and we’ve got something to cheer. Gay Icons at the National Portrait Gallery is a cause of joy – and queries.
Exhibitions come in two parts: the art and the theory. You can have brilliant pictures and a slightly ropey thesis, like Citizens and Kings at the Royal Academy, which had Ingres and David but a poor (or poorly interpreted) idea linking all of them, or you can have a spellbinding idea which the works don’t support, like the RA’s Summer Exhibition. Or you can have both or neither.
Gay Icons at the National Portrait Gallery falls into the Citizens and Kings mould: it has some beautiful images, both aesthetically and emotionally, and you can’t deny that a show devoted to gay icons will raise interesting questions about love and family and culture and politics. It’s just that no-one is clear on the rules.
Before I saw the show, I assumed that the selectors (famous homosexuals from Elton John and Ian McKellen to Sandi Toksvig and Sarah Waters) would choose gay people who were iconic to them. (The question of what even constitutes an icon is thorny in itself.) I thought these would be the gay icons of gay icons. Meta-gay icons.
However, Elton John and Billie Jean King both chose people who were icons to them, Elton picking Graham Taylor for his devotion to Watford, King her family, among their six choices. These are fair picks when the rules have not been defined.
It makes the show no less beautiful but slightly less coherent. Many of the pictures are indeed beautiful: porn star Jeff Stryker (one of Lord Alli’s choices) is captured on his bed, reclining in a non-sexual pose and not even at the centre of the scene (McDermott and McGough, 1990). The innocence of the picture gives a human side to the great gay porn star-businessmen.
Joe Orton (chosen by head of Stonewall Ben Summerskill) emerges out of the darkness, a fine interpretation of his work and ultimately prefiguring his death (Lewis Morley, 1965), while Bessie Smith (chosen by Jackie Kay) looks quizzically, vulnerably at the camera. Harvey Milk (Efren Ramirez, 1978, chosen by McKellen) is at the centre of an applauding crowd in a news shot (rather than a posed portrait), looking serene in the chaos.
The most literary choices come from Alan Hollinghurst, Booker winner for the Line of Beauty. He chose Jesuit priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thom Gunn (a favourite poet of mine), Tchaikovsky and Edmund White, whose A Boy’s Own Story is one of the most beautifully-written books I’ve read. Hollinghurst’s choices revealed a clear line between the closet of history and modern hard-won freedoms.
Chris Smith, former Culture Secretary, had perhaps the most poignant of all pictures: a portrait of Alan Turing (Elliott and Fry, 1951), who bit into an apple filled with cyanide after the war because society refused to accept his homosexuality. That Turing had helped Britain win the war by cracking the Enigma code and invented the first computer did not save him: it just made his tragedy greater.
Which could lead to a triumphalist conclusion: “Look how liberal we are now! We would never hound someone because they were gay.” We may not, but many around the world would, so while we should ultimately celebrate this exhibition (philosophical qualms aside), we should not think of it as a terminus – but rather a call to action.
Harvey Milk (c) Efren Ramirez, 1978/2008
Joe Orton (c) Lewis Morley Archive/National Portrait Gallery
Alan Turing (c) National Portrait Gallery