Will a tattoo ever hang in the Louvre?

Meet the unconventional art historians trying to discover what it means for an image to be marked on the body.

You smell room G34B before you see it. It’s the smell of formaldehyde. “It’s like nothing else,” says my guide, Gemma Angel. “It’s death, but very old death – not like in a dissection room.”

As we approach the corner of the corridor, a young woman comes round it, pushing a cart as tall as she is. “What’s in there?” asks Angel. “Prosthetic limbs,” comes the answer. “From the Paralympics display.”

G34B might be the most fascinating room in London, inside one of the most quietly unusual of the capital’s buildings. Blythe House in Barons Court is deliberately anonymous, a forbidding slab of red brick among quiet streets. To enter it, you need a very good reason – Angel is an academic researcher – and an appointment. We are buzzed through the clanking gates and past a sign that reads: “State of vigilance: HEIGHTENED”.

Inside, it looks like a Victorian institution, the kind of place where the insane or poor or otherwise undesirable might have been housed. Its high windows and squeaking linoleum floors positively demand a children’s nursery rhyme played in a minor key. It would make a very good setting for one of those episodes of Doctor Who where the producers haven’t got the budget to create an alien planet.

The reason for the secrecy around Blythe House is a good one: this is where several London museums, including the Wellcome Collection, keep their overflow when it is not on display but still needed for academic study. On our way in, we walk past canoes and eclectic paintings; the general air is of the world’s most historic jumble sale.

Then we turn the corner and Angel unlocks the door to G34B. It is the building’s “human remains” room and it demands a moment of silence. I see the skull of a foetus, the cranial sutures still not fused, and study my reflection in the billiard-ball smooth steel of a replacement hip joint. Under tissue paper in a box at floor level, I see something humanshaped. “Oh, I always say hello to the mummy,” Angel says cheerfully, lifting up the makeshift shroud to reveal a jaw hanging open in a soundless scream.

What we’re here to see appears at first glance less striking than many of the other inhabitants of the room. In glass cases and plastic sleeves are 300 slivers of skin from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Each one bears a tattoo. They are of varying levels of intricacy and artistry. Some are crude, black squiggles; others are detailed portraits that capture something of the sitter.

Studying them has been Angel’s life for the past three years, as she works towards a doctorate at University College London. (It will be awarded by the history of art department but her research crosses several disciplines.) She wants to know the identities of the men whose skins live on in room G34B; who harvested their tattoos and how; and what we can learn about the lives of people who had no way to document their experiences other than by recording them on their bodies.

My first meeting with Angel had taken place a few weeks earlier in the café of the Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road. I’d emailed her after seeing that she was speaking at a science event at the nearby Bloomsbury Theatre, where she was described simply as a “historian of tattoos and melder of art and science”.

What on earth does a tattoo historian do, I had wondered. The answer is much the same as an ordinary art historian, except the canvas is living (or dead) human skin.

Thanks to her mass of curly red hair, I spot Angel across the café easily. Dressed for the cold in a woollen jumper and jeans, she is not visibly tattooed – but later in the conversation she shows me a Gothic-lettered chest piece that reads: “Nothing human is alien to me.”

It is one of a small collection. She acquired her first tattoo, a Japanese character meaning “strong”, when she was 16. “I didn’t get another one until I was 21,” she says. “That was a turning point for me, because I spent two hours under the needle, so I had more time to contemplate the process and I talked to the tattooist as well. It really appealed to me – to submit yourself to a painful but personal transformation, moulding your body to fit your idea of yourself.”

At the time, Angel was studying for a fine art degree at Leeds. She and her self-taught tattooist “clicked”, she says, and he offered to show her the basic techniques of the trade. She worked at a studio in Manchester while finishing her degree; then she took a Master’s in Manchester in visual anthropology, studying the use of touch in special-needs schools. It’s one of the more eclectic CVs, filled out by a stint as a massage therapist, but there is one unifying component: skin.

