On ViewTate Britain
April 5 – October 1, 2017
Come with a thorough knowledge of Britain’s queer subculture or be prepared to take notes: the convoluted, colorful, and vibrant world of alternating genders, orientations, romantic attachments, and associations is the focus of this exhibition. All cultures have thriving subcultures that are both embraced and reviled by the moral systems that seek to control popular dialogue, but British queer culture is particularly fascinating with its chain of interlinking artistic and literary circles over the 106 years chronicled in Queer British Art. The Pre-Raphaelites, The Bright Young Things, and the Bloomsbury Group, among others, combine with the gender-bending traditions of British music hall and men’s room cruising to create a scintillating and potent soup of intellectual and amorous possibilities.
Gossip certainly wasn’t the original intention of the curators, but any exhibition which focuses on the romantic and lifestyle decisions of artists, intellectuals, flâneurs, and Bohemians in general, and traces the aesthetic and visual culture ramifications of those life choices is going to find itself tangled up in an inevitable web of complicated passions and all too human tragedies. There are some magnificent artistic highlights; the photographs of Claude Cahun, drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, society photo-portraits by Angus McBean and John Deakin, a sculpted head of Nijinsky by Una Troubridge, and gorgeous paintings by Duncan Grant, Simeon Solomon, Edward Burra, and inevitably David Hockney and Francis Bacon. But beyond the art, the exhibition offers a visual record of epoch-making personalities, with the artworks, objects, and ephemera on display functioning as documentation of their lives and activities. Straying into the realm of Ripley’s Believe it or Not (queer edition), the door to Wilde’s prison cell is displayed, as well as Noel Coward’s monogrammed rose bathrobe.
Amongst the photo and painted portraits, many on display for historical reasons rather than artistic quality, there are images of notable queer figures such as Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Lytton Strachey, Radclyffe Hall and Edward Carpenter. Had I had been more knowledgeable, I think it would have felt like viewing a dramatization of history with the accompanying goosebumps of seeing beloved, long-dead figures brought to life.
A wonderful oil portrait by Duncan Grant, P.C. Harry Daley (1930) poses the sitter, a sometime lover of E. M. Forster, in his police uniform, conjuring the contradictory identity of a man who had to investigate and arrest homosexuals while hiding his own life from view. The lighthearted portrait of Daley revels in its own cheeky irony. Within the community Daley was openly gay, and it seemed oddly accepted—perhaps even a darkly humorous anecdote—that as a constable he was required to arrest homosexuals. Meanwhile, the presence of playwright Joe Orton and his partner, the writer and actor Kenneth Halliwell, remind us why the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality is the basis for the exhibition. Their playful project of manipulating dustjackets of local Islington library books, often injecting a queer, transgressive or bitingly ironic reading into pop culture imagery, resulted in the couple’s incarceration for six months, for “Malicious Damage;” a sentence that was interpreted as a punishment for homosexuality (their time in prison perhaps precipitated the chain of events that led to their tragic murder/suicide by Halliwell in 1967). Oddly, the exhibition text describes the book project, but features only a later piece by Halliwell alone and several images of Orton—adding the overall impression that this is first and foremost a historical show.
Of the works that stuck, besides those aforementioned, Ethel Sands’ Tea with Sickert (1911-12) depicts a quiet domestic interior with a well-known painter friend come to tea: a normalization of a transgressive lesbian lifestyle. Edward Burra’s painting Izzy Orts (1937), captures the lurid excitement the artist clearly felt entering a bar in Boston populating by beefy drunken sailors. Angus McBean’s photographs appear again and again in Queer British Art, but his portrait of one of the most publicly gay and vocal queer personalities, the writer and performer Quentin Crisp from 1941 is particularly poignant. Colin (1950’s), a photo-portrait by John Deakin of a sad, sweet trans woman, is spellbinding. Of course, it wouldn’t be England if David Hockney wasn’t involved, and his early painting Going to Bed Queen for Tonight (1960) is a cheerful visual wordplay on the gay graffiti inscribed in a toilet in the Earl’s Court tube station.
There is the ambiguous notion of Queer culture as well. At times, Pre-Raphaelitism, an ostensibly heteronormative movement, embraces a queer aesthetic of androgyny and sexual nonconformism, particularly in the paintings and drawings of Simeon Solomon. In The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love (1865) a downcast male protagonist leaves his lover, a male nude personification of love, for a heteronormative life. While drawings like this certainly weren’t hanging over every sofa, these poetic images of thwarted love and of same sex love masquerading as poetic “friendship” did seep into the edges of the culture at large, most notably in the work of Aubrey Beardsley, who is represented by his famous illustrations for Lysistrada and Salome. At other times, the art of queer artists seems to mold itself to mainstream art trends like surrealism or neo-plasticism. Claude Cahun’s untitled 1936 photograph of an assemblage featuring a wooden artist’s manikin in a bell jar plays with the Duchampian Readymade and Surrealism, embracing an entirely different meaning of queerness.
Or does it? Possibly the greatest contribution of this exhibition is its open-ended definition of the once pejorative, now rehabilitated term. For instance, many of the cross-dressing performers in the British music hall tradition were not gay, but they still feature in Queer British Art, and many of the artists and writers portrayed in the photographs and canvasses were not strictly one gender/orientation or the other, or both, or neither. This inclusiveness is a unifying gesture that seeks to emphasize the power of this elusive lifestyle/movement. At times queerness did not inform the mainstream culture; it was the mainstream, in disguise.