What I Believe
This painting is a tribute to the English writer E.M. Forster, a close friend who had a profound influence on Cadmus. The title of the painting is taken from Forster's 1938 essay, "What I Believe," in which the author defended democracy and humanist values in the wake of rising totalitarianism in Europe. The text deeply resonated with Cadmus.
The painting can be roughly divided into two sides: on the left is an idyllic paradise and, on the right, a scene of destruction. The muscular and sensuous figures that occupy the paradise at the foreground represent Cadmus himself, his family, and friends. The handsome artist is at the center of the composition, sketching. His close friend and former lover, Jared French, sits next to him, while Jared's wife, Margaret, stands behind them. Other members of this group include E.M. Forster standing next to Margaret, and, below her, George Tooker, the artist's lover at the time. He is reading a book whose cover reads "What I Believe." Behind the unidentified same-sex couple behind the main group, the artist's sister Fidelma and her husband Lincoln Kirstein spend a leisurely time, Fidelma resting her head on Kirstein's lap as he plays the flute, surrounded by animals. The construction behind them makes clear that this is a scene of creation and creativity. Cadmus and his circle become allegorical figures, personifying art, literature, music, and architecture.
In contrast, the right side embodies a destructive world threatened by totalitarian forces. At the very top, dictatorial figures resembling Hitler and Mussolini reign terror as missiles are launched from the dark skies. The masses, made up of all genders and races, are huddled together and indifferent to the military ravages around them. Death, in the right corner, takes the form of a gravedigger who covers his eyes from the horrors. At the center of the image, the lighthouse holds a special significance. Kirstein explained that it represents the historic lighthouse of Alexandria: "Forster described the world-famous Alexandrian beacon, a searchlight of classical civilization, which guided pilgrims and scholars into a port where culture flourished long after Athens and Rome had faded," he stated.
Jonathan D. Katz, a leading scholar of queer art, interpreted the division in the painting as a separation between the gay and the straight worlds. In his essay, Forster, a closeted gay man, had hinted at this divide, describing the keepers of culture as an elite group of "the sensitive" - a coded term for homosexuals. Cadmus's friends on the left side of the painting are artists and intellectuals, who represent the leading figures of the pre-Stonewall queer community. In contrast, the straight world is presented as a caricature, a community guided by ignorance and cruelty, plagued by death and destruction. According to Katz, Cadmus's vision suggests that Western culture can only be preserved by "the sensitive" community. The lighthouse of Alexandria, a phallic symbol, seems to offer hope as the future of culture itself hangs in the balance.
Tempera on panel - McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX