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Exploring LGBTQ+ Themes in Hockney to Himid
Dr. Mark Golder
[ Stories )
In celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month, Dr. Mark Golder explores LGBTQ+ artists and themes from our current exhibition, Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking.
I once wrote the introduction to the catalogue of prints by the gay Spanish artist, Roberto Gonzalez Fernandez. One print had a banner in the background, ‘A Rainbow of Sexual Desire’, which aptly sums up not just LGBTQ+ people, but everyone else as well; but given that February is LGBTQ+ History month here are some musings on artists and artworks in the present Hockney to Himid print show.
Howard Hodgkin got married in 1955, the year before I was born, and had two children. At this time gay men faced prison for sexual activity and many married and hid their sexuality. In the 1960s he included David Hockney amongst his friends. In the 1970s his work took off as he grew in self-confidence. Sir Nicholas Serota thought that coming out as gay allowed him to relax and become more expressive. The 70s were my university years and I was cautiously coming out only to selected people. This work from 1981-2 shows Hodgkin going full throttle. Printed in the USA, the palette of black, brown, violet and grey draws me in – it pleases me aesthetically. Each print in the edition is unique because the printer applied three greys in gouache. Hodgkin eventually divorced and gained a gay partner, Antony Peattie. This print is called ‘One Down’ and Mr. Peattie is going to ensure that the companion piece, ‘Two to Go’, will eventually join this one in Pallant’s collection. This coming together of the prints seems apt.
David Hockney is probably still the most famous gay artist in the UK, and his life illustrates perfectly how things changed for some gay men – those with a ‘Don’t give a damn’ attitude – in the 1960s. Coming out for members of the LGBTQ+ community is about self-confidence, as the person comes to terms with their sexuality, their upbringing and their worries about society’s perception of them.
Hockney dared to be himself, although a little teasingly in ‘Kaisarion with all his beauty’ (1961). He produced this as a student, and he had read – just as I did as a student ten years later – the poems of the gay Alexandrian Greek writer Constantine Cavafy. His poems were a revelation to me: someone daring to talk openly – and very beautifully – about longing and loss, about bodies and feelings. ‘Kaisarion’ appears in the poem ‘Alexandrian Kings’. It concerns a beautiful youth, the son of Caesar and Cleopatra, who is paraded through the streets of Alexandria as the next world emperor… but there is a huge sting in the tail. Octavian, Caesar’s adopted Roman son, will ruthlessly eliminate his Greco-Egyptian rival.
For Hockney in the 1960s and for me in the 80s and then for Brian, my partner, in the 90s going to the USA was part of the liberation experience. Walking down Christopher Street in New York and through the Castro District of San Francisco involved walking through ‘our people’, where we were not in a minority. I still remember the macho moustached clone in full leather clutching a rare Doris Day album (Brian could tell me that) walking along Folsom Street.
Hockney too visited New York and then California – although Los Angeles rather than San Fran. He met Peter Schlesinger there and they became partners for a time. Here is ‘Peter’ in a print from 1969, combining etching and aquatint. The perspective in the image is such that you are looking at his face and then can imagine your eye travelling down to his feet, which gives Peter presence and you a sense of immediacy. For me this remains one of the most beautiful depictions of a handsome gay man. Although ‘the male gaze’ can be criticised as possessive and controlling, I cannot help thinking that Peter enjoyed being the model and being looked at. He could so easily be a character in a Cavafy poem.
My final choice is not a work by or about anyone LGBTQ+. In 1967 the South American revolutionary, Che Guevera, was gunned down and images of his corpse soon gained iconic status. This screenprint and collage on paper entitled ‘Letter from Che’ was made by Jo Tilson in 1969. It is a striking image which gives Che something of a Christlike aura, but I’m not including it because of some fetish for images of dead men. When you are part of a minority you always need to choose your allies wisely. Guevera and Castro fought passionately for the overthrow of corrupt regimes and the empowerment of the people… but at a cost for those who were ‘different’. Between 1959 and 1980 openly gay men in Cuba could be arrested on the street and sent to labour camps. Inappropriate clothing and extravagant hairstyles were seen as signs of capitalist corruption in the cities. Castro himself said, ‘In the country, there are no homosexuals’. Things are better in Cuba now, but LGBTQ+ people need to remember that the problem with rights is that once gained they can always disappear.
Mark Golder and his partner Brian Thompson are two private collectors who generously support Pallant House Gallery’s ongoing development of a collection of over 500 contemporary works on paper and ceramics.
You can see these prints and many others in our current exhibition, Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking until April 24 2022.
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Art in Focus: ‘Kaisarion in All His Beauty’ by David Hockney
Our director Simon Martin explores David Hockney’s Kaisarion in All His Beauty (1961) one of the most intriguing prints in our new exhibition Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking, looking at the artist’s background and inspiration for the print.