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Quotidian Queerness

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Hannah Gluckstein, Gluck, 1942. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery.

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Report ten years earlier, Clare Barlow’s curatorship is generously broad in its cultural reach and deep in its historical references.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.

Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864. Courtesy: Tate.

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.

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

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

David Hockney at Tate Britain

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Visiting a gallery in London during the February half term is a rookie error. In a bid to occupy restless children, and driven inside by the drizzle, the families of London descend on its cultural delights. Most are free, accessible by tube, and educational; those who dare to enter will be faced with overexcited kids shouting over distressed parents, flailing toddlers on a bid to escape, and those on the cusp of adolescence, cursing their bad luck for having to admit any affiliation with their parents outside of the house. You might expect the entrance fee for the Tate Britain’s David Hockney exhibition to turn people away. And yet the promise of an exhibition taking a retrospective gander through the life’s works of a cultural icon is enough to draw in the motley crew of the city’s half-termers. Even more surprisingly, they are all captivated. Amongst the trodden toes, banged elbows and pervasive stink of damp raincoats, there is a sense of awe shared by the multiplicitous generations and nationalities flooding the galleries.

The exhibition traces almost sixty years of Hockney’s work in loosely chronological thematic sections. His signature images of 1960’s Los Angeles appear, characterised by swimming pools and homoeroticism as well as rawer line drawings and sketches, experiments of form and medium, and Hockney’s modern forays into the world of technology. Chris Stephens’s careful curation makes this more than a walk through history, arranging the large, twelve-room collection with invention and flair. Each room has its own flavour, keeping even the Hockney aficionados on their toes. The first room – ‘Play within a Play’ – throws us into metatheatre, the art mimicking our examination of it, so that are forced to examine ourselves in the process. In the title painting, Hockney’s friend John Kasmin presses his self against a glass sheet, hands pushing desperately against the barrier between art and spectator. It is a concept that recurs throughout Hockney’s lifetime; ‘Blue Stools’ does not just stage paintings within a painting, but a whole gallery within a gallery. The gallery-goers are a collage of digital photographs superimposed on a painted background, the figures repeating themselves nonchalantly in a dream space that eerily mirrors the room in which the painting hangs.

Inevitably, such an expansive view of one man’s life’s works is full of variety, offering dark, scrawling pieces etched in graffiti and cryptic messages in stark dichotomy to the angular patterns and vibrant colours of his observational paintings. The exhibition excels, however, in giving us a glimpse into the artist’s way of seeing. The second half focuses on experiences of space and place, the same hyperreality of deep pigments and bold lines lent to both Hollywood Hills and Yorkshire countryside alike. The paintings brim over with effervescent joy, vignettes of still life and landscapes alike transformed into loud effusions of rich, warm colour.

A room is dedicated to The Four Seasons, where nine cameras pan down a rural Yorkshire lane. Standing in the middle of the room, you can turn to face any wall and feel the essence of one of the four seasons. The effect is completely enchanting, as testified by the collective awed intake of air when groups enter the room. The collage of nine slightly different perspectives lends the videos something beyond three dimensions; the flitting views give a sense of complete immersion. It’s disconcerting and jarring, but upliftingly beautiful. Hockney’s sense that a singular point of view is not enough to really see is stressed by his photography, layering collaged Polaroid in a patchwork that diffracts our line of sight, producing an image with less clarity and more complexity. Hockney saw traditional photography as ‘looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops.’ His forays into photography and video, like his sumptuous landscapes, allow us to see the extraordinary lurking within each ordinary scene. It is a wonderful glimpse into the world of Hockney’s genius.


By Charanpreet Khaira 

David Hockney
Tate Britain
Until 29 May 2017
£7.95 – £26.00

Painting with Light

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Zaida Ben-Yusuf, The Odor of Pomegranates, 1899, Tate
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine, 1874, Tate.

There is a scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited in which the odious Boy Mulcaster interrogates Charles Ryder, painter and protagonist, as to why he paints pictures. Why, Mulcaster asks, doesn’t Charles simply go out and buy a camera? Charles replies: ‘a camera is a mechanical device which records a moment in time, but not what that moment means or the emotions that it evokes […] whereas, a painting, however imperfect it may be, is an expression of feeling, an expression of love: not just a copy of something.’ This juxtaposition might be said to persist today: we feel that paintings are fictive, imperfect impressions, whereas the camera documents, and never lies. Meghan Trainor’s recent dispute with her record label over their forcible Photoshopping of her image might be related to this distinction: we expect a photograph to be a truthful representation of a subject, and thus can be misled by airbrush and digital rubber in a way we would not be by paintbrush and graphite.

