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Tate Britain’s landmark survey of queer British art is a hymn to resistance

David Hockney, Life Painting for a Diploma
© Yageo Foundation

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For me, to use the word ‘queer’ is a liberation, it was a word that frightened me, but no longer.

These words, spoken by the inimitable filmmaker Derek Jarman, form just one of the many quotations which adorn the walls of Tate Britain’s recently-opened exhibition, Queer British Art 1861-1967.

The dates are important in the chronology of queer history: in 1861 the death penalty for sodomy was abolished, and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised homosexuality in the United Kingdom. Perhaps due to the punitive legal status of being openly queer at the time, the period of art history between these milestones has rarely been explored in a queer context – a fact which was noticed, and has been subsequently remedied, by curator Clare Barlow.

“It’s something that had never been done before, and that’s what we found extraordinary when we were trying to put the show together,” she tells me. “We thought we couldn’t possibly have been the first because it seemed so obvious, but nobody had joined the dots.” It’s been a task that Barlow has approached with relish, presenting her own queer readings of paintings and offering contextual biographies wherever necessary.

Crucially, she understands that queerness is not synonymous with homosexuality. Not only is it a descriptor of various fluid identities, it’s a radical mentality which encourages us to question everything we think we know about gender and sexuality. Put simply, it’s a rejection of the rigid labels and categories that skew the ways in which we see the world.

Still, the term queer is laden with baggage that can spark controversy – some still see it as a homophobic slur, despite the fact that it’s now widely-used and has spawned an influential school of thought. Unsurprisingly, the decision to include the word in the title of the exhibition is not one that Barlow made lightly. “That word was important to us for several different reasons,” she explains. “Firstly because it’s the only word that encompasses the wide range of different takes on gender and sexuality in the show. We did a lot of consultation around it not only with the public at large, but also with LGBTQ-identified focus groups and charities who work in this area. The response from them came back, overwhelmingly, that using it for this show was a really positive thing.”

This message of positivity resonates throughout the exhibition’s loosely chronological rooms. Themes of discrimination and persecution are present – they are, after all, a vital element of queer history – but never sensationalised or dwelled upon. “It’s a show of great variety,” Barlow enthuses. “We’ve got some stunning paintings and beautiful sculptures but also some very punchy, emotional moments like the door of Oscar Wilde’s prison cell. That variety of experience was, for me, one of the most important things about the show – that it should not just tell the story through law courts and medical textbooks, but that it should really capture queer culture in all of its diversity.”

“It’s important that there is eroticism in the show, that this is not a neutered version of queer culture. But it’s equally important to look beyond eroticism, because our queer identities don’t just hinge on who we have sex with” – Clare Barlow, Curator

A key point is that these diverse representations are critiqued whenever necessary. When people of colour are featured as subjects, their representation is sometimes accompanied by text highlighting exoticisation, a detail which was essential to Barlow. “It was very important for us to show that there is a non-white presence in this history,” she says. “There are people of colour who are the lovers, the friends, sometimes the colleagues of the people represented in the show, but some of those images have problems attached. It’s important to talk about those problems openly, to explore those complexities and try not to oversimplify them or pretend they don’t exist.”

Elsewhere, artworks that abstract or obscure the human form are included – Claude Cahun’s I Extend My Arms [1931 or 1932] depicts a human trapped in a stone monolith, their arms outstretched. The jewellery adorning the left arm could be read as feminine, but this anonymity challenges the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Then, there is the self-portrait of Gluck, one of the most famous images amongst the exhibition. The high cheekbones, cropped hair and fixed gaze create an aesthetic of gender ambiguity which is arguably intentional – after all, this was an artist who resigned from an art society when referred to as ‘Miss’ and formally requested that publicity prints of paintings were “returned in good condition to Gluck, no prefix, no suffix, no quotes.” This rejection of gendered pronouns during the first half of the 20th century was radical, and importantly – it’s still somewhat progressive by modern standards.

Queer British Art © Copyright Tate Photography
© Copyright Tate Photography

Alongside these works are anecdotes which narrate the queer life experiences which are often underrepresented in prestigious galleries. One of these can be found in the literature of Michael Field, a poet whose work is described by Barlow as the “queerest story” of the exhibition.

