By far the most important goal of any exhibition of the visual arts is bringing together works that one might otherwise not be able to see at all much less in one another’s company. As a friend recently enthused about the show of American paintings now on at the Royal Academy, “One could see them all in America, but one would have to travel all over the country, and here they're in one place.” In assembling the works in this exhibition Clare Barlow and her collaborators have certainly done the works on exhibit and us a service.
The catalogue contains a valuable timeline that begins in 1553 with the Buggery Act, which made sodomy and bestiality capital offences, and then skips to 1861 when the Offences Against the Person Act abolished the death penalty for sodomy and proceeds to 2014 when the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act permits people of the same biological sex to marry. As the inclusion of this time line and the foreword by Lord Browne of Madingley, Chair of the Tate, make clear, one important ideological goal of the exhibition is to document the climate of ostracism and persecution in which queer artists worked. Another obviously concerns the fact that queer painters, sculptors, and designers have made major contributions to British art. Other than these points, it's not quite clear what the exhibition organizers hoped to do. Sometimes it seems the organizers chose works not just to demonstrate that queer artists made important contributions but that the work is in some way better or more important because the person who created it was queer. Other times — take, for example, the works of Beardsley — artists about whose sexuality nothing is known are pressed into service, apparently to elevate queer art. And yet other times, as in some of the work of Gluck and quite a few others, works by queer artists do not seem to be any different from non-queer artists, and attempts to claim such a difference fall rather flat. The great semiotician, anthropologist, and cyberneticist Geoffrey Bateson described information (or a fact) as a difference that makes a difference. A bit too occasionally, the organizers haven't made the fact of an an artist’s supposed queerness make a difference. Of course, an old adage has it that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, and this exhibition is very much a camel — and none the worse for it, since in such a pioneering exhibition one needs as many approaches as possible.
Self-portrait. Laura Knight. 1913. Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 127.6 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London. [Click on this and other images to enlarge them.]
When seen on the walls of Tate Britain the Queer British Art show created a very different — and very much better — impression than did reading the catalogue, an e-version of which I had received before seeing the show. The exhibition itself far surpassed the catalogue in large part because very few chat labels intruded all that much on the general effect, which was to produce an impression of a broad, hard-to-define queerness that permitted the inclusion of works that were by asexual people, such as Aubrey Beardsley, or portraits of them (e,.g. Edith Sitwell), or were patently not-homosexual in any way. Room 5, “Defying Convention,” proved one of the best such crossings and recrossing of queer and un-queer by mixing portraits of women by Strang and Guevara with those by women, such as Laura Knight’s Self-portrait [with Nude], Dora Carrington’s Female Figure Lying on her Back, and Dorothy Johnstone’s Rest Time in the Life Class.
After seeing Queer Art in Britain, I followed my friend's urging and visited the Royal Academy's fine America after the Fall, whose exhibition design took an entirely different tack. Like the Tate show, America after the Fall placed one or more introductory essays in each room, but its sparse chatlabels provided information only about artist, title, date, and owner. True, the lack of individual explanatory texts affixed to each work missed opportunities. For example, an explanatory label might have pointed out how the cameo worn by the woman in Grant Wood's iconic American Gothic makes the painting seem far less grim than it does in small reproductions one usually sees. At the same time, the absence of explanatory material saved viewers from downright silly and distracting texts, such as that affixed to Walter Crane's Renaissance of Venus whose chat label for this work by an enormously influentual art and designer consists of little more than cute gossip that detracts from the painting. In contrast to the quite informative catalogue entry on this work that discusses among other things hermaphrodites, the painting's reception, and Beardsley's admiration of it, the exhibition label confines itself to gossip, telling us that the apparently much-too-heterosexual Crane was forced by his wife to use male models — was this tale in fact borrowed from the life of Burne-Jones? — and Lord Leighton claimed to recognize the male model whom he thought made a pretty good Venus. Given the major importance of Crane and his politics, this is a pretty silly as the sole comment. The simple juxtaposition of works, such as the inclusion of Hamo Thornycroft's Mower in a room with Solomon, Tuke, and others queers the apparent heterosexual work quite enough. Other gossipy labels similarly distract by presenting quirky remarks or reviews as they were representative.
Left: The Renaissance of Venus. Walter Crane. Oil and tempera on canvas, 138.4 x 184.1 cm (9.45 x 13.19 inches. Tate Britain. NO2920. Right: The Mower. Sir W. Hamo Thornycroft, R. A. Courtesy of Robert Bowman. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Useful as the essays often are, particularly when compared to the exhibition labels, they do have one major problem: although the organizers have chosen to categorize the works included as "queer" rather than “homosexual” or “gay” on the grounds that “queer” is a broader and more flexible term, in practice almost all the authors not only prioritize homosexuality but rarely consider bisexuality, polyamory, gender dysmorphia, asexuality, or various activities or proclivities that might reside in queerness. It is not that the authors of the catalogue fail to mention, say, Ashbee’s sexual relations with men as well as with his beloved “comerade wife” or Beardley’s and Sitwell’s unknown sexuality. Rather it is that when discussing these and similar examples, all other forms of queerness seem pushed aside in favor of homosexuality. In other words, some of the essayists and authors of chat labels in the exhibition show far less intellectual sophistication than one finds in several decades of literary and social history.
