New exhibition curated by Gibbes Museum of Art to explore queer influence on Charleston Renaissance

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New exhibition curated by Gibbes Museum of Art to explore queer influence on Charleston Renaissance
Stephania, by Edward “Ned” I.R. Jennings (American, 1898 – 1929). Watercolor on paper, 10 1/2 x 8 inches. Bequest of Laura Bragg. Image courtesy of Gibbes Museum of Art.

CHARLESTON, SC.- In a landmark exhibition, the Gibbes Museum of Art is exploring the queer influences on the Charleston Renaissance, the interwar period when Charleston flourished as an arts hub, producing iconic works like Debose Heyward’s “Porgy,” which inspired Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” In the exhibition, the term queer describes an expanse of cultural practices that disturb the conventions of heteronormative mores and values.

By examining the stylistic affinity of a collection of works by Charleston Renaissance artist Edward Ned I.R. Jennings (1898–1929) and famed English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898), this special exhibition, for the first time, establishes the British Aestheticism Movement, defined by its resistance to Victorian social conventions, its call for artistic, sexual and political experimentation and its close association with Oscar Wilde, as an important influence on the visual arts of Charleston. Something Terrible May Happen: The Art of Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Ned I.R. Jennings will be on display in the museum’s third-floor galleries until March 10, 2024.

“The Charleston Renaissance is foundational to the evolution of the visual arts in Charleston, so we are always interested in looking back at this prosperous time with fresh eyes and context,” says Angela Mack, executive director of the Gibbes Museum of Art. “The British Aestheticism Movement is a previously unexamined influence on the visual art of the Renaissance, and we’re proud of what our staff has been able to curate from our permanent collection and through loans to bring these new narratives to bear.”

Chase Quinn, the exhibition’s curator and the first Black staff member to curate a show at the Gibbes says, “this exhibition sheds a provocative new light on our understanding of the underpinnings of the Renaissance and examine the influence of queer culture and aesthetics more broadly. Whether or not these artists identified as LGBTQ, there is much evidence to support that they were influenced by queer culture.”

The Aesthetic Movement in Britain (1860–1900) aimed to produce art that was aesthetically beautiful rather than serving some deeper moral or allegorical purpose – 'Art for Art's sake'. It therefore unsettled and challenged the values of mainstream Victorian culture. The movement’s close association with Oscar Wilde, the famed playwright, novelist and poet who was put on trial for engaging in a homosexual affair with a British aristocrat, further earned the movement public condemnation. Incidentally, Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) visited Charleston in 1882. That same year, a local newspaper would make reference to the influence of aesthetic fever” on Charlestonians.

Another leading figure of the movement was Wilde’s cohort, Aubrey Vincent Beardsley. Beardsley’s iconic black ink drawings depicting the grotesque, the decadent and the erotic would become a hallmark of the movement. His most famous illustrations concerned themes of history and mythology; these include his illustrations for Oscar Wilde's play, “Salome,” which eventually premiered in Paris in 1896 and from which the Gibbes exhibition Something Terrible May Happen takes its title.

Only a decade after Beardsley’s death, Charleston Renaissance-era artist Edward Jennings's imaginative style, characterized by his use of mythological creatures and fanciful landscapes that verge on surrealism, would distinguish his artistic voice from the more picturesque expressions of his Charleston contemporaries. During his 10-year career, he would create some of the most original artwork of the period, including a significant body of work ranging from theatrical sets, costume and mask designs, watercolors and pastels.

Jennings designed sets and costumes for local theater productions and was appointed curator of the art department at the Charleston Museum. Jennings taught art classes at the Gibbes and gave private lessons to a few select artists including a young William Halsey. During the last two years of his life, Jennings made increasingly bold forays into modernism. Tragically, his full potential as an artist was never realized. In May 1929, while in his Broad Street studio surrounded by his work, Jennings took his own life.

Gibbes Museum of Art
Something Terrible May Happen: The Art of Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Ned I.R. Jennings
October 20th, 2023 - March 10th, 2024

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