Final year BA (Hons) History of Art and Design student An Nguyen Ngoc reviews a current exhibition at Brighton Museum
In November, Brighton Museum opened a new exhibition exploring the life and work of twentieth century artist Gluck (1895-1978), who is now recognised as a trailblazer of gender fluidity. I first learned about the exhibition soon before its opening, when I was taken on a volunteers’ tour of the Museum store and shown a photograph of Gluck in a tailored suit (Image 1), a copy of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness from Virago Classics, and clothing belonging to Gluck and lovers. The objects were sufficient to demonstrate that the curator – Martin Pel – would not simply be creating a narrative of Gluck’s life. Instead, that the exhibition would encompass the complexities and diversity of the artist’s life and works, presenting not only artworks but also personal artefacts, press materials and an impressive display of Gluck’s clothing.
Gluck, born Hannah Gluckstein, was a member of a wealthy Jewish family in London, where the artist had attended art school to train as a painter. The identity, established with ‘no prefix, suffix or quotes’ was accompanied by Gluck’s appearance, often sporting tailored menswear, masculine barber-cut short hair and mannish demeanour. Much like their unwillingness to adopt a gendered title, the artist displayed no association with any group or movements, despite mixing with circles of artists and having run away to Cornwall with fellow art students during World War I. Displayed only in solo shows and seldom exhibited, Gluck’s artworks have gained cult status among collectors for their technical mastery and the extent to which biographical elements permeate through the canvas’s surface. A pioneering creative in queer history, it is not surprising that Gluck’s personal history has become relevant in contemporary investigation of attitudes towards queer expression of gender, as well as the social forces which cultivated the presentation of the artist’s identity. Hence the diversity of artefacts on display in ‘Gluck: Art and Identity’.
In the exhibition the first of two galleries displays earlier paintings (Image 2), mostly dating from before the artist’s first solo show, and some personal artefacts. These include meticulous documentation of the artist’s lovers, accompanied by notes and letters from the artist. It is also through this display that viewers are introduced to the forensic nature of ‘Art and Identity’. The curators do not hesitate to portray Gluck’s love life, albeit passionate, as turbulent too. Yet the artist’s queer expression – and the fact that Gluck’s homosexual affairs may not have been the happiest – can be assessed by viewers against contemporary attitudes, such as those expressed in articles which question the artist’s gender expression and sexuality, displayed nearby. In none of these instances, however, is Gluck’s contribution to twentieth century British painting diminished: portraits and landscapes from the interwar period are displayed with paintings of Constance Spry’s floral arrangements, reminding viewers of Gluck’s accomplishment as a painter.
An even more rewarding display is that of Gluck’s clothing in the second room. Here, material constituents of gender and Gluck’s ‘queer’ aesthetics become even more prominent. Two painter’s smocks (Image 3), constructed to be utilitarian – or seemingly so – stimulate speculations about Gluck’s public and private personas: one is of an iridescent, silken material, while the other is made of linen or toile. Also displayed is a group of black evening gowns (Image 4), one which seems to have a pleated skirt but, upon further inspection, turns out to be a jumpsuit. Others display a variety of silhouettes with intricate laces, embroideries and embellishments. The display of these unattributed items appears, at first, to mystify the character of Gluck. But they turn out to embody the artist’s lived experience, encapsulating the diversity and richness of the queer experience in the mid-twentieth century.
Gluck: Art and Identity – curated by Martin Pel and Amy de la Haye – is on at Brighton Museum until 11 March 2018.