100 years of gay art history, from repression to liberation

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(3 Apr 2017) LEADIN:
On the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, the Tate Britain gallery is launching a major exhibition exploring Queer British Art.
The new exhibition showcases 100 years of art and artists from the repression of the Victorian era through to the love and lust of 1960s Soho.
The first exhibition dedicated to Queer British art opens at the Tate Britain with works spanning 100 years during a time of seismic shifts in gender and sexuality.
So when some of the artists in this room were alive, sodomy was a crime punishable by death.
But despite the prudish reputation of the Victorians, many trailblazing artists were kick-starting the queer movement.
Fredric Leighton and his highly sensuous male nudes offered room for homoerotic interpretation and same sex desire.
By the 1960s – a century later – artist like David Hockney were presenting queer art for final submission at the Royal College of Art.
Hockney was interested in the ‘beefcake’ magazines, admiring the well-toned male figure, and cheekily satisfied the College’s submissions criteria that all students produce a life drawing.
This portrait by Francis Bacon is of his lover Peter Lacy.
Lesbian artist Hannah Gluckstein paints this striking and defiant self-portrait.
Clare Barlow is the curator of Queer British Art at Tate Britain and she explains the scope of her exhibition.
She says: “So this is the first time that this story has been told for British art and it’s really exciting to have the opportunity to do that. The show moves from 1861, which is the year for the end of the death penalty for sodomy, all the way through to 1967 which is when sex between consenting adults in private, obviously male homosexuality is partially decriminalised in England and Wales.”
The timescale of the exhibition encompasses the formation of the queer art movement and the beginning of a more considered understanding of gender and sexual identity.
Although the terms we use today – like lesbian, gay or trans – might be unknown to the early artists, they were laying the foundation stones for a community that would follow them.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is works created by the so-called Bloomsbury set, famous for a bohemian attitude towards sexuality.
“This is people who are finding ways to be themselves, they’re falling in love, they’re going out, they’re enjoying saucy songs at the music hall, they’re going to see plays with queer actors, they’re finding each other and they’re building communities and they’re starting to come together and forge identities,” says Barlow.
Estelle Lovatt is an art critic and historian from London and she’s looking around the gallery.
She ponders how important the sexuality of the artists was in the creation – and merit – of their artworks.
“It’s really interesting as to whether or not we should be concerned with the sexuality of an artist when we consider the merits of his artwork, because really what he does behind closed doors – or she does – has nothing to do, or shouldn’t have anything to do with the impact of the artwork as we see it. But what is important is the artist can use that material of their personal life and create a work that is almost a personal diary but visually,” says Lovatt.
The exhibition, framed between the two legal landmarks of 1861 and 1967, looks at how the artists challenged the established views of gender identity.
The show is full of personal stories – many of which would have been illicit at the time they were created.
Most of the works are accompanied by text explaining the sexual orientation of the artist and the backstory behind the piece.
But the show isn’t just about paintings and art in the traditional sense.

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