Queering the art collections
Queer originally meant strange, peculiar or deviant. Later it became a term of abuse used to describe sexuality considered to be unacceptable, like homosexuality. Today the word queer is also used in a different way. In this more recent sense it stands for rebellion and resisting homogeneity – not everyone needs to be same. Today queer is understood as being about questioning and challenging norms. It is also understood as the interplay between theory and practice. All too often, theory and practice have been seen as opposing ways of perceiving the world but queer also questions this “self-evident truth”.
The art of reading against the grain
Reading against the grain means to look at or to think about history, or anything else, in an alternative way. History is usually written by the winning side, which means that the point of view and what is considered important is generally the interpretation of the dominant group left standing at the end, i.e. the winners. Yet this is not always the case, as history can also be understood as a collection of different stories, none of which are entirely objective, which produces a fairly representative total picture when examined from these differing viewpoints. Nor should history always be thought of as unchanging, but more as a story whose plot is determined by the point of view of the narrator. Here different readings and different interpretations are ways of perceiving the past.
2. Monarchs and dancers
Christina, Queen of Sweden
At times, the significance of history to non-heterosexuals has been about finding points in the past to identify with. One such example is Queen Christina of Sweden (1626–1689), who refused to conform to what was thought to be appropriate female behaviour in the seventeenth century. In the eyes of her contemporaries she was seen as androgynous, combining the characteristics of women and men. She wore her hair short, fenced and otherwise behaved in a manner considered unfeminine. However, in a painting after Davis Beck’s original work she is portrayed with long hair and wearing an expensive dress.
Gustav III, King of Sweden
King Gustav III’s (1746–1792) contemporaries and subsequent opinion have often interpreted him as being homosexual, more interested in collecting art and in theatre than more masculine interests, or his wife for that matter. In the portrait thought to have been painted at Alexander Roslin’s studio, Gustav III is depicted, as befitting his position, in court dress and with full regalia. It was at the time and still is important that portraits of monarchs made them appear impressive and featured the symbols of power.
Exotic Dancer (self-portrait)
There may, however, be much more to a portrait than meets the eye, as, for example, in Aurora Reinhard’s (1975) photograph Exotic dancer (self-portrait) from 2006 in which we can interpret the artist in many different ways. She can be seen as a woman dressed as a man and as a man presenting himself in a manner that is generally considered to be feminine. Reinhard also shows us how the same person can simultaneously display the characteristics that denote masculinity and femininity and how our own preconceptions affect our understanding of works of art.
3. Mythical fauns
The stories underlying works of art may be identical but the end result may be very different, such as when artists produce their own interpretation of a familiar tale. One example is Tobias Sergel’s Faunus (1774) and Jukka Korkeila’s Untitled (Resting Satyricon), both of which depict figures from ancient mythology. In the stories of the ancient world, fauns were half animals, half human and often pursued whatever their quarry happened to be in the name of love. Love and other pleasures were also very important to the satyrs, who were related to fauns. Sergel’s Faun is a naked man sculpted in white marble, though with the pointed ears and short tail of a faun. Korkeila’s satyr, in principle a different creature, is lounging on the ground and represents a more exuberant character, more Rubenesque in stature. He could even be Silenius, a mature, older, and fatter mythical creature.
Untitled ( Restin Satyricon)
4. Personal stories
Colloquio di donne
The history and reality of same-sex desire and love has sometimes been written drawing on examples of real people and their lives – and in these cases the example of people speaking more or less openly about their own lives and sexuality in public have been of importance for others in search of their own identity. Examples could include the artist couple Tove Jansson (1914–2001) and Tuulikki Pietilä (1917–2009). The potential autobiographical nature of their works, has given rise to much debate in research and elsewhere. Tuulikki Pietilä Colloquio di Donne, 1952.
5. Through new eyes
Kaksi naista ja muotokuva
A queer reading does not necessarily require going into the details of someone’s personal history or revealing their “true” identity; rather a queer reading often involves making silent or hidden information visible. In cultures in which female sexuality was interpreted as being non-independent or owned by men, love between women was not even addressed openly. However, it was possible to talk about such a possibility by referencing or generally operating in the intermediate landscape between friendship and love, love and closeness or physical passion and a friendship of the mind. In this unknown artist’s Indian miniature Two women, for example, although the relationship between the women is not depicted in any more detail, merely considering the possibility makes our perception of the story a different one.
