Outtakes

How Yul Brynner bared all for the sake of art

Yul Brynner, Somerset Maugham and Tennessee Williams are among the unlikely models in rediscovered nude photographic studies by a group of artists and photographers working in New York from the Thirties to the Fifties. Few of the images were intended for public consumption. The photographs were too intimate and sexualised for their times. In the Thirties, the male nude was still considered generally acceptable only in the safely aestheticised context of Grecian urns and laurel leaves.

The group was loose-knit, and used each other, as well as friends and acquaintances, as models. Brynner was an aspiring actor earning a living playing guitar and singing at parties when he did a series of poses for fashion photographer George Platt Lynes in 1942, which now seem remarkable for their nonchalance - not what one would expect from a future King of Siam. Tennessee Williams was photographed by "Pajama" (the working name for three collaborating artists - the magic realist Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret French) a couple of years before the success of The Glass Menagerie. Williams was introduced to Pajama by novelist Donald Windham, who also modelled, and with whom he later collaborated on the play You Touched Me.

The photographs have been brought together for the first time in a collection which shows the professional and personal links between all those involved. They vary widely in style. The Pajama photographs, for example, are more natural and unposed, partly because many were taken outdoors, on Fire Island, off the southern shore of Long Island, although these images do sometimes incorporate sculptural elements such as driftwood. Other Pajama images were taken indoors, in Provincetown or at a New York apartment, but without sets and props. They were not printed with special attention, nor were they carefully preserved; some were used merely as a reference for paintings.

George Platt Lynes, however, stands out as both an artist and a craftsman: his work ranks alongside that of Hoyningen-Heune and Man Ray. He has a subtle, surrealist-inspired aesthetic which developed through his contact with the Parisian avant garde of the 1930s. He experimented with poses, montage effects, lighting techniques and airbrushing. One can see his influence in the male nude work of Mapplethorpe, Webber and Ritts.

The group's importance at the centre of New York artistic life waned in the Fifties. Platt Lynes, whose fashion career fell apart as his obsession with the non-commercial male nude grew, died of lung cancer in 1955, aged 48. Abstract Expressionists were coming to dominate the art scene and artists such as Cadmus whose principal subject was the human body were going out of fashion. The various principals of the group had been dispersing for some time, leaving New York, alone or with lovers, putting the wraps on a few brief and surprising modelling careers, for a future generation to rediscover

`Naked Men, pioneering male nudes 1935-1955', by David Leddick is published by Little, Brown, pounds 25. A selling exhibition of George Platt Lynes' photographs is at the Hartnoll Gallery, 14 Mason's Yard, Duke Street St James's, London SW1 (0171-839 3842) until 20 June

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