Sydney Morning Herald Column


Published June 11, 2022
David McDiarmid, 'Q' (1994)

Art is a queer business. That seems to be the overriding message in a monumental show at the National Gallery of Victoria dedicated to shedding light on many aspects of art and social history that have been shunned, misrepresented, or left shrouded in darkness.

Albrecht Dürer, ”St Sebastian at the column

Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection is an extraordinary exhibition that raises many questions. Should it matter whether an artist – or spectator, or critic – is male or female, or some other variation? Do we make different kinds of work, or interpret works differently because of our race or gender? Today such issues can no longer be viewed as peripheral to the museum experience. All the around the world cultural institutions are undertaking a comprehensive reassessment of their core policies, the way they relate to audiences and the kind of art they show.

No museum can ignore this drive towards greater inclusiveness, but it’s not a straightforward process. The desire to do the right thing can also alienate audiences who don’t share these priorities. When we become preoccupied with the artist’s identity it opens the door to new forms of prejudice, allowing the curator to become a crusader on behalf of oppressed minorities rather than a disinterested judge of works of art.

Worcester Royal Porcelain Co., Worcester (manufacturer)
‘Aesthetic teapot’ (1882)

The National Gallery of Australia met this challenge with a Gender Equity Plan, launched as if it were a revolutionary manifesto instead of a dreary bureaucratic document. The National Gallery of Victoria has taken a completely different approach, using an exhibition to make a statement of intent, while leaving considerable scope for speculation and discovery.

Queer includes more than 400 works from the NGV’s permanent collection, dating from ancient times to the present day. The show is complemented by a catalogue so large it virtually requires wheels to get it home. It is a collaborative project that has brought together most of the NGV’s curators and a host of outside specialists. Among dozens of essays some will always be better than others, but the overall standard is impressive.

Leigh Bowery, ‘The Metropolitan’ (c. 1988)

The first stumbling block for most visitors will be the word, “queer”. The catalogue is at pains to explain that it doesn’t simply refer to art associated with the LGBQT+ community – if one can imagine a “community” made up of so many diverse actors. Countless straight artists have made “queer” art, and even cultural icons such as Shakespeare and Michelangelo have had their queer moments. The verb “to queer” implies a way of looking at things from an oblique, unconventional angel.

In the view of the Russian formalists the fundamental role of art was to “make strange” that which is familiar, so it could be argued all art is inherently queer. When a term becomes this broad-ranging it’s almost meaningless. Or rather, it can mean whatever one wants it to mean – a congenial notion for those who believe gender is, or should be, fluid. To such people, the big no-no is not heterosexuality, but “heteronormativity”: the idea that the world is made up of men and women who get married and have kids, then see everything else as a deviation from normality.

Duncan Grant, ‘The bathers’ (c. 1926-1933)

With this project one should not be surprised to find that most works deal with homosexuality – overt or concealed, celebrated or repressed. Queer is full of homo-heroes and haters, going back to Greek and Roman times. In one sweep we can sample Achilles’s adventures as warrior and cross-dresser; George Cruikshank’s savage parodies of the dandies and “exquisites” of the early 19thcentury; the gay lib activist art of Davd McDiarmid, and multiple expressions of queer indigenous art. There clusters devoted to gay icon, Saint Sebastian, and to the crossdressing actors of the Kabuki theatre. There are stories of kings and queens, amazons and movie stars. It’s an amazing visual education, backed up with long, unusually interesting wall labels.

Next time I walk down Castlereagh Street, I shall think of Viscount Castlereagh, for whom the street was named. An engraving after a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, is accompanied by a label that tells how the former Secretary for the Colonies committed suicide after being entrapped in a homosexual act.

John Richardson Jackson (engraver), Thomas Lawrrence (after), ‘Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh’, (1843)

As if to prove that anything at all can be “queered”, one surprising inclusion is a self-portrait by J.S. MacDonald, the former director of the Art Gallery of NSW (1929-36), and the NGV (1936-40), known for his ferocious diatribes against Modernists, women artists, Jews and “pansies”. I know it’s naïve to view historical figures through the lens of our own more liberal attitudes, but MacDonald is beyond recuperation. One of the most repugnant figures in Australian art history, he is used in this show as the bad genie of heteronormativity.

J.S.MacDonald, ‘Self-Portrait’ (1922)

On the other side of the equation are those artists such as Margaret Preston and Rupert Bunny, who spent their formative years in same-sex relationships before eventually settling into married life. Neither artist’s sexual identity was much of an issue until quite recently, when it has become a subject of huge interest. Does such a discovery make us think more or less of Preston or Bunny as artists? Their paintings are just the same, even if their private lives now seem a bit more complicated.

An artist such as Agnes Goodsir lived openly in a lesbian relationship in Paris, but this never seemed to draw comment when her works were exhibited in Australia. The focus was on the paintings, which sent out no obvious signals about the ties between artist and model. Even if Goodsir had been more revealing it’s doubtful anyone would have noticed. It’s a truism that people are blind to things in front of their noses if they are not accustomed to looking in a certain way. When the mental frameworks don’t exist, the eyes are unlikely to register any anomalies.

Nevertheless, there are pieces that leave one wondering how anyone, of any era, could miss the sexual implications. Think of all those ‘slave market’ paintings shown in the Paris Salons and the Royal Academy, all those nude goddesses from classical mythology. No matter how beautifully painted, they are soft porn in gold frames, given an air of respectability by the lofty aura of ‘history painting’.

St George Hare, ‘The victory of faith’, (c. 1890-1891)

One of the most notorious examples in the NGV collection is St. George Hare’s The victory of faith (1890-91). It depicts two naked slave girls, one white and one black, lying snuggled together in a dungeon, awaiting martyrdom the next morning. This painting has it all: sex and death, bondage, slavery, and cross-racial lesbianism. It’s kinkier than Courbet’s Le Sommeil (1866), which depicts two naked women asleep in each other’s arms. The difference is that Courbet’s work was viewed as forbidden erotica, whereas Hare’s was a noble tribute to the Christian faith.

For as long as art history has been written it has been assumed that artists were basically heterosexual, with occasional unfortunate lapses. This doesn’t resemble any art community I’ve ever known, but it would be just as wrong to assume that everyone we thought was straight was actually queer. The result of such thinking is a movie such Ammonite (2020) in which the Victorian-era fossil hunter, Mary Anning, was given a lesbian love life when nothing at all is known about her sexual preferences.

David McDiarmid, ‘Body language’ (1990), from the Kiss of light series

It’s hard to walk away from Queer without being touched by the vertiginous excitement of this project, but we need to remember that the best art transcends the messy facts of human identity, like a flower arising from a pile of compost. When we are too eager to define ourselves as anything, even “queer”, it’s already a form of intellectual complacency. When we imagine we enjoy a special distinction because of who we are, not what have achieved or might achieve, it’s a recipe for mediocrity.

One may sympathise with Leonard Woolf, who argued against the banning of Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, in 1928, while arguing that it ”failed completely as a work of art”. Virginia Woolf also defended the book, although she found it painfully dull. Not everybody would agree with the Woolfs’ high-toned views about what constituted good and bad art, but it’s important they were smart enough to separate the issue from the aesthetics. In the brave new world that lies beyond heteronormativity we need to be able to make the same clear distinctions.




Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,

10 March – 21 August, 2022

NOT Published in the Sydney Morning Herald,  11 June, 2022