Queer­ing the pic­ture

Michael Hall en­joys a lively new ex­hi­bi­tion that ex­plores themes of sex­u­al­ity and gen­der, but won­ders if the artis­tic nar­ra­tive could have been stronger

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

There’s been a ten­dency in Tate Bri­tain’s re­cent ex­hi­bi­tions, such as ‘Artist and em­pire’, to use art to doc­u­ment so­cial his­tory. even ‘sculp­ture Vic­to­ri­ous’, in 2015, se­lected ex­hibits to il­lus­trate ideas about colo­nial­ism. Now, we have ‘Queer Bri­tish Art 1861–1967’, which ex­plores the way in which art re­flected ideas about sex­u­al­ity and gen­der be­tween the abo­li­tion of the death penalty for sodomy and the par­tial de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of male ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity ex­actly 50 years ago.

It in­cor­po­rates many voices, but I wish it had more fully trusted the art to speak for it­self’

Put to­gether by Clare Bar­low, Tate’s As­sis­tant Cu­ra­tor of Bri­tish Art 1750–1830, ‘Queer Bri­tish Art’ ex­em­pli­fies the ben­e­fits of us­ing works of art as doc­u­ments in an ex­hi­bi­tion struc­tured as so­cial his­tory. It in­cludes works of high in­ter­est that lie out­side the main­stream of art his­tory and demon­strates how a his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity can pro­vide provoca­tive in­sights into well-known paint­ings and sculp­tures.

The in­clu­sion of such ob­jects as the door to Os­car Wilde’s prison cell or 1950s Amer­i­can physique mag­a­zines un­doubt­edly pro­vides help­ful con­text. But there are pit­falls to this ap­proach: the so­cial back­ground can take over to a de­gree that the nar­ra­tive is car­ried by the doc­u­ments rather than the art.

The ex­hi­bi­tion be­gins strongly in vis­ual terms, with a large room fo­cus­ing on artists be­tween 1860 and 1890— simeon solomon, eve­lyn de Mor­gan, hamo Thorny­croft and henry scott Tuke are all prom­i­nent. The ques­tion that unites them is the ex­tent to which these artists are chal­leng­ing con­ven­tional ideas of gen­der and sex­ual re­la­tion­ships. This is the one part of the ex­hi­bi­tion where some more con­text would have been help­ful, in a dis­cus­sion of the wide-spread lateVic­to­rian anx­i­ety about men be­ing soft­ened by lux­ury while women were hard­ened by their fight for eman­ci­pa­tion.

Lord Leighton’s sen­su­ous, life-size The Slug­gard (1885) is at the heart of this de­bate. Its orig­i­nal ti­tle, An Ath­lete Awak­en­ing from Sleep, sug­gests man­hood rous­ing it­self to ac­tion, but Leighton’s de­ci­sion to re­name it, and his in­clu­sion of a lau­rel crown be­ing tram­pled un­der­foot, makes the sculp­ture a cri­tique of con­tem­po­rary mas­culin­ity— and so, ar­guably, ho­mo­pho­bic in its ap­par­ently se­duc­tive de­pic­tion of naked male beauty.

Other high­lights in­clude a group of in­ter-world War paint­ings by women of build­ings and in­te­ri­ors that, even when un­peo­pled, as in Clare At­wood’s John Giel­gud’s Room (1933), in­trigu­ingly ad­dress is­sues of sex­u­al­ity. These are hung op­po­site ethel Walker’s large 1920 paint­ing Dec­o­ra­tion: The Ex­cur­sion of Nau­si­caa, a crowded Ar­ca­dian scene of naked women that pos­sesses a very mov­ing air of calm hap­pi­ness.

Two sub­se­quent rooms are themed as ‘De­fy­ing con­ven­tions’, a group of largely in­ter-war por­traits of women who sub­verted gen­der norms, and the all-male

‘Ar­ca­dia and Soho’, which deals with bo­hemian London in a quirky se­lec­tion that in­cludes a mas­ter­piece by Christo­pher Wood and won­der­fully lets Ed­ward Burra rip, but sub­or­di­nates John Min­ton and Robert Med­ley to an enor­mous, dull John Crax­ton, cho­sen pre­sum­ably be­cause it hap­pens to be in the Tate.

To­wards its con­clu­sion, the ex­hi­bi­tion falls apart and the se­lec­tion of sec­ond-rank paint­ings by Ba­con and Hock­ney for the last room is a down­beat con­clu­sion. More prob­lem­atic is the way that the back­ground takes over from the fore­ground. Ear­lier sus­pi­cion that the in­clu­sion of, for ex­am­ple, Vic­to­rian pho­to­graphs of the cross-dress­ing ‘Fanny and Stella’ or of Noël Coward’s dress­ing gown, don’t add very much are re­in­forced by the dis­play of pho­to­graphs, let­ters and copies of books that are of lim­ited vis­ual in­ter­est.

These ex­hibits clut­ter a space that should, for ex­am­ple, have been di­rected to elu­ci­dat­ing the fine group of paint­ings by Keith Vaughan that chart his move to ab­strac­tion. His sex­u­al­ity is in­deed im­pli­cated in his fo­cus on the male nude, but it also gave him the strength to find his own path when fig­u­ra­tion fell from favour in the 1950s, so it’s dis­ap­point­ing that the bitty cat­a­logue makes no ef­fort to place his work in the con­text of the rise of ab­strac­tion in Bri­tish paint­ing.

It’s ad­mirable that this lively, en­joy­able and well-dis­played ex­hi­bi­tion in­cor­po­rates so many di­verse voices, but I wish it had more fully trusted the works of art to speak for them­selves.

‘Queer Bri­tish Art 1861–1967’ is at Tate Bri­tain, Mill­bank, London SW1, un­til Oc­to­ber 1 (020–7887 8888; www.tate. org.uk)

Next week: ‘Cre­at­ing the Coun­try­side’ at Comp­ton Ver­ney

A cri­tique of con­tem­po­rary mas­culin­ity: Fred­eric Leighton’s The Slug­gard (1885)

Three Fig­ures by Keith Vaughan (1960). Vaughan used ab­strac­tion to de­velop his own unique vo­cab­u­lary of the male fig­ure

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