This is a short review of a somewhat controversial offering tucked away in the shadow of the latest Hockney song-and-dance at the Tate Britain: Queer British Art 1861-1967. This suitably alternate exhibition in the basement (which appealed to me far more than the mainstream Hockney) had a lot more variety and scope of narrative than I anticipated and kept my arty teenage daughter and I engaged for a good couple of hours. It was also a fascinating place to people-watch and we enjoyed some wonderful tableaux of human behaviour, not always but often delivered by same-gender couples which, in itself, was so uplifting given how it was like a living artwork of how far we have come in the last century.
In amongst the array of exhibits and displays covering, amongst other themes, the ever more apparent androgyny of the last 100 years (something that fascinates me at the very broad scale scale of human behaviour so art is an obvious place to explore its first cultural appearance), I managed to find a handful of very familiar favourites.
One was Laura Knight’s self-portrait (1913), considered controversial and a mark of defiance for being a study of herself painting a nude, something women weren’t “allowed” to do in the art schools of the time. Knight was one of my very-earliest “favourite artists”, from about the age of 12; encouraged by the fact that she was a native of my home town of Nottingham and, of course, because she was an exceptionally talented and well received woman-painter in a sea of men. I found Lady with a Red Hat (William Strang), the oh-so familiar portrait of Vita Sackville-West, who was another heroine of mine during my teens. Also works by another favourite, Duncan Grant amongst others of the Bloomsbury set; his wiggly-lined piece full of diving nudes entitled Bathing (1911, below) was pinned to my bedroom wall for many years. We were even confronted with Oscar Wilde’s prison cell door, taken from Reading Gaol near my current home (the place where he was incarcerated for homosexuality) to where it is now permanently on display in the National Justice Museum in Nottingham. Well, I had to groan inwardly at the irony that this loathsome piece of wood, once such a familiar focus of misery to the creative genius that it held trapped in a box, has now become this prize curio shipped from my present to my birth town for posterity and, for the moment, on prime display at the Tate.
As far as new discoveries go (though I knew some of his other work), this beautiful study of two young men by Henry Scott Tuke is amongst my favourites for its stunning depiction of light on human flesh. As a painter, work like this is always a real thrill to study up close and it was hard to drag myself away.
For once (which is not my usual trait when visiting an art exhibition) I found myself reading the captions as much, if not more so, than studying the works of art but that was because they had so much of relevance to offer. Anecdotes were fascinanting, shocking or even humbling as you were forced to come to grips with just how determindly this aspect of human behaviour has been marginalised, denied and suppressed until recent times. Out of the artworks themselves, these are just some of my personal favourites, selected from a painter’s perspective. The exhibition is vastly more diverse and thought-provoking than I can adequately convey in a few words but I will leave you to explore this for yourselves with the assurance that it is probably well-worth the trip. Queer British Art continues at Tate Britain until 1 October 2017.
Room by room guide to the exhibition on Tate Britain’s website.
Topical article in The Telegraph – Dame Laura Knight and the Nude Controversy