As a student at the Royal College of Art in London, David Hockney had already developed an idealized image of America as a mecca for sexual freedom, an image forged between Walt Whitman’s verses and his fascination with Californian beefcake magazines, whose photographs of athletic ephebes inspired the poses of his own models. At that time his formal experimentation owed more to the obscene graffiti of public toilets than to museums.
The academic atmosphere was far from accepting artistic expressions of homosexuality, so the thematic subterfuge continued to govern the public presentation of works susceptible of admitting a double reading. However, not many years remained for England to decriminalize homosexuality (Sexual Offences Act, 1967), after centuries of persecution and ostracism, if not capital punishment (the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy took place in 1861).
These two dates serve as a historic framework for the Queer British Art exhibition held these days at Tate Britain, which pays homage to a number of artists whose only shared trait is to have suffered, to a greater or lesser extent (from the mere censorship of their work to years of imprisonment for their “inverted” condition, as it was called what escaped heterosexual orthodoxy).
Among the victims of Victorian morality, the show pays particular attention to the case of Oscar Wilde, placing a portrait made at the height of his social recognition next to the door of the jail where he served his sentence. The pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon had similar luck, also condemned to forced labor after being tried by sodomy. Both saw truncated their artistic career without a referral.
The androgynous beauty of Solomon’s masculine models contrasts with the corpulence of the attractive women painted by the feminist Evelyn De Morgan, both skillful to circumvent censorship with allegories freely inspired by medieval epics or Greek myths.
The paintings on display also seem to invite the spectator to question his way of seeing, the cultural veils that condition his judgment, the prejudices of his own time: the current taboo on pedophilia, for example, affects the contemplation of Henry Scott Tuke‘s pubescent bathers. The sensuality they exude, with the vibrating light caressing their buttocks, was probably seen with less veils then than now.
Censorship and taboos tend to be internalized, and the gaze is increasingly suspicious and full of unconscious scruples.
Also in Duncan Grant, whose epicurean spirit went along with the free love standed for by the group of Bloomsbury to which he belonged, made a confluence between nature and homoeroticism in his pseudo-fauve paintings.
Communion with nature, nudism, virile brotherhood … were also aspects of Edward Carpenter‘s dissertations on homosexuality. In his writings he tried to naturalize the attraction to people of the same sex, and analyzing temperaments and inclinations justified the need to add an “intermediate sex” to the prevailing binarism. He appealed to historical periods and figures like Plato or Michelangelo to defend not only the legitimacy of “uranism”, also its advantages in certain cases.
His most revolutionary contribution was to believe (and, above all, to practice choosing a working class man as a life companion) in which nonheterosexual love had the potential to subvert social hierarchies and achieve a true democracy.
While Carpenter theorized about “intermediate sex”, in other countries also was commencing a real fight to decriminalize what had hitherto been considered pure depravity. In fact, it was the Viennese Karl-Maria Kertbeny who, in order to deprive the concept of all pejorative charges, coined the term “homosexuality”.
Activists, doctors, reformers, psychologists, writers … contributed to the fact that homosexuality ended up decriminalizing throughout Europe.
As for the women, since in the period treated in the exhibition the place that they were allowed to have in the art was almost non-existent, there are few artists represented. Only a few aristocrats, protected by a pseudonym, such as the lesbian painter Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein), were able to circumvent the gender roles and behavioral norms imposed on their class. Or the author of fantastic literature Vernon Lee (alter ego of Violet Paget), feminist and daring to live in a way consistent with her ideas. The Tate shows John Singer Sargent’s portrait of her.
But the really breakthrough artist, advancing for decades to the feminist and conceptual art of the sixties, was the French Claude Cahun (aka Lucy Schwob). Her inclusion in the exhibition is relatively justified by living in the last part of her life on the island of Jersey and by the influence in her view of the androgyny of the English physician Havelock Ellis and his study of the so-called “third gender”.
She deconstructed the socio-cultural stereotypes that intervene in the elaboration of sexual identity through photographic self-portraits in which she used transvestism to forge a deliberately elusive aesthetic. Also her objects of surrealistic influence, of magical or telluric character, pointed towards androgyny, symbolizing infinite recombination between the phallic and the feminine. Shuffle the cards, tell us in “Disavowals”: Male? Female? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.
Queer British Art 1861-1967
can be seen in Tate Britain, London
until 1st October 2017
Curated by Clare Barlow