Content warnings at Tate

Warning: This blog post contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including depictions of slavery, violence and suffering.

Baroque Britain

When I visited the Baroque Britain exhibition at Tate Britain I was surprised that there was a Content Warning at the entrance to the second room. This warned us that some of the images were disturbing and might upset visitors. Specifically, a massive painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger which shows black people in collars and chains. Slaves, in other words.

Portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin by Benedetto Gennari the Younger (1674)

A handful of other paintings show rich people – men and women – being served or accompanied by black servants, but this is the only one where the black people (all boys, I think) are wearing very obvious metal slave collars round their throats.

William Blake

This is the second warning notice I’m aware of Tate putting up. The William Blake exhibition last year also warned visitors, in these words:

The art of William Blake contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering.

That’s putting it mildly, seeing as Blake illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy with its extensive descriptions of thousands of sinners being subjected to all sorts of tortures and torments in Hell, and Milton’s Paradise Lost which opens with Satan and the fallen angels languishing in agony in a lake of fire. Presumably it was these images of fire and brimstone which the warning was talking about.

Satan, Sin and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell by William Blake (1807)

Although when you actually look at Blake’s images, they are pretty inoffensive, aren’t they? Is an image like the above really thought to be so scary that visitors to an art gallery need a warning about it?

I wonder if the curators have ever seen a Hollywood film? Or even an average episode of Eastenders? Chock full of threat and violence. I can think of plenty of other Tate exhibitions which were full of much more genuinely upsetting images.

Notes and queries

Maybe visitors do need to be warned that art galleries and exhibitions contain images of slavery or violence or threat, but this new trend obviously raises a few questions:

Slavery 1 – black slavery

There must be thousands of images of black slavery scattered around the art world. Will every single one of them eventually require a Warning? For example, the huge memorial sculpture to slavery by Kara Walker currently on display in the atrium of Tate Modern. I don’t recall there being a warning for visitors about to encounter this. Should there be one?

Much more appalling and upsetting than any painting is actual period photographs of black slaves, which survive by the tens of thousands. I suppose if there’s an exhibition about slavery, or about these kinds of photographs it will be self-evident but, presumably if they’re included in exhibitions focused on other subjects – like the American Civil War or American history – presumably any photos of slavery will require a warning, as well.

Slavery 2 – white slavery

Most pre-modern societies had some form of slavery: ancient Rome and ancient Greece were based on slavery, and the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings traded in slaves (it’s estimated that at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, 1 in 10 of the British population were slaves).

The Mayans and Aztecs kept slaves in the Americas, as did the Sumerians and Babylonians in the Near East. The Egyptians employed huge numbers of slaves, including Israelites, Europeans and Ethiopians. Slave armies were kept by the Ottomans and Egyptians.

In Imperial Russia, in the first half of the 19th century, one third of the population were serfs who, like the slaves in the Americas, had the status of chattels and could be bought and sold.

In fact the English word ‘slave’ is derived from Slav, the white ethnic underclass of Eastern Europe that provided the bulk of medieval-and-later slaves, not only to Europe but to the Turks, Arabs and Tatars.

SLAVE – late 13the century, ‘person who is the chattel or property of another’, from the Old French esclave (13c.), from Medieval Latin Sclavus ‘slave’ (source also of Italian schiavo, French esclave, Spanish esclavo), originally ‘Slav’; used in this secondary sense because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples. (Etymological dictionary)

Will any gallery displaying any images of slaves from any of these historical cultures, from any period of history, from anywhere around the world, require there to be warning messages for visitors?

‘Trade negotiations in the country of Eastern Slavs by Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov (1909)

If not, why not?

Violence 1 – secular

Human history is more or less the ceaseless history of wars and empires, human history is saturated with conflict and violence. Will notices warning of ‘strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering’ have to be placed outside every gallery which includes any images of conflict and war?

