Brighton Museum and Art Gallery is exploring the world of Gluck, the lesbian pioneer and icon whose art has often been forgotten
Amidst the paintings, costumes and archives in this fascinating delve into the life, style and art of one the twentieth century’s most enigmatic yet forgotten artists, Howard Coster’s 1932 studio portrait of Gluck offers the perfect primer.
Coster built his reputation as a photographer of men and in his painterly portrait of Gluck – taken at the height of her artistic fame – the strong jawline and artist’s smock broadens the shoulders and covers the body to present an embodiment of a masculine artist.
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Born Hannah Gluckstein into the wealthy family that went on to found the Lyons tea shops, the artist known to us simply as Gluck attended art school in London between 1913 and 1916 and then ran away to Cornwall with fellow students during the remainder of the First World War.
There she mixed with the bohemians of the Newlyn School of painters and was even sketched by Alfred Munnings smoking a pipe in Roma-style dress.
Shortly after this brilliantly affected portrait, Gluck cut off the flowing locks, adopted the name Gluck and created a masculine identity that embraced men’s tailoring, barber-cut short hair and a mannish demeanor.
Gluck, who demanded “no prefix, suffix, or quotes”, went on to be known in the inter-war years for portraits, land and seascapes and stage scenes, and in the 1930s for a series of popular floral paintings that were influenced by society florist Constance Spry with whom the artist was having a relationship.
The Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, is even said to have attended 1930s Gluck exhibitions at the Fine Art Society Gallery on Bond Street and her skills as a portraitist of society ladies were highly sought after. But by the 1940s and the advent of abstract expressionism Gluck’s popularity waned, she painted less and has since become a cult figure for the LGBTQ community as a lesbian pioneer and icon.
Today Gluck is also seen as a key figure within the trans community because she dressed almost exclusively, in men’s clothes.
As a result says Martin Pel, one of the co-curators of this new exhibition that cleverly mixes Gluck’s dress, archives and art, “her reputation as an artist has taken second best”.
Part of that is down to the fact that much of Gluck’s art is still in private hands and absent from public galleries and until recently the only real insight into the paintings was Diana Souhami’s brilliant Gluck biography and its meagre black and white photos.
“How does an LGBTQ individual construct an identity through dress? Gluck is the perfect example.”
“I think when people come to the show they’ll see a brilliant artist that really hasn’t had the profile she deserves,” says Pel, who admits that he and his co-curators – Amy De La Haye, from the London College of Fashion, and curator Jeffrey Horsley – began their journey with Gluck’s compelling persona and style.
“We originally began by looking at her clothing within a context of LGBTQ,” he says. “How does an LGBTQ individual construct an identity through dress? And Gluck was the perfect example.”
Gluck donated a large collection of clothing to the museum in 1977, the year before she died, and although Pel says many of the items, ranging from jewellery, handbags and pillow cases, to the polyester clothes and the various outfits of her lovers , are “not all museum quality”, they are fascinating in the context of Gluck’s life”. Interestingly none of the male clothes were donated, according to Pel “they all went to the charity shop”.
“They’re all souvenirs of her life,” he adds, “these are things that were worn or owned by people that Gluck deeply loved, and she wanted them preserved.”
Since 1944 Gluck had been living with her partner, the journalist Edith Shackleton Heald, at Chantry House in Steyning in Sussex, and when Edith died in November 1976, Gluck was distraught.
“I think from that emotional turmoil she subconsciously created a collection of objects that were deeply personal to her and donated them to the principle local museum, so they’d be preserved for the rest of time.”
“So we didn’t come from a position of saying we need to re-establish Gluck as a great artist within the cannon of art history. But when we actually saw her art, we were completely blown away because some of the paintings are incredible. And it’s seeing them in the flesh that you really get to appreciate them.”
The exhibition brings together key works like The Devil’s Altar (1932), which depicts Constance Spry’s favourite flower, Brugmansia.
The huge painting was uncharacteristically donated (Gluck never usually gave paintings away – even to family members) to Brighton Museum in 1953 and is displayed in one of the innovative three-tiered frames, which Gluck developed to match the walls they were to be hung on to create the impression that the art was part of the room.
Other paintings in the exhibition range from The Pine Cone, painted in 1919, to the poignant end of life painting Credo (Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light) of 1970/3.
Key inclusions are the signature Lilies (1932-36), which again perfectly complemented the fashionable all-white interiors of the time, the striking nude Primavera (1920) and the almost-black The Punt (c.1937), which depicts Gluck lying with her then lover Nesta Obermer in a punt on Plumpton’s pond.
Together with the costume, photographs, letters and paintings the exhibition unfolds like a kind of biography told in a series of fragments, each of which takes a theme of her life, her family, her relationships and the locations she inhabited.
Visitors will get to see the brilliant, imperious but melancholy 1942 Self-Portrait, (featured in Tate’s Queer British Art Show) that revealed the painful aftermath of the break up with Nesta.
Diana Souhami in her book wrote that when the relationship finished, Nesta returned all of their love letters, and when Gluck died they were found in a shoe box. On the top there was a post-it note and in Edith’s handwriting it said “all lies.”
One of the letters, together with the shoebox, has made its way into the display to help weave a story that comes directly from Gluck’s own words and experience.
But Gluck is lots of different things to lots of different people and while the curators have presented the story, they have left it refreshingly open. Gluck’s life – she never had to work to earn a living, or even sell a painting – often seems to hidden in a cossetted and moneyed world that was controlled and curated. It’s a world from which Gluck is only just fully emerging.
Gluck: Art & Identity, is at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until March 11 2018.
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
Brighton & Hove, East Sussex
Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, with its rich and diverse collections, creates a vibrant cultural centre in and around the Royal Pavilion estate in the heart of the city of Brighton & Hove. Dynamic and innovative galleries provide greatly improved access to the Museum's nationally and locally important collections. Objects…