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It’s easy to forget that before the 1970s, queer people had to look to subtext to see themselves represented. And even then, it could be dangerous. At the time, talking about homosexuality in the United Kingdom — let alone being out — was condemned. Until 1967 in the UK, you could be imprisoned for being gay. Artistic expression was no exception, but now, for the very first time, a British National Museum places queer art center stage.
Queer British Art, the newest exhibit at the Tate Britain in London, features over 150 works and artifacts. Everything in the exhibit was created between 1861, the year sodomy was no longer given the death penalty, and 1967, when homosexuality began to be decriminalized. Some of the artists featured are world-renowned, like Simeon Solomon, Radclyffe Hall and photographer Cecil Beaton.
But Queer British Art isn’t only about the big names. A wide cross-section of queer subculture is displayed — divas of the theater, female impersonators, erotic drawings mixed with “serious” artworks, plus artists who refuse classification like Gluck or Claude Cahen.
One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is the mix of “fine art” with more populist art forms like theater and music hall, the UK’s answer to vaudeville. Even during this repressive time, live performance has always been a place to freely explore creativity, sexuality and gender.
Queer British Art offers a different reading of art history — one not opposed to traditional interpretation, but an exploration of the different ways artists represent the human body and sexuality. As curator Clare Barlow nicely puts it in the exhibit’s catalogue, this exhibition is “a step towards a conversation.”
We’ve selected 10 of our own personal favorites, but with so many works on display, we know you’ll have your own top works.
1. Simeon Solomon, Bacchus, 1867
Hanging in the exhibition’s first room, “Coded Desires,” Solomon’s portrait of Bacchus is rather troubling. While we often imagine the god of wine as a constantly partying hedonist, Solomon gives him ambiguous features — fleshy lips, a luxuriant headdress and an enigmatic look. Algernon Charles Swinburne, a poet and contemporary of Solomon, confided that he saw in both artist and subject “the stamp of sorrow, of perplexities unsolved and desires unsatisfied.”
In 1873, Solomon was arrested in a public toilet and was convicted of “attempted buggery.” After his conviction, most of his friends turned their backs on him.
2. Sidney Harold Meteyard, Hope Comforting Love in Bondage, 1901
In the same room as Bacchus, this painting also has its fair share of ambiguity. The near-nakedness, pensive air and androgynous aspect of Love is set in contrast with Hope’s more modest, respectable outfit. Love’s expression is reminiscent of Solomon’s work. Of particular note is the elaborate minutia of Love’s bondage.
3. Oscar Wilde’s cell door
One of the most moving pieces of the exhibition is not a painting, photograph or sculpture. It’s an old door, but not just any door; it’s the door that locked Oscar Wilde in a cell for two years. After his incarceration, which left him shattered, Wilde left the UK in exile to live in Europe. Wilde lived for only three years after this, a shadow of himself.
4. Laura Knight, Self-Portrait, 1913
Knight’s depiction of a female artist painting a nude woman shocked critics of the time. Claude Phillips, one such critic, deemed this painting dull and something “dangerously close to vulgarity.” But what Phillips couldn’t see is how Knight subverts the hierarchy of the male artist versus the female model. Unfortunately, as revolutionary art often is, Self-Portrait was not popular at the time. Thankfully, we’ve since come around as a culture.
5. Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant as Prince Charming, 1927
Beaton’s portrait of Stephen Tennant is unmissable. Tennant was known as a dandy queer, famous since the 1920s for his great beauty, love of sparkling wine and decadent lifestyle. He was probably the most brilliant of the so-called “Bright Young Things,” a group of hedonistic aristocrats. Like the celebrities of today, the tabloids delighted in their escapades while criticizing them at the same time.
6. Noël Coward’s dressing gown
“Theatrical” was a common euphemism for queer during the turn of the 20th century. During their everyday lives, artists of course hid their sexuality — but in lyrics or performance, queer artists were able to express their true selves. Flamboyant playwright, actor and composer Noël Coward could not be better evoked than through his iconic dressing gown. Though Coward never mentioned his homosexuality, songs like “Mad About the Boy” (part of the exhibition’s playlist) leave little doubt.
7. Henry Scott Tuke, The Critics, 1927
Queer British Art mixes classical representations of beauty — especially from religion or mythology — with scenes from everyday life. The latter is well-represented by this very sunny painting of two ordinary swimmers, one nude, glancing at their friend. This piece may be named The Critics, but the audience doesn’t know what they’re criticizing — his swimming or his physical beauty.
8. Gluck, Self-Portrait, 1942
This impressive face was chosen to advertise the exhibition — and for good reason, as Gluck’s self-portrait sums up the exhibition rather well. The artist, who abandoned her surname and asked that her name be used with “no prefix, suffix or quotes,” is queer par excellence. (She even resigned as vice president of an art society when their letterhead named her “Miss Gluck.”) In defiance of then-current fashions, she wore short hair and masculine clothes for the self-portrait, and she seems to challenge the viewer. Gluck’s got attitude!
9. Unknown photographer, Michael Fox — Pitt Rivers; Edward Douglas — Scott — Montagu, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu; Peter Wildeblood, 1954
During the first half of the 20th century, gays and lesbians had to hide their sexual orientation, even if they didn’t deny it. This photo captures a very special moment in the history of homosexuality in the UK. These three men — two aristocrats and a journalist — were put on trial in 1953 for conspiracy to commit “serious offences with male persons.” Instead of apologizing, journalist Peter Wildeblood unapologetically published a personal account of identifying as homosexual.
Their arrest and trial highlighted what some called a witch hunt against gay men and triggered a call for change in the country.
10. David Hockney, Life Painting for a Diploma, 1962
Queer British Art concludes with works by two major gay artists of the second half of the 20th century, Francis Bacon and David Hockney. In the early 1960s, Hockney did not hesitate to mix elements of popular culture with his classical education to explore homosexual desire while questioning stereotypes.
During his years at the Royal College of Art, he chose an illustration from crypto-gay magazine Physique Pictorial, with its muscular and smiling hunk models, for a study. In his own words, Hockney wanted to poke fun at the idea of the heterosexual male artist/female model dichotomy. He explained the work was “mocking their idea of being objective about a nude in front of you, when really your feelings must be affected.”
Hockney is also honored in another exhibition at the Tate Britain, which runs until May 29.
See Queer British Art 1861 — 1967 at the Tate Britain from April 5 — Oct. 1, 2017.
The Tate Britain is also organizing a day-long celebration of the LGBTQ community on June 24, during London Pride.