***

“Guess what that is.”

I can feel my brow furrowing as I regard what looks like an L-shaped piece of parchment with a small doodle on it. Disconcertingly, in the hinge of the shape, there is a clump of hair. “It’s an armpit,” says Angel, tucking it away.

She holds up a pair of eyes, preserved separately, and grins. “These are from buttocks. I think it’s so that when you turn your back, it’s like, ‘Lads, I’m still watching you.’”

Studying old tattoos involves certain precautions. The collection Angel is working with has been preserved with formaldehyde, so we have to turn on a nozzled fume extractor that she calls the “elephant’s trunk” every time we take a piece of skin out of its wrapper. Despite the trunk, the smell of preservative hangs in the air and I can feel a headache being born somewhere in my sinuses. My hands are sweating uncomfortably in their latex gloves.

What I’m not feeling is queasy – and this surprises me, because touching other people’s buttocks and armpits, once they’ve been detached from the people themselves, ought to be slightly disorientating. However, the tattoos look so much like they are on parchment that it’s hard to remember they once sweated and tingled and hurt. The only moment of connection I have is when Angel holds up an intricate chest piece – complete with nipples – against her torso, to show off its impressive size. “Big guy, huh?” she says.

Oh, God, I think, there are more than two of us in this room right now.

In pictures, the tattoos don’t produce this effect. Angel worries that they look “flat” and has tried to photograph them in ways that preserve their architecture. One chest piece has the navel still attached. “That’s hard to preserve,” she says. “It’s like the tip of your nose – it’s just attached to cartilage. They usually just have holes.”

Another couple of samples are recognisably from torsos, because the nipples are still visible, either as rosy areolae or simply as bubbles in the surface. A long stretch of skin is impossible to place until it is held up to the light: suddenly, a row of four little circles of thinner tissue becomes apparent. These are the knuckles.

Over the years, Angel has become increasingly interested in the collection as objects, as skin, but originally her brief was to focus on the tattoos. In working out the identities of the men, one of the few pieces of information available to work with is the French military insignia that make up some of the designs. During her archive research, Angel stumbled on a photograph of a naked man bearing two of the tattoos in the collection; the symbols used elsewhere on his body showed that he’d spent time in prison.

As she says: “Suddenly, this person became three-dimensional and it was a little bit like recognising the face of an old friend in a crowd.” Who was he? Frustratingly, the photo was headless. “I really wanted to see his face. I find it interesting that he’s been photographed in life and then his skin turns up in a collection. What’s the relationship between these two historical documents?”

Angel hopes that by searching through military records she will be able to discover more about the first owners of these tattoos. However, she is resigned to the likelihood that even after she has finished, much about the collection will remain unknown, probably including its precise origins and whether the donors consented to their tattoos living on beyond their death.

“I doubt they were grave-robbed,” Angel says. “But it’s possible that some of them were taken opportunistically in a military hospital. With some of them, you can tell that the body had started to decompose before they were preserved, so that gives you an indication of the conditions – it might have been a field hospital, or somebody [might have] brought a body to the morgue and thought: ‘I know someone who’s interested in collecting these.’”

That sentiment isn’t as rare as you would think – several medical museums around the world have preserved tattoos in their collection, alongside the obligatory dwarf skeletons and tumours in jars. At the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, a roughly removed tattoo sits next to a Bible bound in human skin; there is also a specimen from Angel’s collection on public display at the Wellcome Collection in Euston. The Barts Pathology Museum in Farringdon, central London, has several “wet preservations”: skin suspended in jars of formaldehyde.

What motivated these collectors? While some may have been driven by the desire to study the tattoos, it seems likely that in many cases it was more about a fetishisation of skin – and especially the skin of the “underclass”.

