Using works from the Fitzwilliam Museum collection, this online talk will explore how Western European religious painting was embraced and transformed by women and queer artists working in the 19th and 20th century in Britain. The talk will initially focus on 19th Century responses to Renaissance representations of Saint Sebastian: in a context in which queer life was strictly policed and driven underground, paintings of Saint Sebastian became symbols of hope, figures of queer possibility, deviant desire made radiantly visible. It will then explore the portraiture of Gwen John. John used imagery drawn from Annunciation paintings to impart importance on women’s inner lives, and more radically as an attempt to challenge the maternal duty and nurturance – or the heteronormativity – implicitly demanded of women by these works.
About the speaker: Rebecca Birrell is currently Assistant Keeper of Paintings, Prints and Drawings at the Fitzwilliam Museum. She studied English Literature at UCL, then Women’s Studies at The University of Oxford. She has occupied curatorial positions at the Jewish Museum London, The Department of Prints and Drawing at The British Museum and at The Charleston Trust. In 2018 she undertook a fellowship at the Yale Center for British Art. While finishing her PhD at the Edinburgh College of Art, she worked on the photographic archive at The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust. Her first book, This Dark Country: Women Artists, Still Life and Intimacy in the Early Twentieth Century, a blend of collective biography and art criticism, was published by Bloomsbury in August 2021.