LGBT+ History Month 2023
Behind the Lens Book Display
by Ashley Parry
It’s February already! In the UK, this means that it’s LGBTQ+ History Month, which offers an occasion to acknowledge and celebrate the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people of all identities throughout the ages. At the Sackler Library, we are marking this month with a display to highlight LGBTQ+ related items in our collections. This year’s theme, Behind the Lens, marks LGBTQ+ people’s contribution to cinema and film not in front of the camera but behind it.
Behind the Lens book display, Sackler Library. Image Credit: Ashley Parry
Through my research, I was drawn to the work of the trans artist, Wu Tsang, who uses dance and film to explore the theme of perspective in her work.Then, while Andy Warhol looms large over the history of queer art, this month has enabled me to highlight his films specifically. In fact, both Wu Tsang and Andy Warhol illustrate one of the key themes of this display – that LGBTQ+ artist-filmmakers not only question the boundaries between sexualities and genders, but also the boundaries between different forms of artistic expression.
Another artist whose work illustrates this is Derek Jarman (1942-1994), represented in the display by Derek Jarman: Brutal Beauty and also included in Caravaggio in Film and Literature: Popular Culture’s Appropriation of a Baroque Genius. Jarman is best known for his films but has also been very influential in his installation work, and he applied his knowledge of art and art history to his films in their composition and subject matter.
The anthologies on show in the display also illustrate the permeability of genre boundaries, where the work of artists who use film installation is represented alongside that of poets, photographers and fine artists.
For example, Sex Ecologies includes a diverse range of contributions, from photography by filmmaker Pedro Neves Marques to Léuli Eshrāghi’s discussions of Sāmoan sexual and gender diversity. The volume AIDS Riot contains interviews with filmmaker and “TV-guerrilla” Gregg Bordowitz, who “conceived of [‘video’] as the privileged instrument in the de-marginalization of PWAs [People With AIDS]”, alongside discussions of other installation, graphic design, and photographic work from artist collectives in the New York of the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, in the book Outlaw Representation, Richard Meyer discusses the work of artist and filmmaker, David Wojnarowicz alongside other controversial figures such as photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The potential for crossover between photography and film gave me the opportunity to include Mapplethorpe’s photographs with those of with those of other queer artists such as Berenice Abbot, and Sunil Gupta. In fact, it is Abbott’s image that has been used for the poster of this display.
(A note about the poster for this book display: The image of Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), with camera almost the same height as photographer, is a good fit with this year’s ‘Behind the Lens’ theme. Also aligning itself with the theme, the Courier typeface is typically used for screenplays. As for the text’s colours, I chose Valentino Vecchietti’s tones in his 2021 intersex-inclusive redesign for the Progress Pride Flag at the top of the poster, and the colours of Gilbert Baker’s original 1978 rainbow flag design at the bottom of the poster. Using these colour ranges incorporates as many queer identities as possible without privileging any in particular, while also paying tribute to the past 45 years of queer art history.)
The book Sexuality & Space creates a bridge between the film and photography related books in this display and other fascinating titles on queer theory and architectural criticism, such as Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity, and Queer Space: Architecture and Same-sex Desire. Another related publication, available as an ebook, that is well worth a look is Preservation and Place: Historic Preservation by and of LGBTQ Communities in the United States .
Although this year’s theme meant that most materials skewed towards the modern, it would be a disservice to the Sackler’s collections and the true diversity of historical experience to concentrate only on this era. For example, no overview of LGBTQ+ history would be complete without the Classical Greek poet Sappho, whose evocations of same-sex desire in her poetry led to the adjective ‘sapphic’ and whose home of Lesbos gives us the word ‘lesbian’. She is included in this display not only through a collection of her poems, but also through Page duBois’s post-modern analysis of her work in Sappho is Burning.
Representing our archaeology collections on the LGBTQ+ front, both L’homosexualité dans le Proche-Orient Ancien et la Bible and Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt demonstrate the presence of individuals we might now consider queer in the Ancient Near East. The Queer Archaeologies special issue of the periodical World Archaeologies includes various perspectives on how the field can diversify its approach. One of the aspects of reading about LGBTQ+ interpretations of ancient history that I found enlightening is the way they challenge heteronormative cultural customs – questioning whether conclusions about ancient lives are backed up by evidence or based on imported modern assumptions.
One of the pioneers of treating the history of ancient art as a discipline was Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768). This influential gay philologist is represented by several books in the display, such as Winckelmann – das göttliche Geschlecht and Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History. Both of these texts examine the ways that Winckelmann’s sexuality informed his approach to the study of ancient art, and contributed to his innovative modes of writing about the subject.
