I was early to meet a friend for this little art trip, so I lurked in the bookshop. I picked up a copy of Matt Houlbrook’s ‘Queer London’. The blurb contained the following line:

He also describes how London shaped the politics of queer life; and how London was in turn shaped by the lives of queer men.

Queer men, everyone. Not queer people, or the queer community, you’ll notice. This level of erasure of queer women (hello) and non-binary folk did not instil me with great hopes for the exhibition. I was livid before I’d even got through the door.

So I went in thinking it’d be a bit shit and fall short of what the British Queer community deserve. Tate seems to be aware of how easy it is to mess up shows like this. The wall text set out a lot of boundaries and caveats – the show looks at the specific time period 1861 – 1967, the dates of the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy and the partial decriminalisation of sex between men respectively. These dates don’t refer to gay women and it was highlighted throughout the show that gay women were largely ignored by the law. This isn’t the Tate’s fault, obviously, but it irks me nonetheless. The text did contain this nice little phrase ‘this is a history punctuated by bonfires and dustbins’, which succinctly encapsulates the violence experienced by the queer community throughout history. But they’ve also claimed that there is ‘little surviving material’ for some aspects of queer life, which increased my apprehension about whose perspectives the show would platform.

Simeon Solomon’s ‘The Bride, the Bridegroom and Sad Love’ 1865

Like queer history, the show focuses mostly on gay men. Tate did well to try to show a diverse view of queer identities, including two lovers identifying as one person, and various relationships of three people or more. But it is largely a show about white cis gay men.
Diversity of experience aside, the multiplicity of feeling in queer life is shown well. Aubrey Beardsley’s uproarious, erotic and high lols drawings depicts men with massive cocks literally bigger than them. Homoeroticism, sex and humour are at the forefront of these images. Compare these to Simeon Solomon’s The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love, a devastating drawing showing the heartbreak of a homosexual entering into a heterosexual marriage, and leaving behind former lovers. There’s a richness of sexuality and emotion in the works on show.

Aubrey Beardsley ‘The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors’ 1896

Rooms 3 & 4 are nicely juxtaposed, showing two opposite sides of queerness living side by side. ‘Theatrical types’ in room 4 showcases the camp and the glam of queerness, our love of feathers and tiaras, how the theatrical arena has long been a safe space for queer people. This room, with its costumes and photographs of Vaudeville cross dressing stars, is the art historical equivalent of Pride and Drag Race.

Leaving behind the glitz and glamour, the next room, ‘Bloomsbury and Beyond’, is filled largely with images of domesticity, of afternoon tea and vases of flowers. Ethel Sands’ Tea with Sickert shows a warm domestic scene with the table laid for tea, and is hardly an explicit or erotic depiction of homosexuality. Here is the deeply mundane, sheer normality of queer life. In the words of comedian Susan Calman, it’s not all sex swings and dildos.

Ethel Sands’ ‘Tea with Sickert’ 1911-12

A blockbuster show of Queer Art in a major institution is quite something. Undoubtedly it demonstrates the relatively new openness that surrounds the LGBT+ community, and is something to be celebrated as a mark of ‘how far we’ve come’. It’s also easy to get wrong. Tate has managed OK, there are numerous portrayals of non gay-cis-white-male aspects of queerness, and Tate has addressed some shortfallings directly, such as pointing out Edward Wolfe’s racist exoticisation of his black male models, but failed entirely to reference any gay women of colour. Filling the last room with Hockney and Bacon underlined the prominence of white cis gay artists on the queer art scene. Perhaps this is why I found the show a bit dull. If the remit of the show extended past 1967 maybe Tate would not be able to hide behind history as a reason for omitting aspects of queer life.

 

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