For the first time ever, Tate Britain is dedicating an entire exhibition to queer British art. The artworks fall between two significant historical moments: 1861, the date in which the death penalty for sodomy was abolished, and 1967, the year when sex between men was partially decriminalised. The exhibition is deeply personal, exploring the complexity, repression and liberation of queer lives and sensibilities. Despite the gossiping, social mores and unforgiving law, the exhibition details how artists found ways to express forbidden desires and form queer communities.
It is a hybrid collection, ranging from Aubrey Beardsley’s delicate drawings of swollen erections, Bacon’s visceral depiction of the male form and a recording of a jaunty tune named ‘Why Did I Kiss That Girl’. The exhibition is bursting with stories; as well as an array of forbidden love letters and deeply intimate sketches, there is also literature, critical theory and historical texts: Walter Pater’s controversial essays about ‘art for art’s sake’ accompanies Frederic, Lord Leighton’s statue of The Sluggard, and Man Ray’s portrait of Virginia Woolf is placed alongside Orlando—a transgender novel which is allegedly based on Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville West.
The tempestuous affair between Oscar Wilde and the younger, Lord Alfred Douglas, otherwise known as ‘Bosie’ is treated with in room two. As well as outlining the case that imprisoned Oscar Wilde for two years, the gallery has a number of intriguing curios. An intimate black and white photograph of the pair is coupled with Marquess of Queensbury’s card which he left at Wilde’s club—it reads ‘Oscar Wilde Posing as Somdomite’—he means ‘sodomite’ of course. Robert Harper Pennington’s painting is placed nearby; it depicts a young and elegant Wilde who is full of promise. Hanging beside this proud portrait is the door to Wilde’s prison cell, the reality of which adds immense tragedy to a story of forbidden love.
The fourth room focuses on the bohemian artists who famously ‘lived in squares and loved in triangles’: the Bloomsbury Group. Through their radical honesty and loyalty, the avant-garde group built a community on sexual exploration and a shared love of art. Duncan Grant took centre stage with his vivid explorations of the male form. The painting of his lover, Paul Roche Reclining particularly captured my attention. Reclining back with his legs splayed, the barely clothed Roche looks as though he is in a state of post-coital delight. It is a hidden male alternative to the figure of the sexualised, desired Venus that has dominated the Western canon. Through the dynamic strokes of red and vibrant yellow hues, you can almost feel the heat within this painting. Alongside are Grant’s private drawings, which are even more expressive in their sexuality—they playfully explore the possibilities of male homoeroticism: couples gladly embrace and male wrestlers flirtatiously tumble upon one another.
Bacon and Hockney finish the exhibition with their radical depictions of desire in the years before 1967. Hockney’s art drew on contemporary culture, as he brought to life the homoerotic possibilities within ‘beefcake’ magazines—these captured the fad of bodybuilding, and like Grant’s personal sketches, there is a hint of desire between the writhing wrestlers. In Life Painting For Diploma, 1962 Hockney vividly explores this sexual potential.
As well as the sexually explicit homoeroticism that is represented, the exhibition works to normalise all aspects of queer identities, for example Henry Scott Tuke’s bathers depict an image of strong male friendship.
However, troublingly despite the curator of the exhibition being female, there was a definite lack of female homoeroticism in the exhibition. The issue was touched upon lightly, and while the works of Vita Sackville West and Laura Knight were shown, other seminal lesbian artists were not represented. In addition, there was also a definite lack of Black artists. So arguably, the exhibition does not truly represent all the queer voices of British culture from 1861 to 1967.
Yet through representing these British artists, Tate Britain will hopefully open up a dialogue that explores other eras of queer art. As one of Britain’s most established institutions, Tate Britain does make a small step for the art world, an institution that is criticised for being dominated by heterosexual white male artists. However, Queer British Art’s contribution to queer culture will hopefully pave the way more racially and sexually fluid feminist, trans and queer exhibitions all over the world. But the fact remains, there is still more work to be done.
Queer British Art is open from 5th April to 1st October