Can you tell whether this painting was done by a man or a woman, by a lesbian or by a gay, by a bisexual or a transexual? And does it matter? If by a man, is it a horrible example of the Male Gaze, encouraging ‘ownership’ and mastery of the female figure, exploiting women for semi-pornographic purposes? If by a woman, is it an unashamed celebration of the female body? Does it really matter who painted it? Does knowledge of the painter’s sex change your ‘reading’ of it or your enjoyment of it? Why?
Declaration of interest
I was a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality back in the 1970s, going on marches, signing petitions, habituating Windsor’s only gay pub, campaigning for gay rights, the central one being getting the age of gay consent brought down in line with the age for straights. In the years since, I’ve supported gay marriage, gay and women priests, and so on. It’s always been obvious to me that LGBT people should be treated absolutely the same as anyone else, and benefit from exactly the same rights and life opportunities. I am not myself gay, but it’s always seemed obvious to me that a) no-one should judge any form of sexual practice among consenting adults b) no-one should be allowed to discriminate in any way against anyone on account of their sexual orientation or sexual practices.
The jargon of desire
In the late 1960s French structuralist literary criticism began to morph into post-structuralist criticism and theory. Reflecting the move from the politicised 1960s into the more narcissistic 1970s, and an ongoing obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis – and also being French and proud of it – a lot of this criticism became more personal, about identity, as constituted in texts and wider society, and a lot more about sex.
The works of literary critics like Roland Barthes (b.1915, The Pleasure of the Text), the historian Michel Foucault (b.1926 A History of Sexuality), the philosopher Jacques Derrida (b.1930), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (b.1901), feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous (b.1937) and Julia Kristeva (b.1941 Desire in language), and the pioneer of Queer Studies, Judith Butler (b.1956, Subjects of desire, Gender trouble, Undoing gender), plus many others have led to the vast proliferation of the ‘discourse of desire’, to countless books and articles and conferences and degree and postgraduate courses about gender and sexuality, demonstrating how this that or the other work of art or fiction or film subverts gender conventions and transgresses gender stereotypes and rewrites gender narratives.
With the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, young students wanting to prove how rebellious and subversive they were found themselves bereft of an ideological alternative to consumer capitalism, and so found themselves forced to move into the only two games in town, anti-sexism and anti-racism, embodied in Women’s Studies/Gender Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies, respectively.
For at least thirty years humanities departments – literature, art, philosophy – have been teaching courses showing how all Western writing, art, philosophy was riddled with racist/sexist assumptions, and built on evil imperialism and slavery. Many graduates of these courses, imbued with this way of thinking, moved on into the media and press, where in the pages of the Guardian or the Huffington Post or the Independent, they can be seen every day writing scandalised articles about the persistence of sexism and racism and homophobia.
But there are more women than immigrants in this country, as a result more Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies courses than Post-Colonial courses – and so books and articles and films and documentaries about the multiple unfairnesses and injustices perpetrated on women throughout the ages by the ever-present Patriarchy, continue to thrive and proliferate.
On one level this exhibition represents a triumph of this kind of discourse, a discourse a) obsessed by sex, conceived in a rather dry and boring theoretical way b) characterised by a fathomless sense of grievance and injustice. It is a perfect marriage of victim politics with the discourse of desire.
Why use the word ‘queer’?
To quote the curators:
Queer has a mixed history – from the 19th century onwards it has been used both as a term of abuse and as a term by LGBT people to refer to themselves. Our inspiration for using it came from Derek Jarman who said that it used to frighten him but now ‘for me to use the word queer is a liberation’. More recently, of course, it has become reclaimed as a fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. Historians of sexuality have also argued that it is preferable to other terms for sexualities in the past as these often don’t map onto modern sexual identities. In addition to carrying out audience research, we took advice from Stonewall and other LGBT charities and held focus groups with LGBT people. The advice from all of these sources was overwhelmingly that we should use it. While we tried other titles, no other option captured the full diversity of sexualities and gender identities that are represented in the show.
What is a queer work of art?
Does it have to portray a homosexual or lesbian act i.e. be pornographic (as a small number of the works here do, some rude sketches by Keith Vaughan and the super well-known big phalluses of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Lysistrata)?
Is queer art any work by an overtly gay or lesbian or bi or trans artist? But how many Victorian and Edwardian and Georgian painters thought of themselves in those terms? Don’t the curators run the risk of – in fact aren’t they running headlong into – defining, naming and limiting people from the past a) by our own modern 2017 categories of sexuality (Yes); and b) of defining people entirely by their ‘sexuality’, whatever that is. I thought that was precisely what CHE and Gay Rights and their successors were trying to escape from: from being tied down, limited, constrained and defined solely in terms of your sexual preferences, as if that were the only important part of your life, as if society is correct to pigeonhole all of us on the basis of this one attribute.
