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Gluck: Art and Identity

3 December 2017 | Katie Da Cunha Lewin

The artist we now know simply as ‘Gluck’ was born Hannah Gluckstein in 1895 to a wealthy family in London. She became well-known as a painter, with ties to high society. She also became famous for her decision to wear men’s clothing, and was featured in society magazine and newspaper articles. Brighton Museum host the first ever retrospective about the painter.



Gluck’s work is probably best known in the form of a book cover: her painting ‘Medallion’, a joint portrait of herself and her lover Nesta Obermer, was used as the cover of the classic lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall.  This exhibition seeks to flesh out her reputation by analysing both her creative output and her life. Gluck’s popularity within society and by collectors has meant that many of her works have never been displayed; three paintings that have never been displayed. This exhibition encompasses some of her portraits of friends, families, and striking paintings of flowers. The three curators, Professor Amy de la Haye, Martin Pel and Jeffrey Horsley, use this exhibition not only to highlight her painting, but to also draw attention to the collection left to the museum by Gluck herself the year before her death; interestingly, the clothing and objects donated were not the masculine tailoring she herself wore, but floral dresses and black evening wear. They take an innovative approach to this unusual archive by asking what ‘evidence’ of life means, and posing questions about why Gluck donated these objects.
 
Gluck’s paintings vary in subject matter. Many of her early works are portraits of family members or friends; two portraits of a brother and sister hang next to each other, shown in public for the first time. The striking ‘Lords and Ladies’ from 1936 depicts a white and green bouquet of lilies in a brown marble vase. The detail, particularly in marbling on the vase, is exquisite, showing Gluck’s skill with fine detail. Her portrait, ‘Spiritual’ of a young black man against a black background also shows her skill, and the sensitive facial expression of the young man shows her careful study of his personality. Gluck’s particular preference for showing her work was to set it in a three-tiered frame many of which are on display in this exhibition. These frames were designed to be painter or wallpapered over, specifically thinking about how to display them best in a modern and chic home.


 
The contents of the exhibition are also rather unusual and the curators explain that the layout comes directly from their attempt to queer the space. As visitors enter the room, the first display in the line of sight is a pinboard on which is a timeline of Gluck’s relationships; this, they explain, leaves visitors with no doubt about Gluck and the way that she lived her life.  They also include what they have termed an ‘intervention’, in the form of a box of love letters written to one of Gluck’s lovers.  These details provide visitors with more historical detail, as well intimate access to the life of someone now regarded as a trailblazer of gender fluidity. This theme of her unapologetic identity continues throughout the exhibition, in her disparate subjects of painting, as well as several photographs of her in masculine tailoring. In this, the exhibition explores the inability to categorise a single life, showing that one person can have multiple interests and work across different perspectives.


 
The second room thinks more about her life, and contains many of the objects she donated. Through this collection of costuming, as well as examples of costume jewellery and accessories, Gluck shows that her relationships were a defining aspect of her life. As well as an example of one of her artist’s smocks, there are also several dresses, including three evening gowns. Though in some of her papers she asserts that one of the gowns was made for her, the curators surmise that this was not the case through dressmaker measurements. Through this forensic archival work, the curators explore the problem of archive and memory, suggesting that love and community are paramount in self-definition.
 
This is a complex and interesting exhibition, in which issues of identity and memory are brought to the fore. Through the clear care and attention by the three curators, visitors gain an insight into the complexity of self and self-presentation, and learn more about an individual whose life was lived confidently and passionately.
 
Gluck: Art & Identity is at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until 11 March 2018.

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