Queer art has had a place in popular culture for centuries in spite of dangerously repressive and inhospitable attitudes towards homosexuality that could lead to imprisonment and even death, but in honor of Pride month we take a look at 10 influential 20th century artists whose depictions of covert love and desire helped fling open the doors of awareness of the LGBTQ+ experience.
“I feel ever so strongly that an artist must be nourished by his passions and his despairs. These things alter an artist whether for the good or the better or the worse,” Francis Bacon
The styles, strategies and mediums might have varied, but the message of queer empowerment has steadily grown as the 20th century has progressed, with an increasing number of artists addressing LGBTQA+ matters and their life experience via their work as laws and attitudes have relaxed.
Many of these pioneering artists have been leading lights for change. Queer art has questioned and transformed assumptions about gender and sexuality, examined identity politics, the queer experience, and significantly expanded awareness of major LGBTQA+ campaigns, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s.
This slow incline of queer acceptance has elevated only a select few artists to mainstream success, while others have continued work to highlight their experience in an evolving society. To celebrate Pride month, we have put together a list of 10 influential, pioneering, or groundbreaking queer artists who have positively impacted culture.
Francis Bacon’s figurative, raw, and unsettling paintings have always marked him out. And in his Figures in a Landscape that raw and disturbing theme is continued in a dark and brooding painting that shows two wrestlers becoming lovers. Or is it two lovers becoming enemies? Or two platonic friends desperately trying to reveal their true selves in a closeted 1950s England? Either way, the theme of criminalised love seems especially raw in the painting, with the double bed appearing to double as a crime scene, as homosexuality could bring with it a prison-sentence at the time.
Originally Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, Cahun was a pioneer of the early 20th century in more ways than one as they refused to identify with a gender, something that was practically unheard of in the 1910s. The French surrealist photographer challenged traditional concepts of gender roles, femininity, and norms, which is perfectly encapsulated in a series of self-portraits that blur the lines of identity and rework representations of femininity. Cahun has been regarded as a trans artist ahead of their time and has influenced photographers including Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin.
The American photographer is best known for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, in which she explores LGBT subcultures, moments of intimacy, and in particular the post-Stonewall gay subculture of the 1970s and 80s. Her work critiques gender norms and shines a light on the desire to form connections regardless of the emotional or physical cost. There’s also a voyeuristic quality, but Goldin insists she’s sharing the same experiences as her subjects and appears in some of her own work: “I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history.”
Much more than mere dancing figures and dogs set against bright and bold colored backgrounds, Keith Haring’s art was also a powerful form of social activism that advocated for safe sex through his colorful murals. The playful and provocative yet socially-conscious artworks form an important part of gay history and identity, which is reflected in the fact that he was inducted into the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the New York Stonewall National Monument in 2019.
Hockney’s cultural significance shouldn’t be underplayed. His series of modernist pool pictures have delighted viewers since 1966 and wowed bidders with record breaking auction prices, but his Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, showing his lover and art student Peter Schlesinger emerging from sparkling blue water that is a powerful symbol of gay fantasy.
Bringing to mind Titian’s Venus Anadyomene, the painting has added significance as it was awarded the prestigious John Moores prize in the year homosexuality was decriminalised. It’s his We Two Boys Together Clinging from his second year at the Royal College of Art in 1951, however, that shows his determination to paint as he pleased with his protagonists kissing at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in England.
Today, Laura Knight is a well-respected member of the British art establishment who was the first woman to be accepted as a full academician of the Royal Academy and was made a Dame by the Queen. In the early 1900s though, her paintings of nude female figures were scandalous. Her self-portrait from 1913 shows Knight with a nude female model, which critics described as “vulgar”. Knight tore down patriarchal walls with soft eroticism at a time when women weren’t allowed to attend life drawing classes. Knight continued this progression with The Bather, in which she established a new precedent, as it was unknown for a woman to paint a female nude outdoors.
Mixing traditional photography with more subversive subjects, Catherine Opie has built a reputation for boldly addressing sexual identity and exploring how queer people relate to their own communities. Often, Opie’s photography subverts traditional modes of feminine beauty and gender norms and challenges the patriarchal notions of the male gaze and hyper-sexualized images of women.
English Impressionist painter, Henry Scott Tuke wasn’t afraid to give his seaside paintings a distinctly homoerotic lilt and made a name for himself painting young Cornish men bathing. The viewer’s perspective is that of the adoring voyeur in paintings that are often sensual in subject matter, tonality and brushstroke, without every veering towards seedy. As a result he has a number of celebrity fans, including Elton John, who is a keen Tukes collector and lent 11 of his own pieces for an exhibition in Falmouth, England in 2008.
He’s one of the most conspicuous artists of the 20th century, known the world over for his pop art images of Campbell’s soup and the multicolored high camp screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. But, Andy Warhol also applied his distinctive aesthetic to homoerotic sketches during the 1950s when he was struggling to find recognition as a fine artist and encountered homophobic rejection from gallery owners when he tried to exhibit his drawings in New York. However, his homoerotic exhibition of male torsos was considerably better received when exhibited in Paris in 1977.
Driven by the need to raise awareness for the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Wojnarowicz was known to use art for political activism and as a result his work often carries an immediate visual impact with a clear and concise message, as showcased in the arresting One Day This Kid. Devastatingly, much of his work was fuelled by his own struggle with the disease, which he eventually passed away from in 1992, but his fierce critique of American political social systems and how marginalised gay people were treated remains a vital voice for the LGBTQA+ community.