The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Queer British Art 1861-1967 @ Tate Britain

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Can you tell whether this painting was done by a man or a woman, lesbian or gay, bisexual or transsexual?

And does it matter?

If by a man, is it a horrible example of the Male Gaze, encouraging male ‘ownership’ and mastery of the female figure, encouraging lascivious thoughts in the male viewer, reducing women to sexualised objects, exploiting women for semi-pornographic purposes?

If by a woman, is it a joyously unashamed celebration of the female body, the lazy posture and yawning stretch of the subject marvellously capturing a moment of real, unvarnished intimacy?

Does knowledge of the painter’s gender or sexual orientation change your ‘reading’ of this picture, your enjoyment of it, your ‘understanding’ of it? And why?

These are just some of the questions raised by this fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

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 desireGender 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’ or ‘challenges’ or ‘confronts’ 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 towards 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, into film and theatre and the art world, where in the pages of the Guardian or the Huffington Post or the Independent, and in galleries and theatres across the West, they can be seen every day writing scandalised articles, producing documentaries, putting on plays angry about the persistence of sexism and racism and homophobia.

But there are more women than immigrants in this country and, 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 of in a rather dry and boring theoretical way b) driven and animated by a fathomless sense of grievance and injustice. Exhibitions about any aspect of sexuality represent a perfect marriage of victim politics with the high-flown ‘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.

Tricky questions. 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 they’ve staged exhibitions about: folk art, the aesthetic of 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 placed 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 random artifacts from the Empire (Artist and Empire).

Although they put a brave face on it, the cumulative impression of visiting all these shows raises the suspicion that the curators are under orders to find pretexts to bring out the more obscure and neglected works languishing in Tate’s vast archives, and display them in exhibitions with eye-catching and ‘controversial’ themes.

While the aim of rotating their (doubtless huge) collection for us to view is laudable, the pretexts the curators come up with are sometimes ambitiously wide-ranging and grand-sounding, while the collection of artifacts actually on display often turns out to be rather patchy and random. The history of the British Empire is an enormous subject: the Tate exhibition about it amounted to a jumble sale of odds and sods from across the huge geographic reach and 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 plentiful loans from other collections to create the exhibitions, 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, hence the feeling they give of a patchwork quilt made from odds and ends. Sometimes it feels as if they’re trying do a vast jigsaw without most of the pieces.

Written histories can conjure up anything with words, creating continuities, linking themes and ideas at will: 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, what has survived. 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 most ‘ordinary’ people, for example, or the entire world of work, especially housework).

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 – and 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.

The dates

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-clad 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 towards 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. This may or may not be present in the works here, But the bigger story about most late Victorian art is the remarkable extent to which ‘desire’, physical sensuousness, in all shapes and forms, was more openly depicted than ever before 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.

Leighton was rumoured to be gay, but then again 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. Don’t fit into our modern categories.

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 smoothly by the likes of Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

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 one big painting The Bowlers.

Apparently, this scandalised the Victorians (didn’t everything ‘scandalise’ the Victorians?) 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. After looking at it for a while I noticed the way a line drawn along the top of the heads of the figures on the right forms a diagonal going down towards the centre of the composition, while the heads of the women on the left line up as a mirror diagonal heading down towards the centre: at the very centre is a black vase against a thick central pillar, to the left of which is a woman in a see-through toga and on the right the zigzagging black trunk of a wisteria tree. Which means or symbolises? Who knows.

My favourite things in this room 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.

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

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 and (admittedly not in England) the Austrian artist Egon Schiele was arrested and 100 of his art works were confiscated – one of them was burned by the judge in court in front of the artist -for their sexual explicitness.

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 the Wilde and Beardsley 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 (his ‘surrealised portraits’), 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, though I know him for his appearances in Powell and Pressburger’s two extraordinary films, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

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 Ugly Sisters, traditionally played by men and a huge opportunity for all kinds of blue, risqué 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.

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

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 this room is meant to represent:

a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.

