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Magical treasures

Three fascinating art books make gift giving easy

Looking for something special to give that shy kid in your life, the one who withdraws into a private world of drawing or, say, embroidery? Perhaps you need a gift for that dandyish friend who cuts a dashing figure on the world stage? Three recent thought-provoking art books inspired by historically informed gallery shows could offer the perfect fit for both.

The AGYU (Art Gallery of York University) continues its love affair with Will Munro, the artist, DJ, party promoter and community builder who died in 2010 at the age of 35, by producing a luxurious coffee-table book as a follow-up to its 2012 retrospective exhibition Will Munro: History, Glamour, Magic.

It’s a comprehensive tome handsomely put together by designer Lisa Kiss featuring art and ephemera from all of Munro’s exhibitions between 1998 and 2010, everything from invites to his Who’s Emma show while still a student at OCAD to his last exhibition at Paul Petro, which was actually recreated in the AGYU retrospective.

Scores of Munro’s sexy and fun underwear art are presented in a gorgeous portfolio, as is the colourful anarchy of his party posters, most designed and printed by Toronto artist Michael Comeau.

Fleshing out the great images, more than 400 in all, are essays by Luis Jacob and Bruce LaBruce, and curators Emelie Chhangur and Philip Monk, plus an interview between Leila Pourtavaf and Munro conducted just months before his death. Altogether, the book makes an impassioned argument that Munro’s life was one great big collective art project.

A quick story: Eric Kostiuk Williams is a young illustrator, too young to know Munro. But he had heard of Munro’s legendary parties and so went to the AGYU retrospective. The show inspired Williams to draw a touching comic expressing his regret at not knowing Munro and his desire to somehow continue Munro’s legacy. After publishing the comic in this magazine, we received an email from Munro’s brother flabbergasted that someone understood what Will was about without knowing him, that his art could still do the job of inspiring people to create, to connect. If this book can do the same, I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to such a beautiful generous man: the gift of community.

Of course the earliest known pick-up line is, “What a nice ass you have,” said between two males in a poem recorded on papyrus in Egypt around 1,800 BCE.

RB Parkinson, curator of ancient Egyptian culture at the British Museum, has  written A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World, a fascinating guide to roughly 40 objects from the British Museum, each opening a window on a particular moment or aspect of LGBT history around the world.

Parkinson has a remarkable command of both world history and modern LGBT politics; he breezily summarizes and cuts through numerous thorny issues confronting academics and activists alike. Whether discussing the 1st-century Roman goblet known as the Warren Cup, an 18th-century Maori treasure chest, or the entry for a trans woman on a Sioux Winter Count from 1891, Parkinson deftly parses the subtle and perplexing differences and similarities among same-sex and trans desire and love across time and place.

In the book’s epilogue, Parkinson circles back to a discussion of Hadrian, the Roman emperor whose epic love for Antinous is recounted and embellished in the 1951 novel, Memoires d’Hadrien, by Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman ever elected to the French Academy. Yourcenar, who moved to the US to live with her translator Grace Frick, viewed history as a “school of liberty”—a notion Parkinson relishes. “History does not belong only to the ‘mainstream’ victors,” he writes, “and ‘minorities’ should not feel that they are marginal. On a long view, no one occupies the centre. It belongs to us all.”

A Little Gay History is a powerful little book.

Ironically, the weightiest and most text-heavy of these books is on fashion. A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk accompanies an exhibition of the same name currently running at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (until Jan 4, 2014). But as the introductory essay by editor Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT, makes clear, fashion and style are vast, rich topics, ineluctably linked to LGBT cultures and personalities. How we present ourselves throughout history is intimately linked to our evolving concepts of ourselves and our ability to connect with other LGBT folk.

Something profound connects the effete “macaronis” of the 18th century, the austere dandies, like Robert de Montesquiou, in the 19th-century, and our present-day fashion industry that makes superstars out of gay designers as different as Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier.

The various essays wrestle with this material to mixed results. The best is by Elizabeth Wilson, who surveys lesbian style from the early 19th century to the present. Wilson, who wrote the 1985 classic about fashion and modernism, Adorned in Dreams, authoritatively dissects the lives and looks of fascinating characters like Eleanor

Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two Anglo-Irish aristocrats who eloped in the early 19th century.

For such an expensive-looking book, however, there’s something slap-dash about it: the essays form an awkward jumble (one of them barely readable), there’s too much academic jargon and a recurring typographical error. Still, the queer theorist or the fashion-obsessive on your gift list will find many golden threads to treasure here.


WILL MUNRO: HISTORY, GLAMOUR, MAGIC. Art Gallery of York University. $40

A LITTLE GAY HISTORY. RB Parkinson. Columbia University Press. $19.95.

A QUEER HISTORY OF FASHION. Edited by Valerie Steele. Yale University Press. $50.

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