Created in a queer enclave of coastal East Sussex, British artist Duncan Grant’s homoerotic imagery embodies the revelry cultivated amongst his lovers and friends, but also his personal motto: “Never be ashamed.” Charleston, the former home and studio of Grant and Vanessa Bell and David Garnett — two of his lovers — has been converted into a museum dedicated to the preservation of Grant’s legacy and its extension into the present moment for LBGTQ+ artists. A new exhibition presents recently discovered works by Grant from the 1950s and ’60s that exemplify his interest in eroticism, placing them in conversation with commissioned pieces by queer artists of today.
Very Private? opened last month and shines a spotlight on Grant’s sexuality, which was perhaps a collectively ignorable detail of his fame in socially conservative Britain — where homosexuality remained illegal until 1967 — as it was for many of his contemporaries in the Bloomsbury Group, a cohort of friends and intellectuals including Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, and economist John Maynard Keynes.
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Amid works by Grant included in the current show are selections of his “very private” drawings — as he wrote on a folder containing the artworks — featuring depictions of the queer culture and lifestyle cultivated around Charleston, amidst his friends, lovers, and visitors who sought refuge from London’s oppressive judgment.
“He sort of celebrates this queer sexuality, which is something that we wanted to do,” Darren Clarke, head of Collections, Research and Exhibitions at Charleston, said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “But we didn’t just want to show the drawings on their own without any sort of context; we wanted to show how they were relevant to artists working today.”
Very Private? includes “responses” to Grant’s drawings from six contemporary artists working in a range of media: Somaya Critchlow, Harold Offeh, Kadie Salmon, Tim Walker (with set designs by Shona Heath), Alison Wilding, and Ajamu X.
“All the artists were invited to come down at different points to look at all the drawings, and went away and considered how they would react to them,” Clarke continued. “A lot of the drawings [were] of interracial couples, and Duncan Grant had a lot of Black friends and also Black lovers … It was an area that needed exploring, engaging with, and getting other people to make work in response.”
The interplay between inspiration and response can be clearly seen, from Shona Heath’s staging of bodies tinted to match Grant’s almost pastel treatment of skin tone in his subjects to 12 large-scale photo prints by Ajamu X that examine the lives of Grant’s Black subjects when not acting as muses for White artists. Most of the works reflect Grant’s figurative and bodily take on eroticism, with paintings that capture the waterside cavorting of lithe and beefy men in dramatic fishnet bathing costumes — but some have a more abstract feel.
“We’ve got works by Alison Wilding, who is probably best known as a sculptor but who has also done a lot of works on paper — she has done three abstractions,” said Clarke. “We’ve got two beautiful photographs by Kadie Salmon, who uses old-style film, doing repeat exposures and using herself as a model. And Harold Offeh has a video piece where he put out an open call out for people from the LGBTQ+ community to come to Charleston, see the house, look at the drawings, and then discuss their own responses to the drawings and their own love and sex lives.”
The look at these rarely-glimpsed works by Grant not only add color and texture to the legacy of an established member of the British avant-garde, but recast art history (and its current concerns) with a fuller picture of the artist as a person.