Exhibition, Tate Britain, 5th April-1st October 2017 Catalogue edited by Clare Barlow, Tate Publishing 2017
It is fifty years since the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised sex between consenting adult men. The earlier date in the title of this exhibition, 1861, was when the death penalty was abolished for those convicted of sodomy. This exhibition is a laudable attempt to trace the pathway from then to the present-day, more accepting attitude, via the art of those who identified themselves as outside the accepted norms of sexuality. As might be expected, in the early years the story it is often that of the outsider, the lone individual set apart from the rest of society. This is a common theme within art history, and one which needs to be viewed with considerable caution. The artist as the revealing communicator of deeper human truths is one of our most enduring and yet misleading myths. One only has to consider how Gauguin could paint such supposedly profound, mystical canvases and yet live --especially towards the end-- a life of such uncaring selfishness.
To be outside the social and sexual conventions of the time in which you happen to find yourself is, by its very nature, excluding. As human beings we are social by nature. We live in groups – families, local communities, towns and cities, countries, even continents, and racial and religious groupings. We cannot survive successfully on our own; we need the support of others, just as others need us to support them. When something occurs which drives us away from this mutual help, two things occur. The first is a desire to find others of like mind so that there can be some elements of support and help. The second is a determination to publicly stand up for personal beliefs, despite the potential danger that this presents.
This exhibition shines a bright light on both of these factors. Many of the artists included here led difficult lives because of their sexuality, for in this period both denying and accepting homosexuality involved inherent problems. Before the 1967 Act, to openly admit and practise a same-sex relationship meant a very real threat of imprisonment, and complete social ostracism. However, coded art, which by its very nature is ambiguous, offered a unique opportunity for those who were attempting to recognise and accept their own sexuality.
The first works that one encounters, upon entering the exhibition, are those by Simeon Solomon. He was a prodigiously talented artist, but was constrained not only by his sexuality but also by his cultural heritage. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in 1840, he received an education dominated by his religious upbringing. Much of Simeon's early work is rooted within Old Testament themes, but these traditional subjects nevertheless provided him with a way to explore his own sexual identity, as some art historians have claimed. Heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, and encouraged by Rossetti and Burne-Jones, in his early career he combined clear Judaistic references with same-sex eroticism, the effects of which look highly charged, even today. He was particularly attracted to the story of David and Jonathan, the son of King Saul, as they had sworn undying love for one another and could therefore legitimately be displayed embracing.
The first work on display here is a beautiful line self-portrait, surely a magical piece of work by one so young. Another example shown in the exhibition is an equally lovely pen and ink drawing entitled Babylon Hath Been a Golden Cup, drawn when the artist was just eighteen. With visual references to the Assyrian wall carvings that are now in the British Museum, in the centre is a male figure, easily identified as Jewish since he wears the phylactery, the cube-like capsule worn by devout Jews during morning prayer. He is lying in a deep trance within the lap of Semiramis, the Babylonian queen who first built the city. She is naked yet wears very elaborate jewellery on her arms, legs and head, but the figure is sexually ambiguous. The face is masculine, and the breasts are covered by the ecstatic reclining man. He has become entranced by her harp-playing, and all around this central montage Simeon inserts references to forbidden pleasures. Semi-naked dancing girls from the cult of Dionysius dominate the background, an incense burner pours scented smoke over the central figures, spilt wine flows from an amphora, and a sleeping cheetah—stupefied by the effects of drinking the wine-- lies curled at the queen's feet. The picture is both a warning and a declaration. As a reflection on Jewish values, it outlines the dangers of assimilation with non-Jewish cultures. Contact with such cultures brings with it the risk of temptation, as exemplified by the surrounding figures and objects, which can only result in the weakening of religious practice and devotion. However, the hermaphroditic character of Semiramis is also a representation of Simeon's own sexual ambiguity.
