Tate Britain: Queer British Art 1861-1967


Tate Britain's new show, 'Queer British Art 1861-1967', marks half a century since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality between men in the UK with a diverse, illuminating and contemplative delineation of the artistic impulse in the non-conformist, non-binary LGBTQ community, skilfully deciphering clandestine codes of the 'queer gaze' and forbidden desire in painting, drawing, photography, film and sculpture.

Kicking off with a room devoted to the tropes and motifs of classical antiquity, the Tate's display issues a corrective to the male gaze of the female body and the implicit, underlying assumptions surrounding the Western canon; here Simeon Solomon's 'The Bridge, the Bridegroom and Sad Love', Walter Crane's 'The Renaissance of Venus', Henry Scott Tuke's 'The Critics' and Frederic Leighton's bronze sculpture 'The Sluggard' invoke homo-eroticism with an absorbing subtlety and tenderness.

The exhibition is driven by a chronological narrative that charts the complexities and hidden histories of gender-fluid identity in the face of persecution and suppression, from the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy to the passing of the Sexual Offences Act and decriminalisation of male homosexuality. There's a playfulness permeating much of the work covered, accommodating multiple sensibilities, identities, proclivities, artistic styles and stories, from John Singer Sargent to David Hockney and Danny LaRue.

The louche bohemia of the Bloomsbury group is represented by Duncan Grant (I loved his painting of the policeman Harry Daley, his and EM Forster's lover, as well as the luminous, Matisse-like 'Bathers by the Pond') and Dora Carrington. Claude Cahun's flouting of gender binaries, Gluck's uncompromising self-portrait of defiance and resistance, Soho photographer John Deakin's archive of girls who are boys and boys who are girls, Angus McBean's 1930's photographs of same-sex relationships in his theatrical circle and Keith Vaughan's captivating abstract paintings and pencil drawings of naked men resonate with both a profound ache and a twitchy stoicism from marginalised voices whose civil liberties were infringed by law.

Some of the most compelling pieces are preoccupied with women resisting rigid, patriarchal definitions of femininity; William Strang's 'Lady with a Red Hat' (a depiction of Vita Sackville-West) and Laura Knight's 'Self Portrait With Nude', a picture of herself painting a fleshy female nude model, run perfectly in sync with the writer Virginia Woolf's stance against traditional structures and conventions, as well as subservient roles for women in society.

There's room for objects in a survey displaying the wide-ranging, curatorial traits associated with shows by the British Museum; Royal Court posters of John Osborne's 'A Patriot for Me', books borrowed from Islington Library and reworked into collage by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, the door of Oscar Wilde's Reading prison cell, female impersonator Jimmy Slater's pink wig, ear rings and tiara and Noel Coward's dressing gown bear the weight of the history of struggle in the face of vilification, guilt and intolerance.

The final gallery pairs two icons of British art, David Hockney and Francis Bacon, who represent polar opposites: whilst the popular imagery of Hockney's Royal College of Art graduation pictures radiate a breezy optimism, Bacon's visceral 1950's paintings are suffused by a grotesque, contorted malevolence.

'Queer British Art' succeeds as a freewheeling, intelligently structured interrogation of steely artistic resolve and the nurturing of alternative identities in the face of social oppression - there's much to love.