Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***

Bathing 1911 by Duncan Grant 1885-1978

Queer British Art 1861-1967

Tate Britain, 18th August 2017

I learnt a lot from this exhibition. A damming reflection of my ignorance of gay history in Britain over the period under review. However I am afraid I didn’t really see much in the way of compelling art or artists which I had not already encountered. No matter. Sometimes it is good just to learn and with a muppet like me sometimes all that is required to achieve that aim are a few pictures and some well chosen words.

Now in some ways the reason why the history lesson was of such interest was precisely because curator Clare Barlow mixed up work by gay artists, with portraits and mementoes of courageous heroes of gay history, as well as art which depicts ostensibly gay themes, whether acknowledged or moreorless concealed. For someone with no prior insight the shifting content did not detract from the edification. For those more versed in the art itself or gay social history this jumbling up may prove less satisfying. It did also mean there is a lot of rippling torso on show to draw the eye from the absorbing captions.

The first room kicks off with a Pre-Raphaelite extravaganza, reminding me of how much I detest this art, but also how overtly camp it is even as it hides, badly, behind its classical allusion. Sorry if you feel differently. But it does neatly emphasise the enduring link back to the High Renaissance and in turn to ancient Greece. It seems some will never tire of the classical nude. Room 2 explores how gay identity filtered through into public and “scientific” discourse through the late C19 and early C20. Room 3, largely through some fine photographs, explores how the notion of the “theatrical” acted as a conduit for queer expression to a sometimes knowing audience. As with Room 2 no real art of any great consequence (a sign of the artistic times) but bags of insight for me. In Room 4 we get a some recognisable pictures, but largely from the Bloomsbury Group and their acolytes. Now I know these toffs are terribly important in the development of British Art in the C20 and they are an endlessly fascinating bunch of characters, but this is hardly unexplored territory, and Vanessa Bell excepted, (and obviously Keynes in his chosen field), their output isn’t up to much – witness the Duncan Grant contribution above. (The SO will kill me if she reads this given the implied dissing ofVirginia Woolf). Room 5 finally serves up some fine pictures (to my eyes) for example the Laura Knight self portrait (though the thematic link here is tenuous) and explores notable female same sex relationships. Room 6 was the most interesting to me in terms of painters with works from diverse names such as Edward Burra (a real highlight), John Craxton. John Minton and Keith Vaughan all offering new viewing opportunities. Great stuff. Back to the history lesson in Room 7 showing the dichotomy between public and private gay lives in the 1950s and 1960s before the first step to decriminalisation in 1967 (the exhibition timeline having begun with the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861). Room 8 loads up Hockney and Bacon, though there might have been more of their genius .

So I would say carve out some time to get along to the exhibition (it ends on October 1st) ideally with a chum or two (this is not a show for private contemplation) to soak up some defiant stories of fearless people sticking it to the fearful. Just don’t expect too many draw-dropping pictures.

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