Queer British Art
This show is so intriguing because it offers a very different narrative and perspective of a vital thread in British art and life, even of works that are familiar, which happily a lot of them are. (So much queer art ended up in the dustbin.) And so many fascinating biographies emerge. I don’t often find tears in my eyes at the very first picture. This was the self-portrait of Simeon Solomon (1859) with such longing and alienation in his eyes. He is considered a pioneer for depicting his own desires, painting mysterious, erotic, androgynous figures, especially the tender, gentle Bacchus. (1867) His promising career was destroyed by arrests for indecency, a prison sentence and finally the workhouse. As Colin Cruise writes in the catalogue,”Legal penalities against the active expression of his sexuality forced him to become an outcast living a life that rejected bourgeois norms.”
The exhibition begins in 1861 when the death penalty for sodomy was abolished and ends in 1967 with the partial decriminalisation of sex between men. Happily it would have been too much to try and go beyond that date since now there is so much art that could be called queer, or rather we would no longer apply such a label to so many mainstream artists.
I chuckled at The Bowlers by William Blake Richmond, with its naked Greek youths playing bowls, observed by women in various states of undress, “ancients playing bowls with nothing on” as one society lady acerbically remarked. And then I was brought up short by Oscar Wilde’s prison door, on loan from the National Justice Museum in Nottingham.
Bloomsbury is well represented of course, their acceptance of same sex desire, both male and female, acquiring the tag, “lived in squares and loved in triangles” Vita and Virginia, lots of Duncan Grant – I liked Bathing (1911) gorgeous diving and swimming muscular male nudes, painted for the dining room at Borough Polytechnic, a queer intervention in public space, but accused of posing a potential degenerative effect on the students.
There are classics like the challenging self portrait of Gluck (1942) but also her glorious vase of white lilacs, (Lilac and Guelder Rose 1932-7) made when she was involved in a relationship with society flower arranger, Constance Spry.
I relished the story of Madge Garland, photographed by Cecil Beaton (1930) . She was the lover of Dorothy Todd, Vogue’s second editor, who had turned the magazine avant garde. Both Todd and Garland were sacked by Vogue when the rumours became too much.
Soho figures of course- a magnet for queer artists in the 1950s and 1960s – described by Francis Bacon as,”the sexual gymnasium of the city” and John Craxton, Keith Vaughan and John Minton are well represented. The 50s and 60s was still a difficult time- Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell had separate beds to maintain the pretence they were not a couple, so their witty and wicked collages of defaced library book covers are a particular delight.
Lots of Francis Bacon, and David Hockney with what he called himself “homosexual propaganda” – the relish with which he explores homosexuality lifts the spirits.
So amazing to scrape the surface of a history which while often tragic is finally both immensely creative and subversive.