It is Simeon's life story that makes much of his art so poignant and relevant to this exhibition. Like all Victorian homosexuals, he was unable to live openly for fear of imprisonment. In 1873 his life as a successful artist effectively ended when he was arrested in a public lavatory in Hackney and later found guilty of indecent exposure and attempting to commit sodomy. A few years later he committed the same offence in Paris, and his artistic friends and colleagues deserted him completely. Unable to exhibit his work, he sank into alcoholism and spent the last ten years of his life in the workhouse. He died in 1886.
A particularly fascinating section of the exhibition is devoted to what is termed 'theatrical types.' From the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, male and female impersonators were popular performers in music hall theatres. Their appeal involved a complex suspension of accepted norms of behaviour and dress. Men posing as females, and vice versa, called into question these accepted codes. In a famous case in 1870, two men, Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, were arrested and charged with dressing as women, adopting the female personae of Miss Stella Boulton and Mrs Fanny Graham. Their case ended up in Westminster Hall before the Lord Chief Justice. To universal surprise, they were acquitted, but not before a bright light had been shone on a then-murky world of male prostitutes, homosexual clubs, and the supposedly dubious morals of the theatrical set.
The theatre offered an acceptable opportunity to cross-dress, and audiences, even in Shakespeare's time, seemed to find the idea of swapping sexual identities on stage intriguing. Rosalind in As You Like It would originally have been played by a young man pretending to be a woman, who then impersonates a young man --Ganymede-- in a triple bluff! In more recent times female impersonators often wore the newest fashions and emphasised their glamour. In any other social context this would have been completely unacceptable, but the theatre not only permitted such activity, it also allowed the audience, comprised generally of people of unambiguous sexuality, to accept it and even enjoy its dichotomy.
Throughout the exhibition the issue of sexual identity is ever-present. The hidden and the revealed are central themes of many of the works on display. So many examples stand out, but it is perhaps inevitable that the Bloomsbury Group should provide a significant number. There are some fine works by Duncan Grant on display, but certainly the most provocative is his design for a dining room at the Borough Polytechnic, painted in 1911. This is a highly decorative scheme showing naked men bathing, based on activities then common at the Serpentine in London. Clearly this is a reference to homo-erotic possibilities, yet Grant has proposed to position the work within a public space. Little wonder, then, that the National Review called the room a "nightmare" which would have a "degenerative" effect on the students eating there.
One surprising aspect of the exhibition is how some familiar and well-known images can gain an unexpected strength through the context that surrounds them. Two such works are the so-called 'Pennington' portrait of Oscar Wilde, and Laura Knight's 1913 Self-Portrait. The Wilde portrait was painted when he was approaching the height of his fame, and was given to him on the occasion of his marriage in 1884. It hung in the drawing room in Tite Street, Chelsea, and shows Wilde as confident, rather than arrogant. He is elegant and self-possessed as he leans upon his cane. Little might he have imagined, when he sat for this portrait, that in a little over ten years he would be in prison, broken and bankrupt. Sometimes it is hard to disentangle what we now know from what the picture in front of us signifies. Here it is made even more difficult, for the cell door from Reading Prison which immured Wilde is placed beside the picture, giving us an almost voyeuristic view of his downfall. Found guilty of 'gross indecency,' Wilde was sentenced to hard labour which broke him physically and mentally. The door resonates for us, for it is a physical representation of Wilde's suffering and is placed beside the image which innocently portrays him at the point before society, in the form of the law of the time, punished him for his sexual orientation.
The Laura Knight portrait is justly celebrated. This is a complex, multi-layered and beautiful construction. The artist has shown herself in the act of painting a female nude – the model is directly in front of us, with Laura Knight and her own painting to the left. This act in itself would have been controversial, since female art students at the time were not admitted to life classes: they were restricted to copying classical statues, while no such restrictions were placed on male artists. So, on one level, Knight is announcing herself as a professional artist, the equal of any other, regardless of gender. Yet there is another context to consider. For much of European art history, the depiction of the female nude has usually been within the heterosexual domain, the model painted by the male artist. Knight exposes this often neglected detail as she suggests the possibility that, just as there could be unacknowledged sexual attraction between male artists and their models, so too could there be between artists and models of the same sex.