Gluck: Art and Identity opens on the 18th November at Brighton Museum and is a celebration and investigation into the world of Gluck, both artistically and personally. The exhibition is part of the ‘Wear it Out’ project between the Centre for Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion, UAL and Brighton Museum. The three exhibition creators – Amy de la Haye and Jeffrey Horsley of the Centre for Fashion Curation, and Martin Pel, Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the Museum – have created this exhibition in a truly collaborative way. Their statement of intent was to ‘create’ an exhibition – they do not differentiate between curator and exhibition-maker.
The concept for the exhibition originated from a collection review of the Fashion and textiles at Brighton Museum, conducted by Amy and Martin, where they found a store of beautiful dresses somewhat surprisingly attributed to Gluck, who was renowned for her masculine dress and androgynous look.
Born Hannah Gluckstein in 1895 to a very wealthy family who founded the UK-wide chain of Lyons tea houses, Gluck rejected traditional expectations of a woman of her social standing by running away to join an artists’ colony in Lamorna, Cornwall, wearing masculine clothing and engaging in relationships with women. She became well known for her paintings of subjects such as the theatre, portraits of society figures and floral arrangements. She showed her uniqueness in the three-stepped frames she developed and patented, as well as her refusal to subscribe to other artistic schools or movements of the time or indeed show alongside other artists.
However Gluck received just as many column inches for her ‘look’ which incorporated men’s plus-fours and barber-cut cropped hair. She demanded to be known as just Gluck with no prefix, and was singular in both name and artist path.
The collection of clothes Gluck donated to the Museum just before her death are conspicuously lacking in any menswear or masculine ephemera. Whatever items of menswear Gluck had were lost to a large jumble sale held after her death. The collection’s only indicators of Gluck’s gender fluidity are two painters’ smocks and a round leather box used to store stiffened collars.
This absence led the creators to conceive three different curatorial perspectives, as exhibition-maker Jeffrey Horsley explains: ‘the exhibition is a series of biographic fragments viewed from different perspectives – a conventional museum perspective, interventions inspired by Gluck’s own words, and installations that give a sense of an investigative process.’ Owing perhaps to the lack of scholarship on Gluck, this investigative perspective becomes almost forensic and can be seen through the use of maps, images, drawings and text.
The absent aspects of the collection Gluck donated led the creators to assume curatorial suppositions. These ideas are differentiated from the factual museum labels through their presentation on violet panels throughout the exhibition.
These violet accents act in order to queer the space through the colour’s association with the Sapphic violet, and history as a lesbian symbol. This queering of the space is acknowledged from the first instance. The moment the visitor steps into the exhibition they view a pin board on which portraits of Gluck’s female lovers are displayed; on the reverse panel are maps of locations and spaces she occupied, socially and professionally.
By using the colour violet and avoiding fixed pronouns to describe Gluck, the creators negotiate the difficulties in projecting labels such as transgender and lesbian backward to a time when such terms didn’t exist in the public consciousness, whilst celebrating Gluck’s identity and acknowledging how the artist has been claimed as an important historical figure by both the lesbian and trans community. This elegant refusal to pigeon hole or label fits with the artist’s demand to be referred to as just Gluck, without gender specificity. The colour also works effectively against the dark grey walls and helps to make the paintings in Gluck’s famous three-stepped frames stand out.
One of the only pieces of masculine ephemera, the collar box, will be shown suspended over a beautiful example of a 1920’s evening dress. This display has been devised to deal with the absences of masculine items in the collection. The juxtaposition of these opposing items show what Gluck’s contemporaries would have been wearing, and therefore what she rejected.
Viewing the installation phase of the exhibition offered a great opportunity to see how the space is used, and how the clothes are to be shown. In the second room visitors will see a display of the floral day dresses that sparked the beginning of the exhibition.
They will also see a rather striking display of three black evening gowns that will be shown inside the metal-framed boxes developed for the recent exhibition Present Imperfect at the Fashion Space Gallery, LCF. The boxes were made with re-use in mind and here they are turned upright to frame the evening dresses.
In the same room there will be a Legacy section including author Radclyffe Hall’s novel ‘The Well of Loneliness’ which was re-issued in the 1980s by Virago with Gluck’s Medallion (You and Me) 1937 as the cover image. Medallion features the striking profiles of both Gluck and her lover Nesta Obermer, who many of the dresses in Gluck’s collection are believed to have belonged to. This Virago edition brought Gluck’s work to the attention of a new generation.
This exhibition pays tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which included the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality. Throughout this year there has been a celebration of queer lives and rights across many media and institutions, such as the Queer British Art exhibition at the Tate Britain, which featured Gluck’s self portrait as its cover image.
Words and pictures by Flo Nolan.
A book, edited by Amy and Martin, Gluck: Art and Identity (Yale, 2017) is available. More details can be found here
As part of the upcoming DATS conference, hosted by Brighton Museum, on 23 and 24 November 2017, Amy and Jeff will be talking about approaches to the exhibition. For more information and to book.
A symposium, hosted by LCF on Wednesday 07 February 2018 will explore Gluck, her life, art and identity. Details are forthcoming, so please look out for information on the Centre for Fashion Curation pages and Fashion Curation blog.
More about Installing Gluck