Queer love in art transcends time and space

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There’s no doubt that Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” and Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” are iconic portrayals of love, desire and sexuality, but they are far from the only ones. Unfortunately, our current art historical canon prioritizes accounts of white, male, cisgender, and straight artists, portraying themes that thus align with the experiences of this demographic. However, once one dips one’s toe outside of the canon, powerful tales of love and yearning between people of color and LGBTQ people begin to unfold like a beautiful storybook.

While readers should research this artistic depiction for their own enrichment, whether through a quick Google search or a visit to an art gallery, here is a list of some of my favorite visual artists who depict queer love.

Zanele Muholi

Representing queer love “…means celebrating and acknowledging the presence and existence of all those who have been denied their right to love”, Explain Zanele Muholi, iconic South African queer photographer and visual activist. Muholi is one of many contemporary artists around the world challenging the negative rhetoric surrounding LGBTQ identities, specifically tackling the misconception that homosexuality is un-African. Muholi is well versed in portraiture and self-portraiture, as shown in her most recent exhibition ‘Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness’: a series of self-portraits examining the intersectionality between race, gender and sexuality within her own black queer body.

Zanele Muholi, “Sibusiso, Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy”, 2015. (Glasgow School of Art, Flickr)

Simeon Solomon

Due to the taboo nature of queer love just 50 years ago, some might have expected this list to include only contemporary art. However, Simeon Solomon’s Raphaelite-era paintings, which depict relationships between queer and Jewish figures, shatter that expectation decidedly. Solomon is an illustrious, yet again underrated 19th century painter who was both gay and Jewish and worked in Victorian England. As described in a recent CNN article covering Solomon’s work, his painting “Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene” is took into consideration to be one of the “first representations of homosexual female desire made for a gallery audience in the West”. Describing the story of Sappho, an iconic tale of lesbian love, the work highlights Solomon’s subtle references to controversial identities. At that time, only classic motifs and traditions, like the story of Sappho, could be invoked as a reference to gay love, surreptitiously attracting queer viewers. While cisgender and straight viewers may have thought it was just a retelling of a Greek tale, others may have felt portrayed and celebrated for their desire and their lives. Unsurprisingly, Solomon’s career has been to cut short due to his scandal and arrest for possible homosexual activity with men in 1873 and 1874, as the art and political worlds often tried to silence LGBTQ people.

Simeon Solomon, “Sappho and Erinna in a garden at Mytilene”, 1864 (snl.no/Creative Commons)

Sunil Gupta

Intersectionality is central to the queer community, as we are only strengthened by the many other identities we bring to the table. Sunil Gupta is the perfect example of this, as an inspiring photographer and activist who lives in London and was born in New Delhi, India. Some of his most famous works are narrative portraits from the 1980s, where he worked in the UK alongside the Autograph ABP (Association of Black Photographers) through the British black arts movement. Gupta focuses on themes of desire and liberation for people marginalized due to race and sexuality, and he has had exhibitions all on the other side the globe. The photographer was part of a photograph 10 characteristic on the experience of people of color in London in 1986, which features a photograph of himself and his partner. He often works with images of himself alongside his white partner or photos of other long-term queer relationships, taking the simple portrait format and adding a socio-political statement. These queer couples, placed in recognizable settings and enjoying everyday activities, negate any homophobic assumptions about queer life, allowing them to occupy the space that was often denied to them. Something as simple as a portrait can contain various layers relating to both the artist’s own queer history and the broader socio-political status of his fellow queer people of color.

Sunil Gupta, “Untitled (from Reflections of the Black Experience)”, 1986. (Tate.org.uk)

Felix Gonzalez-Torres

While the previous three artists have all used powerful figurative representations to celebrate queer love and identity, Félix González-Torres is a master at using symbolic and non-figurative forms to highlight these themes. He specializes in ephemeral installations and conceptual minimalist technique. One of the most poignant works by González-Torres, with which I had the privilege of interacting at the Art Institute of Chicago, is his “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA)”, a symbolic elegy to his lover Ross who died of AIDS. This work of art is made up of candies wrapped in sparkling rainbow cellophane. Visitors are allowed to take the stack, which is replenished daily up to the demarcated initial weight of 175 pounds, the ideal weight for an average man. As the day continues in the galleries, that weight wears off just as Ross’ weight dropped sharply when he battled AIDS. González-Torres’ elegant and eye-catching sculptural forms are masterpieces of metaphor, often celebrating his deep love for Ross and the traumatic loss that his death was. Each work by González-Torres leaves me both joyful in a loving and nostalgic way, and emotionally painful in the face of stories of queer oppression.

Félix González-Torres, “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA)”, 1991. (Vilseskogen, Flickr, 2011)

Louise Abbema

No list of queer artists is complete without the mention of iconic lesbian painter and sculptor Louise Abbéma and her lover, actress Sarah Bernhardt. Together they took the French art world and cultural scene took by storm during the Belle Époque in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While Abbéma painted Very healthy from an early age, she became known at the age of 23 for her portraits of Bernhardt (qualified as “Divine Sarah” by her fans), quite famous at the time. Abbéma even became Bernhardt’s official portrait painter. I can only imagine what a power couple these two iconic, dynamic and eccentric artists were. Their own geniuses together propelled them into celebrity status at the time, and it’s a shame we don’t hear their names as often as we hear the names of cisgender and heterosexual male artists of the Belle Époque like James Whistler. (think Whistler’s mother) or Henri Rousseau.

Louise Abbéma, Portrait of Sophia Bernhardt. (Irina, Flickr, 2016)

While this list is by no means exhaustive, as queer people have existed and created art for all of human existence, these five artists are an incredible starting point for understanding how queer love can be honored at through the portrait. Whether it’s falling in love with yourself or a partner, love is an essential part of building a stronger, more vibrant queer community. As these portraits of love show, the queer community is not a monolith, but rather a rainbow of experiences and passions that can enrich the world.

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