Stefan George was one of the greatest — and most controversial — German poets of his age. He was also, as we can now say openly, a gay poet. The arresting cover image of Peter Morgan's forthcoming book Stefan George: The Homosexual Imaginary is a detail from The Boxer, a late work by the important Russian painter Konstantin Somov (1869-1939). Somov was, as we can now say openly, a gay artist.
The two men were close contemporaries. Both experienced gay life during the period of transition from invisibility to notoriety that came to be symbolized by Weimar culture. But it began much earlier, in the last decades of the nineteenth century. This was a time in which homosexual men began to discover their own visibility in society. They began to recognize themselves, to see themselves mirrored in each other and to ask themselves: What is a gay life?
Bringing French fin-de-siècle decadence and aestheticism to German poetry, Stefan George came to represent the quiet centre of a revolution in homosexual men’s self-perception. In lyric poetry of unique beauty George suggested the changing nuances of a gay man’s life from adolescent confusion to mature adult love. George both courted and rejected public attention, building a coterie of young male admirers over whom he exerted influence and power. But at the same time he — and they — discovered each other. In lyric forms that increasingly openly celebrate male attraction and love, George created a version of a homosexual life at a time of social crisis and existential experimentation in Germany and Central Europe.
Konstantin Somov experienced late love, too. By then he was an emigré living in Paris, moving in Bohemian circles. Though he was heartbroken by the loss of his live-in companion Methodiy Lukyanov to tuberculosis, his art had a late flowering inspired, it would seem, by a new muse, Boris Snejkovsky. Our boxer clearly has the same sandy hair, seemingly-rouged lips and thin moustache found in Somov's open portrait of Snejkovsky, and indeed in the even more suggestive A Reclining Man.
Stefan George died in 1933, the year The Boxer was painted, when he like Somov was in his mid-sixties. In his final years George rejected the advances of Nazism, moving to Switzerland a sick man, old before his time. It is hard to believe that Nazis, even early in the 1930s, would fight to claim George for themselves, given his decadence and his long history of Jewish friends. But they did, and it is a measure of George’s influence and power that this rising movement would seek to harness his name and his reach among young men. Had they co-opted him, they would not, of course, have discussed his homosexuality: just as galleries, then and for years after, could hang the paintings of Konstantin Somov, and say to themselves, here is a work blending aestheticism, realism and technical skill. It is time to recognize all of these masterpieces as gay art.