San Sebastián

“El Rostro Velado”

Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea

For some years now sexual ambiguity has filled Spanish newspapers and magazines, spiced up television programs and stag parties, and even enlivened the closing celebrations at certain political conventions. In keeping with the media’s growing appetite for spectacle, the representation of this subject has generally been irredeemably superficial. The critically acclaimed exhibition “El Rostro Velado: Travestismo e identidad en el arte” (The veiled visage: transvestism and identity in art), however, presented a serious, historically based study of images of transvestism in the twentieth century.

The show’s curator, José Miguel G. Cortés, built his argument around several constellations of artists, the first of which comprised Man Ray, August Sander, Lisette Model, and Claude Cahun. In this context Cahun recovered the central position that has been denied her for decades. In the examples shown here, one saw Cahun as a boy with shorn hair, the monitor of a gym, a Parisian dancer/gentleman in evening clothes, and an Alsatian femme fatale, among others personas. These works demonstrated that Cahun’s ability to radically metamorphose into other identities without hiding her lesbianism emerged from her everyday existence. Man Ray’s photographs, on the other hand, cannot be understood without the protagonism of Marcel Duchamp; while Duchamp’s role as a pioneer with respect to transvestism (which does not extend far beyond posing as a bourgeois woman, in the form of Rrose Sélavy) has often been exaggerated.

On the other hand, the gaze of German photographer August Sander was inscribed onto a wide-ranging topology of characters and types he called “people of the twentieth century.” As Cortés states in the catalogue, “the rare portraits of marginal, eccentric and effeminate people or transvestites contribute to making others appear more normal still.” These others, of course, did not appear in “The Veiled Visage.” Model’s Hubert’s 42nd Street Flea Circus, 1945, depicts an epicene seated man in makeup wearing a false smile, one of his legs displaying hair and a sock, the other a high-heeled shoe and a bracelet. In this rather uncharacteristic work, Model portrays a person outside the accepted norm, but without either succumbing to the cruelty Diane Arbus sometimes displayed toward her subjects, or endowing her subject with the humanity Tod Browning gave the characters in his film Freaks (1932).

The second group consisted of work gathered from the ’70s—including contributions by Jürgen Klauke, Urs Lüthi, Juan Hidalgo, the late Michel Journiac, and Pierre Molinier. In pieces like the series “Hommage à Freud, constant critique d’une mythologie travestie,” 1972–84, Journiac (an artist whose work was excluded from the Guggenheim’s recent exhibition “A Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose”) emphasized the relationship between patriarchal roles and clothing. In L’inceste, 1975, he presents an array of possible hetero- and homosexual couplings between fictive protagonists, dressing himself as father, mother, son, and daughter. In his photo series “Biozaj Apollonian, Biozaj Dionysian,” 1977, Hidalgo, the only Spaniard in the exhibition, presented an Eve with hermaphroditic features. The star of this group was Molinier, although the selection of works was uncharacteristically monotonous.

The third group, drawn from the ’80s and ’90s, was perhaps the least surprising. Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs of transsexuals, which are imbued with a macabre and fantastic aesthetic, clashed with the documentary tone in the work of Catherine Opie, Nan Goldin, Andy Warhol, and Humberto Rivas. In a series of six sober and naturalistic images, Rivas, an Argentine artist who resides in Barcelona, exhibited the complete striptease of the Catalan transvestite Violeta la Burra (Violeta the Donkey).

It is worth noting that in Franco’s Spain ignorance among the authorities and general population led to a great deal of confusion about sexual terminology. The word “transvestite,” for example, was used to include cross-dressers making their living by working in cabarets, transsexuals (those who had had surgery as well as those who hadn’t), and even gay people. This confusion is still common today, and one might even say that it was perpetuated by this exhibition, in that it gave “transvestism” an all-encompassing character. A poetic but equivocal title, “The Veiled Visage” suggests that authentic sexual identity exists behind the veil or mask. This is a suspect notion, one that in fact contradicts an idea behind many of these works: that human beings represent continuous versions of mutable identities essentially lacking in unique truth.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from the Spanish by Christian Viveros-Faunè.