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
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