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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality and began the long journey to equality between homosexual and heterosexual couples. To celebrate this, we’ve already shone a light on some of the extraordinary queer stories nestled among the nation’s portrait collection – from the premature ending of E. M. Forster’s novel-writing career to the pioneering androgyny of authors Radclyffe Hall and Vernon Lee.

But what about pushing the boundaries of gender in the nation’s art itself? Many artists have turned to photography as a powerful medium to capture stories of LGBTQ communities across the world, with powerful results. It’s not something you expect to see in more traditional media.

As with most themes on Art UK, if you look, it’s there: explorations of gender, captured within oil paintings. Here we tell the stories of some very different works of art, created by very different artists, that have asked what gender really means. 

Allen Jones

Starting in the 1960s, Allen Jones' collection of paintings on Art UK are bold and brash. 

To put it mildly, Jones’ work has provoked debate. A quick search throws up a smattering of headlines from 2014, when the Royal Academy held a retrospective. They include: ‘Is Allen Jones' sculpture the most sexist art ever?’ (The Guardian), ‘Allen Jones: I think of myself as a feminist’ (The Guardian), ‘Allen Jones, the sculptor who turned half-naked women into chairs’ (The Daily Mail) and ‘Allen Jones: The model of misogyny?’ (The Independent).

The discussion largely revolves around Jones’ sculptures of women as furniture, Hat Stand, Table and Chair. Does this work hold up a mirror to the nature of gender and force us to see its absurdity – or is it just voyeuristic?

But if we step away from the lively discussion around a gold-plated Kate Moss and women as furniture, Jones’ paintings tell a more nuanced tale of gender. Two in particular explore the idea, articulated by Jones, that ‘there are elements of male and female within everybody’s character’: the blurring of lines between the sexes.

Hermaphrodite

Hermaphrodite 1963

Allen Jones (b.1937)

Hermaphrodite and Man Woman are both early paintings, made six years before the controversial sculptures, and with their bold colours and abstract figures they can be seen as joyful liberations of gender. Today, the idea that gender is a spectrum is not radical (and the term 'hermaphrodite' has been retired, with 'intersex' used for people who have both male and female sexual anatomy). When Jones made these paintings, several years before the 1967 Act, the idea that we all contain elements of ‘male’ and ‘female’ was decades away from the zeitgeist, and yet this ‘intermingling of the sexes’ is a theme that resonates throughout his work.

Man Woman

Man Woman 1963

Allen Jones (b.1937)

 

Jones was influenced by the writings of Nietzsche, and in particular the idea that we all need elements of ‘male’ and ‘female’ to achieve full artistic expression. An idea ahead of its time, overshadowed by the furore surrounding Jones' later sculptures. 

Rosa Bonheur

Bonheur was a nineteenth-century French artist, whose collection of paintings on Art UK are largely studies of animals in muted browns. Her most famous work, The Horse Fair, is a colossal five metres wide, and was personally admired by Queen Victoria. The original is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the National Gallery has a scaled-down copy.

Rosa was herself gay, remarking ‘As far as males go, I only like the bulls I paint’.

The Horse Fair

The Horse Fair 1855

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) and Nathalie Micas (c.1824–1899)

Bonheur used masculine dress as a practicality: she wanted to paint animals, but was now allowed into slaughterhouses and livestock markets, so disguised herself as a man (with a special permit from the Parisian police) to gain entry. The Met describes how Bonheur would also dress as a man while sitting sketching in Paris, to avoid unwanted attention while she worked.

Bonheur was a pioneering feminist, following in the footsteps of her father. But her beliefs did not make the leap into her work: she painted in a conventional, 'manly' way, wanting to capture the realism of her animal subjects (even leading one admiring critic to praise her: 'she paints like a man'). 

And yet, La Retour du Moulin, below, is different. The androgynous-looking figure behind the horse and the donkey may well be Rosa Bonheur herself. As described by the Walker Art Gallery:

‘... it has been suggested that Bonheur included several discreet portraits of herself in male clothes in her paintings to celebrate her nonconformity. In Le Retour du Moulin the miller is partly obscured, his face hidden by the shadow of his hat. Could this be one of those self-portraits?'

Le retour du moulin

Le retour du moulin 1850–1870

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899)

Bonheur suffered something of a dip in popularity during her lifetime, but recent shows have revisited her works – and The Horse Fair is on every visitors’ must-see list for the Met.

Rosa was herself gay, remarking ‘As far as males go, I only like the bulls I paint’, and she lived for some time with her partner, the American artist Anna Klumpke.

Margaret Harrison

‘I never set out to be controversial. To me, everything I tackled seemed to make perfect sense that it should be examined and that I should endeavor to find a form to deal with issues that were invisible.’

It was April, 1971, and Margaret Harrison’s ‘one person feminist show’ – the first of its kind – had been hung and was ready for the public to see. The images included a scantily-clad woman lying in the middle of a sandwich, Hugh Hefner wearing a playboy bunny outfit, Captain America with breasts, and a naked woman with a Minnie Mouse head, below.

The works, Harrison has said, ‘questioned the idea of having a fixed sexuality’. She used her art to play with stock images of the time, the kind seen frequently in advertising, in magazines, on cinema screens: ‘I began to realise that there is no strict dividing line between sexualities. There’s a bit of each gender in all of us. I guess, in my own way, I was trying to deal with that’. The disparity with which we treat popular images of men and women was laid bare (sometimes literally) for all to see. 

The day after the show opened, it was closed down by the police on grounds of indecency.

The image of Hugh Hefner was considered too ‘indecent’ to be on public display – yet you could walk out of the exhibition, into a newsagents and buy a copy of Playboy magazine, the women inside similarly clad. Harrison said that the objection was not to the way she presented women, but to the way she’d shown men: how dare she alter the male body, in what was seen as a mocking or demeaning way?

Harrison's later work Rape, which caused the show it was in to be moved away from the Serpentine (described as a ‘family gallery’) to the Hayward Gallery, was also used by teachers at the Battersea Arts Centre to introduce pupils to the issue. The Rape Crisis Centre held sessions for women to use the art as a jumping-off point for victims to discuss what had happened to them. It might seem from this that Harrison courted headlines: but as she said, ‘I never set out to be controversial. To me, everything I tackled seemed to make perfect sense that it should be examined and that I should endeavor to find a form to deal with issues that were invisible.’

Molly Tresadern, Art UK Content Creator and Marketer

Did you know?
  • The Walker Art Gallery's 'Coming Out' exhibition will be the first to focus on queer art made after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act
  • Rosa Bonheur's legacy lives on in a bar named after her in Paris – which is often home to a large gay crowd