[A shorter version of this review was featured in the January version of the East etc magazines. The original version can be read on pages 60 and 61 here: http://edition.pagesuite-professional.co.uk//launch.aspx?pbid=3210216c-6838-4646-8efe-07a62e12c69f, and the PDF is available at the bottom of this blog post.]
Emily Jessica Turner reviews Brighton Museum’s current exhibition on the twentieth century artist Gluck
There are two things that struck me as unusual when I first stepped through the doors into Brighton Museum’s current exhibition, Gluck: Art and Identity, which showcases the artist born Hannah Gluckstein (1895-1978).
Firstly, the room is dark, with walls painted a dark grey. Secondly, as visitors proceed into the exhibition space, they are confronted with a giant pinboard, mapping the artist’s romantic life through photographs, post-it notes, and biographical printouts.
Although this might seem unusual for a visual exhibition, these two features serve a useful purpose – that of “queering” the space. Curators Martin Pel, Jeff Horsley, and Amy de la Martin wanted the audience to feel that the space was unusual or curious – pushing the boundaries of what a fashion exhibition could be – as well as “queer” in the sense of prioritising Gluck’s relationships with women.
Today, the artist is recognised as a trailblazer of gender fluidity, and is known for a distinctive (and controversial) style, incorporating men’s tailoring and barber-cut short hair.
The school-style pinboards illustrate what the curators call the exhibition’s ‘forensic approach’, attempting to piece together an understanding of Gluck through an exploration of the artist’s material life – clothing and painting, letters and notes.
These pinboards – one of which creates a timeline of Gluck’s romantic life, and the other maps geographic locations key to the artist’s life – are reflective of Jeff, Martin and Amy’s investigative curatorial interest.
The curators worked with an archive, donated by Gluck to Brighton and Hove’s city collections a year before the artist’s death, which is comprised of clothing, accessories, press cuttings, letters, and photographs.
“We spent months going through this extraordinary archive,” explained Amy, who emphasised that this process took the experimental approach of a forensic investigation.
The result of the curators’ archival work, is Gluck: Art and Identity, which has been supported with funds raised by National Lottery players. It is the first major exhibition in the world to explore the artist’s life and work, doing so through the presentation of 30 rarely seen paintings and extensive personal ephemera.
Love letters, personal photographs, and press clippings are displayed alongside a vast array of garments in Gluck: Art and Identity. An evening dress, an artist’s smock, and a shoebox all tell part of Gluck’s story.
The exhibition is divided into nine thematic biographical fragments, one of which focuses on the role clothing played in Gluck’s life, and what it can tell us about the artist.
Amy, a professor, curator and writer, said: “Because of what we know about Gluck’s clothing preferences, we expected to see examples of men’s clothing in the archive, but instead we found dresses. The question was: why did Gluck keep these garments when the artist’s clothing was such a big part of her identity?”
The answer may lie in Gluck’s romantic relationships, which played such a key role within her life and identity.
“The collection of clothing in the archive is not about Gluck,” suggests Martin, who is curator of fashion and textiles at Royal Pavilion and Museums. “It was about who she loved. She collected a legacy of other people’s clothing, keeping items which had emotional importance to her. This strikes me as a feminine way of creating an archive – whereas women’s collections emphasise the domestic side of life, men’s often prioritise medals and paintings.”
That is not to say, of course, that Gluck’s paintings do not play a key role in this exhibition, which showcases some striking works.
Exhibited paintings, which are largely portraits and floral scenes, include Lilies (1932-6), Credo (Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light) (1970-3), and The Punt (1937), which shows Gluck with lover Nesta Obermer. One of Gluck’s best known paintings, Medallion (1937), which also depicts Gluck with Nesta, makes a sly appearance in the framed cover of Virago Modern Classic’s edition of Radclyffe Hall’s famous queer novel, The Well of Loneliness.
The dark grey walls, it transpires, also serve a very deliberate, more practical, purpose in showcasing Gluck’s paintings, which are today owned by private individuals, and are seldom exhibited. From 1932, the artist designed special three-trier frames, painted or papered to match the walls they were hung in. The Devil’s Altar (1932), depicting Brugmansia, the favourite flower of Gluck’s partner, society florist Constance Spry, is one such painting displayed in this innovative frame style. For their original settings, this would create the impression that the paintings were part of the room, but presented a challenge to the curators of Gluck: Art and Identity. Many of these are an off-white colour, meaning that the conventional choice of exhibition wall colour – white or cream – would be too difficult to match to Gluck’s original frames. To create a sense of juxtaposition and emphasise the light colours used in Gluck’s work, it was decided that Brighton Museum’s exhibition space walls should be painted this dark grey. This certainly has a striking effect, almost creating a sense of chiaroscuro.
This is a thought-provoking, challenging and learned exhibition: a must-see.
Gluck: Art and Identity will be open until March 11 at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Admission charge payable, members free. Find out more at brightonmuseums.org.uk/gluck.