Early in Mark Beard's thorough study of his great uncle, the influential English artist Bruce Sargeant, the reader is presented with a facsimile of a four-page letter the artist wrote to a friend, in which he revealed a budding love affair with Yip, a laborer's son, who had agreed to pose naked for him. 'Yip took his break without pulling on his trousers,' Sargeant wrote. 'I poured him a large gin and myself one even larger to relinquish responsibility. He stood warmly next to me. I could feel his prick, stomach, chest lightly through my clothes. He calmly touched my trousers to check if I were aroused and kissed me on the lips fully.' The relationship ended badly, but in those few lines lies the source of Sargeant's artistic voyage. Much of his subsequent work reads like a sustained effort to relive that tender moment. As Beard writes in the book Bruce Sargeant and His Circle, 'In his short but productive life, Sargeant clung to his faith in the figure, and exalted the body.' His paintings, many of which revel in the musculature of athletes, are suffused with the Homeric romanticism that fueled the work of such contemporaries as novelist D.H. Lawrence and composer Benjamin Britten. They are resolutely masculine, shirtless or in undershirts, with nary a woman to interrupt his reverie -- or ours.
Although the artist died, ironically in a freak wrestling accident, in 1938, his work has found a new audience in an age that no longer treads coyly around male sexuality. Foreshadowing fashion photographers such as Bruce Weber and Greg Gorman, it's no surprise that one of Sargeant's greatest pieces, a mural of seminude gymnasts, should hang in the branch of Abercrombie & Fitch on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Others can be seen in the label's Milan and Tokyo flagships. For Beard, who feels an obvious kinship with Sargeant, this book is an attempt to conjure a time and place in transition -- shorter chapters are dedicated to Sargeant's influential teacher, Hippolyte Alexandre Michallon, as well as to his mentor, Edith Thayer Cromwell, a lesbian modernist whose circle included Gertrude Stein and Marguerite Yourcenar. It also turns out to be a vast and elaborate piece of myth-making. Sargeant is actually an alter ego of Beard, who justifies his pitch-perfect hoax by saying, 'I come from this artist family -- there's a whole mess of them that runs through everything, so I decided we needed a gay one.'
The reveal, though, does not change the essential truth of the story. After all, the works -- all by Beard -- exist and hang in A&F stores, no less. They're real and so, too, is Bruce Sargeant.
Bruce Sargeant and His Circle (Chronicle) is out this fall; an exhibition of the same name is on view at Clamp Art gallery in New York city through October 30.