PJ and I missed the Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery earlier this year, so PJ ordered a copy of the catalogue. We’re going to have a chance to see the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in December, so I started reading the catalogue, which was edited by Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward.

This is the first time that I’ve read a book about an exhibit before seeing the exhibit. The book version of Hide/Seek is a great read, whether one ever sees the actual exhibit or not. In particular, Katz’s opening essay describing the exhibit and providing historical context for the works in it is a particularly fine essay.

For a couple of decades now, scholars have argued that before modern notions of sexuality became prevalent, “homosexuality” was coded as being effeminate and the penetrated partner in any sexual activity. Thus, a “heterosexual” man could have sex with a “homosexual” one without impugning his reputation as a straight man, provided he performed the masculine role of penetrating the gay man. Katz’s explanation of this theory is one of the best I’ve ever read.

Katz explains this concept in order to interpret George Bellows’s The Shower-Bath (1917):

He reads this image to explain why, even though it depicts an “obvious” homosexual in the foreground, it was an extremely popular. His reading is convincing, and it made me think about this period of American cultural history differently. This print is nearly contemporaneous with one of my favorite novels, Henry Blake Fuller’s 1919 Bertram Cope’s Year. Thinking about this novel in terms of Katz’s argument would be a very interesting way to approach the book.