Angel doesn’t know for sure where her collection came from but suspects include the Académie Nationale de Médecine in Paris, because of the French military badges on some inkings and the language of the lettered tattoos. The doctor who sold them to the 19th-century collector Henry Wellcome said they were the skins of “sailors, soldiers and criminals”. Angel adds: “But look at the collection – there’s no way one person collected and preserved all these objects. There’s too much variation in the skill and technique.”

So how do you harvest a tattoo? These days you’d use a dermatome, a gadget invented in the 1930s that slices off a fine layer of the epidermis and is now used for skin grafts. In the 19th century, you had to use a scalpel and care; many of the Wellcome specimens are of different thicknesses or marked with slashes, or have scalloped edges from being stretched and pinned during preservation. Some are thick and soft like leather; others are scratchy and stiff like card; some are translucent when you hold them to the light. “I know they’re not my skin,” says Angel, running a gloved finger over the bumps of hair follicles under faded black ink. “But that’s how I think of them: my skin.”

Gemma Angel at the St Barts Pathology Museum.

***

Matt Lodder is looking at me through heavyrimmed spectacles, a tiny anchor winking from below his left eye. His knuckles are tattooed, not with “LOVE” and “HATE”, but with the legend “KNOW MORE”. His PhD thesis at the University of Reading was titled “Body Art: Body Modification as Artistic Practice” and it’s clear that he’s a tattoo enthusiast as well as an academic.

“There are two things everyone knows about tattoos,” he tells me over lunch. “And they’re both wrong.”

The first thing that everyone “knows” about tattoos is that they arrived in the west after Captain Cook met the natives of Polynesia in the 1700s. In reality, western tattooing stretches back to the 14th century at the latest: at our first meeting, Angel showed me a picture of a medieval pilgrim who had been tattooed, rather than picking up the traditional cockle shell, to commemorate his visit to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The second “fact”, that tattoos were always associated with the working class, is rather marvellously disproved when Lodder points me towards a sepia photograph of the Victorian-era Princess Valdemar of Denmark in a sweeping gown – with a honking great anchor on her arm. She had it done on a visit to the Far East, where she also had “interesting experiences, including visiting a Chinese opium den”, making her a neat precursor of those teens who go to Thailand and come back with a gap-year Tweety Pie tattoo.

Our very own George V had a similar idea when he made a “grand tour” of Japan as a young man, arriving back home with a large, blue-and-red dragon on his arm. He was accompanied on the trip by the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who also got inked. Their actions sparked a miniature craze among the British aristocracy, leading to the urban legend that even Winston Churchill’s mother had a tattoo. (This turns out to be true; she had a snake on her wrist*.)

For the aristocracy of Europe who followed the trend, part of the tattoo’s appeal was its exoticism and transgression. Yet the young Prince George can’t have shocked his family that much, because his father, Edward VII, had a Jerusalem cross on his chest, the legacy of a visit to that city in his youth.

Later, by email, I ask Lodder when the perception that tattoos were the domain of ne’er-do-wells emerged. “Since right back in the Middle Ages, tattoos have been acquired by members of all social classes and have never been the exclusive domain of any particular social status, occupation or gender,” he replies. “When tattooing was at its most popular with the upper classes in Britain, between the 1880s and 1890s, criminologists such as [Alexandre] Lacassagne in France and [Cesare] Lombroso in Italy were writing that tattoos, like certain facial shapes and postures, spoke to the depravity and primitivism of the criminals they studied.

“Even as one newspaper in the 1920s was publishing articles saying tattooing was now respectable and fashionable and to be found under the starched collars of lawyers and bankers, another was decrying the practice as deviant and disgusting.”

That divided attitude has had one obvious consequence, Lodder adds. “ ‘Tattoos are not just for sailors any more’ appears as a headline in every decade since the mid-19th century.”

***

The mission of both Lodder and Angel is to drag the study of tattoos away from its early criminological roots towards something more modern. In this, they are not alone, although they could be forgiven for feeling somewhat lonely. Lodder estimates that fewer than two dozen academics are seriously studying tattooing worldwide.

