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The Subversions of Angel Zárraga: From Saint Sebastian to Soccer Players – Sam Lirette

Angel Zárraga (1886–1946)  is a Mexican-born painter who spent most of his professional life in Paris. After establishing roots in Cubism, the artist abandoned the style in favour of a more classicist style. Characterized by a desire for a retour à l’ordre, this return to classicism became a recurring theme with European (especially Parisian) artists of the early twentieth century1. Particularly, this outlined increasing anxieties concerning the degradation of traditional gender roles, such as the emasculation of men and increased social mobility of women2. I argue that Zárraga’s formal shifts do not speak of such anxieties, but rather illustrate an exceptional critique of the aforementioned expectations.  I aim to demonstrate how the homoeroticism present in Zárraga’s paintings subverts traditional norms and provides an intensely modern viewpoint, namely through role reversals and a play with sexual ambiguity.

Perceived Primitivism & Departure from Cubism

Pierre De Colombier, writer for The American Magazine of Art, wrote of Zaárraga in 1929 that  “his name is surrounded with a halo of respect and admiration.”3 Zárraga was generally well-received and respected; however, as was the case for many Latin American artists in Europe, he was often problematically described as “primitive.” For instance, in 1913, Wallace Thompson described Zárraga in the Fine Arts Journal as a “primitive” whose artistic skill does not derive from studying the masters, but from “founts of inspiration.”4 Strangely, Thompson later describes the artist as “a modern of the moderns,” which demonstrates a clear ambivalence; the writer attempts to negotiate his expectations of a “primitive” Latin America with that of a “modern” Paris.5  These problematic descriptions may have had an impact on Zárraga’s work, the subject matter he chose to depict, and how he chose to depict it. The artist’s later work does not explicitly depict Latin American subject matter, and his departure from Cubism — and most notably his later fascination with sportsmen (a distinctly modern subject) — may have been an attempt to reject this “primitive” label. The homoeroticism present in Zárraga’s work may then be understood as a critique of these exact institutional and social expectations. 

Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian: Laying the Groundwork for a Queer Reading

It is impossible to adequately examine the homoeroticism present in several of Zárraga’s works without first analyzing his 1911 painting Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (fig. 1). As the quintessential symbol for homoerotic desire, Saint Sebastian allows for queer readings within art that depicts him.6 

Rather than attributing Zárraga’s formal choices to vague instinctual inspiration, in Transatlantic Encounters, Michele Greet explores the artist’s exposure to baroque art and Symbolism as key components behind his oeuvres.7 This provides a basis for his interest in religious iconography and the idealized athletic body.8  This combination of religious subject matter and sensuality present in Zárraga’s work, as Rudi C. Bleys states in Images of Ambiente, “proved incompatible with the upcoming movement of socialist muralismo.”9  We may hypothesize, therefore, that the artist felt an increasing sense of alienation from his home country and appropriately chose to remain in Paris for the majority of his life. His work was seemingly well-received; according to Thompson, Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was “undeniably the artistic sensation of the salon.”10 Thompson fails to note, however, the scandal caused by the painting due to its overt sensuality.11 In fact, his review omits information about the figure of Saint Sebastian and instead points out “the caressing loveliness of the flesh of the kneeling woman.”12 By focusing on the flesh of the fully clothed woman, Thompson blatantly ignores the overt sensuality and nudity of the male figure, establishing a recurring theme within critiques of Zárraga’s work; art critics seemingly ignore anxiety-provoking aspects, and at times, provide a completely distorted recollection of the work. Bleys, meanwhile, speaks of the female figure “as if she were the transgendered [sic] personification of the artist himself.”13 He then argues that this is “neutralized” by the inscription found in the lower right corner of the painting, which speaks of the work as a votive painting.14 This outlandish claim seemingly and aimlessly attempts to ascribe a certain sexuality to the artist. As Greet describes, there is no clear evidence of Zárraga’s homosexuality even if “it is tempting to speculate that Zárraga struggled with a latent homosexuality.”15 I do not wish to take on an overly-biographical approach by examining the artist’s sexuality, but rather take an iconological approach in order to understand the impact of the homoeroticism present in his works—regardless of whether it was an intentional choice or indicative of the artist’s sexuality. 

In Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, as Héctor Domínguez Ruvalcaba states in Modernity and the Nation in Mexican Representations of Masculinity, the male body becomes an object of admiration.16 This subverts a long tradition in art history; the female body is not put on display for male viewers. As emphasized by Saint Sebastian’s seductive pose and raised arm, an important role-reversal occurs within this work—the male figure becomes the venerated object.17 The work demands a mediation between the gaze (and the traditionally masculine act of looking) and the imposed object of desire: the male body.18 It is in this specific regard that Zárraga’s work may be interpreted as a critique of gender norms. The reversal of roles creates a rather tongue-in-cheek commentary on the increasing anxieties concerning the degradation of such norms, namely the emasculation of men and the increasing social power of women in the public sphere.

Soccer Players: A Feminist Move 

This focus on anxieties concerning the increasing equality between genders is made evident in Zárraga’s paintings of athletes—his favoured subject by the early 1920s. His 1922 painting entitled Soccer Players (fig. 2) also subverts traditional expectations in favour of an exceptionally modern viewpoint, one that indicates a clear support of women’s rights. 

In 1921, Alice Milliat founded the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale and later organized the first Women’s World Games after women were repeatedly prohibited from entering the Olympic Games.19 Soccer Players was painted to commemorate the victory of the French soccer team in these games. As Greet points out, Zárraga does not attempt to caricaturize these women in order to argue against women’s rights, but rather inspiringly depicts these three soccer players as calm, confident, and having great physical ability.20 By painting these female players in such a dignified fashion, Zárraga can convincingly be understood as a supporter of women’s sports—and consequently, of women’s rights.21

Several critics deliberately misinterpret Soccer Players in order to avoid its overtly progressive imagery. Greet outlines how a certain critic claims that Zárraga clearly differentiates the male and female athlete by comparing the ways in which the ball is held in Soccer Players versus in Three Soccer Players (fig. 3): “‘Him, with clenched jaw, gripping the leather sphere as if to throw it with maximum force; her, holding it, maternally, against her chest, as if nursing a child. The eternal masculine and the eternal feminine are as such, opposed in the realm of sport.”22  Although seemingly obscured by the author’s praise, this claim demonstrates an intense anxiety about the growing presence of female athletes and their equal rights.23 Greet interprets the critic’s words as an attempt to impose a desired distinction between male and female athletes, which is evidently lacking in Zárraga’s work.24 This becomes clear as the critic completely fabricates the ways in which the subjects handle the ball.25 In fact, the exact opposite can be argued. In Soccer Players, the women completely disregard the ball, and the woman on the right demonstrates great agency by looking directly at the viewer. In Three Soccer Players, the men delicately envelop the ball and each other, not a single figure glaring back at the viewer. And, as made evident by the women’s pose reminiscent of the three graces, these poses are not indicative of real life, but are rather inspired by classical compositions.26 

Although critics attempt to distort Zárraga’s work to fit a certain narrative, namely by attempting to clearly delineate male and female, the artist obliterates any sense of gendered categories.27 Zárraga’s disregard for traditional signifiers of masculinity and femininity (and his appreciation for ambiguous sexuality28) may therefore be understood as a transgressive act; he addresses—and completely dismantles—the rising anxieties concerning the degeneration of gender norms. 

