Review: Queer British Art, Tate Britain ‘Good, If a Little Tricky’

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The intentions of this new exhibition, Queer British Art 1861-1967, at Tate Britain are great: mark the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality with a show that is dedicated to queer British art, material that relates to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ+) identities.

A great idea. A terrific idea. What this then compels us to do, though, is therefore assume that the art inside this show is a great collection, possibly even a defining one, that celebrates the breadth and depth of queer lives.

And that’s when it starts getting tricky. Because it is isn’t complete – representation across the board is not there – and some of the pieces feel a bit shoehorned in.

Take Walter Crane’s The Renaissance of Venus. 1877, for example, on show in the opening room. In this large painting, the celebrated and perfect embodiment of physical female beauty, Venus, steps out of the ocean, her cream skin setting off her shimmering blonde locks beautifully. Only you don’t have to look that closely to notice that Venus is based on a male nude, not a female one.

Now, Crane was happily married with three children so this painting isn’t included on the basis of his sexuality (I don’t think so, anyway) but because this painting supposedly blends genders. Only this isn’t intentional. This wasn’t a commentary on gender constructs; a male nude was chosen simply because it was so damn hard to get female nude models for artists. Crane wasn’t the first artist to struggle with this, nor was he the last. So, what is this painting doing here?

Indeed, the female nude only really gets interesting in this show when it is painted by women artists – the reclamation of the female nude from the male gaze. And nowhere is this more exciting than in Laura Knight’s Self-portrait, 1913. A fleshy female nude stands in front of Laura’s easel, the rose tint of her bottom cheeks drawing the eye, irrespective of the bold reds in the background and of Laura’s sharply tailored jacket. It’s a gloriously real nude female body.

But this painting is not supported by a great swell of equally exciting work from other female artists. There’s a few Claude Cahun photographs and a copy of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando but women aren’t particularly well represented here. There’s a couple from Dora Carrington and Cecile Walton, but there are also interiors from Clare Atwood and Ethel Sands.

Now, why would an interior by considered queer? The argument is their representation of ‘feminine’ interiors of chintz couches and soft furnishings makes for an important statement in a masculine world. But does it though? I’m not crazy keen on associating womanhood, femininity or queer culture with doing up the house. As if it remains the woman’s duty or a feminine role to ‘make a house a home.’ Plus it also feels like a bit as if the theme is being stretched rather thin.

And association is a tricky one. We can’t erase the challenging, I know, but then we get to Francis Bacon – who I adore, worship, etc. – and, no doubt, he was an artist who truly didn’t give a damn what people thought of his sexuality. But the painting chosen from Bacon’s output is a portrait of his former lover, Peter Lacy. A violent man, excessively so. A masochist. A man who repeatedly beat the crap out of Bacon. So how do I feel about that being included in a show that examines queer lifestyles? Aren’t we well into the realm of furthering dangerous narratives and stereotypes?

I don’t know. Being a straight woman, this is really tricky territory for me as I appreciate I am talking blind here. I even felt conflicted looking at Leighton’s famous Sluggard bronze in the opening room – all those times I’ve been riled by female nudes in art for their objectification of the female body, and here I am being invited to do the same to a male nude from a male artist (who we are not even sure was gay).

But here’s the thing – I liked this show.

I know the above doesn’t exactly read like a glowing review but it’s not the art I have issues with but the theme that it is all collected under.

Of course, I am thrilled to look upon any Francis Bacon, let alone two; and the potent sexuality in Duncan Grant’s series of works on male bodies wrestling, as much in contortion as in sex… You can feel it in the air. As Hockney would say, ‘You can smell the balls’; and Keith Vaughan’s blending of figuration and abstract in his paintings of male bathers are terrific.

Representation for gay men isn’t lacking here; it is, though, for for all others. There’s much to enjoy and be interested in here. But the show does feel a bit lopsided – perhaps a reflection that it is even harder for lesbians and trans artists than male artists – and one that perhaps suffers under the weight of its objectives, despite the best of intentions.

Nevertheless, the exhibition is filled with important stories and experiences – from the inclusion of Oscar Wilde’s prison door, to Noel Coward’s dressing gown, and on to original Royal Court Theatre posters of John Osborne’s play, A Patriot for Me, the performances of which were disrupted by the Lord Chamberlain’s offices demands for censorship for its depiction of an intelligence officer being blackmailed over his homosexuality.

If you visit this show to ‘simply’ enjoy the art, I feel this exhibition will reward you. But I’d advise to treat its theme with a bit of caution.

Tate Britain, London, to October 1, 2017
Admission £16.50 (concession available)

Please see my Album on Facebook for more images from the exhibition. 

Image Credits:
1 Duncan Grant, Bathing, 1911. Oil paint on canvas 2286 x 3061 mm © Tate
2 Laura Knight (1877-1970) Self-Portrait, 1913. Oil on canvas 152.4 x 127.6 cm © National Portrait Gallery (London, UK)
3 Installation image of Frederic Leighton’s The Sluggard © me
4 Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929), The Critics, 1927. Oil on board412 x 514 mm Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

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