Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Queer British Art 1861-1967

The unwieldy title contains a wealth of meaning and significance--a major exhibit at Tate Britain with an LGBT subject? A rainbow flag (RIP Gilbert Baker) flying over the venerable house of art on the banks of the Thames? Gluck gazing out defiantly from the hoardings and pamphlets? Wowzers. There is something already contradictory in this exhibit using the word queer in such an august institution.

For what is "queer art"? Art made by self-identified LGBT people? Art made by people who had same-sex leanings? Art with overtones of same-sex desire? I am really not sure having spent some hours in this exhibit, with wildly varying representations. It proceeds from changes in the law that affected gay men--sodomy being the important definition for the law, if not for the queer population. So, we are already looking at parameters that may or may not be relevant to the artists and the contemporary viewer.

But, the art seems to have been included based on what the curator Clare Barlow decided was relevant. Rarely did I look at a work and think, "That's quite good" or "That's terrible". I was looking at the biographical information in the captions to see who the sitter in the painting was or what the "queer" relevance was. It's a very different way of looking at art from the usual. As it happened, some of the works were quite compelling, though I was rather unimpressed with Duncan Grant's several contributions. Sorry, Bloomsbury crowd.

Actually, the best known artists were the least interesting in this context--we've seen Hockney, Bacon and Cahun many times before. They are acknowledged for both their artistic achievements and queerness. It is the lesser known artists who captured my attention, many of them women: Evelyn De Morgan, the duo known as Michael Field and so forth. I found myself asking a question I have posed many times since I began writing about women and culture decades ago: "Why have I never heard of her?" Well, there are many reasons--being written out of history, working in secret or cloaking gender to avoid condemnation.

But, there were some happy surprises. Who knew Kenneth Halliwell was a talented artist? His library books with Joe Orton occupy a case and draw giggles but Halliwell also has a large collage on a wall and it is very impressive. The caption tells the story--shown in 1957, the exhibition was a failure. The story of his life, sadly.

There is some effort at social context--captions question the power relations between white artists and black sitters and between servants and masters who painted them. 

But, given the historical backdrop of this whole exhibit, one of legal and social repression, the art is surprisingly lively and joyful. It is also quite multifaceted--portraits, jewellery and even some artifacts are shown. Is the door of Oscar Wilde's prison cell really art? Or is it a memorial to martyrdom?

I shall finish with the mysterious Sammy who was part of a group of women who explored drag in the early twentieth century. Her photo hangs on a wall in the exhibit but very little is stated about her or her circle. I want to know more about these women.

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