This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised consensual sex (in private) in England and Wales between men aged 21 and over.
In commemoration and celebration of this landmark legislation, and with a mission to continue to push for positive change, Tate Britain has put together an impressive retrospective of what it calls queer British art, though in some cases the art in question has a queer sensibility as opposed to being overtly created, commissioned or promoted by people who might have empathised with or self-defined as what we now call LGBTQI.
The show includes works from a period of over 100 years, and is bookended by the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, which abolished the death penalty for sodomy, and the ground breaking 1967 legislation.
Given the scope of this exhibition and the dramatic shifts in attitudes, society, science and law which span these years, this collection has to be seen as a snap shot rather than a definitive selection of queer British art. But as snap shots go it is at once panoramic and detailed, and provides a diverse showcase for some defining and important works of art, in this queer sphere of interest and beyond.
The show is spread over eight themed rooms and broadly runs chronologically.
In the first room many of the studies include images of beautiful young men and women which seem loaded with ambiguities that leave the works open to homoerotic interpretation.
They range from Henry Scott Tuke’s voyeuristic oil paintings of boys bathing, to the beautiful and heart-breaking paintings and drawings of Simeon Solomon and Sydney Harold Meteyard, whose works here evoke a resignation and despair perhaps caused by lost or unfulfilled same-sex desire and love.
The exhibition moves on to cover public indecency, looking at how public debate over sexuality and gender identity was stirred up by scandals, campaigns and scientific studies. It references the trials of Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall and includes striking portraits of both protagonists, as well as memorabilia relating to Wilde’s imprisonment, notably the infamous calling card left by the Marquis of Queensbury which contained the damning accusation: “to Oscar Wilde posing as a sodomite.” Other notable exhibits include a portrait of Aubrey Vincent Beardsley alongside some of his sexually explicit drawings, and portraits of pioneering sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis and radical free-thinker and author of Homogenic Love, Edward Carpenter.
The next room looks at how queer perspectives could find public expression on the stage, and poses the question as to how far audiences were aware of their idols’ sexual personas and preferences, be they matinee heart-throbs or variety hall male and female impersonators. There’s a wonderful selection of publicity photographs, including the late Victorian ‘Funny He-She Ladies’ Fanny and Stella, Vesta Tilley’s much loved Burlington Bertie, and a spectacularly glamorous shot of Danny La Rue, who we learn preferred the term ‘comic in a frock’ to female impersonator.
Bloomsbury and Beyond looks at the artists and writers who famously ‘lived in squares and loved in triangles’ as they pushed the boundaries of what might be considered ‘normal’ relationships and created honest, unashamed art and literature that reflected their loves, passions and beliefs.
The room contains a number of works by Duncan Grant, including paintings which he himself never publicly exhibited because of their explicitly erotic gay content. Grant’s other sensual though less sexually explicit paintings of men bathing hearken back to Henry Scott Tuke’s paintings earlier in the show, though now there is a much stronger sense of male community and homoeroticism. A sense of a utopian, same-sex community, this time of women, is also reflected in Dame Ethel Walker’s large-scale oil painting, Decoration: the Excursion of Nausicaa.
Women feature strongly in room five, both as artists and subjects. Here women artists are seen as defying convention, for example in their unapologetic eroticising of the naked female form, while in other paintings, such as Dorothy Johnstone’s Rest Time in Life Class, there’s again a representation of an idyllic and exclusive female community which is intimate and self-supportive.
This room also contains several portraits of famously strong, creative women who challenged gender norms and traditional relationships during this period. They include Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf and Vernon Lee.
The exhibition moves on to cover London as an Arcadian epicentre for queer art and culture in the 1950s and 60s, and finishes with a room dedicated to Francis Bacon and David Hockney’s honest and defiant depictions of male same-sex desire which were in fact painted before the 1967 Act.
These latter years where a time when more people were self-defining as LGBT+ and seeing themselves as part of a flourishing queer community, with artists in relationships living openly together and some, like Joe Orton, even having a gay notoriety and celebrity.
But while works here by Bacon and Hockney are fearless, with Hockney even painting the word ‘queer’ into his 1961 painting Going to be a Queen for Tonight, the works of Keith Vaughn for example, though very beautiful, seem shadowy and ambiguous and linked to an awkwardness, furtiveness and even shame. In his diaries Vaughn referred to the ‘social guilt of the invert’, and despite the changing times he, like many others, still lived in fear of prosecution and even blackmail.
The exhibition mini guide cites that ‘this is a history punctuated by bonfires and dustbins’. No doubt many significant works have been destroyed, lost, or never saw the light of day up to 1967 and indeed beyond.
Tate Britain’s chairman writes in his forward to the book accompanying the exhibition: “Our ability to bring together a collection of queer British Art and to expose our audience to a once taboo topic demonstrates the progress made in the last fifty years. But the fact that this is the first exhibition of its kind shows that society has yet to fully accept LGBTQ+ culture.”
It’s a sobering thought. We should all celebrate and support this exhibition and be hopeful for its legacy.
Queer British Art 1861-1967 @Tate Britain runs until October 1 2017.
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