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History: Babylon hath been a golden cup

Tue 2 May 2006 In: Comment

While most knowledgeable LGBT folk are aware of the persecution and downfall of Oscar Wilde in the nineteenth century, what about reknowned Pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) twenty years earlier? In December just past, Birmingham Museum held a retrospective of this unjustly neglected artist's work. As one of his most ardent rehabilitators, Gayle Seymour, noted in the elegant coffeetable book that accompanies this exhibition, Solomon's work cannot be divorced from the gradual emancipation of British Jews from legal disabilities during the nineteenth century, or from his own gayness. Indeed, Solomon's work celebrates his cultural background, and incorporates homoeroticised Old Testament religious content into his work. Seymour argues that this work was intended as a touchstone for maintenance of a distinctive post-emancipation Jewish cultural and religious identity at a time when assimilation threatened its future. At the same time as celebrating his ethnicity and cultural history, Solomon interwove definite homoerotic elements into his work. Inevitably, the David and Jonathon relationship was one such reinterpretation available to him, but his gay sensibility led to other insights within his art. For example, King David is shown as 'outed' after the Prophet Nathan discloses his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, and David's resultant shame at this disclosure. Seymour argues that Solomon subverted his biblical subject matter to uncover traces of homoerotic content hidden in the story. In a later work, he depicted Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego from the Book of Daniel, each depicted in a close intimate embrace amidst the flames of the furnace that Nebuchadnezzar placed them within, in anger at their refusal to worship him. At the same time, he was also painting classicist works, which provided other opportunities for homoerotic depiction, female or male. In the case of Socrates, he depicted a naked young male agathodemon alongside him, although lesbians might prefer his depiction of Sappho and one of her disciples/lovers, Erinna. Granted, Swinburne had also referred to this relationship in his poetry, as had Charles Baudelaire in France. However, Solomon depicted it in pictorial form Sadly, given the subsequent attacks on his artistic reputation, many of his original works have gone missing, at a great loss to all his admirers, old and new. Pre-Raphaelitism, past and present, appealed to many nineteenth century gay men because of its ties to 'ritualism,' a religious movement that emphasised the sacramental and ritual qualities of religion, be it Anglo-Catholic Anglican or Greek Orthodox Christianity, or Judaism. So why don't we know more about Simeon Solomon, and why has his work been so unjustly neglected? Sadly, the answer is British and French homophobia. In February 1873, Simeon Solomon was arrested for having bog sex with another man, George Roberts. Due to his social status, Solomon escaped with a suspended sentence, but when he was arrested in Paris in March 1874, he was sentenced to three months imprisonment. Thereafter, his commissions evaporated, and alcoholism may have taken hold of his life. For the last two decades of that life, he lived in Saint Giles Workhouse in London, although there were occassional requests for book illustrations, and the odd crayon and pencil etching, but Solomon never recovered from the shock of imprisonment and his outing as a gay man. Sadly, he died in 1905. Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of interest in his work, primarily led by the aforementioned Gayle Seymour, and British playwright Neil Bartlett in the nineties, culminating in the recent Birmingham retrospective of his work. (Inexplicably, given the circumstances of his arrest and downfall, Canada's John Greyson didn't deal with Simeon Solomon's case in one of the vignettes in his agitprop documentary about police surveillance and harrassment of gay bog sex in Ontario, Urinal (1985). ) Happily, though, that neglect can now end. Simeon Solomon is a lost genius of our past, lovingly and painstakingly restored. May we never lose this muse again. Essential Reading: Colin Cruise et al (ed) Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites: London/Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: Merrell: 2005. Roberto Ferreri: "Biographical Timeline of Simeon Solomon's Life": Neil Bartlett: "Fallen Angel" Guardian (UK) 8.10.05:,,1586365,00.html Also Recommended: Linda Dowling: Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford: Ithaca: Cornell University Press: 1994. David Hilliard: "Unenglish and Unmanly: Anglo-Catholicism and Homosexuality" Victorian Studies: 25:2: 1982: 181-210. Yopie Prins: Victorian Sappho: Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1999. Gayle Seymour: "Simeon Solomon and the Biblical Construction of Marginal Identity" in Raymond-Jean Frontain (ed) Reclaiming the Sacred: The Bible in Gay and Lesbian Culture: New York: Haworth: 1997: 97-119. John Greyson: Urinal and Other Stories: Montreal: Art Metropole: 1994. Craig Young - 2nd May 2006    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Tuesday, 2nd May 2006 - 12:00pm

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