Inside the Legacy of Queer Art

Inside the Legacy of Queer Art

Traditionally marginalised and forced to the fringes of society,

members of the LGBTQIA+ community have created many of the most awe-inspiring and iconic works to have graced the art world.For some artists who lived during periods where being queer was socially unacceptable, we can only look to historical relics and personal writings for clues on their sexuality.

This is the case for 19th century landscape painter Rosa Bonheur, German avant-garde painter Anita Clara Rée, and artistic partners Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon. Seemingly heterosexual artists have also been fascinated by queer tales, and the English Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon famously depicted the lesbian poet Sappho in his painting Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytelene (1864). While French painter Gustave Coubert painted two nude women in his sensual The Sleepers (1866).

Following WW2 and the demise of Weimar Berlin and its heady queer nightlife, the second half of the 20th century was marked by the emergence of queer art in the public realm. Illustrator Tom Of Finland was published via beefcake sports magazines, leatherman and iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe came to prominence on a wave of club and fetish subculture, and Cameroonian-born Samuel Fosso shot tribal and 'Dandy-esque' self-portraits in the ‘90s; collaborating with Vogue at the turn of the century.

Nowadays, we can see artists address nuances of their identity with striking pride, self-awareness and, sometimes, references to society's shadow of oppression. Whether discussing body politics, searching for an identity, or simply expressing their creativity, contemporary artists such as: Carlos Hernandez, Nina Osoria Ahmadi and Lou Lauren, all of which are showing at the Brooklyn Art Haus during Pride Month, are building on the legacy of those who have come before. In this article, we have selected our top 10 inspiring LGBTQIA+ artists from the past to today.

Claude Cahun

Claude Cahun, 1927. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

During 1919, Parisian artist and writer Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob (1894 – 1954), age 25, identified as Claude Cahun. A talented photographer, she was one of the few women surrealists in André Breton’s French surrealist circle. Her theatrical oeuvre featured shaven-headed androgynous self-portraits where she wore cloaks, masks, cross-dressed and transformed herself into different characters. During the 1990s, her work achieved international posthumous fame and are admired in museums around the world.

Dora Carrington

Female Figure Standing, Dora Carrington (1893–1932). UCL Art Museum. Image credit: UCL Culture

Dora Carrington was a polymath who expressed herself through painting, decorative pottery, murals, book designs, fireplace tiles, inn signs and quilts, as well as making several films. She began her career at The Slade School of Art in 1910, exposing her to the Bloomsbury group, where she met and fell in love with their founder, the openly gay Lytton Strachey. The pair formed an intimate relationship, becoming deeply enmeshed in each other’s lives. Carrington described her sexuality as ‘hybrid’ and further distinguished herself from the conventional female archetype of the time by accentuating her boyish looks with cropped hair.

Carrington’s most famous female lover was Henrietta Bingham, the sitter for Reclining Nude with Dove in a Mountainous Landscape. When they met, Carrington wrote to Strachey about a woman with the ‘face of a Giotto Madonna’, who ‘made such wonderful cocktails that I became completely drunk and almost made love to her in public’ (quoted in Emily Bingham, Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, 2015). The painting of Bingham evokes an undertone of lesbian desire. It flouted the fact that during the early 20th century, it was deemed inappropriate by many for women to draw nudes from life.

“Carrington is like some strange wild beast – greedy of life and of tasting all the different ‘worms’.” Ottoline Morrell, quoted in Gerzina, 1995

Hannah Höch

Ohne Titel, 1930. Hannah Höch. Aus einem ethnographischen Museum

A Surrealist artist and member of the Berlin DADA movement (with Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali), Hannah Höch (1889 – 1978) was a bisexual woman and one of the only women to have forced her way into the Dadaists misogynistic boys’ club in Berlin. She became famous for her photomontages featuring cuttings from newspapers and arts magazines.

Not only did she project a humoristic view on genders, gender-bending, the male gaze and politics in the Weimar Republic, but she publicly commented on her experiences in the art world in a 1920 essay “The Painter“. Seeing herself as part of the women’s movement in the 1920s, she was critical of the way women were portrayed in the media. In 1926, she met Dutch writer and linguist Mathilda ‘Til’ Brugman, and the pair formed a relationship which lasted for nine years.

Louise Abbéma

Portrait of Renée Delmas de Pont-Jest, 1875. Louise Abbéma

Louise Abbéma (1853 – 1927) was a French painter, sculptor and designer of the Belle Époque. She was born into a wealthy Parisian family, who were well connected with the local artistic community. Louise started painting at an early age and received the first recognition for her work at age 23 when she painted a portrait of famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt (in 1875), her lifelong friend and rumoured lover. Louise exhibited frequently at the Salon des Artistes Françai in Paris until 1926.

