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Queer British Art at Tate Britain

29 April 2017 | Emily Butler

“For me, to use the word ‘queer’ is a liberation, it was a word that frightened me, but no longer.” Filmmaker Derek Jarman’s words form one of the many quotations on the walls of Tate Britain’s latest exhibition, Queer British Art 1861-1967. The exposition reinforces the fact that for centuries, popular art has privileged the male view of the female body, establishing heterosexuality as the norm.

But beyond the male gaze, a “queer gaze” has also existed in parallel, albeit in a coded form; Queer British Art explains the ways artists expressed their prohibited sexualities. The exhibition is framed by two key legal rulings: the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861; followed over a century later by the 1967 Sexual Offences Act that partially decriminalised homosexuality. It follows the era between these two dates, a time in which social conceptions of sexuality altered, concurrently tightening and expanding.

This period of art history has rarely been explored in a queer context before now. It’s a task that curator Clare Barlow has approached with appreciation, presenting her own queer interpretations of paintings and offering contextual profiles where essential. Critically, she understands that queerness is not synonymous with homosexuality. Not only is it a descriptor of various fluid identities, it’s a radical approach which encourages us to question everything we think we know about gender and sexuality.


Paul Tanqueray (1905-1991) Douglas Byng 1934 © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Themes of discrimination and persecution are present - particularly in the brave choice of contrasting a floor-length portrait of Oscar Wilde aged 27, next to the door of his cell from Reading Prison where he was imprisoned for “gross indecency” from 1895-97. They are, after all, a vital element of queer history and cannot be ignored – but never exaggerated or dwelled upon. The combination is a haunting, domineering reminder of the punishments that threatened the lives of each of the artists featured.

Nearby, in a small display case, a photograph of Wilde with his lover Lord Douglas illustrates happier memories.  In the Victorian era, artists like Simeon Solomon could not exhibit works like The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love (1865), a tender drawing that suggests the impossibility of gay love and fear of prosecution. Pre-Raphaelite painters like Frederic Leighton and Evelyn De Morgan took a different tactic, camouflaging their erotic attractions in a cult of pure beauty, Greek Love a period-specific code for queer culture.



Angus McBean (1904-1990) Quentin Crisp 1941 National Portrait Gallery (London, UK) © Estate of Angus McBean / National Portrait Gallery, London

The decades that follow find sexual difference driven into the shadows, or permitted as entertainment on the stage. Angus McBean’s striking black and white photographs depict actors involved in same-sex relationships. A room devoted to the Bloomsbury group of artists and intellectuals reveals the sexual liaisons of everyone from Virginia Woolf to Dora Carrington to Ethel Sands. But they, like many artists, kept their relations hidden and their artwork destroyed. One of the most famed images amongst the exhibition is the self-portrait of Hannah Gluckson Gluck. The high cheekbones, cropped hair and fixed gaze create an aesthetic of gender ambiguity which is conceivably intentional – after all, this was an artist who resigned from an art society when referred to as ‘Miss’. This rejection of gendered pronouns during the first half of the 20th century was radical, and is still somewhat progressive by modern standards.


Self portrait and Nude 1913 by Laura Knight (1877- 1970) National Portrait Gallery (London, UK)

The Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition concludes by returning us to the 21st century with six short films that, not only, present the diversity of modern queer experiences but provide a valuable platform to move past the timeframe of the exhibition and show precisely how far queer culture has progressed over the last fifty years. These artists deconstructed stereotypes and challenged conventional narratives, an opportunity seized by writer Shon Faye in her video, which critiques media depictions of trans women. This exhibition offers a powerful collection of stories of resilience and complex, chaotic personal testimonies. Barlow recognises the importance to talk about oppression but also the significance in recognising that, even in times of great oppression, people have lived productive, joyful lives.

Queer British Art 1861-1967 runs until 1 October 2017 at Tate Britain, standard tickets are £16.50. Find out more and book tickets here.

 
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