The first VC of the Great War won by Capt Francis Grenfell of the 9th Lancers at Audregnies, Belgium on 24th August, 1914 by Richard Caton Woodville

Violence 2 – religious

Christianity is saturated with violence. Its central image is of a man being tortured to death, and is closely accompanied by the stories and images of countless thousands of other Christian martyrs, most of whom died blood-curdling deaths.

Will all of these images require a warning notice? They would have to be put up in every gallery which includes images of the Passion of Christ or of the saints and, if we follow this logic through, outside every Roman Catholic church in the world.

Crucifix at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, USA

Why now?

Why now? The painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger has existed for 340 years and been sporadically on public display throughout that period, the Blake images for over 200 years during which they have featured in numerous books and exhibitions.

Why are these warning notices making their appearance now?

It’s not as if we are suddenly more opposed to slavery – the Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade got going during the 1780s, 240 years ago, and used as many images of atrocities against slaves as it could find. Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, was founded in London in 1839 and is still very active. I.e. graphic images of slavery have been in the public domain for over 200 years.

As to images of threat or violence, my God what have most movies for the past 100 years been about, plenty of plays and countless hundreds of thousands of art works not to mention millions of photographs taken of every war since the Crimea or the Indian Mutiny.

What is it in contemporary society which suggests that art lovers, old and young, native and foreign, have, for the last 300 years or so, been able to confront and process images like this without any kind of warning… but now they can’t.

Re. the slavery images, is it because the black population of the UK has reached a kind of tipping point where images like this are no longer acceptable, even in an obviously academic and historical context?

Have changes in social attitudes across the British population suddenly made images of black people in chains unacceptable?

But what about the warning about Blake’s pretty harmless cartoons? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

Or is it not British society, is it the attitudes of art curators which have changed?

Is it not the British public that the curators are concerned about? Is it the art curating profession which has been swept by progressive views, and whose modern woke training has told them that images like this are objectionable.

When they envision visitors being offended, is it really themselves and their progressive cohorts who they are envisioning?

Conclusion

So I’m not belittling the impact that images of black slavery might well have on black, or any other, visitors to an exhibition like this, or the emotional impact of images of threat or violence might have on gallery goers more broadly.

But up until a year or so ago, curators of pretty much every gallery and museum in the world were happy to assume that gallery visitors were grown-up enough, adult enough, to take images like this in their stride. To be shocked, maybe, maybe even to have an emotional response, but to be able to cope with it.

I’m genuinely curious to know 1. what has changed and 2. where this new trend will go.

And 3. am I going to have to put warnings at the top of every one of my blog posts which is about war or slavery or violence or conflict or threat? Because that’s most of them…


Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Piranesi drawings: visions of antiquity @ the British Museum

To mark the 300th anniversary of the Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the British Museum has created a landmark FREE exhibition displaying the Museum’s complete collection of Piranesi’s drawings.

Piranesi (1720-1778) is often reckoned to be the greatest printmaker of the 18th century. He was extremely prolific, producing hundreds of views or veduti, of Rome in particular, focusing on its ancient ruins, sometimes portrayed as monstrously huge and elaborately decayed, in other series shown as if restored to their former glories.

Into these elaborately staged and dramatic scenes he introduced groups of vases, altars, tombs and other baroque details that were never actually present in ancient Rome, in order to produce finely detailed, elaborate and often fantastical views. (Note the very small chariot and people at the bottom centre of this amazingly cluttered composition.)

Fantastical view of the Via Appia. Engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

The Enlightenment taste for ruins

It is fascinating to learn that the taste for ‘views’ of Roman ruins was growing in order to cater for the growing numbers of rich northern Europeans making the Grand Tour of classical sites. To cater for this growing market, Italian artists developed and named a new set of artistic genres, including:

  • veduta – a highly detailed print of a cityscape
  • capriccio – a whimsical aggregate of monumental architecture and ruin which never existed in real life
  • veduta ideata – idealised and larger-than-life depictions of the ancient ruins in their supposed glory
  • veduta di fantasia – architectural fantasies

As this list suggests, the taste of the times was for the fantastical, the awe-inspiring in age and size, curly-cued with fantastical details and elaborations. In fact so exaggerated were the size of many of Piranesi’s images of Roman ruins that when Northern tourists actually arrived, they were sometimes disappointed to discover the actual remains were far more modest in scale.

