Today, City Connect celebrates the birthday of American artist Paul Cadmus who was born on 17 December 1904 and died on 12 December 1999. Paul Cadmus is best known for his paintings and drawings of nude male figures. His works combined elements of eroticism and social critique to produce a style often called magic realism. Paul Cadmus painted with egg tempera.
In 1934 Paul Cadmus painted The Fleet’s In! while working for the Public Works of Art Project of the WPA. This painting, featuring carousing sailors, women, and a homosexual couple, was the subject of a public outcry and was removed from exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery. The publicity helped to launch his career. “The Battle of the Corcoran” was a critical turning point in the career of the young, 29 year-old Greenwich Village artist who was suddenly thrust into national prominence. Involving elements of overt censorship, it was brought back into the limelight decades later.
As a young scholar, Philip Eliasoph was given unprecedented access to work with Cadmus to record for posterity the biographical details of his career. Completing ‘Paul Cadmus:Life & Work’ Eliasoph realized there was a missing piece as Cadmus’ notorious sailor painting was created for the first New Deal art project, the P.W.A.P. and rightfully belonged in the public domain as Federal property. ‘The Fleet’s In!’ had been seized by Navy admirals at the behest of Roosevelt administration officials for the Corcoran’s premier event showcasing the first examples of New Deal art patronage, the sexually explicit painting was overtly censored. Secretary of the Navy Swanson stated the [painting] “represents a most disgraceful, sordid, disreputable, drunken brawl..” [Time, April, 30, 1934]. Cadmus defended himself: “I owe the start of my career to the Admiral who tried to suppress it. I didn’t feel any moral indignation about those sailors, even though it woundn’t be my idea of a good time. I always enjoyed watching them when I was young. I somewhat envied the freedom of their lives and their lack of inhibitions.”
“This, then, is my viewpoint – a satirical viewpoint: and I think I’m correct in saying that genuine satire has always been considered supremely moral,” Cadmus wrote in his “Credo”, a broadside for his first exhibition at Midtown Gallery in 1937. In the tradition of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Daumier, Cadmus felt the urgency to use his artistic expression towards exposing the “replusive” and “malignant” aspects of human behavior towards a “nobler” society. In preparing for the artist’s first and only national Retrospective tour in 1981, Eliasoph sought restitution of the painting. He sought out the counsel of Karel Yasko, Counselor for Fine Arts and Historic Preservation of the General Services Administration, in Washington D.C. Since the end of the New Deal, the GSA had been given supervisory authority for federal property created by artists. Cadmus showed Eliasoph evidence that his painting – which he had last seen when he delievered it to Juliana Force at the old Whitney Museum on 8th Street in 1934 – had been confiscated and sequestered in an elite private men’s social club in Washington. The Alibi Club on “I” street had received the painting from FDR’s cousin, Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and a club member. The second ‘Battle of the Corcoran’ ensued when Eliasoph commenced a legal campaign to recover the painting aided by Yasko’s threat to the club to seize it using federal marshalls. With amicable negotiations, and a public airing of this “censorship” matter in The Washington Post, the painting was legally transferred back to the U.S. Navy Historical Center in Washington, D.C. where it is now proudly displayed. It was not until the opening night of Cadmus’ retrospective, at the Miami University Art Museum, in Oxford, Ohio, that Cadmus was re-united with the work he had not seen in over 47 years.
The third “Battle of the Corcoran” took place decades later when the homo-erotic photographic exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe was removed due to pressures about its funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. In a published letter to The New York Times, [Nov. 26, 1989] Eliasoph reminded readers of “The Other Time Censorship Stormed Into the Corcoran Gallery,” noting: “while members of the curatorial staff..might be too young to remember the history of their predecessors, an earlier storm of controversy forced the censorship and removal of an offending artwork from the very same institution 55 years ago… As in most cases of artistic censorship, Mr. Cadmus’ work seems mildly tame and lighthearted compared with today’s notions of sexuality as seen in magazine ads and music videos.”
Paul Cadmus worked in commercial illustration as well, but Jared French, another tempera artist who befriended him and became his lover for a time, convinced him to devote himself completely to fine art.
Jon Andersson, who became Cadmus’s longtime companion of 35 years, was a subject of many of his works.
In 1999 Paul Cadmus died in his home in Weston, Connecticut due to advanced age, just five days short of his 95th birthday.
Cadmus’ sister, Fidelma, was the wife of philanthropist and arts patron Lincoln Kirstein. Cadmus is ranked by Artists Trade Union of Russia amongst the world-best artists of the last four centuries.
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