Tuesday, 25 April 2017

'Queer British Art 1861 - 1967' at Tate Britain

I popped into the Tate and headed to the new 'Queer British Art' exhibition, not really knowing what I'd find there. The dates for the exhibition are quite specific since 1861 was when the death penalty was repealed for sodomy and 1967 was the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. I was a bit surprised to walk into the first room that was full of Victorian and pre-Raphael-lite paintings in big frames and a statue by Frederick Leighton RA. It was also the start of my confusion about what the exhibition was about. Perhaps the important thing is that it made me think?

Is this an exhibition about queer artists and their work (queer and otherwise in theme)? pictures of queer artists across the arts? Or... something else? There's the portrait of Lytton Strachey with his long fingers by Dora Carrington, a lovely and loving portrait of a gay man by a sometimes bisexual woman who loved him but why is it in this exhibition? There's nothing sexual in any way about the portrait other than the artist and subject are both sort of gay. But I don't see this as a 'gay' painting, I see it as a great portrait and as a letter of love between the artist and the sitter.

Then there are Duncan Grant's definite and defiantly sexual drawings of men together - he was gay and the subject is gay so they qualify, right? Then we have Leighton's naked young men in classical poses that are described as homoerotic but they looked like any other Victorian 'classical' stuff to me. It was fashionable and sold well so why does that make Leighton a 'queer' artist, particularly when he was known to be keeping his main female models in comfort? Or is the theory now that they his 'beards'? I suspect that Leighton's contemporary Alma-Tadema did more male nudes but he's not included in the exhibition.

A further room is the 'theatrical' room full of early photos and drawings of theatrical types from the Victorian and Edwardian eras up to a lovely photo of Danny La Rue. This, again, seems to suggest that the exhibition is about LGBT people rather than anything else. And the tempo changes again an in the 'Bloomsbury room'. I think I need to go back to see this exhibition again and see it with fresh eyes. What am I supposed to be seeing here and does it matter? Perhaps I'm over-thinking this and should see this as a exhibition about social change rather than an investigation into how 'queer art' might be different to 'straight' art.

I think my favourite paintings were the portraits such as Carrington's portrait of Lytton Strachey and William Strang's portrait of Vita Sackville-West called Lady With A Red Hat'. I've seen reproductions of this painting before but never seen the real thing in all it's rich gorgeousness of colour.  It's a really striking image fun of primary colours with Vita holding a pose. The red of the hat reflected in the red of the book and her green jacket and yellow skirt. The plain background really pulls the eye to her face, trapped between jacket and hat.  She's clearly going out to lunch and wants to read some of the poems in the book to her friends but has just stopped by for a quick portrait. Posing hasn't become a bore just yet but it soon will and the eyes will become steely.

I also really liked the portrait of Dame Edith Sitwell by Alvaro Guevara, full of colours with the rugs and her rich dress. It's a bit of an odd portrait that made me take a second glance.

I also liked the portrait of Joe Orton by Lewis Morley after his Christine Keeler photos. So, here we have a gay man imitating the pose of a women and what does this tell us about queer art? Is Orton just saying 'look at me, I'm as pretty as Keeler in my own way'? or is he just having a bit of fun. I suspect the latter.

I think one of the most 'queer' works on display (other than Duncan Grant's erotic drawings) was this painting by Henry Scott Tuke. At one level it's just a couple of young men chatting on a beach while their friend, or possibly a stranger, swims in the bay. Lovely sun-dappled skin and sea, a shingle beach and the lads full of life. One is naked so has possibly just come back from swimming or is about to plunge in. And then you notice the title is 'The Critics' and thats a train of other thoughts. What are they criticising? They're both looking at their possible friend in the sea so it seems like they're judging him in some way, maybe assessing their chances of a liaison with him and whether he'd be up for it? There were other paintings in similar vein by Tuke but I think this was my favourite.

It's an interesting exhibition despite confusing me as to what it was meant to be about. The main thing is that it made me think and that's a good thing.

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