A homoerotic possibility at Tate Britain's "Queer British Art"
“Possibly homoerotic” is a phrase that underscores Tate Britain’s current exhibition of “Queer British Art.” The exhibition, which attempts to feature works that relate to LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) identities in Britain between 1861 and 1967, is presented as the first of its kind. Framed by two important pieces of legislation regarding homosexuality in Britain, “Queer British Art” now marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality in England.
Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only exhibition in London currently referencing similar themes of identity and showcasing several of the same artists: the Dulwich Picture Gallery presents a survey of Bloomsbury Group icon Vanessa Bell’s work, while the National Portrait Gallery explores identity in it’s exhibition “Gillian Wearing & Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask,” (on until 4 June and 29 May respectively.)
Until 1967, sex between men was considered a criminal act in Britain, often punished with jail time. Although the death penalty for sodomy was abolished in 1861, for more than a century members of the LGBTQ community lived not only without acceptance but also with the knowledge of possible persecution and prosecution. Exploring how artists, from Oscar Wilde to Gluck, presented these themes and worked under these conditions is a notable undertaking and certainly suited well to the programme at Tate Britain. Unfortunately, the exhibition – intended no doubt to be groundbreaking –presents homoerotic interpretations and perceptions instead of really engaging with the subject or presenting a range of queer, non-binary artists.
This can’t be faulted entirely to the Tate; given the circumstances of the period many were hesitant to openly admit their gender or sexual identity in fear of potential prosecution. Thus this leaves the exhibition primarily rooted in hearsay and rumor as to the identity of the artist. More often it falls back on interpreting the subjects of the works, rather than the artists themselves, playing dangerously close to the Guerrilla Girls’ message. Focusing on queer subjects and calling it diverse is like displaying female nudes and calling it representative. Although, Dame Laura Knight’s 1913 “Self Portrait,” quite controversial at the time, is a good counterpoint to this assertion, in which she depicts herself painting a nude female model. However, the Tate never exactly promised an exhibition of queer artists, and so we are left with “homoerotic possibilities.”
This is made apparent in the first gallery; the wall label for Henry Scott Tuke’s photographs and paintings, including the exquisite “Youth Lying Down,” speculates on Scott Tuke’s sexuality based on rumors, but isn’t backed by substance. Instead the curators seek to find a so-called queer reading of his work, writing in the label for “The Critics”: “It is, however, not difficult to find a homoerotic undertone in this painting.” Should “The Critics,” depicting nude and semi-clothed men on a shoreline, be considered any more homoerotic than any of the numerous paintings of female bathers?
Likewise, the inclusion of Walter Crane’s “The Renaissance of Venus,”(1877) seemed to be an odd inclusion, although it is gorgeous to see up close. The supposedly androgynous appearance of the Venus figure was due not to motive but pure circumstance: Crane’s wife didn’t want him to use a female nude model so he used a man instead. The interpretation then attempts to suggest that regardless, this painting proposes gender fluid possibilities. Indeed, there is absolutely nothing wrong with producing artworks showing a diverse range of sitters – this is needed now more than ever. But it seems the inclusion of “The Renaissance of Venus’” was less the case of wanting to challenge stereotypes and perceptions than it was about finding a work by a famous artist of the time that sort of fits into the narrative.
Aside from questionable interpretation, the exhibition does make stimulating and informative connections between the artists presented through the object labels, referencing different works in the galleries. But in some ways this may limit the scope of what is perceived as “Queer British Art.” This becomes apparent with a room dedicated entirely to the Bloomsbury Group. (Could the exhibition really be complete without them?)
Make what you will of the amount of attention devoted to the group, but their works were some of my favorites included in the exhibition: Duncan Grant’s “Bathing” (1911); a flower still life by Gluck (refreshingly one of the few works in the exhibition not depicting a sitter); Ethel Sand’s “Tea with Sickert,” (1911-12) and so on. Of particular note is Dame Ethel Walker’s large, Greco-Roman frieze style “Decoration, the Excursion of Nausicaa,” (1920) presenting a utopian all-female community in soft pastel colors and fluid lines. As the first woman artist to become a member of the “New English Arts Club,” she’s no doubt an important figure and exceptional artist. It seems she’s been included because she supposedly had a relationship with another female artist – not uncommon within the Bloomsbury Group. However, this underscores something the exhibition did quite well: highlighting the inconsistences of the laws at that time, notably that it wasn’t illegal for women to engage in homosexual activities – only for men – although women could certainly still face harsh social consequences. This quasi-double standard could have been touched on further, especially given the current conversations on gender roles and identity.
The exhibition wasn’t entirely underwhelming; in fact despite certain weaknesses the interpretation was generally very accessible and informative, helping visitors navigate through social structures and laws they might not be familiar with. Tate curators defend their use of the term “queer,” acknowledging its history and nuances and asking LGBTQ charities for input; this transparency and care taken with the term is certainly an example of best practice. The real highlight was the inclusion of additional labels written by well-known LQBTQ+ figures that accompanied some of the works, though in my opinion not nearly enough. These provided insight as to how members of the LGBTQ community engaged, interpreted, or experienced the artworks and artists included. Excluding these voices would have been a major oversight.
But then it leads me to wonder if the exhibition needed the frame at all? Was placing the works and artists between 1861 and 1967 necessary, or would it have been more lucrative to exhibit contemporary, lesser known, and underrepresented queer artists? Did we really need to end with a room on David Hockney and Francis Bacon? There is value in learning about artists of the past who experienced many of the same questions and issues that people do today, as this exhibition seems to underline; there aren’t suddenly only now queer artists. But did we really need to see more of Hockney, when the Tate offers an exhibition devoted to him just one floor up? There’s no doubt he’s an influential figure, both as an artist and as a gay advocate, but concluding on his image, plunges him slightly into a tokenist effect.
Upon first entering, visitors are affronted with dark blue walls and the stuffy, somber atmosphere of a rather traditional, though well-spaced hang. Is this to set the tone of the time, transporting visitors back in history? Or instead does it just feel dated and uninspired? Intentional or not, sadly this conservative feeling never leaves.
Bottom line: I recommend visiting, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make it … or forget.