A Brazilian artist friend tempted me some weeks ago to take a bus to Nacka, on the outskirts of Stockholm, to see a gigantic exhibit of the much-hyped surrealistic photographer David LaChapelle.
His twisted images of the naked, fashionable and glamorous show the dehumanizing effects of consumerism—but frankly, they struck me as cold-hearted and commercial. To add insult to injury, it cost 90 kronor to see his work.
With that bitter disappointment fresh in my mind, I trudged with low expectations a few days ago to the National Museum on Strandvägen, around the corner from the Kungsträgården underground station.
With only a modest number of paintings and sculptures, the exhibit called “Queer: Desire, Power and Identity,” demonstrated the capacity of art to illuminate and provoke fresh ideas.
Several paintings created centuries ago demonstrate convincingly that what is considered a “normal” sexual identity changes over the course of history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, the cosmetics, wigs, ruffles and dresses which we today associate exclusively with romantic females or drag-queens were favoured by the European nobility of both sexes.
Sweden’s warrior king Karl XII (1682-1718) – a favourite of right-wing nationalists in this country–was portrayed on several occasions wearing a dress. Also included in the exhibit is Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt (1751-1814), transformed in one painting into an attractive woman wearing a yellow tunic, mischievously flashing a nipple.
Armfelt was a nobleman who held high office in the military and at the Swedish Royal Court. Sweden’s Princess Hedvig Sofia, the elder sister of Karl XII, was another cross-dresser. She wears a masculine costume, perhaps an allusion to the Greek hunting goddess Diana?
One gets an impression from this exhibit that the Swedish upper classes enjoyed greater freedom than commoners to cross conventional gender lines. Are demonstrations of androgyny a way to manifest power, to show that you are above common rules and limitations?
That lofty idea wasn’t my only reflection at the National Museum press opening. I was also thinking—what if that Swedish television cameraman accidentally films me, and my image is broadcast on national TV in connection with a report on a “queer” art exhibit? Will my friends suspect that I am gay?
Politically incorrect thoughts like that pop up when you least expect them, even if you like to think of yourself as the most tolerant person on earth. There is still a substantial amount of fear and anxiety in the air surrounding homosexuality, even in progressive countries like Sweden.
Stockholm is the place to be right now, however, if you do want to take a peak into the usually invisible world of the homosexual and lesbian. Five major museums, in addition to the National Museum previously mentioned, are staging exhibits showing different perspectives of the gay experience.
The Army Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the Museum of Ethnography, the National Museum of Science and Technology as well as the Nobel Museum are all taking part in this unprecedented project.
And that is just a prelude to the big bash: Starting July 25th, Stockholm will play host to the Europride festival. So take your feather boas out of their cardboard cartons, put some sparkle in your hair—or not–and leave your fears and prejudices at home. Stockholm is opening windows to a part of our community we usually don’t see or recognize, and we are all invited to the party.
See also: Photo gallery