Gluck: Art And Identity Review

In 1916 Sir Alfred Munnings drew a tender pencil sketch of a young artist called Hannah Gluckstein, heiress to the J Lyon’s fortune. His drawing depicts her seated on the grass beside a gypsy caravan. She’s run away from home to join an artists colony in Newlyn. Her hair is long, and her manner is feminine yet bohemian.

A year later, young Hannah was to reinvent herself completely. ‘Gluck’ was born. For the rest of her life, until her death at age 82, she kept her hair short and wore only men’s suits. She assumed a genderless, prefix free name, reacting furiously if anyone ever had the temerity to describe her as ‘Miss Gluck’. A new show at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery celebrates this extraordinary icon for gender fluidity and homosexuality.

The show begins with an informal ‘evidence’ style pin board, covered with stories of the seven great loves of Gluck’s life. Starting thus with her sexuality, we work our way back through nine key areas which shaped her world. More than just an art show, therefore, this is the story of one of Britain’s great bohemian characters. We are invited to explore every aspect of her life and loves.

This exhibition originated from a research project undertaken by Brighton Museum and the London College of Fashion, who examined a cache of clothing items endowed by Gluck herself to Brighton Museum in the 70s. A selection of these garments are on show here, and they’re a surprise. Instead of the expected men’s tailored suits (Gluck’s daily uniform) the gift contains feminine, floral print dresses. We are left to conclude that many of these dresses were tear-jerking keepsakes of former lovers held as trophies of memory, where Gluck’s own iconic tailored suits were merely burnt or sent to jumble sales when she died.

As viewers we initially grapple with a certain disconnect between the radical nature of Gluck’s appearance and the seeming conformity of her paintings, which show scant awareness of the freedoms and experimentation of Modernism. Some of these pictures could easily pass as late Victorian. Artistically, Gluck seems to have played it relatively safe on the canvas, pandering to middle class taste with a series of neat flower paintings, all augmented by patented ‘Gluck frames’ designed to fit sweetly into the moneyed interiors of her clients.

Gluck’s work can’t quite be taken at face value, though. This soon becomes clear. Many of these these flower paintings are extremely beguiling, yet carry their own subversive sting. ‘Convolvulous’ seems to be an ordinary flower picture – but actually it’s a representation of pervasive and strangulating bindweed, a gardener’s nightmare. ‘The Devils Altar’, meanwhile, depicts two highly poisonous Brugmansia blooms – flowers which in a very real sense could kill you. They are sophisticated pictures, darkly sweet acid tinged confections, much like their maker.

An early 1960s portrait of the The Right Hon Justice Lord Salmon gives us an example of Gluck’s dark humour. Denied the fee she originally requested for the piece, she cheekily and rather hilariously relegated his likeness to the bottom third of the canvas. Pay me a small amount, she seems to say, and I’ll paint you a small amount. This strong sense of an individual prepared to take a stand comes across very clearly in the show – although arguably her nonconformist streak hampered her long-term reputation. Only a tiny number of her pictures were ever donated to public collections, and she fought shy of organisations such as the Royal Academy, with the result that most of her output now rests in private hands where few of us can see it.

Recently Gluck has been enjoying a resurgence though, as her extraordinary personality reaches a wider popular consciousness. Earlier this year BBC4 aired a documentary about her, while a new book accompanying this show is published by Yale University Press, and represents significant new research into her life.

Standing quite separate from the art movements of her day, it’s impossible to deny how far ahead of her time Gluck was, particularly in her attitudes to gender. “In the matter of dress,” she memorably observed in the 1920s, “the girl of the future will be indistinguishable from her brother or boyfriend.” Only now, forty years after her death, are we truly able to re-assess and fully admire the bravery and individualism of such a fascinating character.

Gluck: Art and Identity
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, 18th November 2017 – 11th March 2018
Admission £5.20 (£3.50 to local residents)

This is an edited version of a piece which originally appeared on Brighton Source.
Drawing by Alfred Munnings, paintings by Gluck, photo by Howard Coster.

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