Sunil Gupta: The New Pre-Raphaelites
18 September 2021 – 19 January 2022
To accompany its major new exhibition of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portraits, the Holburne is proud to announce a display of photographs by Sunil Gupta that explore the legacy of the Pre-Raphaelites and their influence on contemporary art.
In 2008, London-based artist and photographer Sunil Gupta (b.1953, New Delhi) was commissioned by Autograph gallery in London, to produce a body of work connected to LGBTQI+ rights in India. The resulting series of ten photographs referenced the struggle against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Instituted during British rule in the 1860s, it criminalised gay sex between consenting adults and remained in place until it was finally repealed by the Supreme Court of India in September 2018.
Known as the Anti-Sodomy Law, Section 377 facilitated the arbitrary arrest and exploitation of LGBTQI+ Indians. In turn, this led to a closeted culture where alternate sexuality was pushed underground and made researching and treating serious medical problems such as STDs and HIV/AIDS extremely difficult.
Gupta’s photographs allude to works by members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an artistic movement founded in 1848, only a few years before Section 377 was introduced. He says: “I was struck first by the vividness of the [paintings’] colours and then by the ambivalent sexuality of their subject matter.”
Inspired by the Tate’s collection, Gupta invited friends and fellow activists to model for him and re-enact the original works; at the time their involvement constituted an act of resistance, courage, and commitment, much like their UK counterparts who campaigned against Section 28 (in effect between 1988 and 2003 in England and Wales).
Through Gupta’s lens, well-known paintings such as Henry Wallis’ Chatterton (1856), Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), Sir John Everett Millais’ Mariana (1851) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (1867), take on a new meaning as he reinterprets them. The New Pre-Raphaelites is representative of Gupta’s work, which spans three decades and documents his own life and involvement with issues of gender, sexuality, displacement and his own diagnosis in 1995 of being HIV positive. This display of tightly composed images effectively force the viewer to confront a juxtaposition with an alternative social reality. Also, as the Pre-Raphaelites observed in the 1800s, Gupta’s photographs transpose the private into the public. In Gupta’s photographs, these ‘truths’ become gay couples, single men and women, and groups posing romantically, glimpsed in moments of passion and emotion. Combining symbolism and realism – just like the paintings that inspired them – the images concentrate on the real people who occupy the space of each print and, in some instances, show what would be deemed criminal intent according to Section 377, but most will recognise as an act of love.
Richly coloured, textured and patterned backdrops highlight the sitters’ colourful costumes, and their occasional nudity, Gupta demonstrates his eye for detail. It is important to note that the women portrayed in The New Pre-Raphaelites were at the time living on the margins of society. Although technically free from accusations of committing the crime of sodomy, before 2018 they risked being hunted down and, in some cases, burnt alive by their families who would rather see them dead than face social ostracism.
Chris Stephens, Director of the Holburne Museum says: “I am proud and delighted to be showing at the Holburne such an important and courageous body of work as Sunil Gupta’s The New Pre-Raphaelites. We seek always to draw out the contemporary resonances of our historic exhibits and that could not be more powerfully represented than in this body of work in which Gupta uses Victorian pictorial compositions in order to raise marginalised and criminalised same-sex relationships to the highest level of romantic love.”
For more information about Rossetti’s Portraits plus other exhibitions and events at the Holburne Museum follow @Holburne on Twitter, like the Holburne Museum Facebook page, holburnemuseumbath on Instagram.
NOTES FOR EDITORS
Sunil Gupta (b.1953, New Delhi) is a London-based photographer, curator and cultural activist. In the mid-1970s he trained at The New School for Social Research, New York, under Philippe Halsman and Lisette Model. He built on his BA in Photography at West Surrey College of Art & Design (1978–81) by completing an MA at the Royal College of Art (1981–83) and a PhD at the University of Westminster (2018). His work has been profusely exhibited internationally and he has published several photography books. Gupta has received numerous grants and awards, including an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society.
The Holburne Museum’s mission statement is ‘Changing Lives Through Art’, signalling its commitment to opening up the enjoyment of art to people of all ages and from every walk of life. The Holburne was founded in 1882 with the gift of Sir William Holburne’s collection of 16th and 17th century Italian and Dutch paintings, silver, sculpture, furniture, porcelain and diverse objets d’art of national and international significance. That founding gift has been augmented with a collection of 18th century paintings by such artists as Gainsborough, Lawrence, Ramsay, Stubbs and Zoffany. Set within the historic Sydney Pleasure Gardens, the Museum reopened in May 2011 after ambitious renovations and with a new, award-winning extension by Eric Parry Architects. The Holburne has since secured a national reputation as an outstanding museum which holds critically acclaimed exhibitions. Its programme of exhibitions, commissions and events sets out to bring to Bath great art of all periods and from around the world, seeking to set the art of the past in dialogue with contemporary practice in exciting and dynamic new ways.