Winckelmann’s work was brought to my attention by Richard Parkinson, author of A Little Gay History, who also kindly donated one of the images accompanying this display.It depicts a still from the set of the film adaptation of E. M. Forster’s Maurice, directed and produced by partners James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. Forster’s inspiration for the novel is also mentioned in the introduction to John Potvin’s Bachelors of a Different Sort as part of his evocations of queer masculine domestic life. The image serves to tie together some of the threads of the display, combining as it does the Egyptian artefacts in the British Museum with a behind-the-scenes look at the work of queer filmmakers.
There’s so much more fascinating material on LGBTQ+ related topics to discover throughout the Sackler Library’s collections, but only so much that could be fit into this display. However, I have included many more titles in the bibliography of this blog post – though, of course, I still have not included everything that the library has to offer!
Ashley Parry, Library Assistant
Sackler Library, Bodleian Libraries
Ackerman, S., 2005. When heroes love : the ambiguity of eros in the stories of Gilgamesh and David, New York.
Alvarado, L., Evans Frantz, D., Gómez-Barris, M., Ondine Chavovoya, C., et al., 2017, Axis mundo: queer networks in Chicano L.A., Munich.
Anthonissen, A., 2019. Queer!?: Beeldende kunst in Europa 1969-2019 = Visual arts in Europe 1969-2019, Zwolle.
Behdad, A. & Gartlan, L., 2013. Photography’s Orientalism: new essays on colonial representation, Los Angeles.
Betsky, A., 1997. Queer space: architecture and same-sex desire, New York.
Boehringer, S., 2021. Female homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, trans. Preger, A., London.
Cann, T., Kinigopoulo, A., Sawyer, D., & Weinburg, J., 2019, Art after Stonewall : 1969-1989, Columbus, OH.
Colomina, B., 1992. Sexuality & space, New York.
Cortjaens, W., Goerlitz, G., & Tobin, R. D., 2017. Winckelmann – Das göttliche Geschlecht Auswahlkatalog zur Ausstellung im Schwulen Museum Berlin, 16. Juni bis 9. Oktober 2017, Petersburg.
Davidson, J. N., 2007. The Greeks and Greek love: a radical reappraisal of homosexuality in ancient Greece, London.
Davis, W., 1994. Gay and lesbian studies in art history, New York.
Dowson, T. A., World Archaeology, Oct. 2000, Vol. 32 (2), ‘Queer Archaeologies’.
DuBois, P., 1995. Sappho is burning, Chicago.
Engel, C., Fenouillat, N., Guitton, A., Di Loreto, B., Loyau, F., Mestrov, I., & Olszewska, A., 2003. AIDS riot: collectifs d’artistes face au Sida = Artist collectives against AIDS, New York, 1987-1994: 12e session de l’École du Magasin, Grenoble.
Gilhuly, K., 2020. Erotic geographies in ancient Greek literature and culture, London.
Graves-Brown, C., 2008. Sex and gender in ancient Egypt: ‘don your wig for a joyful hour’, Swansea.
Gupta, S., 2011. Queer, Munich.
Hessler, S., 2021. Sex ecologies. Cambridge, MA.
Julien, I., 2008. Derek Jarman: brutal beauty. London.
Kuo, J. C., 2013. Contemporary Chinese Art and Film: Theory Applied and Resisted, Washington, D. C.
Mapplethorpe, R., Danto, A. C., Holborn, M., Levas, D., & Smith, P., 2020. Robert Mapplethorpe, London.
Meyer, R., 2003. Outlaw representation: censorship & homosexuality in twentieth-century American art, Boston.
Morelli, A., 2009. Roman Britain and classical deities: gender and sexuality in Roman art, Oxford.
Murphy, J. J., 2012. The black hole of the camera: the films of Andy Warhol, Berkely, CA.
Nardelli, J., 2007. Homosexuality and liminality in the Gilgameš and Samuel, Amsterdam.
Parkinson, R. B., 2013. A little gay history: desire and diversity across the world, London.
Potvin, J., 2014. Bachelors of a different sort : queer aesthetics, material culture and the modern interior in Britain, Manchester.
Rault, J., 2011. Eileen Gray and the design of sapphic modernity: staying in, Farnham.
Römer, T. & Bonjour, L., 2016. L’homosexualité dans le Proche-Orient ancien et la Bible,
Rorato, L., 2014. Caravaggio in film and literature: popular culture’s appropriation of a baroque genius, London.