Tate Britain presents the first exhibition dedicated to queer British art. The exhibition explores material that relates to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ+) identities. The show marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales, It presents work from the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 to the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967.
Themes within the exhibition illustrate the ways that artists found a diversity of approaches to present a wide range of sexual desires, experiences and sense of identity.
The first room provides evidence that despite Victorian strict morals, artists began to use themes from Renaissance Italy and Ancient Greece to portray same sex desires. Simeon Solomon’s Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864, Frederic Leighton’s male nudes and Evelyn De Morgan’s depictions of Jane Hales all used classical mythology to explore modern desires. The Pre-Raphaelites in particular enjoyed producing work that defied convention and living bohemian lifestyles.
If the death penalty for sodomy was abolished in 1861, it was still punishable by imprisonment. One of the most famous cases was that of Oscar Wilde in 1895, his portrait hangs next to the door from his prison cell. Charles Buchel’s portrait of Radclyffe Hall and erotic drawings by Aubrey Beardsley highlight that artists careers could be ruined by charges of obscenity and public indecency.
The room entitled Theatrical Types explores one area where gender identities were often intentionally blurred for entertainment. Music hall male and female impersonation acts were very popular and comedy played a part in exploring different identities. Examples on display include photographs of performers such as Beatrix Lehmann, Berto Pasuka and Robert Helpmann by Angus McBean, alongside stage designs by Oliver Messel and Edward Burra.
In a similar way to the Pre-Raphaelites, the Bloomsbury set delighted in defying convention and entered into a complex network of relationships. The section on the Bloomsbury set and their contemporaries provides intimate paintings of lovers, scenes of the homes artists shared with their partners and large paintings by Duncan Grant and Ethel Walker.
Women in particular began to question their determined role in society and artist’s such as Laura Knight, Vita Sackville- West and Claude Cahun began to produce work that challenged contemporary norms.
London in particular was a magnet for those who wished to live alternative lifestyles. In the 1950s and 1960s, Soho was considered the centre of ‘queer culture’ and attracted artists such as Francis Bacon, John Craxton and Keith Vaughan.
Gradually through the sixties, attitudes began to change which led to the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 and artists like Bacon and David Hockney began to push the boundaries of what could be depicted in art.
This fascinating exhibition charts the period when the terms ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘trans’ had little public recognition. However the restrictive environment did lead to artists finding ways to express taboo subjects or live unconventional lifestyles. But these artists often walked a fine line and many suffered public humiliation and ruined careers for transgressing the perceived social norms. Even as late as the 1960s, Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell are sent to jail for the relatively trivial offence of defacing library books.
Queer British Art 1861–1967 at Tate Britain runs from 5th April to 1st October 2017
Our Video review available here
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
For more information or to book tickets, visit the Tate Britain website here
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