When dealing with what for many in the audience will still be a sensational topic, one must take care to present the historical context with care and precision. Unfortunately, all too soon one encounters awkward blunders that go a long way toward undercutting the author's credibility. For example, Colin Cruise’s “Simeon Solomon” confidently proclaims that he “was born in London into a well-off, assimilated Jewish business family.” Business family, really? Cruise obviously doesn't know that Simeon’s father was the prolific artist Abraham Solomon (1824-1862), who exhibited many works at the RA, and his his sister Rebecca (1832-1886) and brother Solomon J. Solomon (1860-1927) were also successful artists. After all, Tate Britain does have Abraham’s 1857 paired works, Waiting for the Verdict and ‘Not Guilty (The Acquittal)’. Did Cruise not even bother to check the Tate website? Did the editor of the volume not notice this howler?
A more significant problem, perhaps, appears in a tendency to over-sensationalize unnecessarily the serious trials, tribulation, and downright oppression that queer men and women definitely endured. For example, the starting point of the exhibition is the year 1861 when Parliament abolished the death penalty or sodomy. Certainly an important watershed in changing attitudes toward homosexuality, but one wonders how many people were ever actually executed for sodomy in the nineteenth century. Since disclosing long-hidden social history is one of the catalogue's goals, one needs to present an accurate picture of it. The entire issue of capital punishment in Victorian Britain is a complex, often puzzling one, in part because the law stated one could be executed for what seems to us an enormous range of crimes, but in fact those convicted rarely received such draconian sentences and when they did these sentences were rarely carried out. For example, although Thomas Hardy has poor Tess of the D'Urbervilles executed for infanticide, in fact, juries were very reluctant to find young women guilty no matter strong the evidence.
The case of Alan Turing in mid-twentieth century clearly shows that the law destroyed gay men, but as much of material in the exhibition shows, the situation of queer love in Victorian and later Britain was both extraordinarily complex and class related. The catalogue and exhibition both mention that guardsman in London often earned money as male prostitutes, and one wonders why something apparently widely known was not easily stopped by police or military authorities. We also have the comic episode that Neil Mackenna describes in his section of the catalogue about Fanny and Stella, two cross-dressing young men (Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton) arrested in 1870 after a year-long police investigation, which had produced mounds of irrefutable evidence.
Fanny and Stella, and six other young men, including Lord Arthur [Clinton MP (1840–70)], were charged with conspiracy to commit the ‘Abominable Crime of Buggery’ and with ‘conspiring and confederating’ to induce others to commit buggery. . . . The full weight of the Victorian Establishment bore down on Fanny and Stella. The case ended up in the highest court in the land, in Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament, before the Lord Chief Justice.
The prosecution was led by the Attorney-General, assisted by the Solicitor-General.
And yet, despite this judicial onslaught, much to everyone’s surprise, a jury found Fanny and Stella innocent of all charges. [84-85]
The bizarre episode of Fanny and Stella stands as a counter-example to the fate of Oscar Wilde, whom exhibition and catalogue present as a gay martyr (though shouldn’t he be seen as a bisexual one?) The exhibition slides carelessly and a bit dishonestly over the facts of the sad, pathetic case of the great wit. Remember, Wilde brought disaster upon himself when he sued Lord Shaftesbury for libel when his lover's father accused him of resorting to boy prostitutes (which was true), and he was convicted not for his sexual relations with the adult Bosie but for those with the young sex workers. Today Wilde would have been a convicted pedophile, hardly a heroic martyr for queer love, unless of course queer includes pedophilia. Displaying the supposed door of Wilde's cell makes pretty clear that the organizers are more often interested in including a political symbol than additional queer art.
Three works by Simeon Solomon in the exhibition: Left: Self-Portrait. 1859. Middle: Corruptio Optimi Pessima: Medusa. 1890s. Right: Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene. 1864. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Fortunately this pioneering exhibition begins powerfully by opening with Simeon Solomon, an artist whose unhappy life and work obviously relates to queer art. All of Solomon's works on display are obviously permeated by his sexuality. Solomon, an artist like others in his family who painted Jewish religious ritual and observance, offers fine examples of his work queering a biblical text in his very Pre-Raphaelite Babylon hath been a golden cup (1859), and at the same time it also queers Rossetti’s Moxon Tennyson illustration of “The Palace of Art.” (Unfortunately the catalogue provides such a small illustration of Babylon the reader finds difficult seeing its skillful details.) Anyone interested in Victorian and Edwardian art needs to see Solomon, the other works in the first room, and all those that follow.
Queer British Art, 1861-1967. Ed. Clare Barlow. London: Tate Britain, 2017. 192 pp. ISBN 978-1-84976-452-0.
Last modified 27 April 2017