Which makes it sound much more exciting and dynamic than most of their sleepy decorative pictures. Ethel Sands’s Tea with Sickert symbolises everything pretty, decorative and forgettable which I tend not to like about Bloomsbury art. Perhaps I just can’t slow myself down to this atmosphere of coma-like inaction. The commentary on the other hand, because Sands was in a queer relationship with fellow painter Nan Hudson, claims it is a ‘quietly subversive’ work, with ‘queer undercurrents’. Can you spot the queer undercurrents?

The commentary makes the case that, although not overtly sexual in the least, these tranquil interiors are a) painted by queer artists and b) if you look closely, very closely, you can see small hints and traces of ‘queer lives’ which ‘history has long neglected’. Maybe…

That said, I did find myself, on repeated viewings and to my surprise, warming to the selection of works by Duncan Grant on show here. These ranged from small, explicitly gay pornographic sketches to a vast mural, commissioned to decorate the dining room of the new Borough Polytechnic in 1911.

It’s a huge work – and the more I looked at it the more I admired the mix of abstract and figurative elements to achieve an overall decorative effect, and came to understand that it follows the action of a single diver from standing poised on the shore, at right, through diving in, and swimming to the boat which he clambers into at top left.

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Similarly, I was impressed by the sheer size of the massive Excursion of Nausicaa by Dame Ethel Walker. It’s 18 metres wide by almost 4 high and makes a dramatic impact. It’s just as well a bench is provided for you to sit and take it all in. Although, when you look closer, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Gauguin-style primitivism with Art Deco style neo-classical figures, it is still at first sight, an enormous and confident composition.

There is a vibrant portrait by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884–1937) of his servant, Henry Thomas (1935). Note: his servant. In fact there were half a dozen Philpots scattered through the show, though this is the most vivid.

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 etc) through the Great War and into the twenties, led in to the cultural 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, the curators claim, in this picture is laying ‘claim to traditional masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting [herself] in the act of painting nude female models’. It’s another very big painting and very red.

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

There is a factual background to the image in that Knight was prevented from attending the life classes at Nottingham Art College because she was a woman; only when she moved to Newlyn was she able to hire life models, and so this composition is a sort of act of defiance. That changes our attitude to the image. Still, in and of itself, would you know that it lays claims to masculine sources of artistic authority, if it hadn’t been carefully explained. Maybe…

Anyway, on pretexts solid or flimsy, a number of big, colourful and attractive works are on show in this room, especially of the phenomenally posh women who populated early 20th century feminism.

  • Lady with a Red Hat (1918) by William Strang – the lady being the lesbian and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West, the Honourable Mrs Harold Nicholson, Companion of Honour, daughter of the third Baron Sackville. She is holding her recently published book of poems – Poems of West and East – showing the influence of Tennyson’s world-weariness, A.E. Housman’s lad poems, and the childlike orientalism of John Masefield and other Georgians.  They’re sweet and melancholy.
  • 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) but this self-portrait is ‘challenging’ and ‘subverting’ ‘gender norms’ surrounding birth. Having been present at the birth of my daughter, I can testify that it certainly challenges the reality of childbirth which is a lot less calm and dignified than this static scenario.

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, a really stunning, outlandish vision.

  • Soldiers at Rye (1941) Burra incorporates masks from Venetian carnival, fabric from Spanish baroque, with a kind of sado-military hugeness to create this monstrous surreal panorama.
  • Izzy Orts (1937) Burra was introduced to the portside bars of Charleston, with their mix of jazz musicians, pimps and dealers, and sailors in tight-fitting uniforms. Perfect!

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.

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

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, at Hampstead Pools or the Serpentine, and have been haunted by them ever since.

Next to the figurative sketches are his much more abstract paintings:

In these 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.