One of the many triumphs of the exhibition ‘Painting With Light’ is that it clearly tells the story of the early negotiation of this relationship between photography, painting, truth, and deception. Early photographs, from the Victorian and Edwardian era, are set alongside contemporaneous paintings. The curators have succeeded in capturing the complexities and symbioses of a developing relationship: rather than merely showing photographic techniques to have influenced paintings, we see seepages and imprints of influence in both directions. Like images in a darkroom, well-known paintings now loom into new focus as double-exposures, layered and tinted by their relationships with the photographic visual culture of their day. Intelligent pairings inform and permit the viewer to make formal comparisons that usually seem trivial and trite: to say that a sepia-washed landscape photograph is ‘Turner-esque’ gets close, we learn, to the terms in which it might have been conceived by its makers.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die 1867, © Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c. 1864-70, Tate.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die 1867, © Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c. 1864-70, Tate.

The truth-fiction dichotomy was, we discover, present right from the beginning. The Pre-Raphaelite quest for truth, which according to Ruskin demanded that the artist ‘reject nothing, select nothing’, led some artists to enshrine the dispassionate eye of the camera lens as the holy grail of faithful representation. Ruskin’s daguerreotypes of Venice palazzi are highlights of the early rooms, set opposite his drawings of the same façades, with crisp cornices emerging and retreating from the silvery mist of the print. Peach Robinson, who spliced two separate photographic plates together to create his haunting Lady of Shallot, felt the backlash of this association with ‘truth’, when he, like Megan Trainor’s record label, was castigated for deceiving his audience (as if a staged photograph of an Arthurian damsel was not deceitful enough). Ruskin was, of course, wrong to suggest that the camera does not select some elements and reject others: the process of framing a photograph is nothing if not a process of selection and rejection. And the association of photography with veracity was far from unanimous, even in the nineteenth century. Some of my favourite photographs were the costumed tableaux shot in village halls, faking historical, biblical and oriental scenes in front of photoreal backdrops, around which the clutter of real life leaks at the edges, breaking the illusion.

With a limited amount of wall-space, the curators’ task, like the photographer’s, is to select the important subjects, and reject the rest. It seems that Ruskin was wrong, in that this selection and rejection does not render the exhibition ‘untrue’. Rather, the curators have snapped an evocative and faithful portrait of the many and varied facets of the relationship between photography and painting. In the early rooms, we see photographs used as tools and aids, as preparatory studies for landscape paintings and monumental group portraits. Later, we see stereoscopic reproductions of popular paintings, and learn of the eruption of the first copyright cases around the issue of reproduction. We learn how photography was key in the diffusion of Japanese aesthetics in the West, and played a democratising role by making the British museum’s sculpture collection available nationwide, in photographic and stereoscopic reproduction. Photographic aesthetics are also shown to have been directly influenced by the idioms of painting: the camera, which tends to reproduce illusory space of the Renaissance type (recession to a vanishing point; a window into another world) could, by the use of patterned drapes and close cropping, mimic the flattened picture-plane of Pre-Raphaelite compositions. Similarly, the nocturnes of Whistler inspired photographers such as Alvin Langdon Coburn to produce bleeding tonal studies of watery reflections. The relationship is shown to have been thoroughly symbiotic.

The Bow Net
Thomas Frederick Goodall, The Bow Net, 1886, National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery
Thomas Frederick Goodall and Peter Henry Emerson, Setting the Bow-Net, in Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads , 1885, Private collection
Thomas Frederick Goodall and Peter Henry Emerson, Setting the Bow-Net, in Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, 1885, Private collection

The curation well disrupts the categories of instantaneous snap and crafted, painted picture, but at times I wanted a more detailed explanation of the processes that produced these early photographic images. A leaf at the back of the exhibition guide gives a short summary, but perhaps more could have been done to flesh out the nomenclature of daguerreotype and albumen print, considered faithful and mysterious, respectively, by Ruskin? What of the silky platinum print? The revolutionary autochromes? What differentiates glass plate negatives and coated printed papers? In stressing the comparison between painting and photograph, the blurring of subtle differences between different photographic techniques is perhaps a necessary compromise. Generally, however, the exhibition makes its specific comparisons between media very well, and clearly demonstrates the cross-fertilisation of aesthetic approaches.

This exhibition argues for a greater appreciation of an undervalued era of photography (I was struck, for example, by Gustave le Gray’s magisterial seascapes). But it also makes a serious proposal for more genuinely inter-disciplinary exhibitions, which mine across whole strata of visual culture to more faithfully recreate a ‘period eye’. Stereoscopy, for example, appears in this exhibition as a major phenomenon that would have played a large part in the contemporary notions of illusion, delusion, and realism for a nineteenth century viewer. Freed from their usual hanging alongside Old Master paintings, and set against contemporary photographs, the Pre-Raphaelite paintings seem more thoroughly modern than usual. And the photographs emerge not as subservient to paintings, but as wrought, intricately constructed, magical things. So Charles Ryder is proved wrong, and Mulcaster right: a photograph is not just a copy of something. In fact, this could hardly be further from the truth.

by Robert Hawkins

 


Painting With Light, Tate Britain, 11 May – 25 September 2016

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