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Queer British Art 1861-1967

by Hans Hafkamp in Theatre, Art & Expo , 05 mei 2017

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Length: 11 minutes

In 1861, the death penalty was abolished for sodomy in Britain; just over a century later, in 1967, homosexuality was finally decriminalised when the Sexual Offences Act was passed. However, there were a few conditions.

Simeon Solomon, 1864The sexual acts had to take place in private and could only involve two men - threesomes or more remained illegal, and for those keen on the art of “cottaging” legal trouble could come their way if they were “in a lavatory to which the public have or are permitted to have access, whether on payment or otherwise.” The legislation also had specific reference to sailors and male prostitution, and the provisions of the Act didn’t relate to Northern Ireland and Scotland. “To paraphrase Winston Churchill: the buggers had to choose to stay in England or Wales,” commented author Duncan McNab recently.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of this partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales, Tate Britain hosts this spring the first exhibition dedicated to queer British art. The ehibition will present work from the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 to the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 – a time of seismic shifts in gender and sexuality that found expression in the arts as artists, collectors and consumers explored transgressive identities, experiences and desires. Some of these works were intensely personal, celebrating lovers or expressing private desires. Others addressed a wider public, helping to forge a sense of community at a time when the modern categories of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender were largely unrecognised.

Spanning the playful to the political, the explicit to the domestic, “Queer British Art 1861-1967” will showcase the rich diversity of queer visual art and its role in society. Themes explored in the exhibition will include coded desires amongst the Pre-Raphaelites, representations of and by women who defied convention (including Virginia Woolf), and love and lust in sixties Soho. It will feature works by major artists such as Francis Bacon, Keith Vaughan, Evelyn de Morgan, Gluck, Glyn Philpot, Claude Cahun and Cecil Beaton alongside queer ephemera, personal photographs, film and magazines.

Work from 1861 to 1967 by artists with diverse sexualities and gender identities are showcased, and range from covert images of same-sex desire such as Simeon Solomon’s “Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene” (1864) through to the open appreciation of queer culture in David Hockney’s “Going to be a Queen for Tonight” (1960).

Simeon Solomon

Simeon Solomon, 1866Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) is an exceptional figure in nineteenth century England, for he choose to live rather openly as a homosexual at a time when it was not socially acceptable to do so. Solomon was born and educated in London, where he attended the Royal Academy Schools. In 1858 he had his first exhibition at the Royal Acadamy, where he continued to show his works until 1872. The opening of the Dudley Gallery in London in 1865 allowed Solomon and other artists to exhibit works with more daring subjects than those accepted at the Royal Academy.

During these years Solomon created such works of homoerotic content as “Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytelene” (1864), “Love among the School Boys” (1866), “Sad Love” (1866), “Love in Autumn” (1866), and two versions of “Bacchus” (1866 and 1867). These works envision an alternative to straitened Victorian ideals of heterosexual love and matrimony.

In the late 1860s, Solomon began to travel to Italy to study the old masters. These trips stimulated his imagination and resulted in works on classical themes. In 1867, Solomon travelled to Italy as the lover of the writer and historian Oscar Browning, who was later to become headmaster of Eton and a don at Cambridge.

The couple journeyed to Rome and Genoa again in 1870. While in the Mediterranean Solomon began to write his prose poem “A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep.” This trip, however, ended on a regrettable note. The couple left the country earlier than planned, and according to some accounts this abrupt end may have been caused by legal reasons related to their same-sex relationship.

The artist completed his prose poem when he returned to England, and it was privately published in 1871. The “Vision” is a spiritual allegory, and may be read as a defense of homosexual relations. The work was condemned by several critics, but won critical acclaim from John Addington Symonds, who wrote “A Problem in Greek Ethics” in 1873, a work of what would later be called “gay history,” which remained unpublished for a decade, and then was printed at first only in a limited edition for private distribution. In 1891 Symonds published another defense of same-sex love, “A Problem in Modern Ethics.” He also wrote much poetry inspired by his homosexual affairs.

That Strange Genius

So, it’s not surprising Symonds was taken by Solomon’s “A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep.” In a review published in “The Academy” he drew attention to images by the artist that relate to the various scenes described in visionary prose: Simeon Solomo, Bacchus, 1867“In truth, the originality of any poetical or pictorial Mythus, such as is embodied in this vision and in the series of Mr. Solomon’s drawings, consists in its creator having viewed an old problem with new eyes, and communicated to the object some of the qualities of his own soul and of the age in which he lives. [...] His Love is not classical, not medieval, not Oriental; but it has a touch of all these qualities - the pure perfection of the classical form, the allegorical mysticism and pensive grace of the middle age, and the indescribable perfume of Orientalism, which, by the way, find a more than usually definite expression in the last scene of this vision.”
A view years later, in 1877, the young Oscar Wilde would refer to Simeon Solomon in an early essay as “That strange genius who wrote the ‘Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep,’” a daring reference to a by then disgraced artist, since tragedy had struck in 1873. Solomon was arrested on February 11, 1873 for having sex in a public lavatory with a sixty-year-old stableman, George Roberts. Both men were charged with indecent exposure and the attempt to commit “buggery.” They went to court thirteen days later, were judged guilty, fined one hundred pounds, and later sentenced to eighteen months in prison at hard labour. At the intervention of a wealthy cousin, Meyer Solomon, the artist’s sentence was reduced to police supervision. (Roberts was not to fortunate.)

