Review: Queer British Art, Tate Britain

Tate Britain have taken on an incredibly ambitious project with Queer British Art, a survey of ‘queer’ art from 1861 to 1967 to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales.

Going in, I was apprehensive but I was soon pleasantly surprised, finding myself carefully going through every exhibit, not wanting to miss a single detail. It’s bold, dense, and definitely flawed; but the show has pure intentions, displays some wonderful art and presents many important stories still pertinent today.

The criteria for being ‘queer’ vary throughout, from openly gay artists to persecuted portrait sitters, those who studied sexuality and those who campaigned for inclusion. But uncertainty pervades: a “possible” lover, “speculation”, a “suggestive” pose. Several pieces felt shoehorned into the exhibition, with a homoerotic male nude reason enough for inclusion. There’s a definite eclecticism: sometimes the painting is of interest, sometimes the painter; often just the sitter, perhaps due to their relationship with the artist. Yet the range and variety of objects is endearing, with sketches positioned alongside masterpieces, token gifts included along with personal photographs.

Keith Vaughan, Drawing of Two Men Kissing, 1958–73

The art swings from wildly and darkly erotic private drawings (Keith Vaughan especially) to publicly exhibited academic works, which tend to be more careful and disguise their queerness. The stories range from fabulous (Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller’s box of over 200 buttons, one from each liaison with a sailor stationed nearby) to tragic (late works by Simeon Solomon, after his career declined following an arrest for attempted buggery in a public urinal). Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata are particularly eye-catching; he also illustrated Wilde’s Salome, with an early edition displayed nearby.

The curatorial decision to juxtapose a full-length portrait of Oscar Wilde – commissioned as a portrait to mark his doomed marriage – next to the door of his cell from Reading Prison is a brave one that pays dividends: the combination is almost a separate artwork in its own right, a haunting, domineering reminder of the punishments that threatened the lives and livelihoods of each of the artists featured. The wedding portrait was later sold to pay his debts and believed to be lost for a long time; in a small display case nearby, a photograph of Wilde with his lover Lord Douglas shows happier memories.

The curators make sure to emphasise fluid notions of gender and identity throughout: jewellery made for poet Michael Field is included, the public pseudonym of couple Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley. Cross-dressing for stage was common in the early-20th century, with ‘female impersonators’ such as Jimmy Slater and Danny La Rue deemed wholesome family entertainment: a room is dedicated to such ‘theatrical types’. Androgyny and effeminacy are emphasised in the early stages: traditional subjects given a subtle queerness, male models used for female studies, a proliferation of male nudes. Henry Scott Tuke’s nude men in both paintings and photographs are sensual, beautiful; Nicola Lucciani, an Italian model Tuke took down from London to Cornwall, is particularly striking.

The Critics, Henry Scott Tuke (1858–1929)

Various menages à trois are featured, particularly linked to the Bloomsbury Group, a “complicated queer circle”. Gluck – just Gluck, “no prefix, suffix or quotes” – stares down the viewer in a defiant, confident and beautiful self-portrait; next to it hangs a delicate still life of some flowers, commemorating her relationship with author and florist Constance Spry. It’s worth noting that lesbianism was never explicitly illegal or targeted by legislation; sodomy was outlawed in 1533, the precursor for later laws, and made punishable by death. While the death penalty was removed in 1861 – the starting date for this exhibition – the 1885 Labouchere Amendment extended prosecution to any sexual activity between men. A copy of the 1957 Wolfenden report, which recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”, is on display, although its conclusions took a further decade to become law.

LGBT Voices, “responses from well-known LGBTQ+ figures,” are spattered throughout, adding interesting and pertinent contemporary responses: Sabah Choudrey on masks and queerness, for example, adjacent to theatrical costumes. I wanted more of these, though, more responses from contemporary artists and older LGBT+ figures who grew up before 1967. At the very end were several short films about LGBT+ role models – I watched “Ian McKellen on growing up gay and coming out”, available online – as well as the opportunity to write captions and respond to various key artworks, with adorable and thoughtful remarks left by visitors (for the most part).

Lady with a Red Hat, William Strang (1859–1921)

But I left the exhibition feeling something was missing. If 1967 was such a pivotal year, I wanted to see why: how did art change after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality? How did artists respond to Section 28, to HIV/AIDS? (There’s enough here to fill another exhibition, a missed opportunity for Tate Modern in my opinion.) Concluding on a room of Francis Bacon and David Hockney – who has a large and hugely popular solo retrospective upstairs at Tate Britain – felt lacklustre.

For all its flaws, it should be made clear that this is an important exhibition: it brings together art from a huge variety of sources and presents it under the unified banner of ‘queer’, establishing a lineage and cementing a history. A lot of work has gone into this; queer histories are too often hidden or buried and here they have been extensively excavated. Every work is captioned, explaining the story of the artist, painting, sitter; the turmoil, difficulties, challenges.

The use of the word ‘queer’ is also notable: throughout much of the time covered by the exhibition, there was no accepted lexicon, just ‘deviance’, ‘sin’, ‘buggery’, ‘sodomy’ and the like. Queer – a slur reclaimed during the 1990s, particularly in academic and artistic circles – serves as an ahistorical operative, avoiding the imposition of anachronous vocabulary onto complicated scenarios.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980

What’s crucial going forward is that this exhibition’s accomplishments need not to dissolve but to diffuse. The works come from various public collections around the country: they should return ladened with their new stories, bring queerness to the permanent displays at their respective galleries. Queer art shouldn’t have to be segregated in a dedicated exhibition: queer artists pervade art history and should be celebrated at every turn. The visibility and vibrancy of this show is a wonderful first step in the right direction.

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