‘Iconic gay image’: history of sailors and sex explored in Barcelona exhibition

A new exhibition at the Maritime Museum of Barcelona seeks to tell the story of the romantic and sexual reality of men who spend their lives at sea.

El desig és tan fluid com la mar (Desire Flows Like the Sea) aims to evoke the lives of men living in isolation but at close quarters and whose intimate lives were once clandestine out of necessity because homosexuality was and, and in many places still is, considered both a sin and a capital offence.

Some of these relationships were exploitative, given that children as young as eight were recruited as cabin boys, but the limited documentation that exists also describes many consensual relationships among crew members.

There is also a discussion of matelotage, a form of same-sex marriage between pirates that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries on the Caribbean island of Tortuga that allowed the signatories to inherit from one another.

The second part of the exhibition looks at the creation of the hypermasculine sailor as an iconic gay image, in particular in the homoerotic work of the artist Touko Valio Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland.

There are examples of the kitsch masculinity of the French artists Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard, as well as Jean Paul Gaultier’s use of homoerotic images of sailors in advertising campaigns.

There is also reference to the work of the French novelist and playwright Jean Genet, whose Querelle of Brest was made into a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1982.

“If there is homosexual love at sea it’s because it also exists on land,” the exhibition curator and historian Víctor Ramírez Tur said at the launch. “But the covering up, secrecy and hostility that surrounds the life of homosexual mariners hasn’t disappeared.”

The exhibition is open until 11 noviembre 2021.

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