Tate Britain’s Queer Art 1861 – 1967 is set to be the most popular exhibition in London this year, and a seminal display of queer history, identity and progress. We talk to Care Barlow, co-curator of the exhibition, and round up some of our favourite characters and stories from the exhibition.
2017 celebrates the 50th year anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England, and is a very good excuse for a party. Hence, there are numerous exhibitions, festivals, events and a very special Pride planned.
As Clare Barlow, co-curator of Queer Art 1861 – 1967, points out: “this is a moment for to us to reflect where we are as a community and where we have come from.” This exciting exhibition, resident at London’s Tate Britain until October 2017, seeks to “explore a whole spectrum of the identities under the queer banner, which may look like what we see today, or may be something more wonderful or weirder or more nuanced or more idiosyncratic than anything we have previously imagined.”
This is the first exhibition of its kind and as such, provides both a challenge and an opportunity. Previous museum-based queer projects have been about reclaiming queer identities: here are these gay men from the past, here are the lesbians and here are the trans people from the past.
For Barlow and her colleagues, their approach was different. “The basic principle for the selection was that the object itself should in some way connect with queer lives, queer experiences, queer perspectives or queer cultures, but that the connection should come from the artist themselves, exploring their own desires or reflecting a part of their identity,” explains Barlow. “We have done our utmost to include materials that relate to the widest possible range of experiences.” Their effort has culminated in Queer Art 1861 – 1967, documenting over a century’s worth of queer activism, expression and progress.
Coded Desires, the first room of the exhibition introduces art as a code for a queer audience. Artists and their works are recognised as giving identity to queerness, and as usurpers of the traditional social structures. “One of the big themes of the exhibition is about the community starting to find ways to identify each other and building its own distinctive voice,” says Barlow.
The room exhibits the work of Simeon Solomon, a celebrated painter of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Throughout his career, there was a lot of ‘is he or is he?’ questioning about his sexuality, until he was caught having sex with a man and then the question was answered, his reputation was destroyed and Solomon died in poverty. But the interesting thing is that other queer men of that period displayed Solomon’s work on their walls as a sort of secret code, signalling their identity to those of a similar taste. “You don’t have to be gay to hang these pictures on your walls,” says Barlow. “But these may be a way to signal your identity to people who share your desires.”
Solomon’s work hangs alongside that of fellow Pre-Raphaelite sister Evelyn de Morgan. She was married to ceramicist William de Morgan, but also held a highly charged relationship with her muse Jane Hales. Evelyn paints Jane in nude, sensuous paintings, and when Jane died, she was buried in the Morgan cemetery plot. This first room introduces something that Barlow firmly believes herself: “The past is much more varied than we think.”
“The second room looks at the defining of sexuality,” says Barlow of the room called Public Indecency, “and looks at the moments when sexuality became public debate.” The word ‘homosexual’ didn’t enter the English language until the late 19th century, and when it did, it became an issue of public concern and debate.
Here the audience is introduced to the work of early gay rights champion Edward Carpenter. In 1908, Carpenter published a collection of essays under the title The Intermediate Sex, which was considered one of the first widely available books in English that presented a positive view of homosexuality. “He is awesome,” enthuses Barlow. “He is a Socialist, a vegetarian and he proclaims sexual autonomy for women. He is so far ahead of his time, it’s not even real.”
Sexuality further became part of public consumption through scandal. One of the most famous trials was that of iconic dandy Oscar Wilde. The exhibition displays one of the two artworks that have been traced back to Wilde’s own collection, a full portrait of himself when he was at his peak. This piece is shown next to the door of his prison cell, when he was imprisoned for gross indecency with men. “Standing in front of this display is an incredibly emotional experience because you’ve got the triumph and the tragedy,” says Barlow.
This room also holds the jewellery of Michael Field, who was born Edith Cooper and Catherine Bradley. These women are lovers who write erotically charged verse addressed to women under the collaborative identity of Michael Field. Sometimes they use female pronouns for each other, other times it’s the male; sometimes one is called Michael and the other is Field, sometimes it’s Catherine and Edith. For Edith and Catherine, or Michael, their identities overlap each other. Michael Fields isn’t just a name under which they publish – they also live by that name. “And that’s what I mean when I say that the past is queerer than we think,” explains Barlow. “Identities like that, they feel incredibly modern, nuanced and interesting. It feels way beyond what we might expect.”
