.  She elides the love that dare not speak its name of the image for those (men)who do not, cannot or will not see it.

In the end, this story of desire does not have any closure.  Is the desire between the 2 men consummated or is it left as an undercurrent between them, sublimated into a round of golf and never totally realized, but always displaced?  Does the seated man remain with his wife and the dog?  Does he not really play with his clubs and those of his companion?  One can never know the answer.

Yet, within this lack of closure is something viscerally sexual, something stimulating to me and the particular (homosexual) viewer.  In this way, it is more erotic, more charged- this story of want, then an image of its consummation.  It is truly erotic in the Barthesian sense.  Each (homosexual) viewer then could create their own story of these 2 men and imagine a series of events, followed by an ending of either fulfillment or frustration according to one’s own desires and fantasies.

Whatever the outcome of their narrative, this advertisement did not just sell shirts and collars, but explicitly displayed same-sex desire at a moment when such a desire was criminalized and medicalized.  And even today in 2010 it expresses this enduring desire.  It is a testament to a queer past.  It is my history.

JC_Leyendecker Leyendecker in 1895

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this post. I've been aware of Leyendecker from his Arrow ads for some time, but know so little about him. You've given me an incentive to find out more.