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Gluck, a queer painter ahead of her time

Gluck, a queer painter ahead of her time

A century ago, a radical British artist called Gluck anticipated our gender-fluid age

A century ago, a radical British artist called Gluck anticipated our gender-fluid age

David Bennun | January 12th 2018

Although Gluck was born female, she refused from early adulthood to identify as a woman, or a man. Yet to look at her paintings individually – portraits, landscapes and pictures of flowers reflecting the cool, understated British realism of the time – one would not guess that this English artist was a forerunner of the idea that gender is an identity that may be formed independently of sex. Stand back, though, and examine the breadth of her work, at the Brighton Museum in south-east England, where her paintings and possessions have been assembled together for the exhibition, “Gluck: Art and Identity”. A celebration of the love that dared not speak its name (all of her adult romantic and sexual relationships were with women), her paintings also advance the notion, radical for the early 20th century, that our genitalia need not define us. 

“Primavera” (1923)

Hannah Gluckstein was born into a wealthy Jewish family which owned the Lyons Corner House chain and the Trocadero restaurant by Piccadilly Circus. Although she was supported by her family’s wealth, attending art school in London, Gluck, in all other respects, rebelled against their respectability. Slight in stature, she wore only men’s clothes and short, barbered hair. Gluck was – even in a time of change and experimentation like the 1920s – a walking challenge to the status quo. Once she resigned from an art society that referred to her as “Miss Gluck” on its letterhead (her mantra was “no prefix, suffix or quotes”). Contemporary press clippings veered between admiration for Gluck’s work and amazement at her person: “YOU WOULDN’T GUESS,” teases one breathless headline from 1926, the story continuing, “[t]hat this is the girl artist who calls herself ‘Gluck’...She dresses as a man and delights in painting Cornish scenes.”

Gluck, in her own view, did not dress “as a man” – she dressed as Gluck. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to contrast the often lavish and intricate women’s fashions of her time, including dresses that were made for her diminutive frame yet never worn by her, with the plain suits she favoured. We see how she introduced hints of lesbianism into decorative flower paintings and smuggled transvestism into everyday settings such as fairgrounds. There is her formidable and defiant self-portrait from 1942 (top), which served last year as the emblematic image of Tate Britain’s Queer British Art exhibition. Her best-known work, “Medallion” (1937), a self-portrait in sombre, heroic profile alongside her lover Nesta Obermer, appears here only on the cover of “The Well of Loneliness” (1928), Radclyffe Hall’s novel about gay women (the original painting was, unfortunately, unavailable). No less revealing are the images of Gluck created by others; the paintings and photographs in which she cuts such a dash. Whether Gluck was, as some scholars have averred, the archetypal “lesbian dandy”, or whether this label is itself as constraining as the female role Gluck rejected, is the question at the heart of the exhibition. Its curators, following Gluck’s own lead, have been at pains not to allocate her a gender.

 

“The Artist’s Grandfather” (1915) and “Spiritual” (1927, detail) 

Gluck claimed to have dashed off the earlier painting, which nonetheless displays the clarity and sensitivity that would mark her portraits in years to come. The later work was undertaken as a technical challenge, to prove that she could paint a black person against a black background. Yet the most striking thing about it is the way it captures the sitter’s inner life.  

 

“The Devil’s Altar” (1932) 

Gluck’s then lover, the celebrated flower arranger Constance Spry, often provided the raw material for Gluck’s floral paintings, which became highly sought after. The title of “The Devil’s Altar” is a knowing twist on the phrase “angel’s trumpet”, the nickname for the pendulous, conical brugmansia. Here the flowers hang in tandem, as if they are female partners in the proscribed union hinted at in the name of the painting, made at a time when sex between women was still deemed unnatural and unholy. 

 

“Gluck” by Howard Coster (1932) and “Ernest Thesiger” (1925, detail)

Howard Coster built his reputation as a self-styled “photographer of men”, and this is one of several portraits in which Gluck strikes a distinctly masculine pose – here, preoccupied and unsmiling in her work clothes, holding an unladylike cigarette in an unladylike grasp. There is something of the matinée idol about Gluck in these artfully lit photographs, offering a clue to her ideal self-image. One can trace this back to Gluck’s own depictions of contemporary stars appearing at the Trocadero. Alone in the spotlight, the openly gay stage actor Ernest Thesiger epitomises a faintly decadent patrician elegance. Gluck may not have thought of herself as dressing as a man per se, but this did not mean that she didn’t draw on the style of particular men – the point being that a self-professedly genderless creature was free to dress how they liked.

 

“Baldock vs. Bell at the Royal Albert Hall” (1927, detail)

On canvas, Gluck seldom engaged with the body. The bulging, sensuous quality of her flower pictures is absent in her human figures. This picture of a boxing match – one of a series probably instigated by a relationship with the journalist Sybil Cookson, who covered the sport – echoes Gluck’s portraits of entertainers, whom she painted from a distance. It’s a technique that chimes with her preference for concealing her own body shape within suits, coats and work-wear, as if she shunned signifiers of gender in life as well as work. Gluck’s only nude study (“Primavera”, 1923, above) is exceptional in its brightness and overt, lively femininity; yet even here the anatomical detail is downplayed, as if she cannot fully acknowledge its reality.

 

“Credo (Rage, Rage against the Dying of the Light)” (1973) 

In 1953, Gluck stopped painting to focus on campaigning against the poor quality of artists’ paints, which she had claimed were deteriorating for decades. These so-called “paint wars” would eventually result in the British Standards Institution creating new guidelines for artists’ materials – another significant yet relatively unknown part of Gluck’s legacy. Gluck resumed painting in the 1960s, often dealing with the subject of mortality. Her final painting, of a cod skull washed up on a beach, is a deeply disquieting meditation on death, taking its subtitle from a Dylan Thomas poem. Although finely rendered, the fish’s head also seems slightly out of focus, and spectral, as if consciousness itself is slowly dissolving along with it. 

Gluck: Art and Identity Brighton Museum, Brighton, until March 11th