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Unseen images of 1980s London art and clubs scene on display at the National Portrait Gallery
Derek Jarman and John Maybury by David Gwinnutt, c.1982–83 © David Gwinnutt.

LONDON.- A new display of photographs, documenting the 1980s London art and club scene has opened at the National Portrait Gallery, London. The display features portraits of Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman and Gilbert & George, many of which have not been previously exhibited.

The display coincides with the acquisition by the Gallery of 14 portraits by the photographer David Gwinnutt that includes unseen images of artists Maggi Hambling and Duggie Fields, fashion designers Stephen Linard and David Holah and film makers Derek Jarman and John Maybury.

The display David Gwinnutt: Before We Were Men (until 24 September 2017) captures the generation of young creatives that emerged in London against a backdrop of financial recession and unemployment in the early 1980s. The photographs of male directors, writers, designers and artists who together formed a vibrant and influential underground gay culture. Gwinnutt documented this scene while still at art college, having moved to London from Derbyshire in 1979.

Two of the portraits acquired by the Gallery but not on display, are unseen portraits of film producer Alison Owen, mother of singer Lily Allen, whose credits as a producer include Elizabeth (1998), Shaun of the Dead (2004), The Other Boleyn Girl (2007), Brick Lane (2007), Saving Mr. Banks (2013) and Tulip Fever (2017); and museum director Malcolm Rogers, former Curator of 16th and 17th Century Collections at the National Portrait Gallery and until 2015 Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

While his work is rooted in the city’s vibrant underground club scene, Gwinnutt chose to capture these sitters away from the lights and publicity of the clubs such as Blitz in Covent Garden. Gwinnutt photographed these men in the intimacy of their homes, often squats or rented council accommodation.

Most of these men were studying at art college by day and transforming into poseurs by night, escaping the bleak realities of Thatcherite Britain through handmade clothes and elaborate make up which blurred genders and refashioned identities.

The title ‘Before We Were Men’ indicates that this London scene was made up of young men, who in the following years would go on to become influential in the worlds of art, film, fashion and music. The display also celebrates the 1980s as a moment when figures such as Leigh Bowery and Trojan, also photographed by Gwinnutt, began to play with gender identity and redefine the idea of what a man could be.

Sabina Jaskot-Gill, Curator of David Gwinnutt: Before We Were Men, and Associate Curator of Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘Using only his handheld camera and natural light, Gwinnutt’s grainy black and white photographs feel unguarded and spontaneous, offering a glimpse into the private worlds of these rising stars who lived, worked and played together, a network of subversive collaborators. Gwinnutt’s photographs serve as a social document of a moment that had far-reaching effects on the cultural landscape.’

David Gwinnutt (b. 1961) is an artist and photographer. During his long career he has known and photographed many of the most influential gay people from the last 30 years. In 2013 he was voted 16th on The Independent’s Pink List of the top 100 most influential gay people in Britain for creating the Pink Jack, a symbol of modern Britain and gay pride. Born in Derbyshire, Gwinnutt graduated from Middlesex University in 1984. He was part of the 'Blitz Kid' group and the subsequent avant garde crowd that fuelled the club scene of 1980's London. His un-posed portraits, taken in intimate settings away from the club scene, show us the private side of his subjects and offer us a candid insight into their world.

David Gwinnutt: Before We Were Men forms part of a year-long programme of special displays and events, entitled ‘I am me,’ at the National Portrait Gallery exploring sexuality, gender, art and identity.

This will include, opening 27 March, a display of the work of the contemporary Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari who has selectively appropriated images from the archive of the Lebanese studio photographer Hashem el Madani, active in Saida, Lebanon from the 1950s, and presents them in new contexts. The display features a selection of Madani’s images, in which two people of the same sex kiss or tenderly embrace, to explore the strict moral codes of Lebanese culture.

There is also Speak its Name! a display of photographic portraits to marking the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967. This display includes portraits of fashion designer Alexander McQueen and journalist Isabella Blow, politician Angela Eagle, actors Ben Whishaw and Saffron Burrows, poet Jackie Kay, diver Tom Daley and singer Will Young. Their portraits are accompanied by quotations from the sitters who share their experiences of coming out. These range from coming out to friends and family, to wanting to be honest to their fans and the media.

Also as part of the I am me season, the Gallery’s spring exhibition, now open, Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask draws together over 100 works by French artist Claude Cahun (1894–1954) and British contemporary artist Gillian Wearing (b.1963). While they were born seventy years apart, they share similar themes around gender, identity, masquerade and performance.

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