‘Queer British Art 1861–1967’ is an ambitious exhibition, wide in scope and detailed in research. It includes a huge range of British art – 202 works by nearly 70 artists – from the pre-Raphaelites to pop, as well as much supplementary material, especially in the form of photographs and books. These exhibits tell under-publicized stories about art and artists outside the sexual mainstream in the century between two legal landmarks: the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 and the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967. I really wanted to like ‘Queer British Art’, but I had a lot of problems with this show.
On the positive side, I’m glad the curators used ‘queer’ in the title. Contemporary terms for sexual identity do not apply to this era, whereas queer is period-appropriate, usefully broad in application and has been reclaimed in recent decades as a badge of pride. However, although the exhibition uses queer as a banner under which to show art and artists departing from the heterosexual norm, it barely touches the work that has been done by theorists and historians to define the particularity and subversiveness of queer as a cultural principle.
The first thing that strikes you about this exhibition is that it’s a parade of bodies. There is a long string of portraits of queer artists and other figures, from Victorian painter Simeon Solomon to modern-day raconteur Quentin Crisp. It includes gender-bending bodies, from Charles Buchel’s painting of Radclyffe Hall in male drag to John Deakin’s photographs of queer Soho. There’s also a lot of homoerotic imagery, from the impressionist beach scenes of Henry Scott Tuke to the private erotic drawings of Keith Vaughan. Bodies are a good place to start in a queer art show, but this exhibition doesn’t get much further.
The one exception to this is a group of paintings of interiors and still lifes by female artists – in a notably male-dominated show – including an in-your-face flower painting byGluck, Lilac and Guelder Rose (1932–37). (Gluck was in a same-sex relationship with the society decorator and flower arranger Constance Spry.) Genres such as the domestic scene, still life and landscape were historically considered ‘minor’ forms and have often been adopted by artists at the social fringe, but the show fails to develop this argument. It would have been great, for instance, to have seen a room in which Gluck’s images of flowers were brought together with the equally eroticized flora of her contemporary Edward Burra (represented elsewhere in the show by his homoerotic paintings of soldiers and sailors).
In general, the exhibition moves uneasily between a chronological and a thematic approach, and would have benefited from stronger thematic statements. Other subjects on which it could have lingered are the representation of all-female and all-male spaces, since the material is there in the exhibition. Thus there are multiple pictures of male cruising sites in the show – including two great but very different pictures of public bathing by Bloomsbury denizen Duncan Grant – but they are not presented in a way that explores the queering of public space.
As it is, ‘Queer British Art’ gets bogged down in a long narrative. It also suffers from being placed in the comparatively cramped galleries of Tate Britain’s basement and, if destined for these spaces, should probably have been reduced in historical scope – perhaps dropping the Victorians and starting with a different legal landmark, the Wilde trial of 1895.
In addition, the show has more than its share of second-rate art – including that of great artists. Claude Cahun, for example, is represented by some rather ho-hum photographs and not by her extraordinary self-transformations. Meanwhile David Hockney, with whose work the exhibition closes, is represented by what is literally student work, such as Life Painting for a Diploma (1962). (Much better Hockneys are on display in the artist’s retrospective in the galleries on the floor above).
A more fundamental problem with this exhibition is that it can’t decide whether it’s about art history or social history. If the former, it feels unbalanced and old-fashioned, with painting heavily over-represented. There is almost no sculpture, for instance, while photography features as either portraiture or soft porn. As social history, the show is inevitably problematic because the artists and thinkers of this period whose work has survived are largely an elite group. (The one exception is a section dedicated to the theatrical world, in which the documentation of cross-dressing in popular culture, from music hall to Danny La Rue, gives a sense of a queer working class tradition.)
‘Queer British Art’ is a show that’s long overdue and I’m glad Tate Britain has done it. The curators Clare Barlow and Amy Concannon are also to be applauded for making public many half-forgotten artworks and stories. I’m pleased, for instance, to have seen the altered covers that the playright Joe Orton and his partner, the actor and artist Kenneth Halliwell, placed on books purloined from north London libraries before slipping them back into public circulation. With their surreal collages and distorted blurbs, these works continue a long tradition of queer slang and innuendo flirting with its own exposure and resulted in the pair serving prison terms. They give a glimpse of how odd and how subversive the queer could – and occasionally can still – be. But such moments of insight are rare in this pedestrian show.
Main image: Henry Scott Tuke, The Critics, 1927, oil on board, 41 x 51 cm. Courtesy: Warwick District Council, Leamington Spa