A woman who dresses in men’s clothing. A woman who rejects her own name. ‘No prefix, suffix or quotes’. An artist, a trailblazer. Gluck.
Up until a few months ago, I had never heard of Gluck. That all changed when Brighton Museum announced they would be curating an exhibition centered around the artists work and life. Intrigued to know more, a friend at work kindly lent me her copy of Gluck: Her Biography by Diana Souhami, which I read before attending the aforementioned exhibition.
The artist known as Gluck, was born Hannah Gluckstein in London. Her mother was an opera singer, and her two uncles were the founders of a huge catering coffee house enterprise, J. Lyons and Co. The family was very tightly knit, and any actions considered against the grain were simply not heard of. That is, until Hannah started to grow into the person we know her as now, the one word, one syllable Gluck.
After attending art school in her late teenage years, she then uprooted to Cornwall to join a community of artists and like-minded free spirits. During the 1920s and 1930s, Gluck became quite the society sensation. Her portraits reflected the important and elegant society of the time, whilst later on, her flower paintings dazzled with burning passion and botanical excellence.
Her paintings are of course visual triumphs, but what fascinates me about Gluck was her private life – the story behind the canvas of her paintings.
One of the most striking aspects of Gluck, was the way she dressed. Gluck favoured men’s tailoring over feminine dresses, and frequently wore men’s plus fours, suits, shirts and ties.
I just don’t like women’s clothes. I don’t object to them on other women, mind you, but for myself, I won’t have them…I’ve experienced the freedom of men’s attire, and now it would be impossible for me to live in skirts. I believe the time will come when all women will be of my opinion. In the matter of dress, the girl of the future will be indistinguishable from her brother or boyfriend.
Unattributed press cutting from the exhibition, July 1 1925. The Gluck Archive.
Her hair was cropped short to mirror her fashion choices, and personally, I think in the pictures I have seen of her, she looks fantastic.
Gluck: Art and Identity at Brighton Museum really gives a three dimensional view into the person behind the paintings. I actually wasn’t prepared to love the paintings as much as I did, upon viewing them up close, and in real life. They are breathtaking. The blend of colours, the delicacy of brushstroke, intricacy of detail – is all amazing. The exhibition is housed across two rooms.
The first displays Gluck’s portrait paintings, flower paintings influenced by her Constance Spry period, and interestingly, a timeline of Gluck’s lovers. For any other artist, such a personal display may not have been appropriate. But for Gluck, as her work was so tied-up and reflected by her relationships, the timeline served as both a personal and professional memoir.
Many of the paintings were displayed in the artists self-designed Gluck frame. Whether the frames were originals, or reproductions of Gluck’s designs, I am not sure. Either way, they suited the paintings perfectly, and served to remind the spectator that Gluck saw things as a whole, she evaluated how her paintings would be presented, and sought to design and manufacture a style of frame she deemed most appropriate.
The moody, imposing grey walls of this first exhibition room served to offset and contrast with the ivory and natural wooden frames. The grey toned walls also presented a kind of neutrality, neither wholly feminine nor entirely masculine – presenting the viewer with an ambiguity appropriate to the artist.
The second room of the exhibition displayed items of clothing, personal effects and various ephemera associated with the artist. Included in this display, was a rail of delicate, floral print dresses.
One can deduce straight away that these dresses did not in fact, belong to Gluck, but to her lovers. Specifically, the gowns belonged to Edith Shackleton, Gluck’s lover through the 1940s up to the 1970s.
These gowns were displayed behind an artists smock which was owned and worn by Gluck, the contrast between the garments being obviously discernible.
One of the paintings in display in this second room was entitled Flora’s Cloak, and is thought to be the only known nude that Gluck produced. Even though this painting was completed in 1923, it has an almost psychedelic mid century aura about it. To me, Flora’s Cloak affirms Gluck’s ability to transcend time, and speak to audiences of yesterday, today and the many tomorrows yet to come.
Overall, I found the exhibition thoughtful, thought provoking, and coherent. Gluck: Art and Identity did not simply display the works of the artist, it displayed the life, and within the fibres of her painting smocks one felt that Gluck herself was present. My only disappointment was that perhaps the most famous of all Gluck’s paintings – Medallion (YouWe), 1936, was not present. It was however, featured as a print on the exhibition entrance board, and also on a copy of Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness novel in the second room of the exhibition.
- Gluck: Art and Identity at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery runs from 18th November 2017 until 11th March 2018.
- Admission payable, members free.
Further Reading and Viewing
- Book: Gluck: Art and Identity (the accompanying book to the exhibition) by Amy De La Haye, Martin Pel, Gill Clarke, Jeffrey Horsley, Andrew Macintos Patrick
- Book: Gluck: Her Biography by Diana Souhami
- Documentary: Gluck – Who Did She Think He Was? Originally shown on BBC4, no longer available on iPlayer but available here on YouTube.
I, for one, am definitely hoping to visit the exhibition again before it closes.
Until next time dears!