Pierre et Gilles’ Le Diable (Marc Almond) is one of the most piercing in their vast collection of homoerotic surrealist photographs. The landscape-style image portrays a conversation between two poles — to the left, a cherub cut out of marble looks down from his perch. His hair is fine and tousled as he reclines against the bed of heterochromatic flowers separating him and the devil to his right. His gaze flirts with his seemingly forbidden compatriot as he holds his finger up to his mouth in a shushing motion. A glib smirk, barely noticeable, sets the tone for the scene — these two know each other well, but they ought not to.
The devil is separated from the cherub by the suspended sea of blooms, filled with what appear to be sprigs of sage and bouquets of peonies, which respectively signify protection, romance and death. He splays his outstretched fingers, extended by a set of black acrylics, across opposite sides of his chest, effectively covering what would be his modesty. The nails’ shape offset his razor-sharp eyebrows and his quiffed, seemingly lacquered on hair (complete with a widow’s peak and the most cartoonish pair of sideburns one could possibly lay eyes on), while their brilliant sheen parallel his glossy red horns and the sparse smattering of emotionless tears. His gaze accepts that of the cherub, but he is not the aggressor in this scene. Rather, the work taps into and subverts the longstanding queer-coding of villains in art and popular culture.
What’s implicit in Le Diable is a veiled, theism-tinged reference to both the dichotomy between the presumptive homosociality and homorotecism portrayed in modern culture and devalued forms of identitarian queerness, as well as the forms of desire that cannot be bound by those same identitarian lines, regardless of how many digitized plants are placed in between them. The Cherub, on the whole, encompasses all that comes with a privileged station. His colorless, marble-esque appearance harkens the kinds of saintly and angelic figures commissioned by those affiliated with the Papacy during the Renaissance. Though cherubs maintain their child-like appearance throughout their existence, this is not to suggest that they are perpetually young or that they are truly innocent or unknowing creatures, but rather that they maintain the illusion of an untainted youth due to their position within the celestial hierarchy. The effect of choosing the Cherub in this work to be the aggressor is not in the service of furthering notions of infantilization, a cultural practice that has the power to advance pederastic stereotypes that have been hurled against the gay community for as long as it has been established as a politicized category, but rather in reifying the power dynamic of this exchange.
The cherub not only enjoys the power afforded to him by his association with a power much stronger than that of the (C.S. Lewis coined) lowerarchy, he maintains his superficial air of innocence as well. He is free to gaze and engage as he pleases, while those who share his likeness would be none the wiser. He is placed in a literal position of power as well, he is placed higher than the devil, and the casual, confident nature of both his body language and his expression is a confirmation of his agency. The devil in this image accepts not only the gaze of his aggressor, but his devalued status as well. He flirts back, but in such a way that shows a sense of meekness we would not expect from the agent of all evil. Despite his extreme features, he covers himself and lowers his chin, so as to appear more demure. The juxtaposition of the signifiers of his namesake and his outwardly demure, and subversively queer-coded appearance. He is not what he seems, and neither is the Cherub. This landscape entails a symbolic attraction, not between youth and maturity, but in between those that enjoy the privilege of purity, of normativeness and those that must wear their sin on their sleeve. Through careful use of divine imagery, Pierre et Gilles create a language of attraction, even of love, that can be spoken between those who have barriers placed before them, while acknowledging dynamics of power that cannot be done away with in a flawed world.