Spanning over 100 years of art history and featuring the works of Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Man Ray, Claude Cahun and Cecil Beaton
Opening tomorrow, Queer British Art: 1861-1967 is the first exhibition dedicated to queer British art. Sandwiched between two pivotal legal moments in the country's queer history – the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 and the implementation of The Sexual Offences Act in 1967, which decriminalised private, homosexual acts between two men over the age of 21 – curator Clare Barlow comments that it’s what happened between these years that makes the show come alive.
“What’s happening beneath the surface (and) what’s happening in queer culture, for the individuals, for the communities, is the more important story. It’s a story about people liberating themselves, liberating each other (and) finding ways – whoever they are – to be themselves and to identify each other. Going out, staying in, feeling it, flaunting it – all human emotion is on display.”
Spread out across eight rooms, identities are explored through the lens of gender and sexuality, beginning at Simeon Soloman and extending through to artists such as Evelyne De Morgane, Claude Cahun, the Bloomsbury set, and Angus McBean – with Francis Bacon and David Hockney closing the show.
“It’s a story about people liberating themselves, liberating each other (and) finding ways – whoever they are – to be themselves and to identify each other” – Clare Barlow, curator
While some works are explicit in their meanings, others are less so. Hockney’s “Life Painting For A Diploma” (1962) pays homage to the era’s introduction to all-nude male magazines such as Physique – a publication which featured beefcake-esque models, photographed under the guise that they were for people interested in wrestling and bodybuilding. Whereas William Strang's “Lady With A Red Hat” (1918) is an unassuming portrait of poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West, whereby knowing what occurred outside of the frame is where the story lies – as Sackville-West is being watched over by her lover, the writer Violet Trefusis.
Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain, emphasised: "This exhibition does not suggest that the meaning of these works only derive from their sexual history but shows that each of these artworks is incomplete without an understanding of the sexual lives of which these artworks emerge”. He noted that the show traced very important milestones in the social history of Britain’s LGBTQ+ communities and its allies.
The show also acts as a precursor to the world we know today. While many LGBTQ+ communities around the world still struggle with acceptance, it is clear that we have come a long way since artists and writers such as Oscar Wilde’s time – the latter whose portrait by Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington hangs alongside his prison door.
Farquharson added: “After 1967 with decriminalisation, representations of sexual otherness – of queer perspectives – become more and more visible, to the point where I think that ‘queer’ is a very dominant theme in contemporary art. Therefore I think this exhibition is all-the-more important in acting as an excavation of a semi-hidden past (and) a history that absolutely speaks to our presence."
The museum will hoist a rainbow flag in commemoration of 50 years since the implementation of The Sexual Offences Act 1967.
Queer British Art: 1861-1967 runs at Tate Britain from 5 April – 1 October 2017