And what if the queer artist’s subject matter is not only not particularly erotic, what if it’s not even of human body? For example, is this queer art?
Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck (1895 – 1978) was a lesbian painter. So is her painting of flowers a work of queer art?
Should queer art also include works which just look ‘sort of’ homoerotic or a bit lesbian, either a) in the eyes of contemporary viewers (in which case it might have caused a ‘scandal’ and ‘shocked Victorian society’), or b) in the eyes of modern curators trained to spot the slightest sign of gender stereotypes being ‘subverted’ and gender norms being ‘transgressed’ and narratives of heterosexuality being ‘questioned’ and ‘interrogated’?
Either way, categorising art in terms of the audience’s response to it, is dicey. What constitutes ‘art’ has changed out of all recognition the past 150 years. People’s responses to ‘art’ have become similarly complex and varied.
In the event, this exhibition includes works chosen by all these criteria, and more.
The drawbacks of telling history through art
This decade Tate Britain has run a series of exhibitions based not around artists or movements, but on broad themes and topics. Thus exhibitions about: folk art, ruins, the British Empire, Victorian sculpture, the destruction of art works, the depiction of war. Many of them had an amusingly random element, delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey next to vast photos of Nazi war bunkers (Ruin Lust), or some maps of the Empire next to some flags of the Empire next to some random artifacts from the Empire (Artist and Empire).
Although they put a brave face on it, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the curators are under orders to ransack the archives for neglected works which Tate bought at some point or other and to find pretexts to dust them off and display them in exhibitions with eye-catching and ‘controversial’ titles.
While the aim of rotating their (doubtless vast) collection for us to view is laudable, the pretexts they come up with are sometimes laughably wide-ranging and grand-sounding while the collection of artifacts actually on display often turns out to be breath-takingly patchy and random. The history of the British Empire is quite a vast subject: the Tate exhibition about it amounted to a jumble sale of odds and sods from across the huge geographic reach and the vast periods of time involved: the Empire used maps, here’s some maps; the Empire had flags, here’s half a dozen flags; the Empire allowed botanists and naturalists to travel the world and see exotic species so here’s a painting of tiger; here’s some native spears; and so on.
Although Tate calls in loans from other collections, the core of these shows tends to be focused on dusting off and displaying many of it hidden assets, themselves bought at various times for various reasons. You often end up feeling as if they’re trying do a vast jigsaw without most of the pieces.
Because written histories can conjure up anything with words, creating continuities, linking themes and ideas: in words, anything is possible. Histories told through objects, however, immediately limit which areas can be covered, and which stories can be told, by virtue of what is available. And histories told through works of ‘art’ are even more limited by the random nature of any particular art collection, as well as biases intrinsic in what kind of subjects get turned into ‘art’ and what don’t (the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people, for example, or the entire world of work).
All these limitations apply to this exhibition, with the additional challenge that sex, sexuality, gender, desire – call it what you will – is, by and large, quite a private part of most people’s lives. Artists and performers, by the nature of their work and output, are a kind of exception to the rule that most people keep their sex lives pretty private. And forms of sexuality which were banned by law and subject to harsh punishments are all the more likely to be hidden and suppressed, to not leave traces in the written – but especially the painted – record. In other words, even more than Tate’s other wide-ranging historical exhibitions, this one feels haunted by gaps and absences.
In 1861 the death penalty for sodomy was abolished; in 1967 sex between men was (partially) decriminalised. These provide handy end dates.
The exhibition is in eight rooms
Coded desires covers the later Victorian period. This was dominated by the Aesthetic Movement and the group of painters known as the Olympians, who specialised in sensuous paintings of lightly women lounging around in a dreamy ancient Roman baths or terraces. Just thinking about either of these interlinked movements brings to mind the extraordinary sensuality present in so much art of this period, along with a worship of the classical world, in pictures and in words, which stretched to a feel for the same sex relationships present in, especially, the writings of the Greeks, where a sexual relationship between an older man and a younger man or boy was socially acceptable. But the bigger picture is that ‘desire’, physical sensuousness, in all shapes and forms was more openly depicted in this period.
