Weaving between history and gossip, private lives and public declarations, repression and celebration, the exhibition Queer British Art recounts a complicated story of sexuality and desire through work that is as often as coded and veiled as it is candid and outspoken.
From pre-Raphaelite London to 1920s Bloomsbury, from Edward Burra’s raunchy sailors in Boston bars to a poster for the wildly successful 1945 Soldiers in Skirts variety revue, this is an exhibition about stories and lives, and conflicting social mores, as much as of images and objects. Here is Man Ray’s 1934 photographic portrait of Virginia Woolf, there William Strang’s 1918 painting of Vita Sackville-West, self-assured in a red hat. Lovings and pairings across the years, paintings and photographs, intimate sketches, letters, masks, Noël Coward’s dressing gown: what a compelling show this is, filled with surprises that are as much human as artistic.
Here are a selection of the library books Kenneth Halliwell and playwright Joe Orton borrowed, collaged and returned to Islington library in London between the late 1950s and early 60s. A play by Emlyn Williams is retitled Fucked By Monty. Phyllis Hambledon’s romantic novel Queen’s Favourite has a pair of men about to have sex collaged on to the cover. Orton and Halliwell, pursued by librarians, went down for six months, less for their crime of collage, and being irreverent and funny, than for being queer.
It is not just the beauty of art, it turns out, that lies in the eye of the beholder, but also its “queerness”. Tate Britain is preparing its first show dedicated to “queer art”, a term long understood by art historians but which still has the power to bring the museum-going public up short. Does queer art, some ask, refer to a specific school of protest? Is it designed for a particular audience? And do paintings that might be described in this way really have a different perspective to offer? On the evidence of the work coming together for this landmark show, the answer is “yes, all of this and more”.
When the doors open to Queer British Art 1861-1967, almost 50 years since the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales, the curator of the exhibition, Clare Barlow, believes these difficult questions will all be tackled. Perhaps surprisingly, Barlow’s choices even include some works that originally had no clear position on gender or on sexuality, but simply came to be celebrated as gems of gay subculture.