Goethe is mentioned as one of many Northerners who formed their ideas about Rome from Piranesi’s fabulously successful books of prints and, on finally arriving at the Eternal City, being disappointed.

Interior view of the Flavian Amphitheater, called the Colosseum (1766) by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Antiques dealer

Although he was born and educated in Venice, Piranesi came to Rome as a young man and made his career there. Not only a frustrated architect and very successful print-maker, Piranesi was also an antiquarian and antiques dealer. He not only dealt in the large number of Roman antiques to be found in and around the city (especially Hadrian’s Villa outside the city which was being uncovered during his lifetime) but he a) incorporated these vases and sarcophagi and reliefs and other detail into his prints and b) he restored many of the antiques to his idea of how they ought to look, often adding his own elaborations.

Thus there are a couple of pieces of sculpture in the exhibition (like the enormous marble horned lion emerging from a lotus) but the commentary also recommends you drop into the Enlightenment galleries back on the Ground Floor of the Museum to check out the two Piranesi vases there.

I’m glad I did, because they are vast, twice the height of a man and so monstrously heavy that, apparently, they simply could not be moved up to the Print Rooms and, if they’d tried, would have broken the floor.

The Piranesi Vase at the British Museum. The vase was discovered at the Villa Hadrian, then restored in Piranesi’s workshop, where other monumental elements were added. It is enormous.

Elements of Piranesi’s style

From below Architecture is most impressive if seen from below, looking up, especially if features like arches loom over the viewer’s head, as they do in most of the Imagined Prisons pictures.

From the side Classical art and classical architecture liked to view classical buildings head on, emphasising the clarity and balance of their design, and Piranesi did just that in some of the earliest architectural drawings in this exhibition. But as he matured, Piranesi preferred to look at buildings from the side, creating a more dynamic affect. Here’s a fairly mild example, View of the Campidoglio from the Side.

View of the Campidoglio from the Side. Etching by Piranesi (1761)

You can see how the subject matter is overwhelmingly architectural. Piranesi trained as an architect and throughout his life produced huge numbers of architectural plans, some sensible, some wildly extravagant, yet only once was he actually commissioned to practice some architecture (between 1764 to 66 he carried out restoration work on the Santa Maria del Priorato Church in Rome). There are people in this print, but they’re in a rather disorganised heap at the bottom left and their main contribution is to being out the scale and monumentality of the architecture and the architectural composition.

Light in the distance Another trick Piranesi used regularly was to make the foreground of an image dark and clotted with the middle distance light and airy. This gives the visual impression of size and scale, as if the building is rising up into a more sunlit region. It’s a trick he used in what are probably his most famous series, the Carceri d’invenzione or Imaginary Prisons, a series of 16 prints that show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and awesome machines. (And look at the size of the tiny human figures shuffling along floor or gesticulating on various walls and platforms; it looks like an illustration for an H.G. Wells story about the distant future.)

Carceri Plate VI, The Smoking Fire by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1745)

The Imaginary Prisons series went on to inspire the Romantics and, a lot later, the Surrealists, with their sense of mysterious but looming forces.

People are small So obvious it barely needs mentioning, but just review how minuscule the human figures are in the Appian Way or the Colosseum or the Imaginary Prisons: this is a monumental architecture of the imagination which is intended to dwarf and overawe mere mortals, including the viewer.

Defender of Roman art

It was fascinating to learn that during the 18th century a controversy developed among critics and writers and artists about the relative merits of ancient Roman and Greek art. More was being learned about ancient Greek architecture and ideas, and its defenders claimed it had greater purity and simplicity, and accused the later Romans of copying everything that was good about Greek architecture and then blowing it up to elephantine proportions and encrusting it with unnecessary details.

