Gerda Wegener, Lili med fjerkost (Lili with a Feather Duster), 1920, oil on canvas, 31 1/8 × 23 1/4". From “Moral Dis/Order: Art and Sexuality in Europe Between the Wars.”

Gerda Wegener, Lili med fjerkost (Lili with a Feather Duster), 1920, oil on canvas, 31 1/8 × 23 1/4". From “Moral Dis/Order: Art and Sexuality in Europe Between the Wars.”

“Moral Dis/Order”

“Moral Dis/Order: Art and Sexuality in Europe Between the Wars” maneuvers with confidence and authority through a problematic and potentially swampy terrain: the correlate that the new sexual isms, defined and classified in Europe from the end of the nineteenth century onward, found in the artistic isms during the golden age of the European avant-gardes in France, Germany, England, and Spain between the two World Wars.

Curator Juan Vicente Aliaga has based this ambitious survey on his decades of pioneering scholarly work on queer and gender studies both in Spain and abroad and on his curatorial work on important exhibitions that reexamined such relevant figures as Claude Cahun or Hannah Höch. The show begins with the German Freikörperkultur of the 1920s. The paintings of Eugène Jansson, who specialized during the turn of the century in depictions of male nudes in athletic poses, or the cinema of Nicholas Kaufmann and Wilhelm Prager—whose 1925 documentary Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Strength and Beauty) prefigured the idealizing aesthetics of Leni Riefenstahl (she makes a cameo as a dancer in it)—not only liberated the representation of the nude after the more repressive visual culture of the prewar Prussian society, but also opened the path to the aberrant fascist representation of “pure” Aryan bodies. The exhibition then jumps over the Channel to the Bloomsbury set with all their ambiguities. Bold public paintings such as Decoration: The Excursion of Nausicaa (1920), in which Ethel Walker deactivates the male gaze traditionally associated with history painting, or private and sexually explicit drawings by Duncan Grant or Dora Carrington were bound up with the Cambridge Apostles’ elitist discourse around homosexuality. This elitism found its parallel in Paris in the work of figures such as Natalie Barney or Romaine Brooks. Another section presents the sexual arcadias of photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden, Glyn Warren Philpot’s paintings and sculptures with titles such as Melancholy Negro, 1936, and the Orientalist fantasies of Spanish artist Gabriel Morcillo, all works by artists who were guilty of recolonizing, racializing, and sexualizing Black, Arab, or poor Southern European bodies.

The fluid and nonbinary gender identities of Barbette, as seen by Man Ray in Paris in the 1920s, or of Lili Elbe, Danish painter Gerda Wegener’s trans partner and model, make for a stark opposition to the disturbing fantasies and association of sex with violence in Germany’s Neue Sachlichkeit, from the work of George Grosz to Otto Dix or Heinrich Maria Davringhausen. This, in turn, leads us to the murky approach and tragic outcome of the association between desire and power and the literally degenerate aspirations to depict the Aryan body in the official art of German or Italian fascism. Later, the radically free imagination of Carol Rama emerged in Italy. In simultaneously explicit and dreamlike descriptions of zoophilia such as Eretica (Heretic), 1944, her work still proves to be almost as difficult to digest nowadays as it was when her first show in her native Turin was summarily canceled after the war.

The narration of all this material is, of course, highly polemical and potentially explosive. And that is perhaps the greatest virtue of this exhibition: It problematizes, nuances, opens up to criticism, and chooses to pose questions; it doesn’t impose answers in response to complex debates around the artistic representation of desire, sex, race, gender, and the body. It manages to avoid unidirectional discourses and the unconditional celebration of a supposedly liberating diversity as much as it refuses to ignore heterodox approaches or deviant artistic statements. The disturbingly dark and graphically violent sexual fantasies of Hungarian painter Alexander Gergely, for instance, are good examples of the kind of hard-core visual depictions that certain museums or curators might feel tempted to cancel nowadays.

The mirror offered to the present is nonetheless evident, if understated: The problems posed by the political connotations and the fusion of what is most intimate with what is most public in European art between the wars remain just as thorny in our late-capitalist, biopolitical, and hyperglobalized art system.