Interior from a Musical Home
The situation in Aukusti Uotila’s Interior from a Musical Home (1879) can be read very differently if we interpret the two women as forming their own family unit on the basis of a loving relationship rather than viewing their relationship in some other way. On the other hand, the nineteenth century’s ideal of deep friendship was founded on such a mutual experience which combined the concepts of friendship and love in such a manner, that coupledom cannot be the sole interpretation.
6. Friendship and partnership
Portrait of a Younghood Friend (Hjalmar Montell)
The theme of friendship was important to nineteenth-century artists, for whom a friend could represent a kind of kindred spirit or spiritual twin, whose presence was extremely important for developing their own personality. Friends of one’s youth, a period which then too was seen as being the time in which people developed their own personality, were particularly influential and many portraits or other works depicting them can be found. One example is Karl Emanuel Jansson’s portrait (1866) of his friend Hjalmar Montell as a young man.
A queer reading can also be a way for artists to create their own versions of significant works in art history. One particularly good example is Leo Lindsten’s (1943–1988) work Ylösnousemus (1969), in which the artist creates a version of two works by Magnus Enckell (1870–1925): Ylösnousemusta (1907), now in Tampere, Cathedral and Heräämistä (1894) in the Finnish National Gallery. In his own painting Lindsten combines two identifiable works, in which we are also able to recognise his own colleagues and friends. Artist Olli Lyytikäinen is in the grave, and on the left we see first Lindsten himself and next to him literary critic Harry Forsblom. The artist Matti Juhani Koponen can also be seen in the painting that is positioned in the centre of the work.
The original version of this work was created by Magnus Enckell, who in it ponders the origin of sexuality, emotions and that of the art.
7. The attraction of the ancient world
The sculpture Narcissus by Johannes Takanen, who died young, depicts the young man well-known from the story of Roman writer Ovid, gazing at his own reflection. There are countless variations on the story of Narcissus from different eras, and thus its meaning has varied on the borderline between same-sex desire, self-love or self-recognition. Sometimes Narcissus even becomes the inventor of art as he illustrates the power of the image by falling in love with his own reflection which he thinks is another young man. In his work Takanen has depicted this traditional subject with the body of the young man bent in the position known as contraposto. Narcissus is deep in thoughts; it is clear that his own beauty has captivated him for ever.
The Feast of Bacchus
In Alexandre Evariste Fragonard’s (1780–1850) The Feast of Bacchus we witness the celebrations of the followers of the Roman God of wine Bacchus, in which the two women on the left are in each others’ arms. The work is an example of how sexuality has been treated in many contexts. It has been associated with an important and valued story or other subject, often set in the past, where the existence of the work could be defended by the fact that it not only deals with sexuality, but with something else as well. Here the other element is the culture and religion of ancient Rome, but the artist seems to be particularly interested in the sensuality of the party-goers and their nudity.
8. The explicit attraction of the image
A very different kind of nudity can be found in the works of Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen 1920–1992), in which sexuality is in fact the main theme. Tom of Finland started to use a pseudonym when he started drawing his nudes in the 1950s, because he did not want the personal publicity. It was not until the 1980s, that his works began to receive attention in Finland itself, although his drawings had long been extremely well-known around in the world. Tom of Finland’s works were for decades, and still are, objects of identification for many gay men, who found the artist’s works to be central to building a positive self-image and finding their own identity.
Diana with bathing nymphs
Daniel Vertangen’s Diana with Bathing Nymphs shows Diana the goddess of hunting with her entourage. The Greek and Roman gods and goddesses sometimes took human shape and appeared to be human, but they were not restricted by the limitations imposed on humans by society. The goddess Diana, for example, was powerful and could do anything, despite being female. This was not the case for her human sisters whose lives were confined by countless rules and restrictions. Diana and her nymphs can also be interpreted as a different kind of female community in which they made their own rules.
9. Breaking the boundaries
In Viggo Wallensköld’s (1969) works we encounter many figures that seem to exist on the boundaries between classifications. We encounter bearded women, men with breasts, limbless people and people who have a hint of being different from what we may have learned to expect. In the spirit of equality, all of them are naked. The way in which Wallensköld depicts his human figures shows how all people, however different they may be, are part of the same humanity. Prinsessa (2004), for example, depicts the human right to be oneself and how every single body is beautiful, even if it does not necessarily correspond to conventional ideals of beauty.
