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Paul Cadmus: Pushing the Envelope

Paul Cadmus - Gilding the Acrobats - 1935 - Oil and tempera on masonite - 36 3/4 × 18 3/8 in. - Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York, NYMagic Realism is an American style of art with Surrealist overtones. The art is anchored in everyday reality, but contains elements of fantasy and wonder. The term was later also applied to the literary works of authors such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez.

One of the artists associated with this movement was Paul Cadmus (1904-1999). A native New Yorker, Cadmus began his art studies at age 15, at New York City’s National Academy of Design and then later at the Art Students League. He landed work at an advertising agency, and later traveled with his partner, artist Jared French, to Majorca, in Spain where he created two of his better known paintings, Shore Leave and YMCA Locker Room (both 1933). Upon returning, Cadmus painted for the Public Works of Art project. It was during this time that he created The Fleet’s In! (1934). This was one of a number of works by the artist that were controversial. A work of social satire, it depicts sailors on shore leave and contains elements of prostitution, homoeroticism, and drunkenness. The work infuriated navy officials, and was pulled from an exhibition in Washington, D.C., in 1934. It was not displayed publicly again until 1981.  

The work featured here, Gilding the Acrobats, “reenacts literally the experience of painting the figure with thinly veiled homoeroticism. In an era when homosexual behavior was criminalized and homoerotic imagery was intensely policed, gay artists like Cadmus turned frequently to circus performers and athletes as the few socially permissible subjects that offered the opportunity to lavish attention on the male body.”

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