Top Image: ‘The Critics’ (1927) by Henry Scott Courtesy of Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)
“There is something about the fear associated with the word ‘queer’, but also something about it holds liberating potential,” says Clare Barlow, curator of a new exhibition at the Tate: Queer British Art 1861–1967.
The term ‘queer’ has evolved throughout it’s lengthy history, from abusive connotations to freer potential. On a similar trajectory and timeline, art that explores sexual identity has also undergone a transformation as societal values have become more liberated. Bookended by two pivotal moments in the history of sexuality within Britain, the exhibition begins with the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861, and ends with the partial decriminalisation of gay sex in the 1967 Sexual Offences act. 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of this defining moment.
Featuring acclaimed artists such as Francis Bacon, David Hockney, John Singer Sargent and Evelyn de Morgan, the works on display convey the struggle of sexual oppression, but also the growing sense of freedom and liberty. The range of attitudes displayed is an important takeaway from the exhibition, it was a period where communities were founded as people called out established homophobic beliefs and became proud of their sexuality.
Charles McQuaid: Can you explain the initial thinking behind the exhibition?
Clare Barlow: I wanted to display a whole range of human expression through the objects I chose. There are really tragic moments, really joyous moments, and there are also some really beautiful quiet and contemplative moments. What ties them together is that every object in the show shares a connection to the debate around same-sex desire and diverse gender identities. For some of them that’s because of the sexuality of the artist; an artist exploring this aspect of their lives in their work. For others, it is to do with an audience; either recoiling in shock to something they think they see in the work, or embracing the work and seeing something that speaks to their own sense of themselves or their own sense of identity. So there are a lot of different perspectives going on in the exhibition, but every object has had to justify its place in the show. It’s not an exhibition of queer artists, it’s an exhibition of queer artworks and I think that’s quite an important distinction.
Charles: So you wanted to show both the negative and positive sides of the era?
Clare: I think it’s important to acknowledge the tragedies, to take that seriously, but there is also a wide range of different outcomes within the exhibition. There are some people who had a tragic life, but others who are very successful, who found friends, found lovers and built a community. That’s really important because there’s often a perception that queer life in the past must have been very tragic and very lonely and very isolated. It’s very heartening to see how resilient some of these people were. For me, objects like the door of Oscar Wilde’s prison cell do really bring home how difficult that oppression was. But that’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only story.
“Objects like the door of Oscar Wilde’s prison cell do really bring home how difficult that oppression was.”
Charles: What are some of the stand out pieces from the exhibition?
Clare: It’s difficult because there is such a variety. But one of my favourite works is the self-portrait of Gluck who was born Hannah Gluckstein but rejected that name for Gluck. It’s a really defiant self-portrait. Gluck’s chin is jutting forward as if daring the world. It really is a portrait of someone looking to take on the world and that, for me, is really wonderful. Later on, in the exhibition, you will find one of my favourite portraits, Strang’s portrait of Vita Sackville-West the writer, Lady with a Red Hat. It’s in the show because we know that Vita attended sittings for that portrait with her lover, Violet Trefusis. Once you know that, I think that completely changes how you see the image.
“For me to use the word ‘queer’ is a liberation; it was a word that frightened me, but no longer.” – Derek Jarman
Charles: Some people see the term ‘queer’ as being derogatory. What was the reasoning behind using this word in this context?
Clare: I think there are two very important reasons why we chose to use the term queer. Firstly, the terms that we use to describe sexuality, like gay, lesbian, trans, bi-sexual, these words didn’t really have meaning for much of the period that we are looking at. One of the surprises for me was that queer is actually one of the oldest words that represents same sex. It changes meaning, but it’s in coinage from 1890s onwards, it actually pre-dates words like homosexual which we might think of as the older term. So, we very much didn’t want to impose words and terms of identity on artists that they themselves didn’t recognise. But obviously, we are aware that queer is a word with a troubled history and so we did lots of consultation around it.
We spoke to audiences at large, we spoke to specifically LGBTQ audiences with focus groups, we also spoke to charities like Stonewall. The feedback, overwhelmingly, from all of these different conversations, was that this was a really positive move. Using this word in this way and getting behind it as an institution was a really good step forward and it empowered us to move forward. It wasn’t a decision that we took lightly. Connected to that, one of my biggest inspirations for putting the show together was the filmmaker and artist, Derek Jarman. A quote from him was very inspirational to me and the show, he said: “For me to use the word ‘queer’ is a liberation; it was a word that frightened me, but no longer.” There is something there about the fear associated with the word queer, but also something about it holds liberating potential.
Charles: Why did you choose the period between 1861 and 1967? Was there a specific progression you were hoping to explore?
Clare: 1861 is the end of the death penalty for sodomy and 1967 is the year of the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in England and Wales. These are quite dry legal landmarks, they change some things but they don’t change everything. But they quite neatly bookend this period of really radical change in society and the sense of the self. Of course, it’s a huge period in terms of arts as well. This was one of the things that I found really interesting, the extent to which these queer themes run through some of the most significant artistic movements in Britain, from aestheticism to Hockney.
Charles: In times when it was illegal to be gay, and even punishable by death, did queer art provide a secret escape? Or were queer artists too afraid to create works that displayed any form of their sexuality?
Clare: It’s not the case that across the period people became increasingly comfortable with their desires, for some people, this process of defining sexuality is actually quite problematic. Suddenly you are forced to position yourself. You move from this fluid world of open possibilities to a world of lots of different boxes. For other people, it’s completely liberating. The photographer, Claude Cahun, inscribes a book with illustrations holding this dream-like narrative she owes it to the sexologist Havelock Ellis, who Cahun says, “Has been the light of my desolate path.” So for Cahun, the fact that these debates are coming into the public arena is a really really positive thing.
Charles: Where do you see queer art now? Has it disappeared at all, perhaps in the UK, as views towards sexuality have become more liberal?
Clare: In the nineteenth century, exploring fluid possibilities in the arts is a lot more acceptable in some ways. There is very little sense that specific sexual acts connect to a continuous sense of the self, this is before the world of the subconscious and so consequently there are a lot of artists who can, under the pretext of looking at ancient Greece or the Renaissance, really enjoy looking at the nude male or female body. So queer art is still important and I think it’s still a vibrant scene in the arts. I think it’s changed in terms of its forms of representation, now there’s a lot of really subtle abstract work which engages us with queer scenes. People like Félix González-Torres and Group Material. That conversation with past and present is one of the things that I was obviously aware of in relation to the show and it’s a conversation that is ongoing.
Queer British Art 1861–1967 runs at Tate Britain until 1st October 2017.