“There has been no really good, solidly researched, book-length history of western tattooing since [Wilfrid Dyson] Hambly’s in 1925,” he tells me. Lodder is now writing one, grounded in art history, which is due to be published in 2014. “Most, if not all, of the recent published research tends towards prurience and voyeurism. I haven’t seen a tattoo history article in a large, well-cited history journal for years and I don’t think there has been a journal article on tattooing from an art-historical perspective – that is, treating tattooing itself, in its everyday context, as an art form –probably since the 1980s.”

There will be some who question whether there need to be any tattoo art historians at all: surely the subject is the domain of anthropologists, if anything? That has been the approach to it throughout most of the 20th century and the association between tattooing and “primitive” tribes has provided fertile ground. We now know lots about the use of tattoos – and other body modifications such as lip-stretching and scarification – in non-western societies but very little about the motivations of the estimated one in every five Britons who is tattooed.

There is even less academic literature on the distinct styles of tattooing that have developed over the 20th century, such as “neo-tribal”, “old school” and “biomechanical”. You might not know the names but you would probably recognise each type instantly: neo-tribal tattoos are those solid bands of black, often wrapped around the biceps and intended to reflect Polynesian designs, such as the ones worn by Maoris. Oldschool pieces typically have solid black outlines and frequent motifs include nautical stars, swallows, anchors and hearts. Biomechanical often produces a trompe l’oeil effect of peeled-away skin exposing robotic machinery underneath. It can also echo the style of the Swiss surrealist H R Giger, best known for his work on Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Alongside the development of these distinct styles has come the rise of the celebrity tattooist, whose name becomes a style in itself. Louis Molloy, who designed David Beckham’s back piece, sells T-shirts branded with his artwork and stars in a reality TV show called London Ink. His studio in Manchester tells me that it’s impossible to get an appointment with him until January 2014 at the earliest. (Incidentally, the “frequently asked questions” page on his website shows some of the frustrations of the modern tattoo artist. “[A] frequent request is the ‘I want my mum’s, dad’s, sister’s, brother’s, granny’s, grandad’s, next door’s cat’s, dog’s, parrot’s ashes mixed in with the tattoo colour so they will ‘always be with me’,” it reads. “NO! We don’t do it and you are putting your health at risk if you do so.”)

Angel, with her previous work as a tattooist, finds the position of those such as Molloy intriguing. Can they ever be considered artists, or are they tradesmen and women? She inclines towards the latter view, arguing that tattooists are constrained by their client’s choices and that even the most successful ones rarely get full creative control over their work.

She also poses an intriguing question: in the case of figures such as Beckham or Wayne Rooney, whose tattoos are an integral part of an image that is worth millions to advertisers, should the tattooist be entitled to a cut?

***

Last year, Somerset House in London devoted an exhibition to the 67-year-old Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi III, who has spent four decades working in a country where tattooing is still tainted by its association with the Yakuza, or mafia. (I was astonished to discover, when booking a trip to Japan, that I wasn’t welcome at many of the traditional inns or ryokan, because I have a tattoo – even though it’s only a smallish, pink-and-black star and I firmly believe that no gangster would be seen dead with it.)

The Horiyoshi exhibition paid tribute to his work in silkscreen painting and showed photographs of his tattoo work, which often uses the same motifs. Did the gallery consider having some of his living canvases wandering around, so that his designs could be seen in the flesh?

“Actually, the exhibition was curated by Horiyoshi’s apprentice, who is covered in tattoos by him,” Stephanie Lilley of Somerset House tells me. “They look incredible.”

I get in touch with the man in question, Alex Reinke, who confirms that he has a full Horiyoshi bodysuit and that it took the artist 80 hours, spread over four years, to create it. Like his master, Reinke practises only irezumi – tattooing that features traditional motifs and is carried out using hand tools if asked. Because his family name means “fox” in Old German, Reinke has taken the tattooist’s name Horikitsune, meaning “the carving fox”.