Three Soccer Players: A New Homoeroticism—Sports as a New Religion 

Three Soccer Players, Zárraga’s painting of three male players, is considerably more erotic than the aforementioned work composed of three female players. The men stand closely together with their arms wrapped around each other. One player’s hand is placed quite low on another’s hip, while they hold the ball together.29 Meanwhile, the man on the right gazes directly at the one positioned at the center. In his writings about this work, Bleys describes Zárraga as having a potential “weakness” for sportsmen30 speculating about Zárraga’s (homo)sexuality. What is more significant than the artist’s sexuality, however, is the way that Bleys defines the sensuality present within the work in terms of the intimacy displayed between the subjects, which he suggests is more than simple locker-room comradery.31 Consequently, through a homotextual reading, this work may be understood as exhibiting a certain homoeroticism.

The third figure in Three Soccer Players carries a goalpost in a manner reminiscent of Christ carrying the cross.32 This, paired with the red-cross on their uniforms, has heavy religious connotations.33 We see a resurgence of Zárraga’s religious subject matter — one paired with a certain sensuality. Although not nearly as overtly erotic or directly religious as Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Three Soccer Players recalls such themes, but in a more subtle fashion. The athletic body, as Greet puts it, may then be understood as “a new modernist vision of the ecstatic body.”34 She states that for Zárraga, “sports were like a new religion, the ultimate expression of poetic beauty.”35 Therefore, I wish to analyze the work specifically in regards to sport, its traditional notions of virile masculinity, and its increasingly quasi-religious qualities. 

Varda Burstyn’s The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport, specifically the chapter entitled “‘Taming the Beast’: Sport, Masculinity, and Sexuality in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” provides an important basis for understanding the role of sport as a quasi-religion, and the rise of a toxic masculinity in athletics. In the late nineteenth century, an important shift occurred with the rise of fanaticism; the increased popularity of sports, Burstyn notes, created a shift from a “immaterial world of God and spirit” to the “material world of human endeavour and the body.”36 In this sense, a growing interest in the human body and its capabilities slowly replaced that of the immaterial body of God. This is made evident in Zárraga’s shift to secular (although rarely devoid of religious connotations) scenes of athletes. Sports became a mass cultural practice, which created intense fanaticism.37 Concordantly, a strong hyper-masculine culture developed within the world of sports, which Burstyn argues aimed to soothe, yet inevitably perpetuated, anxieties surrounding gender roles.38 This hyper-masculinity and the anxieties which developed may be understood as indicative of increasing equal opportunities for women and of the growing fear of emasculation in response to those opportunities. The ever-present homosocial interaction in sports also highlights its homoerotic qualities.39 Thus, by depicting a subtle, yet definitive homoeroticism, Zárraga addresses these very anxieties; however, rather than perpetuating them, he purposely mocks them. 

Burstyn examines the eroticism she reads within Three Soccer Players, which she deems as inevitable in sport.40  Eroticism is bound to occur during intense homosocial contact, and this is important for the cooperation and the creation of strong bonds between players.41 The issue arises when it is used to divide men and women, and when the former develop violent perceptions of sexuality and openly stigmatize homosexuality.42 These issues are exactly what Zárraga’s work addresses. As an ardent supporter of women’s rights and by possessing rather progressive views, the artist attempts to dismantle sexist and homophobic rhetoric in the world of sports, and consequently, through its role as mass cultural practice, in society more broadly. 

Burstyn ultimately defines the masculine icon in athletics as simultaneously homoerotic and homophobic.43 This seemingly paradoxical figure serves to devalue women’s rights (through the intense homosocial qualities of sport), while upholding the ideals of a “masculinist industrial society.”44 In this sense, the figure of the athlete may be understood as the symbol of a healthy nation—one preoccupied with its role as “cultural leader of the world.”45 This role has colonial connotations; the figure of the virile male as representative of a nation is indicative of the plundering of “the weak” for colonial gains. In this sense, the emasculated may be conflated with the conquered. Therefore, through the work’s apparent homoeroticism and the subjects’ subsequent “emasculation,” Zárraga’s Three Soccer Players can be read as an attempt to subvert these very notions.

Through my analysis of 3 distinct works by Angel Zárraga, I have emphasized the artist’s progressive views concerning women’s rights, and have argued that he subverts traditional gender norms, while addressing the anxieties surrounding their progressive collapse. From his departure from Cubism, Zárraga can be understood as incredibly distinct from the average male Parisian artist; he abstained from depicting women in a disparaging manner, and from perpetuating traditional notions supporting the ideology of separate spheres. Instead, as demonstrated in his paintings of athletes, Zárraga positions men and women on the same playing field, free of constructed expectations. His Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian also provides a crucial basis for understanding the religious and sensual tones found more subtly in these later works, which often create a sense of homoeroticism that can be understood as a direct critique of early twentieth century gender expectations. Zaárraga thus demonstrates a radically progressive and modern point of view.


Notes

  1. Julia Skelly, and McGill University, “Considering Cubism,” Montreal: McGill University, 2020. 
  2.  Ibid.
  3. Pierre De Colombier, “Angel Zarraga—the Independent,” The American Magazine of Art 20, no. 9 (1929): 510.
  4. Wallace Thompson, “The Art of Angel Zarraga: A Modern Primitive,” Fine Arts Journal 28, no. 1 (1913): 35.
  5. Ibid.
  6. From the “The Female Subject and the ‘Primitive’ Subject in Latin American Art between the Wars” lecture.
  7. Michele Greet, “At the Salons,” in In Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Paris between the Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 89.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Rudi C. Bleys, “Framing the Homoerotic (1810-1910),” in Images of Ambiente: Homotextuality and Latin American Art, 1810today (London: Continuum, 2000), 41.
  10.  Thompson, “The Art of Angel Zarraga: A Modern Primitive,” 37.
  11.  Greet, “At the Salons,” 89–90.
  12.  Thompson, “The Art of Angel Zarraga: A Modern Primitive,” 39.
  13.  Bleys, “Framing the Homoerotic,” 41.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Greet, Notes for “At the Salons,” 266.
  16. Héctor Domínguez Ruvalcaba, “Sense of Sensuality,” in Modernity and the Nation in Mexican Representations of Masculinity: From Sensuality to Bloodshed (New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 17.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19.  Greet, “At the Salons,” 87.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Claude J. Summers, “Latin American Art,” in The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2004), 201.
  29. Greet, “At the Salons,” 89.
  30. Bleys, “Framing the Homoerotic,” 41.
  31. Ibid, 41–42.
  32. Greet, “At the Salons,” 89.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid, 90.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Varda Burstyn, “‘Taming the Beast’: Sport, Masculinity, and Sexuality in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” in The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 76.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid, 82.
  39. Ibid, 98.
  40. Ibid, 101-102.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Greet, “At the Salons,” 87.

Artworks

Figure 1. Angel Zárraga, Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, 1911. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City.
Figure 2. Angel Zárraga, Soccer Players, 1922. Oil on canvas. Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City.
Figure 3. Angel Zárraga, Three Soccer Players, ca. 1921. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

Bibliography

Bleys, Rudi C. “Framing the Homoerotic (1810–1910).” In Images of Ambiente: Homotextuality and Latin American Art, 1810today, 40–43. London: Continuum, 2000.

Burstyn, Varda. “‘Taming the Beast’: Sport, Masculinity, and Sexuality in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” In The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport, 76–102. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central.

De Colombier, Pierre. “Angel Zarraga—the Independent.” The American Magazine of Art 20, no. 9 (1929): 510–16. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23931001.

Domínguez Ruvalcaba, Héctor. “Sense of Sensuality.” In Modernity and the Nation in Mexican Representations of Masculinity: From Sensuality to Bloodshed, 17. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Greet, Michele. “At the Salons.” In Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Paris between the Wars, 87–90. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Skelly, Julia and McGill University. “Considering Cubism.” Montreal, McGill University, 2020.

Summers, Claude J. “Latin American Art.” In The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts, 201. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2004.

Thompson, Wallace. “The Art of Angel Zarraga: A Modern Primitive.” Fine Arts Journal 28, no. 1 (1913): 34–44. doi:10.2307/25587153.

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