The exhibition has some striking works by the king of the Olympians, Frederick Leighton, on the basis that he sometimes depicted sensual male nudes – although many of his works are characterised by sensuality for men or women. He was rumoured to be gay, but then it’s thought he had an affair with one of his female models. Tricky, therefore, to shoehorn him into modern categories of straight, gay, bi etc. One of the liberating things about studying history, past lives, is they did things differently, thought, wrote, spoke, painted, perceived, differently to us.
The bulk of works in the room are by Simeon Solomon, who was unfortunate enough to be arrested in a public lavatory off Oxford Street, charged with attempting to commit sodomy and fined £100, then a year later arrested in Paris and sentenced to three months in prison. This makes him a bona fide gay hero. To the viewer, however, his works seem mostly sub-standard examples of the Olympian style done much more professionally by the likes of Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.
William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) is a painter you don’t hear about much. He also painted supremely sensual paintings on sunny classical themes, e.g. Hera in the House of Hephaistos or just sumptuous late-Victorian portraits e.g. Mrs Luke Ionides. Nothing particularly ‘transgressive’ about these, in the way our curators want to see gender norms being transgressed, but they’ve included the big painting The Bowlers.
Apparently, this scandalised the Victorians (didn’t everything ‘scandalise’ the Victorians, according to our modern, oh-so-liberated accounts) for its inclusion of naked women (you can see some breasts) and naked men in the same scene. And some of the men have their arms round each other. Shock horror. Richmond was married and wasn’t arrested in any toilets, so not a transgressive hero per se.
Far more impressive were the three paintings by the marvellous Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929). Tuke was one of a group of artists who settled in Newlyn in Cornwall and painted en plein air. Almost all are of young men, nude or half-undressed, by the sparkling sea in the sunshine. In the permanent gallery upstairs they display August Blue (1893), a wonderful composition in terms of the draughtsmanship of the figures, also the figurative accuracy of the rowboat and the ships on the horizon, and also of course the wonderfully clear blues and greens – you can smell the sea, you can feel the sun on your skin. There are three of his paintings here alongside a cabinet showing some of the many photographs he took of gorgeous looking young men.
Public indecency ‘looks at ways in which sexuality and gender identity did – and did not – go public from the 1880s to the 1920s. Thus we have the trial of Oscar Wilde (who has not heard of the trial of Oscar Wilde? How many films have been made of it?) the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall for her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), and we get some of Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘scandalous’ illustrations for the Greek play Lysistrata thrown in. This is the kind of thing you should learn in 6th form and certainly early in an English or humanities degree course, so that you can tut and fret and criticise horrible dead white men for repressing ‘transgressive’ sexualities. But it’s worth remembering that this period also saw the persecution of male heterosexual artists as well – James Joyce’s Ulysses went on trial in 1921 because of its description of a man masturbating, the police raided an exhibition of paintings by D.H. Lawrence, (admittedly not in England) the arrest of Austrian artist Egon Schiele, 100 of whose art works were confiscated; one of them was burned by the judge in court in front of the artist.
It was an era when many artists of all persuasions were pushing at the boundaries of what society thought was acceptable depiction of sexuality, and many artists, gay, straight or what-have-you – fell foul of the authorities.
Alongside are testaments to the work of the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, who collaborated with the gay writer John Addington Symonds on his book Sexual Inversion (1896). These ‘scientific’ works can either be seen (optimistically) as the start of a ‘modern’ liberal attitude to a wide range of sexual practices or (pessimistically) as ‘science’ and the State beginning to move into areas of private life, with a view to defining and categorising all possible practices (or perversions as they’d have been called) and the human ‘types’ which engage in them.
You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to suspect that the ‘liberating’ effects of writing about varieties of sexuality can be accompanied by new types of definition, surveillance and control.
Theatrical types The theatre and performing arts have long offered a refuge for exhibitionists, people who like to dress up, fantasise, play act and generally behave in ways which would not be acceptable in everyday life. So the theatre has long attracted gay men and this room features photos of famous performers who were gay, photographers who were gay, with a special case devoted to cross-dressing entertainers.
There’s a lot of photos by Angus McBean (1904-90) the fabulous b&w photographer, who did lots of semi-surreal fashion shots before the war, was arrested in 1942 for homosexual acts and served two years in gaol, before emerging to resume his career post-war in a rather more traditional vision. But everything he did is touched by class and style. the show includes a typically weird portrait of the now-forgotten actor Robert Helpmann as Hamlet
The British have a problem with sex, full stop, whether straight or gay, and have long had a reputation for gross hypocrisy, with the ‘respectable’ classes enforcing repressive laws at home then vacationing in Paris where they could sleep with countless courtesans (as squeaky clean Charles Dickens was reputed to do and the heir to the throne, Prince Albert certainly did) or swanning off to North Africa, to Algeria or Morocco where there was an endless supply of boys for sex.