He tells me that in Japan, there are fewer hang-ups about whether tattoos can be art, because there has always been much more overlap between the motifs and styles of folk art and those of tattoo masters. “Tattooing is seen as much more of a tradition, whereas in the west you see new designs and themes that are normally reserved for the tattoo world,” he says. “That’s why it wasn’t so odd to see Horiyoshi’s stuff in a gallery.”

Yes, I tell him, I suppose there’s a cultural difference: you can’t imagine someone with a Mona Lisa tattoo. Reinke laughs. “You do see that! In the old days, when tattoos were seen as primitive, people mostly got anchors and so on but now – because more people are getting tattoos, people like you and me – if someone really likes the Mona Lisa, that’s what they’re going to get. I’ve seen several Mona Lisa tattoos.”

Nonetheless, the Horiyoshi exhibition was a relatively rare instance of the tattoo world being accepted by a mainstream western art establishment. Take the case of Ed Hardy, one of the best-known and commercially successful tattoo artists of recent times. His new-school nautical designs adorn clothing lines and beauty products and have been hugely influential on the work of other tattooists – and on the wider perception of what tattoos look like.

Hardy’s work looks deliberately commercial and mass-produced but he’s just playing with many of the same concepts as Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons did. Yet, Lodder says, “I doubt I could get an article about an Ed Hardy back piece into any of the major art history journals at the moment.”

Tattooists do have a few unexpected supporters in their quest to be taken seriously, though. The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, no fan of newfangled media such as computer games, is much less reticent about inking. “Is it art?” he asked after a visit to the London Tattoo Convention in 2011. “The answer is a flaming dragon of a yes . . . Just by visiting a tattooist such as the celebrated Danish artist Eckel, you can change who you are. The change is permanent. You are a work of art.”

Fittingly, at the same time as professional tattooists are coming to terms with the possibility of being artists, the art world is finding tattoos more and more intriguing.

Over the past two decades, at least a dozen international artists have used tattoos to explore ideas of performance and permanence. In earlier works, such as Santiago Sierra’s 160cm Line Tattooed on 4 People – in which four heroin-addicted Salamanca prostitutes gave their consent to be tattooed for the price of a “hit” – the marking itself is often incidental. Instead, the focus is on the act, on the ethics of changing someone else’s body in a permanent way. But more recently artists have begun to focus on the execution and meaning of the tattoo, as well as the mere fact of its existence.

One of the most interesting themes in such work is the idea of “writing on the body”, creating a permanent record or memorial using the medium of flesh. In 2003, Shelley Jackson began a 2,095-word novella, Skin, tattooed on volunteers one word at a time. The words were assigned in strict order, sometimes including punctuation such as brackets and commas; only once the volunteers had sent back a photo of their completed tattoo were they permitted to see the rest of the novella. At the last count, 1,875 of the 2,095 words had been assigned and, unless one of the participants divulges the story, the only way to read it will be to get them all together in a room.

That idea of becoming an artwork is also central to the Irish performance artist Sandra Ann Vita Minchin’s Ars Longa, Vita Brevis. She is spending 120 hours having Vase of Flowers by the 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Davidsz de Heem tattooed on her back. She then plans to sell the piece to a collector and have it preserved after her death.

Funnily enough, the model Kate Moss has joked about doing the same thing with the two swallows inked on her lower back by Lucian Freud. As he was painting her portrait in 2002, the artist told her that he had learned to tattoo – using a scalpel – when he was in the merchant navy during the Second World War. There followed one of the more surreal conversations of the celebrity age as they discussed the notion of Freud giving the supermodel a home-made tattoo.

“I said I liked birds,” Moss told Vanity Fair magazine in 2012, “and he replied, ‘I’ve done birds. I’ve got it in my book.’ And he pointed down at a painting of a chicken upside down in a bucket. And I said, ‘No, I’m not having that.’”

