A fresh twist on Gay Icons at the National Portrait Gallery

By Alex Hopkins | 03 July 2009
a woman with short hair on a chair

k.d.lang Le Meridien Hotel, London by Jill Furmanovsky (1992). Picture © Jill Furmanovsky

Gay Icons, National Portrait Gallery, London, until October 18 2009.

What constitutes a gay icon? An exhibition of gay icons opened at The National Portrait Gallery this week aiming to answer this question. The often surprising selection of photographs on display have been chosen by ten well-known gay figures and seeks to shatter the existing, perhaps outmoded stereotypes surrounding gay identity. Instead, the images offer a more personal and far reaching examination of contrasting gay experiences.

Those expecting to be bombarded with fabulous images of Madonna and Kylie Minogue will be disappointed. Rather, this show eschews the overly familiar concept of gay diva worship and focuses on the personal choices of ten individuals who have, arguably, achieved iconic status in their own right.

Broadcaster and Chair of the selection panel Sandi Toksvig was determined not to present a clichéd series of images. Instead, the aim was to showcase the breadth and wealth of gay and lesbian lives through inspirational figures representative of monumental achievements over the last 150 years.

"I hope the exhibition will challenge some people's perceptions of what gay means. We are a disparate group, not through our sexuality but through society's reaction to it," explains Toksvig.

The 60 photographs chosen by Waheed Ali, Alan Hollinghurst, Elton John, Jackie Kay, Billie Jean King, Ian McKellen, Chris Smith, Ben Summerskill, Sarah Waters and Toksvig herself demonstrate the ways that gay men and women have responded to historical reactions by heterosexual society to sexual dissidence.

"These are stories of brave lives and significant achievements," says Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery. "Our aim has been to combine the concepts of identity, portraiture and achievement with powerful effect."

a man with his back to the camera

Joe Orton by Lewis Morley (1965), National Portrait Gallery, London. Picture© Lewis Morley Archive / National Portrait Gallery, London

The real impact from this show comes not from the simple, predominantly black and white images, but from their coupling with explanations from the selectors, highlighting the reasons for their choices. Testament to the enormous effort and courage it often takes to overcome adversity, they are often quietly moving.

Being outside the mainstream, gay experience cuts across traditional barriers of class, race and education. Free from the shackles of convention, the possibilities for growth and achievement can be infinite.

This is reflected in the subjects on display, an eclectic mix of hustlers, writers, sports personalities, musicians and controversial political thinkers.

Toksvig sums up this rather unique, perhaps enviable standpoint when she confesses that she "probably" wouldn't have chosen to be gay but "now wouldn't be without it." She wryly credits being a lesbian with "holding back the middle class, middle-aged woman I would have become."

It is this often complex process of becoming which forms the core of this show. While some of the influences (such as Booker prize winner Alan Hollinghurst's idolisation of Edmund White) seem obvious, others are deliciously off-beat. Who would have thought, for example, that Peer of the Realm Waheed Ali would celebrate the "unashamed commercialisation" of legendary porn star Jeff Stryker?

If literary and artistic themes are predictably dominant, the conspicuous absence of what have widely been accepted as prerequisites for gay iconic status is refreshingly unexpected. While Chris Smith alludes to the suicide of mathematician Alan Turing and Jackie Kay recognises the alcoholism of blues singer Bessie Smith, the common motif of the tragic gay persona is, for once, underplayed.

a photograph of a young man with a firm jawline and neckerchief

Joe Dallesandro by Paul Morrissey (1968). Picture © Paul Morrissey

Likewise, if Toksvig gives a nod to the vital role of camp in gay culture, as embodied by Kenneth Williams, this is balanced against arguably more positive, contemporary figures – the sporting heroes of Billie Jean King and, perhaps the most unexpected subject of them all, Watford FC Manager Graham Taylor (chosen by Elton John).

The ramifications are profound, boldly extending the remit of gay identification into the mainstream and posing some timely questions about assimilation in the process.

Coming in the same month as the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, this show seems to focus on the constructive, life-affirming aspects of gay history. If the dark days of repression are acknowledged with figures like Quentin Crisp, the overriding, optimistic message is that gay men and women must look to the future.

For Toksvig this is vital. While she recognises that the gay community has come far, she understands that there is also a long way to go. "I hope this exhibition will inspire some young person who is still a bit confused to find courage," she says. "Hopefully there will be some unknown person who will walk through here and feel a bit better about themselves."

Looking at the illustrious figures adorning the walls, her aspiration is as realistic as it is noble.

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