This nervousness, shame and embarrassment may be part of what lies behind the long tradition of men dressing up as women for vaudeville entertainment, a tradition which goes back a long way, but is certainly present in the Victorian music hall, through the pre-war years and was still going strong in my boyhood in figures like Danny La Rue, Dick Emery (‘Oh you are awful… but I like you!’), Kenny Everett (‘and then all my clothes fell off!’), Dame Edna Everage, Lily Savage. And that’s without mentioning the vast tradition of English pantomime with its Widow Twanky and Ugle Sisters, traditionally played by men and a huge opportunity for all kinds of blue, risque and ‘transgender’ comedy.
A display case here presents a dozen or so photos and posters illustrating some of the cross-dressing stars of yore, most of which I’d never heard of simply because they were before the days of TV. Here, as elsewhere in the show (and as often in the Tate ‘history’ exhibitions) you feel this is an absolutely vast subject which has been only briefly sketched and hinted at, and possibly not one which is necessarily best approached through the medium of ‘art’ at all.
Bloomsbury and beyond I am prejudiced against Bloomsbury because of their snobbery and their smug, self-congratulatory elitism. They all slept with each other and described each other, in private letters and public reviews, as geniuses. What’s lasted has tended to be the writings of figures on the periphery – the economics of John Maynard Keynes, the novels of E.M. Forster, the novels of Virginia Woolf, though she was a core member. The art work of figures like Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell (recently featured in a handsome exhibition at the Dulwich Picture House), Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, hasn’t really stood the test of time.
The catalogue says these works represent:
a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.
Makes it sound much more exciting and dynamic than most of their sleepy decorative pictures. Ethel Walker’s work Nausicaa was a typical example of the washed-out, limp quality of a lot of the work in this room, gay or lesbian though it might well be.
That said these shows always throw up rare and striking pieces: a good example here is the vibrant portrait by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884–1937) of his servant, Henry Thomas (1935). Note: his servant.
Similarly, the South African artist Edward Wolfe is represented by a portrait of Pat Nelson, his model and thought to be his gay lover.
The Bloomsburyites’ pursuit of ‘unconventional’ sexual arrangements (i.e. being bisexual, living with several lovers at once) through the Great War and into the twenties, led in to the dominance of gay writers, poets and artists during the 1930s, given extra bite by the availability of the ‘decadent’ Weimar Republic in post-war Germany, whither trekked a generation of young gay men like Auden, Christopher Isherwood and so on.
Defying convention This room shows how early 20th century British artists ‘challenged gender norms’ i.e. by being lesbians, living with other women, having ‘open marriages’ and so on. For example, Laura Knight who, in this picture, ‘laid claim to traditional masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting [herself] in the act of painting nude female models’.
On pretexts solid or flimsy, a number of striking works are on show in this room.
- Lady with a Red Hat (1918) by William Strang – the lady being the lesbian and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West, Lady Nicholson, Companion of Honour, daughter of the third Baron Sackville.
- Dame Edith Sitwell (1916) by Alberto Guevara – daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort.
- Romance (1920) by Cecile Walton – Walton doesn’t appear to have been gay, having had two marriages (to men). Maybe this self-portrait is ‘challenging’ and ‘subverting’ ‘gender norms’ surrounding birth.
Arcadia and Soho ‘London was a magnet for queer artists’. The most striking works here are by the neglected surrealist artist Edward Burra (1905-76). According to a review of his biography, his sensibility was gay, and his closest friend was a male ballet dancer, ‘but they were never lovers’. Am I alone in finding this modern inquisitiveness about the exact nature of other people’s sexuality, and the precise borders of their sexual activity, prurient and controlling? Who cares? His art is weird and extra.
The opposite wall is devoted to a trio of gay artists – John Craxton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan – who were loosely described as neo-romantics in the 1940s. They were certainly gay. There’s a display case of overtly gay and pornographic pencil sketches by Vaughan, as well as a handful of photos he took of gorgeous young men.
At an exhibition years ago I saw a whole stand of the b&w photos Vaughan took of beautiful young men lounging around classic 1930s lidos, and have been haunted by them ever since. Next to these realistic sketches are his much more abstract paintings:
Vaughan seems to me to have developed a new and exciting way of depicting the (mostly male) figure. Alongside Vaughan are some lighter, more ‘naive’ works by John Craxton.
