This week an exhibition opens of ‘queer’ art whose specific perspective was not always recognised or accepted
It is not just the beauty of art, it turns out, that lies in the eye of the beholder, but also its “queerness”. Tate Britain is preparing its first show dedicated to “queer art”, a term long understood by art historians but which still has the power to bring the museum-going public up short. Does queer art, some ask, refer to a specific school of protest? Is it designed for a particular audience? And do paintings that might be described in this way really have a different perspective to offer? On the evidence of the work coming together for this landmark show, the answer is “yes, all of this and more”.
When the doors opento Queer British Art 1861-1967, almost 50 years since the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales, the curator of the exhibition, Clare Barlow, believes these difficult questions will all be tackled. Perhaps surprisingly, Barlow’s choices even include some works that originally had no clear position on gender or on sexuality, but simply came to be celebrated as gems of gay subculture.
“We have works which demonstrate lots of different attitudes, from anxiety to celebration,” Barlow told the Observer, adding that other items came to acquire notoriety by accident. Walter Crane’s languorous 1877 painting, The Renaissance of Venus, is a good example. “Crane’s wife did not want him viewing or drawing nude women, so instead he used a well-known young male model, Alessandro di Marco, to stand in for the goddess of love,” said Barlow. But the ruse fell apart when fellow painter Frederick Leighton saw the work at the Grosvenor Gallery’s first exhibition that year and called out “But my dear fellow, that is not Aphrodite, that is Alessandro!”, supposedly adding that, in the Italian sunlight, the boy did pass for Venus. So the painting gained its salacious reputation due to the very primness of an era that had frowned on women posing for male artists.
What’s more, Barlow argues, the audience for new paintings often did at least half the work for the “queer” artist. A bronze statue like Leighton’s own The Sluggard, which simply shows a nude man stretching, is not overtly sexual, but for some was pure erotica. “People saw different things,” said Barlow, who worked on the show with assistant curator Amy Concannon. “And there was frequently anxiety about how much was being implied. With Henry Scott Tuke’s painting The Critics, with its young men sitting on the water’s edge, some just could not see it. For others, homosexuality was there and they loved it.”
All the same, the “queer” theme has been tricky for the mainstream Tate because the word is now seen, including by many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, as having derogatory connotations. Even among those who have come across the broad strand of cultural study known as “queer theory”, it can be contentious. When Tate announced the show last year some questioned the need for an exhibition under this banner. “Our obsession with sexuality dims our ability to simply respond to and enjoy great art for what it is,” wrote Janet Street-Porter in the Independent.
Yet Tate Britain’s title has a precise historical meaning: it focuses on a moment of rapid social change and creative awakening; a time when the term “queer” was in increasing, if covert, use. The art is drawn from the period between 1861, when sodomy in England and Wales was no longer punishable by death, and 1967, when private sex between two consenting men over 21 stopped being a crime.
“This period is so crucial because until this point gender and sexuality remained almost undefined socially, or at least without label,” said Barlow. “And then, through the first world war, new names and labels arrive, although of course, it is often still causing anguish. But it becomes a core facet of identity.” This flowering identity was either claimed and explored with relish, as in the case of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon, or was the subject of vexed doubt, as it was for the self-taught artist Keith Vaughan, who Barlow explains was constantly fearful that his work gave away too much of his “desires”.
Occasionally such non-conformist artistic experiments provoked condemnation. In 1913 Laura Knight’s sensuous Self Portrait with Nude, showing her painting a nude model, was widely seen as dangerous, or even repellent. It was certainly deliberately subversive, prompted as it was by the artist’s experience of being banned from life drawing classes at Nottingham School of Art. The Bloomsbury Group’s Duncan Grant was also accused of being a corrupting force. His murals Bathing and Football, designed for the walls of Borough Polytechnic, were suspected of having a “degenerative” effect on the students.
“Sometimes these views reflected rumours about the lifestyle of the artist,” said Barlow, pointing out an underlying suspicion of any kind of aestheticism, let alone of homosexual art. “But it was never made quite clear what exactly ‘corruption’ meant. It is just alluded to. Is it perhaps going to distract young men from the kind of muscular civic activity that was required from them?”
The exhibition also incudes a full-length portrait of Oscar Wilde by Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington, given to the writer as a wedding present by the artist and now exhibited in Britain for the first time. Wilde had been forced to sell his work when he was declared bankrupt and needed cash for his legal fees while he awaited trial for gross indecency in 1895. With real showmanship, the portrait will be displayed alongside the prison cell door behind which Wilde was later locked up in Reading Gaol.
The Tate is not the first cultural institution to mark the coming 50th anniversary of decriminalisation. Last week saw the end of the annual BFI Flare:London LGBT Film Festival, which opened with the world premiere of Against the Law, a film starring Daniel Mays and Mark Gatiss that tells the story of Peter Wildeblood, who in 1953 had a scandalous liaison with two servicemen. The subsequent court case led to his imprisonment and eventually influenced the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. The festival, in its 31st year, is confident about its own presentation of “queer” cinematic art. “We try to be quite open in our interpretation,” said Michael Blyth, who has helped programme BFI Flare for 10 years. “It can be queer film-makers, queer content or sometimes a queer aesthetic. There is something you instinctively know if a film has something to say, either to the rest of our programme, or to the audience.”
For Blyth the effort to present a different cultural voice is as relevant now as it was for the visual artists the Tate is about to celebrate: “We are a long way off being mainstream yet. People do ask why we need a queer festival. Well, we try to show films that might not have another immediate, obvious platform, and that is the point.”
As Tate Britain unpacks the crates for its own attempt to let marginalised work from the past speak out, Barlow is adamant that the story of queer art is not all about creativity inspired by isolation or covert urges. “It is true covertness was there and people were oppressed, but it was not always part of the artistic impulse because a shared sexuality in those times allowed communities to flourish and support each other. I hope we will demonstrate this in a gallery we have called Arcadia in Soho. A lot of these artists knew each other and spent time with each other.”
Of equal interest are those who worked away, seemingly unnoticed, within conventional society. Hannah Gluckstein, who painted striking still lives of flowers as Gluck, was accepted by the establishment, including members of the royal family, although she was living with Constance Spry, the influential flower arranger to the aristocracy. “Some artists were very good at picking their way through the art world without questions being raised,” said Barlow.
To the doubters who see no need for this show, the Tate is about to try to prove that “queer” is a theme, just like more orthodox studies of geography, era or nationality, that lets a new light flood in on great art.
by Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent
Source – The Guardian