Tracing queer identity in British art | Arts | DW | 05.04.2017
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Tracing queer identity in British art

A new exhibition exploring representations of gender identity, diverse sexuality and homosexuality opens at the Tate Britain, exploring the question: what exactly is queer British art?

While the acronym LGBTQ and the identities represented by it - lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer - has now entered the modern lexicon, these words were not in common use even just a decade ago.

A new exhibition at the Tate Britain, "Queer British Art," highlights this fact, featuring how artists reinterpreted the concepts of gender and sexuality through their works. This first exhibition dedicated to queer British art, it covers its history from the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 to the Sexual Offences Act passed in 1967.

Fifty years ago, this act partially decriminalized homosexuality in England and Wales. The anniversary of the landmark law was seen as "a good opportunity to reflect on our history as a community and to think about what identity means to us today," said Clare Barlow, assistant curator at the Tate Britain. The show features objects which tell stories about the diverse range of identities, she added.

The exhibition asks questions about what can - and cannot - be understood as queer art. Is it a work of art that has been created by a person identifying as queer or rather a work of art dealing with the subject of identity and sexuality? Both could be true.

By tracing the developments that occurred over the course of a century, the exhibition considers the role that queer artists and cultural thinkers from across Britain have played in provoking discussions about sexuality. It also shows queer works of art which have helped shape the way that homosexuality and gender identity have been viewed in the public eye.

Divided into eight sections, the Tate exhibition explores the shift in perceptions that have taken place from the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1860s to the free-loving Bloomsbury Set of the 1930s to the lust and desire of London's Soho district in the 1960s.

Historical developments over the course of decades

According to the curators of the exhibition, public recognition of queer identities grew out of the increasing prominence of queer works of art as well as queer artists and purveyors of culture across Britain.

Wrestling with issues of identity that went against societal norms, these queer artists had a fine line to toe. While they faced pressure due to the illegality of their sexual preferences, they still made inroads both in their private lives as well as publicly, by creating films and theater productions or through drawings and magazine spreads that celebrate the human body.

Some of these artists and thinkers have become well-known and loved members of the current canon. Books by Oscar Wilde, including "The Picture of Dorian Gray," are required reading for students of British literature, despite his two-year imprisonment near the turn of the century for "gross indecency with men." His prison cell door is just one object in the exhibition.

Queer British Art 1861-1967 David Hockney - Life Painting for a Diploma (Yageo Foundation)

"Life Painting for a Diploma" by David Hockney

Wilde died destitute in Paris after fleeing the repressiveness of England in 1900. Compare his fate with that of artist David Hockney: Even after openly dealing with gay love in his work, he remains one of the most influential artists of our time. What has changed in the meantime?

A shift in attitudes

In a moving foreword to the exhibition program, John Browne, or Lord Browne of Madingley, chairman of the Tate, draws from his own experience to describe the shift in attitudes which occurred within his lifetime. 

In 1966, a year before the Sexual Offences Act became law, Browne turned 18. Although sex between two men was no longer illegal according to the new law, "any normal interaction that might have led to it remained a criminal offence. In this context, and coupled with my mother's experience as an Auschwitz survivor persecuted for being an identifiable member of a minority, I resolved to keep my sexuality a secret. I remained in the closet, hiding my true identity, until 2007, " Browne wrote.

The progress of the last 50 years "has only been possible through the leadership of individuals and organizations working together to create a society in which everyone can be themselves, and where everyone is included," Browne added.

Queer art: from subtle to defiant to mainstream

Some of those individuals took a more subtle approach to symbolizing queerness in their art. Simeon Solomon's "Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864," for example, is a painting featuring two lovers, both female, both fully clothed, gazing into each other's eyes.

There are also less coded works celebrating women who defied convention, such as Virginia Woolf. She was a member of the Bloomsbury Set, an influential group of artists and intellectuals that became famous for its bohemian attitude towards sexuality in the 1930s. The Bloomsbury Set has its own devoted section in the exhibition.

Another section is dedicated to the theater scene, displaying costumes, wigs and other ephemera from the early 20th century. However, the curator of the exhibition warns against preconceptions: Although "theatrical queers and queer theaters of many different kinds have been conspicuously present in all levels of British society during those 100 years," the 50th anniversary of the landmark law "might be the perfect opportunity to relegate the idea that we as queer people have an innate predisposition towards one profession or personality-type or indeed anything else at all to the dustbin of history," Barlow said.

Even though the fight against preconceived ideas is still ongoing, the exhibition makes one thing clear: While even the most subtle allusions to homosexuality could land an artist in prison in the 19th century, queer art boldly managed to find its way into the mainstream.

The exhibition "Queer British Art 1861-1967" runs from April 5 through October 1, 2017, at the Tate Britain.

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