Museums

100 Years of Queer British Art, from Fin de Siècle Aesthetics to Performative Dandyism

Although Tate Britain’s survey is a strong attempt to represent queer experiences, certain gaps emerge in the narrative.

Simeon Solomon, “Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene” (1864) (all images courtesy of Tate Photography)

LONDON — Showcasing the diverse story behind a convoluted centenary of queer British art cannot be an easy task. For Queer British Art 1861–1967, not only has the Tate included works in an array of creative mediums — painting, sculpture, photography — but it has displayed these works along with artifacts intended to historicize the accompanying art. Although the exhibition shows a strong attempt to represent a wide range of queer experience, certain gaps emerge, leaving the viewer with many unanswered questions.

There are four components to the gallery’s new exhibition: heritage, queerness, art, and nationality, and the interconnectivity between these subjects is its focus. Divided into eight spaces, the show moves chronologically from the UK’s abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 to its 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which included the partial decriminalization of homosexuality. This queer chronicle, curator Clare Barlow said during her gallery tour, “is framed by legal landmarks, but the artists’ self-liberation is the real story of the show.” Each room is designed to serve as a chapter in this narrative.

Queer British Art, installation view
Queer British Art, installation view

The opening scene is set by Victorian artist Simeon Solomon, whose work greets visitors as they enter the exhibition’s first room, Coded Desires. The selected Solomon works, which include ink-and-graphite studies of the male form such as “Babylon hath been a golden cup” (1859) and “The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love” (1865), set the tone of veiled sexuality for this introductory space. His use of religious themes in conjunction with an exploration of same-sex desire reflects the subtlety necessary for 19th-century depictions of queer experience.

Fanny and Stella: famous cross-dressers

Along with Solomon, “Aurora Triumphans” (1877-8) by Evelyn de Morgan and a copy of Walter Pater’s “Studies in the History of the Renaissance” (1873) are displayed here. The Tate relies on the interpretative potential of the speculatively queer works within Coded Desires, describing William Blake Richmond’s 1870 painting “The Bowlers” as “open to homoerotic interpretation.”

Moving away from the mid-century influences of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood toward fin de siècle Aestheticism, the theme of the second room, Public Indecency, explores how sexuality and gender identity subsisted in a public sphere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Portraits of sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis, activist Edward Carpenter, and writer Radclyffe Hall illustrate this room’s exploration of the scandals, legal confrontations, scientific studies, and social campaigns that shaped public views of queer life at the turn of the century. A portrait of Oscar Wilde at age 27 is hung parallel on the wall to his prison door, a striking reminder of his downfall. The notorious illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, Wilde’s collaborator, are situated next to paraphernalia from the great writer’s infamous trial. Jacques-Émile Blanche’s 1895 portrait of Beardsley captures the young man’s acute sense of style and meticulous attire.

Queer British Art, installation view
Queer British Art, installation view

The performativity of dandyism leads the viewer on to room three, which pays homage to “theatrical” as ancient subtext for “queer.” Populated by cross-dressing music hall performers, surrealist photographers, and avant-garde stage artists, the Theatrical Types room features Jimmy Slater’s diamante earrings, portraits shot by Cecil Beaton and Angus McBean, an 1894 programme for The Blackmailers, which featured the first depiction of a same-sex relationship on the British stage, and Noel Coward’s dressing gown.

The dark Victorian galleries, painted deep maroon, here give way to a brighter space, dominated by Duncan Grant’s large 1911 modernist painting, “Bathing.” The Bloomsbury group as queer modern “experiment,” a community which famously “lived in squares and loved in triangles,” is the focus of room four. Bloomsbury and Beyond highlights the theme of intimacy in works by Gluck, Dora Carrington, and Ethel Walker.

Duncan Grant, “Bathing” (1911)
Henry Scott Tuke, “The Critics” (1927)
Hannah Gluckstein, “Gluck” (1942)

Challenged gender norms come into discussion in Defying Convention, room five. The radical societal changes during the First and Second World Wars became a period of liberating possibilities for many British women, which is highlighted by the inclusion of Claude Cahun’s photographs and William Strang’s 1918 portrait of Vita Sackville-West, “Lady with a Red Hat.”

William Strang, “Lady with a Red Hat”

As the narrative moves into the postwar era, London as queer art central in the 1950s and ’60s is explored in room six, Arcadia and Soho. Featuring paintings by Edward Burra and graphite sketches by Keith Vaughan, the room’s theme of queered geography is reflected next door, in Public/Private Lives. Although the focus of this space is the collaged book covers, created by artist couple Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell by borrowing library books and creating new covers to be returned to the shelves, a hidden gem here is the photograph album. This anonymous document is a private erotic project, compiled by someone with an interest in jodhpurs and guardsmen.

Queer British Art, assorted photographs by Claude Cahun

The exhibition gives over its final gallery room to Francis Bacon and David Hockney, exploring how the work of these two artists exploited the homoerotic potential of the visual culture of ‘60s Britain. Their controversial artwork is informed by a variety of sources, from Eadweard Muybridge’s innovative photographs of wrestlers to bodybuilding magazines.  

Although the four central themes of the exhibition interweave to provide context for the objects displayed, they also serve to highlight the absences that emerge in any narrative of historical queer British art. Attempts to fully represent the endlessly diverse face of queer British art can be valiant but will always be unsuccessful, and the hidden histories of this creative world are further obfuscated by societal reinscribing of LGBT+ life. Wider society has modified and restricted how queer communities self-express: concealed and coded, banned and blamed, the heritage of the queer experience is, as the Tate puts it in the exhibition catalogue, “punctuated by bonfires and dustbins.” Britain as the homeland of this queer art confuses this narrative: In a divided society, the public “face” of queer art is tempered by the restrictions of gender, class, and ethnicity.

Queer British Art, installation view
Queer British Art, installation view

We are left wondering: In a society that the exhibition claims “tolerated” lesbian relationships, why do we not see more female voices represented? How does race intersect with the narrative of queer British art? What was life like for queer creative people outside the artistic elite, at any point in the century this exhibit represents? As a result, while an engaging and thought-provoking exhibition, Queer British Art 1861–1967 has a great many gaps in its narrative, leaving the viewer with more questions than answers.

Queer British Art, installation view

Queer British Art 1861–1967 continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, Westminster, London) through October 1.

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