Craxton, Minton and Vaughan are three interesting figures, maybe worthy of a joint exhibition some time.
Public/private lives In the decade leading up to the 1967 act gay men lived a strange twilight life. In many places gay relationships among the famous, especially the arty, were permitted, maybe the most famous example being the close ‘friendship’ between England’s leading composer Benjamin Britten and the singer Peter Pears. the fuzz couldn’t go arresting the nation’s premier composer. But they did continue to arrest and imprison a steady flow of gay men, creating the trickle of protest which grew louder and more widespread for the law to be repealed or abolished.
This room goes heavy on the lurid relationship of gay playwright Joe Orton and his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell, because it ended in a garish scandal. But in the whole room the most powerful image for me was a still from the 1961 movie Victim, starring Dirk Bogarde as an impeccable upper-middle class lawyer married to the fragrant Sylvia Sims, but who is photographed in a compromising situation with the stunningly good looking young Peter McEnery, and blackmailed. I saw this film as a boy and it left a lasting impression of the needless pain and suffering caused by bigots and criminals given license by a stupidly interfering state. It influenced me to join the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.
Francis Bacon and David Hockney I think we all know about these bad boys.
The repetition over and again, in the introductions to each room and on labels for individual works, of the phrases ‘same sex desire’ and ‘gender norms’, all of which are ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ and ‘transgressed’, of artists ‘fearlessly stripping away’ convention and ‘pushing the boundaries’ – all this gets pretty monotonous after a while.
Luckily, the art itself is much more varied, stimulating and unexpected than the ideological monomania of the commentary would suggest. If the downside of these historically-themed Tate exhibitions is that they take on vast subjects which they then struggle to adequately cover, the upside is that they turn up all sorts of unexpected treasures by relatively unknown figures, and make you want to see more.
For example, I’d love to see an exhibition devoted to Craxton, Minton and Vaughan, exploring that strange 1940s sensibility from the most overlooked of 20th century decades. An exhibition devoted to the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ artists would not only be a feast of sensuality but could explore in more detail the complex areas of sexuality and sensuality which were so present in Victorian art, yet so repressed in Victorian life. Edward Burra, can we have a show dedicated to him, please, his last retrospective was in 1973? How about a show devoted to Tuke and the Newlyn School, what a wonderful treat that would be for the dark English winter. Or as simple an idea as ‘Women Artists 1860-1960’, showcasing the work especially of less well-known women artists (Laura Knight, Cecile Walton, Ethel Walker) from this era, gay, straight or whatever.
- Queer British Art 1861-1967 continues at Tate Britain until 1 October 2017
- A queer walk through British Art at Tate
- Five stories of queer artists
Reviews of other Tate exhibitions
- David Hockney @ Tate Britain (February 2017)
- Robert Rauschenberg @ Tate Modern (February 2017)
- Paul Nash @ Tate Britain (December 2016)
- Painting with Light @ Tate Britain (August 2016)
- Georgia O’Keefke @ Tate Modern (July 2016)
- Performing for the camera @ Tate Modern (March 2016)
- Frank Auerbach @ Tate Britain (February 2016)
- Every Room in Tate Modern (January 2016)
- Every room in Tate Britain (part one) (January 2016)
- Every room in Tate Britain (part two) (January 2016)
- Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past @ Tate Britain (January 2016)
- Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture @ Tate Modern (December 2015)
- The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop @ Tate Modern (November 2015)
- Agnes Martin @ Tate Modern (September 2015)
- Fighting History @ Tate Britain (August 2015)
- Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World @ Tate Britain (August 2015)
- Sonia Delaunay @ Tate Modern (May 2015)
- Salt and Silver @ Tate Britain (April 2015)
- Sculpture Victorious @ Tate Britain (April 2015)
- Conflict, Time, Photography @ Tate Modern (March 2015)
- Late Turner @ Tate Britain (January 2015)
- Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian art @ Tate Modern (August 2014)
- British Folk Art @ Tate Britain (June 2014)
- Ruin Lust @ Tate Britain (March 2014)
- Richard Deacon @ Tate Britain (February 2014)
- Paul Klee – Making Visible @ Tate Modern (January 2014)
- Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm @ Tate Britain (December 2013)
- Lowry and the painting of modern life @ Tate Britain (September 2013)
- Lichtenstein: A Restrospective @ Tate Modern (March 2013)
- Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian avant-garde @ Tate Britain (September 2012)
- Damien Hirst @ Tate Modern (September 2012)
- Picasso and Modern British Art @ Tate Britain (July 2012)
- John Martin exhibition @ Tate Britain (December 2011)