In 1967, the British Parliament voted in favour of the decriminalisation of sex between men in England and Wales. In Scotland, homosexual relationships were “illegal” until 1980. Strangely, relations between women were not explicitly prohibited by law, which was more obsessed with pursuing sodomy. It’s hard to believe that this was only 50 years ago. To celebrate this anniversary, Tate Britain’s latest exhibition, Queer British Art: 1861-1967, is devoted to the life and work of gay artists from Francis Bacon to David Hockney, with John Singer Sargent, Keith Vaughan, Dora Carrington and Ethel Sands all making an appearance as well. There’s even an honourable mention of Oscar Wilde and his historic trial in the Victorian era.
“For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite” was the note left by the Marquis of Queensberry in the club frequented by The Picture of Dorian Gray’s author. The Marquis could not tolerate the Irish poet’s ‘friendship’ with his son, Alfred Douglas, and penned on paper a suspicion that was already an open secret. Wilde decided, however, to take his lover’s father to trial for defamation, but it was then that his homosexuality was proven, he sank into misery and was sentenced to two years of hard labour in prison. Now, the door of his cell has travelled to London for the exhibition and is exposed alongside a portrait of the poet in his prime, at age 27, painted by Robert Goodloe, becoming one of the main focuses of the show.
Another highlight of the exhibition is the section focusing on the Bloomsbury group, the great artistic circle to which writers, philosophers and painters such as Dora Carrington, Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell and Virginia Wolf belonged, and maintained a bohemian attitude towards homosexuality. The room where it’s exhibited collects intimate paintings of the lovers and scenes of the author’s homes.
Gluck, ‘Gluck’ (Nee Hannah Gluckstein), Oil on Canvas 1942
‘Queer British Art’ attracts us to the rich diversity of gay visual art and its role in society. Among the topics it addresses are the coded desires of the Pre-Raphaelites, representations of women who defied social conventions (including Virginia Woolf), and love and lust in London’s Soho in the 1960s.
That decade, the sixties, marked the beginning of openness. It was an effervescent period in which sexuality opened its way as a form of expression in the arts. The authors capture their desires and experiences but also questioned the meaning of their sexual choice.
Some of the works in the program are intensely personal; others are aimed at a wider audience, helping to forge a sense of community. A cry of vindication that shows how well-known authors challenged the opinions anchored in society about sexuality and gender identity. The exhibition also illustrates the ways in which sexuality was defined publicly through the work of sexologists such as Henry Havelock Ellis and activists like Edward Carpenter.
Life Painting For a Diploma, David Hockney, 1962
David Hockney not only appears to be part of the show but also points to the event twice, with his own solo exhibition running at the moment at Tate Britain (until the 29th of May). There are also works of Francis Bacon, and the homoerotic painting Bathing by Duncan Grant (featured), an illustrious member of the Bloomsbury group, also represented in another painting by Dora Carrington. John Singer Sargent, John Keith Vaughan, and North American Ethel Sands complete the necessarily incomplete list of gay artists for such a great occasion.
This unique exhibition touches the once-so-forbidden topics of hidden desires and public indecency, as well as theatrical traditions and the conflict between public and private life, and show how nineteenth-century artists expressed with their art what could not be said and opened new paths for later artists to follow.
Queer British Art: 1861-1967 runs at Tate Britain until 1 October 2017.
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