The people and the stories found in this room of the exhibition build a sense of identity and community, and “show that pretty much whatever your own take on your own identity, there are people in the past, just as now, who might speak to you.”
Queer culture flourished in the theatre, as shown in the Theatrical Types room. A precursor to drag, female and male impersonation acts took to the stage. There were comic performers such as Malcolm Scott, who dressed as Salome, while the likes of Julian Elton presented a glamorous impersonation. These kind of acts were seen as family entertainment. Plays which introduced (coded) gay characters were performed on stage. They escaped the censor’s eye by being put on in ‘club conditions’, which meant they had to set up a private members club and didn’t have to submit your script.
In the Bloomsbury and Beyond room, we learn the story of painter Dora Carrington, who likes women, and writer Lytton Strachey, who likes men. These two hold a friendship that is also a very genuine love. “It is a love that is expressed in ways that we might not quite expect,” says Barlow. “It’s important that we don’t just think of sexuality in terms of erotic attraction but also in terms of the people around you. There are lots of types of love and we shouldn’t just get hung up on who did what to whom in the bedroom.” When Strachey died of cancer, Carrington killed herself two months later wearing his dressing gown. “We need to think about the identities around us and recognise that people in the past led lives that were messy and complex and interesting and crazy.”
The concept of gender binaries feels like a very contemporary issue, however the room Defying Conventions shows that it has been around for much longer. Claude Cahun wrote extensively about the performance of gender. During WWII, she and her lover Suzanne Malherbe hid anti-Nazi slogans in matchboxes, which the Nazis themselves thought was some great propaganda campaign, but it was actually just those two. In 1944, she was arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out.
Meanwhile, in the room Public/Private Lives, in the 1960s, lovers Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell borrowed books from Islington libraries, cut out the plates from the books to decorate the walls of their flat and created new covers for the books with quirky references to queer culture. They coated an Agatha Christie novel in photographs of cats, for example. They were eventually caught in a sting operation and sent to prison for malicious damage. Orton is quoted as saying that they were sent to prison because they were queer.
The Francis Bacon and David Hockney room explores “the moment at which sex between men really goes public in art”, says Barlow. This includes the work of provocative artists like Bacon and Hockney, displayed alongside physique magazines which circulated in the 1950s and 60s. Despite having titles such as Health and Strength and Man’s World, they catered to an audience which had little interest in body building. The models show off while wearing posing pouches, but with some titles, you could send off for a version printed with soluble ink under the guise of ‘art studies’. When you wiped away the soluble ink, the models were completely naked underneath.
As Barlow explains, these magazines and these art movements aren’t just about titillation and desire, but signify “moments when a community starts to coalesce around this material and for the first time you can be living on a farm in Wales or growing up in the highlands of Scotland, you can go into a shop or postal order one of these magazines under the pretence of improving your physique. Suddenly you have a sense that there are people just like you out there, and that’s really important.”
As the team curated this exhibition, each object or artwork led to the discovery of another, much like a breadcrumb trail through history. Queer Art 1861 – 1967 will provide a foundation for further exhibitions to delve further and more fully into the queer journey. “We are very much focused on the show being the start of a conversation,” asserts Barlow. “It should also encourage us to preserve more of our heritage.”
While we in the UK are celebrating the anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, at the time of writing, gay men in Chechnya are experiencing discrimination and being imprisoned in concentration camps, suffering the same treatment as queer people of the past. Crucially, what this exhibition shows us is that the queer community, and anyone who belongs to or allies with it, has survived. “With these historical stories of tragedy, it’s reminds us to be vigilant and to defend our rights as a community,” says Barlow. “Even in times of oppression, the queer community has found ways of flourishing, of identifying each other, of encouraging each other to be themselves and have forged powerful support networks. That’s a really positive message to know and to always remember.”