Homosexuality has always been an issue of heated debate for a long time. The concept even dating back to Ancient Greece, albeit Greeks did not have official terms corresponding to ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual.’ In contrast to the modern era, there are now terms including the words heterosexuality and homosexuality, and names to classify individuals who do not identify as heterosexual, or straight: ‘LGBT+.’ meaning ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and more.’ However, how often is it that these people are depicted in media, either past or present? The issue can be traced back to the Victorian era.
The Victorian period is a crucial moment in the history of sexuality. The notion of sexuality was rarely spoken about in society. Newspapers, legislatures, and medical journals abstained from making any opinions on the topic (Brady 10-20). It wasn’t until sex psychology–in the mid-twentieth century–forged the terminologies that people use to think and talk (Furneaux), even until today. Still with the lack of knowledge and understanding of the new idea, the romantic interest in the same-sex was considered to be a condition (Brady 5). This peculiar situation led to the concept and questioning of whether homosexuality was a crime as it was deemed as greatly disapproved by the Christian views (Brady 5). Homosexual men were more publicly criticized than their female counterparts since they broke away from the ‘manly’ and ‘strong’ stigma and resorted to more feminine-like qualities. Death looming over these men, they were threatened to abide by what is law. Nevertheless, the morality of homosexuality still begged the question to citizens.
Due to the circumstances for homosexuals, they were suppressed to express solely traditional ideals. With the inability to express who they are and the possibility to be criticized by society, they would turn to other outlets to satisfy their deepest desires and to convey oneself such as art or literature. Although actions exhibiting interest in the same sex, which would rarely be seen, was punishable through harsh castigations, some artists were audacious enough to display their artworks to the public regardless of discrimination. Common among these defiant artists and their artworks was that the majority were released during the 19th century amid the Aesthetic Movement.
Most prominent in Europe, Aestheticism took over the mid-19th century. The start of the movement is debated by critics. Some say there never existed an organized movement; others state that it occurred during the late 1860s and early 1870s with literature (Burdett). The intent of the Aesthetic Movement was to bring forth and emphasis that art would be for “art’s sake” – heavily focusing on beauty rather than deeper meanings (Burdett). Creators would utilize this movement by reflecting their rejection to the socio-political themes onto subjects such as fine arts, music, and literature. The ideals and goals of the Pre-Raphaelites, who were also active during the 19th century, parallel to that of Aestheticism. This was in aspects of their “emphasis on sensual beauty and on strong connections between visual and verbal forms” (Burdett). The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of poets, painters, illustrators, and designers who had originally started out as a “youthful movement… to modernize art by reviving the practices of the Middle Ages” (Roe). It is noted the group of innovators assisted to popularize the idea of the “art for art’s sake” concept and would include elements of their own such as a realism and their attention to detail to the natural world. Decadence is also closely associated with the belief when it became popular near the end of the century. Decadence focused on “the notion of intense refinement; the valuing of artificiality over nature; an interest in perversity and paradox, and in transgressive modes of sexuality” (Burdett).
Whether through literature or art, it is more than just the rejection of heterosexuality; it is part of an individual’s identity and self-expression. The 19th century Aesthetic Movement, in relation to visual arts, paved way for the individualism of people in the LGBT+ community by disregarding classical symbolic messages and purposes, in place of art for the pursuit of beauty and sake of enjoyment even if it meant through illustrations of sensual pieces. The artists were given the opportunity to reject the ideals of society and overcome moral expectations set by tradition. Artists such as Thomas Eakins, Laura Knight, Frederic Leighton, and John Singer Sargent. Some of which were recently showcased in Britain’s first Queer British Art to celebrate “the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality in England.” It is difficult to decipher whether they were part of the community or not because some were inapt to be explicit about their orientation, in contrast to individuals such as Hannah Gluckstein and Simeon Solomon who were vocal about their identity. But through further investigation, assumptions about their sexuality and gender could be established to reveal a range of “stories and personal connections to the artists from playful and political to erotic and domestic,” according to the Tate Britain Exhibition. Not only does the movement allow for artists own self-discovery and journey through gender and orientation, it also contributed to the influence of 20th century artwork by laying a foundation to be built upon causing people to be united through the sense of community of similar minded individuals.
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