For thousands of years, queer artists could not express any kind of love or desire that went against the Church’s teaching that relationships consisted of one man, one woman. However, today, while the LGBTQIA community still faces more than their fair share of hurdles, artists can paint whatever they want. This doesn’t mean that these artists won’t receive criticism from various regressive communities, but, now, queer artists have the freedom to create whatever they want to paint.
This wasn’t always the case, though. In the past, queer artists had to be careful what they painted. But even then, many often painted coded messages into their work. In April of 2017, the Tate Museum in London held the “Queer British Art (1861-1967)” exhibition. Not only did this exhibition show queer artists’ work, but it also explored the coded expressions queer artists used before being LGBTQIA was no longer a crime in Britain.
Before it was safe to be openly gay, artists often used academic guises, such as Greek mythology, to show queer love. An example of this is Frederick Leighton’s “Daedalus and Icarus,” which he painted in 1869. The painting hinted of relationships between older men, acting as mentors to younger men.
In the latter part of the 19th century and early into the 20th century, queer symbols in art became a bit more overt. For example, in Edmund Dulac’s “Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints,” the artist shows two men dressed in monastic habits, with one man holding a peacock feather.
The peacock feather refers to the act of gay men using fashionable symbols, such as peacock feathers or dyed green carnations worn in their jacket lapels. This was an easy way for gay men to identify each other while it was still a crime to be gay.
In Jacques-Emile Blanche’s 1895 portrait of Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, the subject flaunts a pink flower on his jacket. No one knows whether Beardsley was gay, but it was well known that his agreeing to be painted with a gay symbol in his jacket was in support of his friend, the writer Oscar Wilde, who had just been imprisoned for being gay.
While it’s no longer a crime to be gay, some artists carry forward the tradition of including gay iconography in their work. Alexander Glass, a London-based sculptor has created an installation that shows a men’s locker room. Glass has designed the locker to look unlike what most men’s locker rooms look like.
“For me, they are places where masculinity can be examined, and I attempt to do this through my aesthetic and material choices,” Glass says. “The aesthetic of what I present is a surface under which a bigger conversation is taking place.”
In William Strang’s “Lady with a Red Hat,” the color red of the woman’s hat and the red of her book is an indication of passion. The woman who sat for this painting, Vita Sackville-West, was Virginia Woolf’s lover for ten years and inspired Woolf’s protagonist in Orlando.
Today’s queer artists have more freedom to create in any way they deem appropriate. However, all LGBTQIA artists are prone to blowback from regressive people and groups. Therefore, if you’re an art lover, do some research on current queer artists and support them. You can start by checking out these artists.