To accompany its major new exhibition of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portraits, Bath’s Holburne Museum is including 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 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British rule in the 1860s, it criminalised gay sex between consenting adults and remained in place until it was finally repealed by the Supreme Court of India in September 2018.
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.
“I was struck first by the vividness of the [paintings’] colours and then by the ambivalent sexuality of their subject matter”, Gupta said.
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.
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).
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.”