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

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 Sexual Offences Act gay men lived a strange twilight life. In many places gay relationships among the famous, especially the arty, were permitted – the eminent actor John Gielgud was arrested for indecency in a public toilet in 1953, was fined, released and was roundly applauded the next time he took to the stage. Maybe the most famous example was 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 stream of less well-known 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 tragedy. But in the whole room the most powerful image for me was a still from the 1961 movie Victim, a genuinely taboo-breaking work starring Dirk Bogarde as an impeccably upper-middle class lawyer married to the fragrant Sylvia Sims, but who is photographed in a compromising situation with 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. This final room gives us the opportunity to marvel again at the bleak power of Bacon’s nihilistic paintings and the scratchy undergraduate humour of Hockney’s early Pop style.

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Scholarship or prurient gossip?

As I progressed through the exhibition, reading every wall label carefully, a theme began to emerge (above and beyond the obvious ones about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘same-sex desire’):

  • ‘De Morgan’s repeated images of Hales have encouraged speculation about the nature of their relationship…’
  • ‘There is some evidence that Henry Bishop was attracted to men…’
  • ‘Beardsley does not seem to have had relationships with men…’
  • ‘There has been much speculation about Tuke’s relationships with his Cornish models although nothing has been substantiated…’
  • ‘Little is known about Meteyard’s sexuality, other than the fact that he was married…’
  • ‘Leighton’s sexuality has been the subject of much speculation from his own times to the present, but he guarded his privacy closely…’
  • ‘Glen Byam Shaw had almost certainly been the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon…’
  • ‘The exact nature of Thomas and Philpot’s relationship is unknown…’
  • Duncan Grant’s ‘close friend and possible lover Paul Roche…’
  • ‘There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of Walker’s relationship with the painter Clara Christian with whom she lived and worked in the 1880s although little evidence survives…’
  • ‘The poet Edith Sitwell does not seem to have had sexual relationships…’

What does it matter to an appreciation of their work what an artist did or did not do with their penis or vagina, or to someone else’s penis or vagina? Why do scholars obsess about the sexual act being a vital threshold in a relationship? On one level, this breathless fascination with the precise nature of people’s relationships, and whether they ever did the deed together, is just a highbrow form of gutter gossip, an educated equivalent to who’s shagging who in The Only Way Is Essex or Celebrity Big Brother, little different to the tittle-tattle of the tabloid press.

On a more disturbing level, this intrusion of scholarly enquiry into the heart of people’s private lives is because modern art critics and curators need to know precisely who had sex with who and when, so that they can categorise and define artists, writers, poets, photographers, performers and so on according to their tidy definitions. So that artists can be neatly arranged into canons and genres and books and essays and exhibitions about straight or gay or queer or whatever art.

  • ‘[Dirk Bogarde] never publicly affirmed a sexual identity and his personal life has to be inferred from his long relationship with his manager Tony Forwood (1915-88) with whom he shared his home.’

Has to be? Who says it has to be? Why this compulsion? Why must everyone’s sexuality be nailed down and defined?

To be a bit fierce, you could say that modern art scholars and curators talk the talk about gender fluidity and multiple narratives and transgressing this, that or the other – but in practice, it is they more than any other group in British society who are obsessed with tracking down their subjects’ every sexual act and desire in order to categorise, limit, define and control both artists and their works.

I found the obsessive probing into these dead people’s private lives unpleasant and disturbing.

Conclusion

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 sensibility of the 1940s, surely 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. The more I looked at the Angus McBean photos, the more wonderful they seemed – how about an exhibition of him – or a broader exhibition about Theatre and Photography? Or, as simple an idea as ‘Neglected Women Artists 1860-1960’, showcasing the work of less well-known women artists (Laura Knight, Cecile Walton, Ethel Walker) from this era, gay, straight or whatever.

In conclusion, I was irritated by the curator-speak but I thought it was a wonderful show, went back to see it twice, bought the catalogue, and am still being pleasantly beguiled by many of the wonderful paintings, large and small, brash or quiet. What an extraordinary, and huge, contribution gay/lesbian/queer artists have made to every aspect of British culture.


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