Duncan Grant, Bathing, 1911, oil on canvas, 7' 6“ x 10' 1/2”. From “Queer British Art 1861–1967.”

Duncan Grant, Bathing, 1911, oil on canvas, 7' 6“ x 10' 1/2”. From “Queer British Art 1861–1967.”

“Queer British Art 1861–1967”

Duncan Grant, Bathing, 1911, oil on canvas, 7' 6“ x 10' 1/2”. From “Queer British Art 1861–1967.”

The idea of encapsulating a nation’s history of queer art in a single show could easily have led to a neckbreaking curatorial endeavor going awry. What makes art queer or otherwise anyway? And how can one tell what is queer and what isn’t when examining a period in which socially unacceptable desires often had to be disguised, lest criminal prosecution follow? The press release for “Queer British Art 1861–1967,” curated by Clare Barlow, explains that the word queer was meant to express the “full diversity of sexualities and gender identities represented in the show.” Astonishingly, the show succeeds in honoring the richness of the subject, filling eight rooms with nearly two hundred works of art accompanied by copious, well-researched background information provided on wall labels—more than a hundred years of work executed by very diverse and extensive communities packed into one exhibition.

The exhibition timeline starts in 1861, when Great Britain abolished the death penalty for sodomy, and ended in 1967, with the partial decriminalization of sex between men. Consequently, the show marks the fiftieth anniversary of the latter event. It is impossible to forget the stories of lives broken by persecution; some of the objects on view are chilling, for instance the door to Oscar Wilde’s cell at Reading Gaol. But subversive humor abounds as well, as in a series of collages made on books stolen from public libraries around Islington, North London, by the playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Leith Halliwell. These illicit works, dated 1959–62, include Queen’s Favourite by Phyllis Hambledon, adorned with a suggestive image of wrestling men, and The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie, showing a pair of cats getting married. But their pilfering from the stacks earned Orton and Halliwell each a six-month prison sentence—as Orton commented, “because we were queers.”

A recurring theme in the show is the discrepancy between public and private lives. In the case of Keith Vaughan, Barlow illustrates this discordance by juxtaposing canvases meant for public display with private drawings. The paintings, such as Kouros, 1960, portray partly figurative, partly abstract silhouettes of men. From the flat color blocks of paint, we can read their bulky frames, muscles, and confrontational attitudes. However, it’s Vaughan’s drawings that frankly depict homosexual eroticism, sometimes tender, sometimes explicit.  In a section titled “Bloomsbury and Beyond,” we see artists playing more daringly on the verge of the acceptable. Two large-scale paintings in oil on canvas—Ethel Walker’s Decoration: The Excursion of Nausicaa, 1920, depicting a group of naked women, and Duncan Grant’s Bathing, 1911, showing a group of men enjoying time by the lake—juxtaposed here, refer to classic ideals of beauty. But in subtle yet suggestive ways, both works also convey a sense of erotic freedom within same-sex communities.

A strong sense of the solidarity that binds such groups emerged throughout the show. The exhibition also highlights how intertwined the fights for gay rights and for a freer view of female sexuality could be—evoking this idea, for example, through the several depictions of Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, 1894. The story is based on one from the Gospels, in which the pleasure brought to Herod’s guests by his daughter’s dance leads to the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Early Christian scholars interpreted the tale as a depiction of lust, but in Wilde’s hands it became a springboard for the exploration of the modern image of woman.

The enclaves where the precursors of today’s LGBTQ community could converge were private houses, dance halls, and members’ clubs staging censored plays. These spaces nourished fragile networks that, despite obstacles, created possibilities for the acknowledgment of equal rights, as well as of the beauty in diversity and the richness of queer arts. 

Sylwia Serafinowicz