Gun Holmström’s (1964) A Womb of One’s Own tells the story of a pregnant woman who says that she is acting as a surrogate for a male couple who are going to be the baby’s parents. The name of the work refers to the statement of the English writer Virginia Woolf about a room of her own, her own space in which she could realise her own identity. Holmström’s work asks who has the right to be a parent. When it was created, the idea of two people of the same sex being parents was starting to become a topic for popular debate, although such families had in fact already existed for a long time.
10. What is identity?
In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, people were increasingly starting to think about their identities. Thoughts of gender and sexuality appeared in literature and art as much as they did for example in psychology or medicine. The sculptures in Auguste Rodin’s La Porte de l'Enfer depict love between women. What is interesting about the work is the fact that in late nineteenth century France, the female homosexuality that it takes as its subject was perceived as being extremely modern, even fashionable, but was largely described by means of stories from Ancient Greece and Rome.
The Flower of Love (Water-Lily Dish with Two Figures)
Like Rodin, the Finnish sculptor Ville Vallgren addressed love between women in his work The Flower of Love (Water-Lily Dish with Two Figures) (1894). The small sculpture is otherwise strongly in tune with the spirit of the time in which it was created, combining as it does, the qualities of a work of art and a decorative practical object.
11. Drawing on identities
Bust of the Writer August Strindberg
Ville Vallgren’s Bust of the Writer August Strindberg, portrays Swedish writer August Strindberg, one of the most famous figures of the day, who in his books and letters wrote extensively about relationships between the sexes and relationships which transcended the gender norms of the period. The works by Strindberg blend the themes of depicting reality and literature and they were often interpreted as being autobiographical, although the matter was not in fact quite that clear cut.
Tali ja Adolf Paulin exlibris
Swedish-German writer Adolf Paul (1863–1943), one of Strindberg’s circle, wrote the first collection of short stories published in Finland to address homosexuality and which dealt with other themes considered extremely modern for the time. In the bookplate by Paul and his wife Tali, Akseli Gallen-Kallela has depicted a Karelian-style house, which in like the graphic art represented the ultra-modern in the world of Finnish art at the end of the 1890s. The artists were interested in building styles and artistic expression, but they also discussed identity and topical subjects of the day.
12. Cataloguing modernity
Rubber Tree Song
Rubber Tree Song is Greta Hällfors-Sipilä’s depiction of 1920s Helsinki city life featuring jazz music, women with short hair and the excitement of urban life. What was known as the Jazz Age was characterised in Finland by a tension between international and national culture. Greta Hällfors-Sipilä and her husband Sulho Sipilä were interested in the international modern art of their time from which they drew inspiration and depicted their own life in a style strictly in the spirit of the times. The atmosphere in this work is fast-paced, depicting the same view from many different angles at the same time, something Hällfors-Sipilä learned from the Cubists, whose style was still new and extremely shocking at the time the work was created. The rubber plant (fikus) in the name of the work was also a term used at the time to refer to gay men.
In Helene Schjerfbeck’s work Nephew we meet the artist’s nephew Måns Schjerfbeck (1897–1973), depicted in the manner of a modern urban man. He is not a he-man or a man showing off his muscles but a slightly feminine, beardless man. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century modernity and modern art came to be almost synonymous with a new concept of female and male roles and appropriate behaviour. Modern art was seen as a direct product of the state of society, and was criticised as unsuitable and excessively rebellious. Måns’ features are not portrayed in a way that is especially masculine in any respect apart from his chiselled chin. Otherwise his appearance does not particularly feature characteristics considered typical of men or women but is simply only Måns.
13. The pluralism of modern art
Pekka Syrjälä’s Ugly (1997) presents a combination of ugly and beautiful, in which the word ugly is written in a beautifully flowing pink script, proclaiming itself to be ugly. Mixing beauty and ugliness is one of the characteristics of modern art, applied historically already since the nineteenth century when art started to also examine its surroundings and reality in a more determined way than before rather than, merely being interested in art itself. The playfulness of Syrjälä’s work is also directed at people who thinks pink is a gendered colour suitable only for girls. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, however, as previously light blue was the colour for girls and pink the colour for boys.
In the Sun: Group of People with Different Lifestyles
Icelandic artist Hulda Hákon’s (1956) sculpture In the Sun: Group of People with Different Lifestyles (1990) evinces another feature linked to modernity. The idea of an individual life in which everyone can shape their own lifestyle to suit themselves is one of the elements considered to characterise modernity and is something that happens as people move to the big cities, leaving their family and family traditions behind. In Hákon’s work the pairs sculpted, interpreted as couples, include male-male and female-female pairings depicted in the same context as male-female ones. In this sense the work speaks of greater individuality and the way that a loving relationship can also be found with one’s own sex.