By his stage Piranesi had established his reputation as one of the great illustrators of Roman buildings and art, not least via the successful four-volume series Roman Antiquities. he had been elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquarians in London, and a member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, so it was not, maybe surprising, that he found himself drawn into controversy with the French Hellenophile Pierre-Jean Mariette.

Piranesi defended the more advanced technology used by the Romans to build larger buildings; the awe-inspiring magnificence of their buildings; but also the Romans’ willingness to absorb motifs from other cultures: not just ancient Greek, but Etruscan and even Egyptian, creating a rich and original synthesis.

In other words, it’s fascinating to learn that his works aren’t just whims and fancies, but the putting-into-practice of a thoroughly worked-out theory of art and art history resulting in the conviction that borrowings from exotic sources and bizarre combinations are the paths to originality and creativity.

Piranesi’s drawings

All the foregoing is by way of introducing Piranesi, his main achievements, his interest in architecture and the fantastical, and his patriotic defence of Rome and its artistic legacy.

But this is not an exhibition of Piranesi’s famous prints. It is a comprehensive display of the British Museum’s entire collection of Piranesi drawings.

Throughout his career Piranesi made detailed architectural drawings, first as an apprentice draughtsman and then for all sorts of reasons: as preparations for the prints, as working sketches of antique pieces to either market them or as studies for larger compositions. Some drawings are huge and portrays vast, fantastical, imaginary scenes which he later converted into prints, while others are relatively small detailed studies of particular aspects, like the drawing here of a sword, or a vase.

The 51 drawings are placed in simple chronological order so the visitor can track Piranesi’s artistic evolution from sensible architectural draughtsman to impresario of the fantastical. Here he is in his early 20s, being sensible and factual.

A colonnaded atrium with domes by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1740-43) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ten years later, here is the source drawing for the hyper-fantastical vision of an Appian Way that I opened this review with, a helter-skelter surfeit of impossible buildings and exotic details.

The meeting of the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina, seen at the second milestone outside the Porta Capena by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1750-56) © The Trustees of the British Museum

If we compare this drawing with the print the differences are immediately apparent. The composition is the same but drawn with surprising freedom and vim, with multiple lines sketching out perspectives and shapes, and with a very loose colour wash creating light and shade.

This lightness of touch and freedom characterises all the drawings which have an expressive charm of their own. I particularly liked the early design for a temple he had drawn, along with careful notes on scale and aspect and then, right at the end, he thought ‘Blow it’ and added a pyramid to the composition.

“If in doubt, add a pyramid,” is not a bad rule for life.

When he came to Rome he adopted a yellow paper and washes (as opposed to the more factual white tonalities of his earliest Venetian work) and this palette is compounded in the many later drawings where he used red ink or crayon to really ram home the vibrancy of the composition.

A monumental staircase in a vaulted interior with columns by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1750-55) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Although the exhibition features nine prints (including the ones of the Colosseum and the Side View of the Campidoglio and several of the Imaginary Prisons) to give context and show what some of the drawings were preparatory drawings for, many of the 51 drawings weren’t preparations for prints at all, but were finished works in their own right, or studies of details.

There’s are some of the scores of drawings he did of human figures (Standing man in profile), the detailed studies of a Roman sword I mentioned above, studies of ancient vases and what are called candelabra, multi-storeyed stone confections – and countless experiments in architectural fantasy, taken from a wide range of perspectives and points of view – as well as a selection of drawings he did when he visited the newly excavated ruins of Pompeii.

View of the Strada Consulare with the Herculaneum Gate in Pompeii by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1772-78) © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the time of his death Piranesi was one of the most influential interpreters of ancient Rome. His prints and treatises were popular across Europe and his grand, and grandiose, visions of the Eternal City would define the idea of Rome for generations of travellers and armchair tourists.

This exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into the engine room of his creativity, a look behind-the-scenes of the brightly finished and smooth prints at the much more creative, extempore, roughly finished and, in many ways, more exciting drawings.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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