“Michael Field was born two people but became a joint identity under a single male name,” explains Barlow, clearly fascinated by the biographical complexity of Field’s history. “Field writes erotic poetry which was published, and they lived at roughly the same time as Oscar Wilde. This shared identity was sometimes referred to with male pronouns, sometimes with female pronouns – it’s a very fluid identity. For me, that was an inspiring story because it just seemed to capture something about the diversity of the past; of what we might miss if we’re just looking for categories of people instead of what we might gain if we start looking at the past in certain terms.”

A refreshing aspect of the Tate exhibition is that, with the exception of a section dedicated to physique culture and the occasional unexpected erection, there’s a lack of the explicit eroticism which often characterises queer exhibitions. Even the naked flesh on display is presented objectively, such as David Hockney’s Life Painting for a Diploma – although clearly inspired by the physique magazines visible in photographs of his studios, there’s a lack of confrontational sexuality.

It was very important to me that there should be some eroticism in the show, that this could not be a neutered version of queer culture,” admits Barlow, also adding: “It was equally important that the show look beyond eroticism as well – that it should capture quiet moments of domestic life, significant friendships and a wide range of different experiences because, as we’re well-aware, our queer identities don’t just hinge on who we have sex with.”

“The very essence of queerness is a rejection of identity labels and a desire to destablise them” - Shon Faye

Significantly, the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition concludes with a final screening room which brings us up to 21st century. Here, there are six films on show, each of which are specially commissioned in partnership with Channel 4. Not only do these shorts showcase the diversity of modern queer experiences, they provide a valuable platform to move past the timeframe of the exhibition and show exactly how far queer culture has progressed over the last five decades.

Open briefs allowed these artists to deconstruct stereotypes and challenge conventional narratives, an opportunity seized by writer Shon Faye in her short video, which critiques media representations of trans women. “It is a cliché in cinema and documentary history to introduce a transgender woman by filming her looking in a mirror,” she tells me. “I find it very tedious because it sustains two stereotypes about trans women – firstly that we’re narcissistic and secondly that we are, in some way, deceiving ourselves or that our bodies are a performance. You see the woman applying mascara, and the focus is on how we are artificially constructing ourselves – it’s like a kind of drag artistry, which isn’t what trans-ness is. It fucks me off.”

Faye takes this trope and toys with it in her clip, turning the mirror into something that “reveals but doesn’t mock.” Essentially, the aim is to flip the metaphorical mirror back at the audience – “The very essence of queerness is a rejection of identity labels and a desire to destablise them. You do this by handing people’s labels and their questions back to them, and that’s what my film attempts to do – to take something ostensibly focused on me and make the audience the subject.” Faye succeeds – the clip is visually arresting and thought-provoking, and it’s one of the standout moments in a vital exhibition.

The importance of showcasing these stories in an institution as revered as Tate Britain cannot be overstated. It’s been something of a passion project for Barlow, who has spent years researching the field. “I think, possibly, if you’re not passionate about it, you’re doing it wrong in this case,” she laughs. “I grew up in the 1980s under Section 28 and there was almost no lesbian representation. There was this perception that lesbians led tragic, outsider lives and died young.”

Still, it needs to be said that this exhibition isn’t perfect – and nor should it be. The vastness of queer history can never be truly represented in one exhibition, but this is a milestone that will hopefully act as a catalyst for future explorations. After all, we live in a world where gay men are sent to concentration camps and queer people of colour are being shot in the nightclubs they seek refuge in. It’s no exaggeration to say that exhibitions like these are still essential. “When we started out, Orlando hadn’t happened,” says Barlow. “That really brought it home to me – that we do need this more than ever.”

It can be exhausting to exist in a world dominated by social media, a tool which constantly reminds us of global injustice. This exhibition offers a powerful alternative; collecting stories of resilience and complex, messy personal testimonies. “It’s important to talk about oppression,” admits Barlow. “It’s also important not to feel completely crushed by it – to recognise that, even in times of great oppression, people have lived successful, happy lives. The tragedies that have happened to people in this show, often those weren’t the end. There’s more to the story.”

Queer British Art 1861 – 1967 runs at Tate Britain, London, until 1 October

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