Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
Queer Art, Queer Histories, Queer Lives
Dr. Paul Bench
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As part of Pride Month 2022, researcher and lecturer Dr. Paul Bench, discusses the identification of Glyn Philpot as a queer artist.
Pride month prompts us to think about and celebrate the multitude of identities encompassed by the LGBTQIA+ initialism. It also points to the necessity of drawing attention to the representation and rights afforded to these identities because they are still marginalised and the focus of prejudice. Pride functions as an opposition to the shame that has been the lot of many people under the LGBTQIA+ banner. One way to stake a claim for queer cultural space is by acknowledging and championing the art of this community. Today in the UK, we see and hear from activists, social media influencers, writers, celebrities and artists, who discuss their multiple, intersecting identities. These visible and vocal figures are able to tell us how they identify. The situation is different when we discuss historical figures and their artworks, as in the case of Glyn Philpot, whose amazing body of work is currently on show at Pallant House Gallery in the first retrospective for decades.
From the 1970s, the Lesbian and Gay movement, as it was then commonly known, made strides both for political equality and cultural representation. It was a movement and generation hungry to know its past, as it strove towards improving conditions for its future. We know the truism of the rallying cry ‘We have always been here’, but who are ‘we’ and how do we find our past? Early phases of the movement did valuable work in recording and archiving oral histories of lesbian and gay experience. There were also moves to reclaim cultural figures and their works, which had long been subsumed in canonical histories, cleansed of the taint of queerness or excused and sanctified. This was matched by attempts to rediscover overlooked, undervalued and ignored queer historical figures and cultural works.
These strategies continue to be important but are not simple or easy. Making a queer reading of a historical figure, artwork, object or other cultural text, is a demanding process. It requires an extra layer of thought, research and careful consideration if it is not to be undermined. It is salutary to understand that this is an imposition on the researcher of queer histories, which is not conventionally applied to historians and commentators who assume the heterosexuality and gender normative identities of their subjects. A hetero- and gender-normative interpretation is rarely challenged. In British histories at least, it has been the widely accepted baseline, the expected, the norm and the ideal.
The way we understand gender and sexuality is culturally contingent. How we think about our bodies, romances, sexual practices, desires and self-presentation, as well as the way we describe these and are described by others, depends on where and when we live. The cultures that structure how we think and name such factors change over time and are different across the world. Early attempts to reclaim particular Renaissance artists or figures from the classical world as gay, were quickly undermined by those who pointed to historical differences in the way sexuality, gender and relationships were understood and performed in the past. It is important not to graft a historic life onto the template of contemporary identities, but resistance to such reclamation conveniently worked to belittle the significance of queer relationships or deny the possibility of a queer desiring gaze from a heterosexist standpoint. There is often particular resistance to readings of male homosexuality and gender transgression because heteronormative masculinity is so central to western patriarchal societies. Deviation from this cultural standard has frequently been received as a threat.
When we discuss historical people and cultural works, we can acknowledge the details we know and do not know. However, we also need not understate a position of difference and/or factors such as non-normative gender presentation or desire, when these are evident in specific contexts. We can remain vigilant for the traces of internalised homophobia inculcated in many of us from long exposure to cultures in which the spectrum of LGBTQIA+ has not been accommodated, if not openly discriminated against. We must not make overblown assumptions. However, we must also not underplay what is staring us in the face. We can also look harder for more subtle evidence of queerness, which has often been forced to exist in the silences and margins of history.
Tate Britain’s exhibition, Queer British Art: 1867-1967 in 2017, inspired robust discussion, highlighting the fraught nature of LGBTQIA+ experience and the contentious grounds on which our existing rights and freedoms have been won. This contention reflects the way activist and cultural movements have developed. For some, queer/lesbian/gay art needs to clearly represent homoeroticism. The sexuality of naked bodies, perhaps in contact and/or by artist’s whose biographies or testimony point securely to homosexuality, have provided the most direct ways of making a queer reading. Others objected to the absence or under-representation of particular identities in the Tate’s exhibition. These concerns are different in Pallant House Gallery’s Philpot retrospective. Its focus on this single artist provides opportunities for specific and detailed outlines of historical context, which in addition to the evident homoeroticism of some works, situate Philpot within the emerging queer canon with some stability.
The use of ‘queer’ in the Tate’s exhibition also proved controversial. It is increasingly common for queer to stand in for LGBTQIA+ in contemporary casual conversation. Today, for some, it offers a convenient label indicating the reclamation of a slur and a position of social difference, ambiguously linked to non-normative gender and/or sexuality. The ambiguity of queer, its ability to encompass diverse lives, behaviours, objects, effects and affects, is also useful to the historian. Making a queer reading of a historic painting, such as by Philpot, indicates that we are not trying to claim him as ‘gay’ or make definitive statements about his life and work. A queer reading is rather offered as one possible interpretation amongst others, a sensitivity often missing from more declamatory histories of the past. The term queer is also particularly apt for Philpot’s period of artistic output because while not used exactly as it is now, Philpot and his coterie would have recognised the term and its indirect linkage to non-normative sexuality and/or gender expression. The use of ‘gay’ to indicate a homosexual identity did not come into common parlance until the mid-late twentieth century, while ‘homosexual’ is a medicalised term predicated on sexual object choice, which does not fully account for the variety of experiences, emotions and practices of a queer life.
Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit performs an important service in recuperating Philpot as a significant but until now, largely overlooked artist. Philpot’s work has been subject to the vagaries of fashion and perhaps his notable stylistic switch and the opaque symbolic quality of his later works has confused or alienated audiences at different moments. As gallery director Simon Martin points out, many works also resided in private homes, unavailable to the wider public. Other factors have hindered Philpot’s legacy, including his position in Britain of the interwar period and his queerness.
In the past, some art historians have regarded British art as creatively stagnant in the 1920s and 30s, at best derivative of progressive French movements. It is sometimes possible to detect veiled prejudices including homophobia (internalised or otherwise), in such narratives. Queer British male artists and women artists have often been diminished in histories that reiterate rhetoric established by particular interwar voices on art and design. These arguments include accusations of insufficient experimentation and conceptual gravity in favour of conservative subjects and decorative appeal. Such a stance was levelled at Bloomsbury artists by figures such as Vorticist artist Wyndham Lewis, whose homophobia and other prejudices were not concealed. This argument of style over substance overlays and intones the binary opposition of masculinity over femininity, in a culture in which decoration was regarded as feminine/effeminate, and effeminacy in men was broadly received as a sign of homosexuality.
Philpot cannot be aligned to the hetero-machismo so associated with his venerated continental contemporaries, such as Picasso. Although his work can be linked to branches of realism inflected with the psychological unease Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories inspired, well-known surrealists were notoriously homophobic and Philpot was not explicitly part of this movement. While others were producing realist paintings in a related style in this period in Britain, a picture of Philpot emerges as something of a lone artistic operator, albeit within a privileged and substantial queer network. Like so much queer art, I read introspection, utopic fantasy and a queer gaze in the images he made. These factors supplement his known relationships to his sitters and his use of allegory as alibis for his queer interests. In view of this and the quality of his works, I urge better recognition that Philpot made a significant contribution to British art, as well as acknowledgement of the centrality of his queer subjectivity to the work he produced.
Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit is on until 23rd October 2022.
Dr Paul Bench is a researcher and lecturer in historical and cultural studies at multiple universities, with his primary focus being queer histories and visual cultures. You can follow him on Instagram @paulbench