22 June 2020
Visitor Services Manager and Volunteer Coordinator, Lilja Addeman, shares some reflections on Kettle’s Yard for Pride this month.
This pride month I wanted to share some reflections on a few aspects of Kettle’s Yard that, as a queer person and member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I find especially interesting.
The three objects I’ve chosen to write about are not the only pieces of queer history we have, nor are they the only objects that can be viewed through a queer lens, so I want to encourage visitors who are interested in this topic to please ask questions of the Visitor Assistants the next time you come through our doors. Queer history is all around us all the time, and it’s not just for LGBTQIA+ people. As visitors to Kettle’s Yard soon discover, art is very much about seeing the world differently and sitting among a diversity of lived experiences. Kettle’s Yard is perhaps an untapped treasure trove of queer history waiting to be discovered.
Mermaid (1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
Location: The Dancer Room
Mermaids have long been a symbol of queer love, and more recently transgender identity. Particularly in the West these mythical creatures are often portrayed as young, feminine and quite minimally clothed (if they are even clothed at all), making them overtly objects of male desire.
But for the LGBTQIA+ community, our affinity for mermaids may have originated with Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous story, The Little Mermaid, which was published in 1837, and was inspired by Andersen’s unrequited love for Edvard Collin. Like many fairy tales, these days we are more familiar with the animated film adaptations, but the original story is one of intense physical pain, bodily transformation (mutilation?), rejection and ultimately death. These themes ring true for so many in the LGBTQIA+ community.
With that queer history of mermaid symbolism in mind, there are two things I love in particular about Gaudier-Brzeska’s Mermaid. The first is how she is rendered. To me she reads as almost androgynous, lacking some of the usual physical hallmarks of the mermaid myth. She, or they (to use a non-gendered pronoun) are not the petite, coquettish nymph-like creature we are used to seeing in depictions of mermaids. The rendering of their human torso leaves little more than a suggestion of a womanly bosom. That part of their anatomy is almost left to the viewers imagination. They have a thick waist, rounded arms, and a moon-like face. Their posture also is anything but flirtatious, with the twisting torso almost mocking the absurdly arched backs of mermaids in Pre-Raphaelite and Renaissance art, curving unnaturally to greet a handsome sailor. I like to think of them as simply tired. Tired of bending and twisting to conform to impossible notions of gender and desire foisted upon them. From my friendships with gender-fluid and transgender people, I gather that’s a fairly common feeling in the struggle for gender identity recognition: tiredness.
The other thing I love about this sculpture is its proximity to a unique font at the nearby St Peter’s Church. This tiny, eleventh century church has few of its original Saxon furnishings, but one thing that has survived is a font, surrounded by four mer-… MEN! That’s right, mer-men! At Kettle’s Yard we often get visitors inquiring about it and even a few history buffs who come specifically in search of it. As far as we can tell, these male mer-folk make this font rather unique for the time in which it was made.
One of the first times I invigilated The Dancer Room, where Gaudier-Brzeska’s Mermaid resides, it was slightly out of place and their face was turned out towards the church, and the Saxon font. Though it was pure serendipity, at Kettle’s Yard we like to talk about Jim’s placement of objects as being ‘in conversation’ with each other (think the yellow dot in Miro’s Tic Tic (1927) and its proximity to the iconic lemon on a pewter dish). In a similar sense I imagined this tired, androgynous modern mermaid in conversation with the four ancient Saxon mer-men, having a conversation about gender and queerness across centuries of time.