Friday, 5 May 2017

Queer British Art at the Tate

Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) Self-Portrait 1942 Collection
& © National Portrait Gallery, London
Yesterday, I spent a very enjoyable afternoon with JL Merrow wandering around the Queer British Art exhibition at the Tate Britain.

Let's talk about logistics...

I had been warned it was in the basement, which annoyed the hell out of me; relegating the queer art away from the main thoroughfare. But as that area encompassed the cafe, loos and cloakroom (coffee in, coffee out), I was happy. Not so far to walk, and we could sit outside to swig coffee and chat to the pigeons. The rooms are spacious but sterile. I didn't get any atmosphere which for me, is part of the reason for visiting galleries.

Let's talk about the exhibition...

The art and artists span from 1861 to 1967, the year I was born. It had significance for me. This was a world before my living memory.

I really enjoyed the exhibition, with a few reservations. The art was varied enough to interest me, from paintings, sculpture, books, costume etc. And I was pleased to realise just how many of the artists I've already come across. There was joy in the exhibits, the pleasure of sharing the lives of the artists in their medium. Contrast that with the harsh reality of being gay, bi and trans in an era where one wrong word could lead to social disgrace and prison. Gay men were under constant threat of jail and Oscar Wilde's prison door was a stark reminder of how men were treated.

Although homosexuality in women wasn't a criminal offence, they were forced to marry and have children, doubtless a form of prison for some. The exhibition also highlighted how women's art was largely ignored (the parallels to modern day struggles for women in creative media makes me wonder how far we've progressed). One gallery showed paintings by women, where they painted themselves into the portrait, to the censure of male critics, more used to the power balance of the male artist and his nude subject.

The Evening Standard has an article about the female artists who broke the rule of gender. 

"With Self portrait and Nude (1913), Laura Knight challenged hundreds of years of patriarchal art history with just one painting. It’s simple: she paints herself painting a nude model, her friend Ella Naper.
“It feels quite cheeky,” says actress Hattie Morahan, who played Knight in the film Summer in February. Given that women weren’t allowed to do life drawing from real people, “it’s a bit of a sticking two fingers up at the establishment. It’s a rebuff to classical nudes through history and the male gaze."
"The fact you’ve got this dual portrait of a woman clothed and a woman unclothed immediately makes you think about what it means to objectify a woman. It’s taking ownership of the most common subject in art history essentially,” she says."

Some of the art left me cold. I don't appreciate modern art, and if I have to stand there and wonder what the art is representing, I don't bother. If that makes me a philistine so be it. There are plenty of people who do appreciate more abstract art.

Let me talk about what is missing...

I grew up visiting National Trust buildings every weekend. White wealthy history on display in fine architecture, gardens and possessions. I am still a National Trust member and take great pleasure in visiting their properties. But, it is very obvious we are shown an Upstairs (see Upstairs, Downstairs) view of their lives.

This is how I feel about this exhibition. These were white, wealthy men and women (or with wealthy patrons), with time and money to indulge their desires and pour it into their art. The working class and people of colour were there to be subjects of their art. This isn't surprising and I'm not criticising the curation. But I do see why some of the comments at the end were from queer people of colour left out in the cold by the exhibition.

That leaves me with the postcards at the end from LGBTQI visitors. I could have just had them to read and it would have been worth it. Especially the one talking about hope and rainbows from the Russian visitor.

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