Dale Lewis

Mixed Doner, 2015. Dale Lewis

The British artist Dale Lewis began his career as an assistant to Damien Hirst, and later to Raqib Shaw. He's since carved out his own niche, and paints large-scale vast works (often two by four metres wide) echoing the style of David Hockney and Jean-Michel Basquiat with satirical paintings fleshed out in oil, acrylic, and spray paint on canvas. Mundane scenes are given a surreal twist and are largely populated by spindly, white British males. There are carnivalesque scenes of boys dressed in Adidas trainers at the seaside, baroque gay orgies, birthday parties, funerals, and men engaging in gang violence. Beneath the subversive humour lies a deep-rooted search for British identity.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Darkroom Mirror, 2019. Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Paul Mpagi Sepuya is a portrait photographer who explores the body through fragments: torsos, arms, legs, or feet – never the whole body. His works challenge the relationship between photographer and sitter, creating a feeling of longing and wanting more. Often, his photographs are torn apart and rearranged with tape, while immersing the viewer in queer culture, as well as conceptions of social and sexual exchange. As he depicts notions of gaze and sensuality, he unravels uncomfortable truths concerning photography’s historical predilection for mangling, in particular, Black queer bodies.

Nicole Eisenman

Nicole Eisenman, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011. Collection of Cathy and Jonathan Miller. Photo credit: Robert Wedemeyer

Nicole Eisenman specialises in observational works depicting human behaviour. From paintings and drawings to mixed-media artworks, she takes inspiration from Expressionism, Impressionism, and Pablo Picasso to create pieces that resonate with emotion and exaggerated, intense lines and colours. There are expressionistic portraits of herself and her friends, or imagined characters derived from her critical observations of contemporary life and culture. Pathos and dark humour coalesce in paintings of couples, groups or isolated figures who appear contemplative and animate.

Louis Fratino

Eye Contact, 2019. Louis Fratino

Louis Fratino is renowned for his deeply personal paintings, inspired by the artist’s intimate experiences, memories, and fantasies. Portraying the everyday lives of gay men in New York City, he captures erotic scenes of embracing lovers and subway passengers. Fratino merges contemporary scenes with references to art history; emulating the visual style of early 20th century modernists like Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Henri Matisse.

“I paint people I love, and I paint using the vocabulary of paintings I love,” Fratino told Interview Magazine in 2019. “So the influence is very straightforward; if I see a painting that sets me on fire, I want to try and make something that feels like that.”

Olivia Strange 

Olivia Strange in her studio. Image courtesy of The London Art Fair

"To me, that's the apogee of what art is about; making the unspeakable speakable and making the unknowable knowable with liberal fluidity and empathy." A Wiccan queer activist and multimedia artist, Olivia Strange creates visceral sculptures and paintings that take cues from the historical oppression of queer individuals. The artist's works are inherently iconoclastic; often discussing gender politics with sexual and mythological motifs that have a sinister edge.

"I try to reclaim stereotypes with symbolic objects like the carabiner clip- a meaningful object within queer culture," says Strange. As a testament of her inclusivity, the artist is careful to welcome all denominations of the LGBTQIA+ community by spelling 'women' as 'womxn' throughout her digital and printed copy. "I don't want my work to be pigeon-holed as only about the historical persecution of women," says Strange. "It's intended to speak to the injustice of all groups of people who are punished unnecessarily simply for being who they are."

Jinbin Chen

Omega of the Perseus Arm, 2023. Jinbin Chen Tianyi

Oslo-based, Chinese artist Jinbin Chen has cultivated a fascinating painterly language of desire, fragmented bodies and themes of vulnerability, fragility, honesty, and comfort. Utilising soft pastels, he enhances the intimacy between the viewer and the subject through a romantic lens interweaving layers of meaning relating to objectification, fetishism and intimacy. In the past, he's taken inspiration from science fiction novels, especially the imagined male homoerotic relationships written by women authors. Other references in his process are derived from photographs of friends taken out of context and painted into a state between subject and object.

For his inaugural exhibition at Michael Kohn Gallery in 2023, Chen wrote: “It is common that people always try to remember a person, or thing, as how they truly were. But the manipulation of imagination is almost inevitable.”


Title image. The Last Supper, Carlos Hernandez. Courtesy of Brooklyn Art Haus