This thoughtful, illuminating, often moving and comprehensive exhibition covers the period from the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in 1967 – about which act I wrote in my last posting.
It is a celebration and a revelation of how gay lesbian and transgender artists – painters, sculptors, photographers, actors, entertainers, photographers – made their mark, acknowledged each other and celebrated themselves at a time when to publically acknowledge ones sexuality – and certainly celebrate it in any way - would be a certain, sometimes literal, death sentence.
But to the exhibition. It is divided into eight distinct foci which cover the period but look at different aspects of the LGBTQ experience and life during this time –and for each one the language used to name the name of the section is significant.
Coded desires: This first section cover chronologically almost exclusively the first decades of the exhibition timeline -although this concept recurs in other areas of the show.
In the late 19th/early 20th centuries gay artists, of whatever role, had to rely on a certain linguistic and visual ‘code’ to communicate to their kind. This code could not be too explicit (less it be ‘read’ by those who would wish it harm) but which had to be clear enough to be ‘read’ by those in the know and to say ‘I am with you’ – the ‘green carnation’ effect, one might say.
At this time there was an increasing interest in Hellenism and Ancient Greece, a greater awareness of the classical world and its influence, an increasing emphasis on ‘the beautiful’ (much influenced by Walter Pater and his seminal work of aesthetic philosophy ‘The Renaissance’) . One way in which this was shown was in the unabashed admiration of the youthful male form (acceptable because Michaelangelo’s David an icon of western Art) along with ‘authentic’ nudity of athletes (historically accurate painting!).
With this approach, there could be unabashed looking at the beautiful male form which, to the LGBT community would mean more and could, indirectly, speak in ways that would be lost on the straight community (the rest of society). A figure like Leighton’s The Sluggard, while on one level making a point about something that was if not a vice, then certainly not a virtue, was here expressed in a strongly erotic depiction of the youthful and muscular male form.
This first section was a fascinating insight into this coded world. Another example was Richmond’s The Bowlers with the slimly slightly androgynous young men draped around each other. But of course to non-gay eyes this would be a soundly and historically accurate depiction of Sports in Ancient Greece.
However, there were some artists who were less coded. The Simeon Simon who lived as an open gay man at this time was someone who spoke in a far less coded manner – both in his art and in his life. Others were just somewhat more blatant – Henry Scott Tuke –with his ‘plein air’ paintings of youths in Cornwall I felt was pretty unsubtle in what he depicted and how he depicted. The beauty of a young male body, in glowing sunlight was the end in itself and one could only go so far in merely admiring the brushstrokes and the play of sunlight on skin.