"The exhibition brilliantly showcases how artists expressed themselves at a time when love was outlawed"
It seems hardly possible today to remember a time when homosexuality was considered anything other than a natural thread in the fabric of everyday life.
However, it was only in 1967 that it was decriminalised, and at London’s Tate Gallery, until 1 October, is an exhibition which brilliantly captures the seismic shifts in gender and sexuality that art both instigated and paved a path for, allowing individuals finally to explore and experience for themselves their own true identities.
Marking the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales, Tate Britain is hosting its first ever exhibition dedicated to queer British art. Revealing the complexities of unrequited love, shame and vilification as endured by the entire LGBTQ+ community for so many centuries, it stands alone as an exhibition of haunting beauty and defiance.
Presenting examples of art from the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 through to the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, it covers a period in which gender and sexuality finally found expression, as artists and viewers alike began to explore their desires and true identities. The title is derived from film maker Derek Jarman’s explanation that where the word 'queer' once caused him anguish, it went on to become a liberating expression of identity. Indeed, to the point where today it has become the most inclusive and fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. Spanning the playful to the political, the explicit to the domestic, the exhibition brilliantly showcases how artists expressed themselves at a time when love was outlawed, boasting works by Francis Bacon, Keith Vaughan, Evelyn De Morgan, Gluck, Glyn Philpot, Claude Cahun and Cecil Beaton.
Themes explored include coded desires amongst the pre-Raphaelites, representations of women who defined convention (including Virginia Woolf ), and love and lust in Sixties Soho, alongside queer ephemera, personal photographs, films and magazines. Hardly surprisingly, many of the works on display were produced during a time when the terms ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘trans’ had little if any public recognition, and ‘queer’ was used as a term of abuse. The exhibition thus shines a light on the ways in which sexuality became more publicly defended through the worlds of sexologists such as Henry Havelock Ellis and campaigners such as Edward Carpenter. It also looks at the high profile trials of Oscar Wilde and the less well known Radclyffe Hall.
Interestingly – even surprisingly – items on display include (and I love this) the door from Wilde’s prison cell, as well as erotic drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. In addition, and running alongside the exhibition, six films have been co-commissioned by the Tate and Channel 4; the films will feature figures from the LGBTQ+ community, including Sir Ian McKellen and Shon Faye, presenting their own personal stories and, at the same time, inviting those watching the films to relate their own experiences too.
Top Image – Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929), The Critics, 1927 Oil on board. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa)
Below – Laura Knight (1877-1970) Self-Portrait, 1913, Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, London
Bottom – Keith Vaughan, Drawing of two men kissing 1958-73 Tate Archive © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan
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