queer British art


curated by Clare Barlow & Amy Concannon
Assistant Curator, Tate Britain.
Exhibition: 5 April – 1 October 2017
Millbank London SW1P 4RG
Duncan Grant – Bathing 1911, Oil paint on canvas,2286 x 3061 mm © Tate
Tate Britain will host the first exhibition dedicated to queer British art. Unveiling material that relates to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) identities, the show will mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. It will present work from the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 to the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 – a time of seismic shifts in gender and sexuality that found expression in the arts as artists and viewers explored their desires, experiences and sense of self.
Spanning the playful to the political, the explicit to the domestic, Queer British Art will showcase the rich diversity of queer visual art and its role in society. Themes explored in the exhibition will include coded desires amongst the Pre-Raphaelites, representations of and by women who defied convention (including Virginia Woolf), and love and lust in sixties Soho. It will feature works by major artists such as Francis Bacon, Keith Vaughan, Evelyn de Morgan, Gluck, Glyn Philpot, Claude Cahun and Cecil Beaton alongside queer ephemera, personal photographs, film and magazines.
Bildschirmfoto 2016-12-09 um 11.49.57.jpg
Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864, Tate*
Work from 1861 to 1967 by artists with diverse sexualities and gender identities will be showcased, and will range from covert images of same-sex desire such as Simeon Solomon’s Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 through to the open appreciation of queer culture in David Hockney’s Going to be a Queen for Tonight 1960. A highlight of the exhibition will be a section focusing on the Bloomsbury set and their contemporaries – an artistic group famous for their bohemian attitude towards sexuality. The room will include intimate paintings of lovers, scenes of the homes artists shared with their partners and large commissions by artists such as Duncan Grant and Ethel Walker.
Many of the works that will be displayed were produced in a time when the terms ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘trans’ had little public recognition. The exhibition will illustrate the ways in which sexuality became publically defined through the work of sexologists such as Henry Havelock Ellis, campaigners such as Edward Carpenter and will also look at the high profile trials of Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. Objects on display will include the door from Wilde’s prison cell, Charles Buchel’s portrait of Radclyffe Hall and erotic drawings by Aubrey Beardsley.
Nan Goldin Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC 1991
Photograph on paper
© Nan Goldin, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
In contrast to the bleak outlook from the courtroom prior to 1967, queer culture was embraced by the British public in the form of theatre. From music hall acts to costume design, British theatre provided a forum in which sexuality and gender expression could be openly explored. Striking examples on display will include photographs of performers such as Beatrix Lehmann, Berto Parsuka and Robert Helpmann by Angus McBean, who was jailed for his sexuality in 1942, alongside stage designs by Oliver Messel and Edward Burra. Theatrical cards of music hall performers such as Vesta Tilley (whose act as ‘Burlington Bertie’ had a large lesbian following) will also be featured, as well as a pink wig worn in Jimmy Slater’s act ‘A Perfect Lady’ from the 1920s.
Gilbert & George, Family Tree 1991
Photo-piece, 18 parts, displayed: 2538 x 3540 x 25 mm
Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
© Gilbert & George
Queer British Art will show how artists and audiences challenged the established views of sexuality and gender identity between two legal landmarks. Some of the works in the show are intensely personal while others spoke to a wider public, helping to forge a sense of community.
Queer British Art is curated by Clare Barlow, Assistant Curator, Tate Britain with Amy Concannon, Assistant Curator, Tate Britain. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue from Tate Publishing and a programme of talks and events in the gallery.

*The picture depicts Sappho embracing her fellow poet Erinna in a garden at Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Sappho was born at Lesbos in about 612BC. After a period of exile in Sicily she returned to the island and was at the centre of a community of young women devoted to Aphrodite and the Muses. Although Solomon believed Erinna to have been part of this community, we now know that she lived not on Lesbos, but on the Dorian island of Télos, and slightly later than Sappho, at the end of the 4th Century BC. Sappho wrote nine books of poetry, of which only fragments survive. The principal subject of her work is the joy and frustration of love and the most complete surviving poem is an invocation to the goddess Aphrodite to help her in her relationship with a woman.

The Tate collection includes a study for the head of Sappho (1862, Tate T03104) which was drawn two years before the watercolour. She is crowned with laurel and has dark, Mediterranean, slightly androgynous features. She represents a ‘masculine’ foil to Erinna’s seductive femininity, emphasised by the soft flesh tones, partially exposed breasts and shoulder. Their love for each other is emphasised by the pair of doves seated above them. Sappho is identifiable through her traditional attributes: the lines of poetry and the musical instrument set to one side. Plato called Sappho the tenth muse, which possibly explains the presence of the deer, sacred to Apollo.

Solomon was a close associate of the Pre-Raphaelites and his work owes much to Rossetti (1828-82) and Burne-Jones (1833-98). The influence of Rossetti, and more especially the poet Swinburne (1837-1909) – who was influenced in turn by Sappho’s poetry – led him to explore the forbidden subjects of homosexuality and lesbianism. However, he was unable to conceal his own sexual preferences and on 11 February 1873 was arrested for homosexual offences. Thereafter he was shunned by the very artists who had encouraged his daring subject matter.

This work was bought by James Leathart, who owned a number of works by Solomon, all dating from the early 1860s. He probably bought the picture directly from the artist, or through the agency of Rossetti.



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