Eager to escape the shame he felt, Solomon travelled to France for a time. However, he was arrested there on March 4, 1874 for the same reasons. The French court fined him sixteen francs and sentenced him to three months in prison. The nineteen-year-old man he was with received a lesser sentence. After these legal experiences, most London galleries, previous patrons, and former friends shunned him. However, although he was suffering from depression and became increasingly reliant on alcohol in an attempt to numb his shame and the pain of society’s rejection, Solomon continued to paint well into the mid-1890s. Solomon suffered a heart attack on May 25, 1905 and had a second one within three months. He died of heart failure aggravated by bronchitis and alcoholism on August 4, 1905.

Changes in Society

Henry Scott Tuke, 1902In the years between Solomon’s fall from grace and his death much had changed. And attitudes would keep changing. In 1929, Solomon’s travel companion Oscar Browning was depicted as the arch villain in Virginia Woolf’s feminist manifesto “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she painted an unsavory picture of Browning’s sexual proclivity for young men. This may seem somewhat surprising, considering the people surrounding Woolf.

A highlight of “Queer British Art 1861-1967” will be a section focusing on the Woolf’s Bloomsbury set and their contemporaries – an artistic group famous for their bohemian attitude towards sexuality. The room includes intimate paintings of lovers, scenes of the homes artists shared with their partners and large commissions by artists such as Duncan Grant and Ethel Walker.

Many of the works that are displayed were produced in a time when the terms “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual” and “trans” had little public recognition. The exhibition illustrates the ways in which sexuality became publically defined through the work of sexologists such as Henry Havelock Ellis, campaigners such as Edward Carpenter, and also looks at the high profile trials of Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. Objects on display include the door from Wilde’s prison cell, Charles Buchel’s portrait of Radclyffe Hall and erotic drawings by Aubrey Beardsley.

Oscar Wildes prison cell doorIn contrast to the bleak outlook from the courtroom prior to 1967, queer culture was embraced by the British public in the form of theatre. From music hall acts to costume design, British theatre provided a forum in which sexuality and gender expression could be openly explored. Striking examples on display include photographs of performers such as Beatrix Lehmann, Berto Parsuka and Robert Helpmann by Angus McBean, who was jailed for his sexuality in 1942, alongside stage designs by Oliver Messel and Edward Burra. Theatrical cards of music hall performers such as Vesta Tilley (whose act as “Burlington Bertie” had a large lesbian following) are also featured, as well as a pink wig worn in Jimmy Slater’s act “A Perfect Lady” from the 1920s.

David Hockney

One of the modern gay icons of British art is David Hockney, born July 9, 1937, who came out of the closet at a time when that was not taken for granted. Especially after the documentary “A Bigger Splash” hit the cinemas in 1973, Hockney’s sexuality was out in the open. This documentary portrays the “Hockney set,” his intimate life in London, his dreams of California and his escape to New York. The frankness of the homosexual milieu depicted was unique at the time. In the 1960s people had thought of Hockney primarily as a portrait painter, and director Jack Hazan’s original idea had been to look at the people who sat for him. “But the project changed totally as we went along. David Hockney had recently broken up with his boyfriend Peter Schlesinger and we realised that was the drama we had to follow,” Hazan remembered in 2012.

This break-up left Hockney a complete emotional wreck. He suddenly found himself unable to create anything, and was awash in depression and loneliness. After a time, he is able to find inspiration in his backyard swimming pool, and he begins a portrait of it. The abundance of both frontal and rear male nudity in the movie is something that was not often available at the cinema in the 1970s. In 1974 the nudity and a scene in London of Peter making love to an unidentified young man attracted what was then an X certificate. However, Hazan denies he was just trying to make a sexy movie: “If the pools look sexy and the boys look sexy, that’s because I was following David Hockney’s paintings.”

David Hockney, 1971At the moment Hockney is the subject of a separate exhibition at Tate Britain. This show is the world’s most extensive retrospective of Hockney’s work to date and celebrates his achievement in painting, drawing, print, photography and video. Hockney is unique in British art for the extent of his popular appeal. As he approaches his eightieth birthday, this exhibition offers an unprecedented overview of the artist’s work. Presented as a chronological overview, it traces his development from the moment of his prodigious appearance on the public stage as a student in 1961, through to his iconic works of the 1960s and 1970s, and on to his recent success at the Royal Academy and beyond.

The exhibition shows Hockney as an intelligent and profound interrogator of the essence of art. Over six decades he has questioned the nature of pictures and picture-making and challenged their conventions. The exhibition reviews early works such as the “Love” paintings made in 1960 and 1961, with which he subverted the language of abstract expressionism into homoerotic autobiography. The witty and brilliant invention of Hockney’s first two decades of work are explored, including his portraits of family, friends and himself, for example “Self Portrait with Blue Guitar” (1977), as well as his iconic images of Los Angeles swimming pools. It also includes Hockney’s celebrated Yorkshire landscapes of the 2000s and work made since his return to California in 2013.

David Hockney said: “It has been a pleasure to revisit works I made decades ago, including some of my earliest paintings. Many of them seem like old friends to me now. We’re looking back over a lifetime with this exhibition, and I hope, like me, people will enjoy seeing how the roots of my new and recent work can be seen in the developments over the years.”

The David Hockney retrospective is on display until May 29, 2017, and is accompanied by a major new catalogue.

“Queer British Art 1861-1967” can be visited from April 5 until October 1, 2017, and is accompanied by a fully illustrated, 176 page catalogue from Tate Publishing, edited by Clare Barlow.



published Apr 2018       


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