Eventually they settled on swallows, a classical nautical motif, historically worn by sailors who had travelled a certain number of miles. Moss has since joked: “If it all goes horribly wrong, I could get a skin graft and sell it.” Yet the macabre thing is that she probably could. After all, Freud’s portrait of her, sold while he was still alive, went for £3.9m. How much would an original Freud on her be worth?

Then again, she would have to find a buyer, which would be difficult, as many people are understandably squeamish about having bits of people hanging on their walls. Perhaps they remember stories such as that of Ilse Koch, “the Bitch of Buchenwald”, a particularly sadistic concentration camp supervisor who allegedly liked to collect the tattoos of her prisoners.

These days, if you wanted to buy or exhibit someone’s tattoo, consent would be vital. I phone the Human Tissue Authority to ask what I would need to do if I wanted to donate my tattoo to posterity. The spokeswoman’s initial surprise at my query yields pleasingly quickly to acceptance.

“That would be OK as long as there was adequate consent given by the individual to the establishment or museum,” she tells me. “It would need to be written and attested, so typically in a will or other legal document,” she says. “And the museum would need to have licence to display that material – but most of the big London museums, like the Science Museum or the Natural History Museum, do.”

So I ask the Science Museum whether it would be interested if I turned up, desperate to donate my tattoo. “We have a collecting board who decide on acquisitions,” says its press officer Laura Singleton, giving every impression that this is the most routine query in the world. “The curators would put forward a case and we would see what else we had in our collections and what the cost would be.”

I take this as a “maybe”.

***

All the academic study of tattoos eventually coalesces around a single question: what does it mean for an image – or a word – to be marked on to a human body?

To the anthropologist, that one question opens up others about human relationships, the stages of life and the idea of belonging to a group.

To an artist, the impermanence of a living canvas adds an extra dimension to a work. Jackson has written of Skin: “As words die, the story will change. When the last word dies, the story will also have died.” She has pledged to attend the funerals of her “words”.

To the 19th-century collectors of tattoos, they were a sign of pathology, a way to read criminality in the lower classes, as they might have done by the shape of a head.

However, in all of this, we know the least about the group whose decisions perhaps matter most: those people who get tattoos. Today, common reasons for getting tattooed encompass both conformity and rebellion, as having a small tattoo done is close to a statesanctioned method of exorcising teenage iconoclasm. James Murdoch, now a mogul of almost robotic demeanour, got a light bulb on his right arm before he dropped out of Harvard. Others, including many of those who are tattooed by Louis Molloy or Horiyoshi III, want in their own way to be part of something bigger, part of a living tradition.

As I stand in Blythe House looking at one of the images in Angel’s collection – a young girl in a bonnet, perhaps a sailor’s daughter, left at home long ago but perpetually frozen in time on his chest – another reason occurs to me. The late Shannon Larratt, who ran one of the internet’s biggest archives of photographs and text about body modification, once wrote: “When a child is given a marker, its first impulse is not to draw on paper but to draw on its skin.”

These men, many of whom were uneducated, illiterate and stuck on a ship where the next moment could bring death through shipwreck or battle, were writing their memoirs on themselves. Earlier, Angel had told me that, by having a tattoo, “Somebody has made a conscious impression on their own body of their character, their allegiances or their beliefs.”

I tell her my theory and she nods her head. “Oh, yes,” she says. “What we have here are documents.”

***

For more information about Gemma Angel’s research visit: lifeand6months.com Matt Lodder’s website is: mattlodder.tumblr.com 

* Update, 25 April: Matt Lodder informs me that between our interview and publication of this piece, a researcher has scrutinised photographs of Churchill in old age (where her wrists were showing, unlike earlier photos) and can see no evidence of a tattoo there. Perhaps her tattoo was an urban myth after all. Or perhaps it was somewhere less mentionable in polite company.

Tattoo collection photos courtesy of Gemma Angel/The Science Museum

Luisa, a 40-year-old nanny, photographed by Lina Bertucci.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage