Duncan Grant, Bathing, 1911
In a week where three gay men have been murdered in Chechnya, and another 100 rounded up, the tone deaf Janet Street Porter states The Tate Gallery is wrong to put on a 'queer' art exhibition. She and many reactionaries question the very notion of identity politics and the value they have in a wider society, without looking to that wider global society. The Tate's Queer show has been mounted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the partial repeal of anti-gay legislation, yet only four years ago 128 Conservative MPs voted against LGBTQ marriage. The Anglican church still has its skirts above its head when it comes to blessing queers in church, so there is no need to look to other countries to see that hatred, bigotry and outright homophobia are still problems.
So who needs a queer art show? The simple answer is anyone who likes art. For far too long biographical information about the lives of same-sex lovers has been intentionally edited out. I have re-run these arguments over and over and as many will know from my book Hidden Histories: 20th century male same-sex lovers in the visual arts (2004) and exhibition at the New Art Gallery Walsall. But sadly nearly 15 years later, LGBTQ people are being attached and killed all over the world and discriminated against in the UK. So many art historians that I have met have had no idea that Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were lovers from 1954 - 1961 until I have told them. This is not a salacious point, as they documented their sexual relationship in many of the works they made while sharing a studio and a bed, that became one of Rauschenberg's most famous works. Bed from 1955, is still contentious and the Museum of Modern Art's (New York) website even now, completely disregards the biographical information about the two men. Being LGBTQ in Trump's America is still problematic. Trump has even decided not to count LGBTQ people in the 2020 census. Rauschenberg and Johns made work in each others name, and historians are still sorting these works out. Prior to his relationship with Johns, Rauschenberg's lover was Cy Twombly and again he made many works about their relationship. Cy + Roman Steps (1952) is a perfect example and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's site does acknowledge their sexual relationship, but this is sadly rare.
The Tate has often been held to task (by myself and many others) over the misrepresentation of same-sex lovers as heterosexuals, and this exhibition is a great start in the normalization of knowledge. It is in many ways a corrective exhibition that will enable several generations of artists, historian and members of the public who have been denied this information to see that LGBTQ people have been making important art (often at the forefront of artistic change). While the show is based on British artists who were 'queer' it is important to remember that LGBTQ people and artists exist in a globally threatening world. Andy Warhol (I have even had some American art historians balk at the idea that he too was gay!), Johns, Rauschenberg and Twombly are of course Americans with a different history of oppression, and while their work is some of the most highly sought (as is Francis Bacon's) it is important that they are seen as members of a broader queer community. Until the many different histories are routinely taught in state schools it does matter that important institutions like Tate have exhibitions like this.
And what of the show? Curated by Clare Barlow, the show is a knockout. The exhibition is broken into eight sections that span just over a century. Starting with Coded Desires that focuses on Victorian artists who often had to hide their same-sex loves in the work they made. Yet they often did not do the hiding all that well, Simeon Solomon wound up in jail both in the UK and France for sex in public urinals with other men and while the signage was on the whole very good, it was not as frank as it could have been, though the catalogue makes up for that. Signage is something I have long complained about in all museums, as it is the official voice of the institution and leads viewers along a certain path. In the past a heterosexual filter has been placed in front of the work of most artists who were same-sex lovers. It is not that I want a queer filter placed there instead, simply the removal of all filters, and institutional honesty about biographical details.
One need only look at Frederic Leighton's The Sluggard (1885, bronze) or the many paintings of milky white Cornish lads by Henry Scott Tuke to see the homosexual desire in their gaze. It helps to know that often the 'models' were of course their lovers, as the intimacy of the work can then come into focus as it does when we know that Dora Maar was Picasso's lover. She was not just some model, but his sexual partner and that comes across in many of his portraits of her, so we also need this information about the artists in this show. And on the whole the Tate provides it, at long last. I hope to see this carry over to signage at Tate Modern and more importantly over time.
There are so many visual jems in this show it is had to know where to start but Charles Buchel's portrait of Radclyffe Hall (1918), Robert Harper Pennington's portrait of Oscar Wilde (1881), Glyn Warren Philpot's portrait of Glen Byam Shaw (1934-5), Duncan Grant's portrait of EM Forster's lover PC Harry Daley (1030), Dora Carrington's portrait of Lytton Strachey (1916) and Laura Knight's Self-portrait (1913) are all must sees. The show also has many photographs of Theatrical Types including a great Danny La Rue by Angus McBean (1968) as well as photographs by Tuke and 1950's physique photographers. They also have erotic drawings by Grant and Keith Vaughan which are rarely seen and one of Vaughan's most beautiful and erotic paintings Kouros (1960). There is a nice section of work by Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton including many of their altered book covers and a great drawing of Orton by Patrick Procktor (1967). In January this year MOCA London had a show commemorating Orton's life and work, which will travel on to the New Walk Museum in Leicester (July 29 - 22 October), so it was nice to see how the Tate handled the same subject.
The show ends with a room devoted to David Hockney and Francis Bacon and while the works they have are very good, somehow they leave you a bit flat after all the other works that are perhaps the best by those many artists. Equally the visitor need only go upstairs to see the Hockney retrospective to get their fill of his best known work. On the ground floor in the Duveen Gallery there is a smashing neon installation (based on Marcel Duchamp's Oculist Witnesses) by Cerith Wyn Evans, also a same-sex lover . So Tate Britain is very full of Queer British Art, as it so often in the past has been, but this time they are telling the public about it, and how wonderful is that!
Queer British Art 1861-1967
April 5 - 1 October, 2017
Photographs all author's own