14. What is gender?
The question of the importance of gender roles has occupied artists for a long time. Helena Hietanen’s Feminine Fault (1993) and Zoltan Popovits’ Anatomy vs. Destiny (1972) are works that make us stop and consider our assumptions about gender and their significance. These works both question of the connections between body and mind and they ask whether gender is physical or what it is in fact.
Anatomy vs. Destiny
15. Role models and masquerades
In Stiina Saaristo’s Scarlet (2004) we see a work which is on the one hand a self-portrait but which could also, on the basis of its title, refer to the protagonist of the novel Gone with the Wind and the film based on it, Scarlet O’Hara, one of the most famous characters of the twentieth century. In the book and in the film Scarlet is depicted as a woman who rejects a traditional role and seeks to find her own path. In this respect Saaristo’s Scarlet is faithful to her literary and cinematic predecessor in that the portrayal of the woman in the painting does not fit our conventional assumptions of what is suitable for women or what women should be like. In this humorous work a Scarlet, who seems to be giant sized, plays with dolls that are all male. In other words, she holds all the strings. In Saaristo’s work a game for children, or girls, is turned into a game of relationships between adults.
Countess Jacqueline Elisabet Gyldenstolpe
In Jakob Björk’s (1727/8–1793) portrait Countess Jacqueline Elisabet Gyldenstolpe we see a woman holding a mask, a woman who has just removed or is about to put on a guise that conceals her personality. Masked balls and carnivals were traditionally occasions where people could temporarily cast aside their everyday selves and try out something out of the ordinary. Overturning different everyday roles could also be a liberating experience in which a person in disguise could experiment with stepping outside the “normal” world, if only for a moment. This could involve transcending social roles or gender roles, where socially unsanctioned or taboo acts could be less provocative. One example is the way that even in the 1940s and 1950s transvestites did not cross-dress down to their underwear because they might have to tell the police they were on their way to a masquerade. Women in trousers were not considered particularly shocking at the time, but a man wearing a dress or a skirt was considered shocking and strange.
16. Simply manifold
EVA & ADELE form a single artist unit despite the fact that they are two. They have lived and worked together since 1989. The artists made their relationship as women official in 2011 when a change in the law in Germany made it possible for a person anatomically male to marry as a woman if she considered herself to be female. The artists have circulated and performed in public for decades as asymmetrical twins, simultaneously raising the question of whether gender should be defined and why.
The Lynx, who imagined he was a Jaguar
As its name suggests, the work The Lynx who Imagined he was a Jaguar (1970) by Reidar Särestöniemi is a picture of a lynx who imagined he was a jaguar. Särestöniemi (1925–1981) was one of the popular artists of his day, who felt himself to be an outsider in many ways. At various times this was put down to his commercial and public success, his living in Lapland and his homosexuality. We gain a new angle on this painting if we consider potential interpretations of it in the light of the above. An endangered lynx, the only native wildcat in Finland, imagines he is a jaguar. This could be a description of the artist’s love for Lapland or of his sexuality, as all of Särestöniemi’s animal characters are depicted remarkably clearly with male characteristics, and it is also a depiction of an attempt to blend into the crowd.
17. Images of death and sexuality
"Do Not Forgot the Scythe, My Friend"
Kalervo Palsa (1947–1987) lived in the same area as Särestöniemi, but did not become as popular with the general public as his colleague during his lifetime. Since his death he has become an example of the misunderstood artist whose works were too extreme to appeal to the ordinary art lover. Although this is not the case, it is easy to believe that Palsa’s work was ahead of its time as sexuality did not become a more generally accepted theme in art until the 1990s. Palsa’s subjects, death and sexuality, are rooted in the different ways of thinking of the twentieth century in scientific and artistic terms, where what came to be the central question was understanding one’s own self and one’s own life.
Script and text: Art Historian Juha-Heikki Tihinen
Rita Paqvalén, Project Manager, Culture for All Service
Leena Hannula, Museum Educator, The Sinebrychoff Art Museum
Eija Liukkonen, Head of development, Finnish National Gallery
Anja Olavinen, Museum Educator, Ateneum Art Museum
Minna Raitmaa, Head of Education, Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma
Finnish National Gallery, 2013