You probably don’t bat an eyelid when you see a woman in a pair of trousers. I myself saw several today and thought nothing of it. Frankly it is hard to imagine a time when it was avant-garde for a woman to wear trousers, which gives an idea of the journey the 21st century mind has to take to understand the strictures that have been imposed on people in the past. And nowhere have the strictures been stricter than for people identifying as lesbian or gay.
Queer British Art at Tate Britain looks at the artistic responses to life for queer artists between 1861 and 1967, the year of partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. Language is fluid and what was normal usage yesterday may offend today; seemingly to ward off complaints about its name the new exhibition begins with a large wall-emblazoned quote from Derek Jarman: ‘For me, to use the word ‘queer’ is a liberation; it was a word that frightened me, but no longer.’ So that’s OK then, except Jarman died in (I can’t believe it) 1994, leaving plenty of time for things to have changed again. How will future historians react?
Inside the exhibition the different frames, sizes and media of Room 1 mean the show lacks an immediate visual unity. By Room 2 the word art from the show’s title has been left behind by the selections of curator Clare Barlow. She has included objects only tangentially relevant to the subject, such as one of Noel Coward’s dressing gowns and the door to the cell in which Oscar Wilde was incarcerated. Also on display is the visiting card on which the Marquis of Queensbury wrote his famous misspelled accusation against Wilde. This demonstrates the prejudice with which queer artists had to contend, and amongst the artworks on display makes you wonder about the masterpieces Wilde might have written if he had not tried to sue Douglas’ father.
The show is divided into eight sections, looking at topics such as the theatrical (once a euphemism for queer), the political, women who defied convention, and life in Sixties Soho. It features works by artists such as Francis Bacon, David Hockney (yes, him again, there is currently no escape), and Cecil Beaton. Occasionally the works appear forced to fit the theme (the description of Henry Scott Tulke’s The Critics includes the phrase ‘the two men on the shore appraise the swimming technique – and possibly the physique – of the youth in the water’), but ultimately the exhibition shows a selection of artists and artworks, the best works demonstrating humanity rather than sexuality and confirming that we’re all in this seemingly-crazy life together. The uncertainties of life in general remain more unifying than the sexuality of the chosen artists.
A cracking portrait of Aubrey Beardsley by Jaques-Emile Blanche. In freely-handled thin grey paint with the under-painting showing through Blanche brings to life the illustrative maestro. He shows him to be an elegant dandy with a dress sense easily the equal of O. Wilde, who is also depicted in the same room.
Aubrey Beardsley by Jaques-Emile Blanche, 1895 National Portrait Gallery
The Bloomsbury Room (Room 4). OK, it’s called Bloomsbury and beyond, and to be honest it’s mainly beyond, but its got Dora Carrington’s Lytton Strachey, all right-hand, large brain and cool intelligence. There’s also a languid portrait of Paul Roche reclining painted by Duncan Grant. But look out for Tea with Sickert by Ethel Sands, showing a light touch and a deft control of colour and enjoy being invited into an early 19th century sitting room for a bone china cuppa.
Ethel Sands Tea with Sickert 1911-12 Tate
Room 5 (Defying Convention) shows how artists tried to challenge gender norms. It includes a lusciously painted self-portrait by Laura Knight, positioning herself as a professional artist. She depicts herself in the life room at a time when women were not allowed to attend life classes. (This seemed so preposterous a statement that I had to check it. It was true).
Although Queer British Art is a large show filling eight rooms, when I visited the four huge flags at the front of theTate only advertised their concurrent Hockney exhibition. Queer British Art got not a mention, which took away from the look-how-far-we’ve-come vibe of the show. Clearly to be steeped in queer art history will make the show more relevant but the exhibition has more than the niche appeal its title suggests and overall there is enough to interest the general viewer.