What is still pending

A few months ago, I was commissioned to write a book. At first I thought they were joking, as it was something that came up in casual (and not-so-casual) conversations, at brief encounters, or as a possibility mentioned in the context of many other ideas at the events they organise to promote their publications. However, it soon became clear that it was no joke: the publisher Caniche really was asking me to write an essay for them. They wanted me to recover research, from some years ago, on the figure of the dandy that I had been working on for more than a decade which resulted in an exhibition I curated as part of the curatorial office, RMS La Asociación, at the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea in 2010, entitled Sur le dandysme aujourd’hui. Del maniquí en el escaparate a la estrella mediática, although there will always be something left unresolved, left pending. I was obliged to go back over the material I had been saving in my library and on my computer, to reread articles and books and to go over images that had been ignored, waiting for me to view them for years. I also had to recover what I had already written: rereading your old work is not advisable. The whole operation was somewhat melancholic and nostalgic, like opening an old diary from your teenage years, hidden under the bed in the belief that no one will ever discover it. This reminded me of a wonderful text I read when I was a student: “Unpacking My Library” by Walter Benjamin, who dedicated many pages to that almost mythical character of the dandy, who inhabited the streets of Paris in a state of perpetual wandering. I soon discovered, however, that this dandy was not the one I was interested in- that of the metaphysical tradition of French theory. I was interested in the British dandy, the one who moved through the salons and clubs of Regency London, the first being George Bryan Brummell, and the last being perhaps Oscar Wilde, who lived through the double standards of the Victorian era. Dandies who lived their dandyism, not just wrote about it. I decided, then, that I should reread a book that here in Spain, has not received the importance that has been given to others, perhaps because it has not been translated: Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault, by Jonathan Dollimore. The work is based on Wilde’s chance meeting with André Gide in Algeria, which led to recognition for the Frenchman and that has taken me to other places. Dollimore uses the two writers, so different but so similar, to construct a genealogy of dissident sexual identities and to resolve that dichotomy- once more in the binarism that determines Western thought- between essence and construction, between nature and culture, as the dandy seemed to resolve others in the 19th century: “l’androgyne de l’histoire” Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly called him, in his treatise Du Dandysme et de G. Brummell.

While trying to avoid the underlined text in the pages of the Dollimore, I listened to Anna Moffo, the American soprano who became the new Callas, on Spotify. The association between Moffo and Wilde led me to another essay (if it can be called an essay- it also has a lot of autobiography and some fiction, a bit of Virginia Woolf and a bit of Roland Barthes) The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and The Mystery of Desire by Wayne Koestenbaum. Wilde took much from the opera diva, and from the theatre, to build himself a character. In fact, Wilde became famous before he had written anything of importance, like those so-called “professional beauties”, women who were invited to the London high society parties and who became big stars, appearing on stage in their own right. When he was invited to the United States for the famous lecture tour preparing the public for the reception of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience, he was photographed by Napoleon Sarony, who took pictures of the stars of the New York stages. He posed, (posing is an important verb to understand the dandies: Wilde’s trials began when the Marquis of Queensberry, father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, accused him of “posing somdomite [sic]”), leaning against a wall that is covered in a theatrical curtain, and lying back on a sofa, as Moffo herself does on a RAI television program, perhaps making fun of herself and, by extension, of all divas. The white set is reminiscent of the pre-code 1930s musicals of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, but also of the divas’ own homes- in which the home was confused with a decarado, as happened to Gloria Swanson’s character, Normand Desmond, in Sunset Boulevard, when she descended the staircase of her mansion that has been transformed into that of Herod’s palace in a version of the story of Salome. Oscar Wilde seemingly dressed up as that same Salome in a well-known photograph that appears in what is considered his canonical biography, written by Richard Ellmann, and is still credited as Wilde. It was discovered, however, that it is the Hungarian soprano, Alice Guszalewicz who appears in the photo- posing as Salome, or perhaps posing as Oscar Wilde posing Salome in a very camp loop. “Strike a pose!” they might have told her, but perhaps that other story is best left for another day. There is always something left pending.

Sergio Rubira is an independent curator and lecturer in Art History at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and on the Master’s degree in curatorial studies at the Universidad de Navarra. At Artium Museoa, Rubira co-curated the exhibition “A Place to Think: Experimental Art Schools and Educational Practices in the Basque Country (1957-1979)” together with Mikel Onandia and Rocío Robles Tardío (January-June 2022), as well as “Bilduma Has Collectión (1950-2000)”, the most recent hanging of the museum’s collection together with Beatriz Herraez, that was inaugurated in March 2023.