Art historian studies what Victorian home interiors revealed about same-sex intimacy
BY REBECCA KENDALL
Behind the brick walls of art history professor John Potvin's Victorian home lies a glimpse of who he is. Everything from the freshly painted deep-red wall that runs along his living room to the Asian-inspired images that hang from it reflects his personality and what makes him comfortable. He says all homes transmit messages about their owners.
Not surprisingly for an academic, books are prominently featured in the decor of Potvin's two-level apartment in the heart of Toronto's old Cabbagetown neighbourhood, but as a matter of personal taste, he considers himself to be a minimalist.
“I prefer to have people rather than things fill up my space,” he says. “I am fortunate to have a collection of good people around me, and I want those people to be comfortable in my space. I suppose that's what my home says about me. I'm a collector of good people.”
He pauses for a moment, then adds: “I'm very choosy about everything. Every single thing in my home, regardless of its monetary value, has been chosen for a reason. It reminds me of friends or family or of a particular place or feeling I once had. Everything I own has meaning to me.”
Potvin is able to verbally express what his home says about himself, but his larger interest in the subject spans time and place, and he's looking at visual expression to unravel some of the mystery.
“If people approach art with an eye for its social and political messages, there is much to be revealed about society and about ourselves,” says Potvin, who is studying how the home interiors among Britain's 19th-century queer community fostered intimacy and how that was expressed artistically.
He will give a lecture on understanding same-sex intimacy through photographs at the Northeast Modern Language Association's 37th annual convention to be held March 2 to 5 at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“My art history is politically invested,” says Potvin. “Political does not necessarily mean burning a flag; for me, it's about exploring otherness and discovering, appreciating and theorizing otherness. Looking at intimacy within constructed spaces is just one facet.”
A BA graduate in French language and literature from the University of Alberta, he holds an MA from Carleton University and a PhD from Queen's. He joined the faculty of the School of Fine Art and Music in September 2005. His areas of interest and research include European visual culture, histories and theories of the body, visual and material cultures of masculinity, and visual strategies in feminist, queer and post-colonial theories.
“The way we view ourselves and those around us, along with the objects and images that we use to define ourselves, are heavily influenced by popular culture, which throughout history has been depicted through art,” says Potvin.
“I have an interest in how queerness was articulated through what was collected by partners and how those choices created a sense of community and comfort.”
He recently received support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art to continue his research.
He is studying a number of homes, including one shared by 19th-century painter Charles Shannon and his partner, a well-known lithographer named Charles Ricketts. Shannon and Ricketts, who met in their teens and lived together as a couple for more than 50 years, worked and socialized with an inner circle of artists, including Oscar Wilde, who once commented that their home, known as “The Vale,” was “the one house in London where you could never be bored.”
“I'm exploring how these queer artists allowed for artistic communities and queer communities overall through the objects, paintings and spaces they possessed,” says Potvin. “Shannon and Ricketts were hard-core collectors and connoisseurs of Greek and Roman objects and paintings. The public areas of their home were luxurious and elaborate.”
This work is part of a book Potvin is writing called Bachelors of a Different Sort. His first book, Looking Beyond Male Bonding: The New Chivalry and the Boundaries of Same-Sex Intimacy in Turn-of-the-Century Britain, slated for release next year, investigates the representation, culture and spaces of same-sex intimacy.
In the 19th century, queer identities were understood in only two ways: legally and medically, says Potvin, who notes that legal documents and medical reports figure prominently among the items he's referencing. One might question the use of such items in researching art, he says, but short of the few photographs, paintings and personal letters he's using, there is little reference material available.
“I have no other choice but to look at medicine and law because those were the things defining the homosexual. Art history itself has always denied the existence of queerness, so we have to tease out various components to make sense of that history. It's very difficult.”
By the end of the 19th century, the medical community had formally defined and identified homosexuals and heterosexuals based on lists of stereotypical traits, and laws related to sexual intimacy were being passed, he says. Labels were given to people based on assumptions, and certain body language was believed to reveal a person's sexuality. “It was like a 19th-century version of ‘gaydar.'”
Today, we understand sexuality very differently, he says, and the assumptions and ideals regarding coupling and domesticity are being redefined.
“We are standing on the edge of a radically new future in regards to the recognition and legalization of same-sex unions, and this underscores that the nature of living arrangements, domesticity and intimacy is as varied as the homes we live in.”
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