As someone who lived in Britain under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, it’s hard to explain to London’s contemporary, hedonistic generation how thrilling it is to see the Pride flag flying over that temple of colonialist art, Tate Britain, in honor of the “Queer British Art 1861-1967” exhibit.
Thatcher was openly hostile toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community precisely at its most difficult hour: the height of the AIDS epidemic. Instead of reaching out, she tormented the LGBT community with various laws that, among other things, forbade the allocation of public funds for queer culture and art, for fear of “encouraging” deviancy and corrupt behavior. (Is an Oscar Wilde play considered queer? A Benjamin Britten opera? Shakespeare’s sonnets? A painting by David Hockney or Francis Bacon?)
And while the iron hand was at work, the general sense of a witch hunt pervaded the land. But against all the odds, the LGBT community emerged from this dark period stronger than ever.
In liberal Western cities, the LGBT collective memory quickly gave way to an illusion of security. Therefore, much of the importance of this exhibit is to remind us of how temporary and fragile normalization and acceptance actually are; how quickly the situation is liable to change on the whims of the majority; how important it is to preserve the community’s resilience, both for the sake of their own rights and those of other minorities.
The exhibit exemplifies the ongoing oppression over this century-plus period – from the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 (reduced to life imprisonment) to the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967. It also documents the flow of queer art beneath the surface.
British eccentricity is known for its careful defamation of the minority as a protection against the conservative majority, which often endangered the individual artist. In February 1873, at the height of his success, the artist Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) was arrested in a public restroom and accused of attempted sodomy. The press then eulogized the poor, sick artist and buried his public-artistic career.
Solomon was born in London to a family of well-to-do Jewish traders. In his youth, he was gripped by the stories of David and Jonathan, and used his works to express the sexual attraction between members of the same sex. Solomon was among those who led British art away from the Pre-Raphaelite quagmire to a more sensual and liberated age – a move that garnered scorn from the critic of the Spectator magazine, who wrote of a “repulsive sentiment which too frequently marks Mr. Solomon’s compositions.”
The exiled Solomon stayed true to himself, creating art until his death, and there were some collectors who – despite the conventions of Victorian morality – dared to purchase his works, like the young critic Oscar Wilde, who bemoaned the disappearance of the peculiar genius who had painted “Love Dreaming by the Sea” in 1871. (Wilde himself would later be struck by the same poison arrow of Anglican morality.)
The London exhibit includes Solomon’s self-portrait from 1859, a work that illustrates the beauty of his face, his full lips and the wisdom in the eyes of a 19-year-old who will never find his place in the world. There’s also a pen and ink drawing from 1865, “The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love,” a medieval icon of Renaissance sensuality: A naked bridegroom embraces his naked bride while also feeling the genitals of a naked angel-boy, who between his wings radiates the sadness of unfulfilled love. It’s a drawing possessing the power of a Pablo Picasso and the tormenting poetry of a Federico García Lorca.
Then there’s the oil painting “Bacchus” (1867), the image of a young man whose divine, androgynous beauty tempts and blinds, against the backdrop of a mountain sunset. There’s also “The Moon and Sleep” (1894), a nocturnal image in which Solomon draws the wide-eyed moon god, his head framed by a crescent moon, almost kissing the great god of sleep whose eyes are closed.
A few days after visiting the exhibit, I went with a friend to the old Willesden Jewish Cemetery in northwest London. Behind a brick wall, between the headstones of Jewish nobility, the chief rabbis, the plots of children who died prematurely and the fallen of the two world wars, you will find Solomon’s almost obliterated gravestone. A new headstone – the result of a restoration project by his admirers – lies beneath it. Three of his figures, somewhere between male and female, are carved into the black stone, as are the words to Song of Songs 4:6: “Until the day breathe, and the shadows flee away.”
We will complete the rest: “I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.” It’s an expression of the inner freedom at the heart of his work. Instead of reciting Kaddish (the mourners’ prayer), we looked at Solomon’s works, which feature in the exhibit catalog, and that self-portrait of the person Colin Cruise described as “the Victorian pioneer of gay art.”
The exhibit is like moving between two seemingly opposing fetishisms. You go past the actual door of Wilde’s prison cell in Reading Gaol, which hangs on the wall like conceptual work, and then spy the scarlet house robe with the embroidered initials of Noel Coward (1899-1973), playwright, actor and sharp-tongued member of high society, displayed in a bright display window. Coward avoided Wilde’s fate in a witty and endless game of discovery and concealment that was his own prison.
There is also the 1942 self-portrait of Hannah Gluckstein – the artist known as Gluck – who was born to a wealthy Jewish family in 1895. (She died in 1978.) Gluck refrained from belonging to any artistic stream and displayed her paintings only at solo exhibits. In the self-portrait, her head is painted from below; her pupils look down from above, suspicious and authoritative; her neck is encircled by a stiff collar; her hair cut short in a masculine style. Among her works, the best-known is “Medallion” (1937), a dual portrait of her and her lover, the U.S. socialite Nesta Obermer, where their almost identical profiles seem to be intertwined and are directed toward the outside light.
The 1946 painting of Paul Roche by Duncan Grant (1885-1978), of the Bloomsbury Group, openly celebrates the beauty of the wanton male body, like douard Manet’s “Olympia.” This is revealed to both the painter and observer by Roche’s sleepy and defiant indifference, sprawled on a rich backdrop of textile samples (the sights of soldiers’ bodies were etched in the collective memory of the time – a year after the end of World War II).
These are just a few glimpses of the darkness and light to be found in the exhibit. There is also the opportunity for visitors to take a suggested “queer walk through British art” in the museum’s permanent collection. An artwork not to be missed is one of the most unusual masterpieces of British sculpture, “Jacob and the Angel,” by Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), the American-Jewish sculptor who at 22 chose England as his homeland. It’s an enormous sculpture in alabaster, depicting the struggle between a naked man and an angel, which in effect is love.
In the sculptured limbs there is a wondrous struggle between the transparent and opaque sections of the alabaster, as though their bodies were sculpted in order to reveal the struggle taking place in their souls, and the bodies’ meeting place remains a mystery to the observer. Epstein’s sculpture is brutal and emotional, earthy and spiritual – in sharp contrast to the moral standards and good taste of 1941 Britain.
“Queer British Art 1861-1967” runs at Tate Britain, London, until October 1.