The great strength of this exhibition is its demonstration of the ubiquitous nature of queer art and culture. Timed to remind us that it is only fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality following the Wolfenden Report ten years earlier, Clare Barlow’s curatorship is generously broad in its cultural reach and deep in its historical references. The exhibition in fact distinguishes itself by drawing attention to the multiplicity of meanings embraced by ‘queerness’. ‘Queer’ has in the past been a slang term for homosexual and has also been a term of abuse. More recently ‘queer’ has become an umbrella term for all marginal and marginalised sexual identities while ‘queer theory’ is concerned with all kinds of unstable sites of engagement. Such fluidity presents the curator with a range of difficulties, not just in representing what queer might mean now, but also in selecting art works to embody something as ethereal as a disregard for dominant systems. After all, an exhibition must present something. More than many exhibitions then, the audience is subtly challenged to consider both the prevalence and the disruptions of queer art in British cultural history of this period and beyond. By interpreting queer expression broadly, the exhibition makes the point that queer art is significant to all our histories.
From the pre-Raphaelite paintings of Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) to Health and Strength magazine, from Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) to Danny La Rue (1927-2009), and from a prison cell door to a box of buttons, a myriad of artists, movements and symbolic artefacts, represent our queer culture. This diversity is important, as important as the contemporary linguistic grappling for definitive ways to name all manner of relationships: queer, homosexual, lesbian, homophile, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual, intersex and asexual, witnessed by the growing list of initials LGBTQIA+ as a growing label which attempts to include and define all non-heterosexuals. However, this exhibition argues back against restrictive terminology, and gives us pause to reflect on these contemporary naming practices, which we also apply retrospectively, sometimes revealing the inadequacies of labels in capturing the range of human experience. Labels are inadequate in describing the painting by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) of Charles Rickets and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints (1920), where the subjects are depicted in cosily matching Dominican monk robes, complete with encoded symbols of peacock feather and bat, or the adoption of ‘Michael Field’ as the joint pseudonym of Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913) and Katharine Harris Bradley (1846-1914), or the polite distance between two teams, male and female, playing at opposite ends of the painting in The Bowlers by William Blake Richmond (1842-1921). Behind such images, just as in other radical social movements like the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 1980s, lies much playfulness and wit, making points about surface perception and latent meaning, using humour to awaken our senses.
Negotiating queer history has long raised the question of private and public personas and the issue of celebrity and anonymity. The exhibition certainly nods towards those artists and writers, sometimes already known, and now canonised in queer histories too, such as Oscar Wilde, represented by both his wedding portrait by Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington (1854-1920), and Wilde’s now well-travelled prison door from his time in Reading prison. Important movements, such as the Bloomsbury Group are represented through the paintings of Duncan Grant, and the sexologists and campaigners through portraits of Havelock Elis, Edward Carpenter and others. Contemporary celebrity artists, already ‘out’ are here too, with work by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and David Hockey (b.1937) (who also had a major exhibition of his work at Tate Britain earlier this year). And the notion of celebrity queerness is reframed through the theatrical presence too, an already–important site of gender exploration and alternative sexualities, both on and off the stage, since Shakespeare and before. A whole room is devoted to the transgressive and camp performativity of stage, its trappings, expectations and knowing double-gendered performances, featuring a pink wig and diamante tiara worn by Jimmy Slater, and Noel Coward’s pink dressing gown.
There are difficult histories too, with uncomfortable questions raised about sexual tourism. For whilst Soho may have been viewed as the epicentre of British homosexuality, so places less open to scrutiny attracted others. Wilhelm von Gloeden’s (1856-1931) photography of Sicilian boys, and the men who travelled there, indicate more troubled aspects of potentially predatory behaviour as young boys posed for money. Relatedly, John Minton’s (1917-57) painting in a naïve, vernacular style of a ‘Cornish Boy at a Window’ also raises questions about Londo-centric sexual scenes.
Yet the treasures of this exhibition lie in the unexpected and the moving. Clare Atwood’s (1866-1962) painting of John Gielgud’s Room, 1933, is an uninhabited domestic pageant to chintz-swathed femininity, and in Robert Medley’s (1905-94) Summer Eclogue No 1: Cyclists, 1950, can be discerned a distance of unarticulated desire, obscured by class removal. The cultural reach extends to print media too, this being so very important to sensitive individuals seeking reassurance and role models. Reading lists and literary sections of magazines such as Arena Three, the first British lesbian magazine (although not mentioned in this exhibition) had an important social function from early on, offering readers and members comfort, hope and reassurance. Magazines such as Man’s World and MAN-ifique! are represented here with posed images of bodybuilders.
Little about ‘Queer British Art’ is sensational or sexually explicit (apart perhaps from Aubrey Beardsley’s famous and amusing erect penises of course), and overall the exhibition is sensitively human and interestingly varied, with frequent focus on the domestic, intimate and private sensitivities. And what could be more human (and British) than the prank of stealing library books, recrafting the pictures on the covers, replacing the books and then waiting to see other borrowers’ reactions! This vitrine of re-collaged books by Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton is laugh-out-loud funny. And yet, tragically, their imprisonment for this ‘crime’ led to their deaths. This evidence of such human spirit combined with such sadness, epitomises the tragicomic history of much queer cultural production. This celebration of showmanship and sensitivity, of creative potential and mournful loss comes in from the margins to become the shared history of all our lives, everyday.
By Laurel Forster
Queer British Art 1861-1967, Tate Britain, 5 April – 1 October 2017