L ove Letters is an extraordinary example of Grayson Perry’s socially engaged, psychologically complex and politically daring work. Animated through intricate layers of embossing and glazing, Perry’s vase features a triumvirate of iconoclastic portraits of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, playwright and theatre darling Noël Coward, and acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie.
Haloed and resplendently enshrined in Byzantinesque gold, Perry’s explicit renderings juxtapose the sacred and profane. Coward is all masochistic nipple rings, penis clamps, chains and amputated limbs; a cross-dressing Rushdie flashes his distended (pregnant?) stomach and flaccid genitals; while Thatcher suckles an infant child from her milky breast. In its daring confrontation of taboo rendered in exquisite detail, the present work signals the mature resolution of what Perry has termed his ‘pre-therapy years’ – a body of work that charts the period following the artist’s graduation from art college in 1982 up to his first exhibition at Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 1994. Included in this landmark show, the no-holds-barred Love Letters speaks to the maturation of Perry’s practice alongside the dissident subculture that emerged from Thatcher’s Britain and flourished in the aftermath of its controversial policies. Within Perry’s Love Letters it is the spectacularly detailed portrait-bust of Margaret Thatcher that takes centre stage.
Thatcher’s term in office lasted from 1979 until 1990 and left behind a divisive legacy that is both celebrated and much maligned. While Thatcher’s government engineered an enterprising economy through deregulating the financial markets, “there is no doubt”, to quote Dr Victoria Honeyman, Lecturer in British politics at Leeds University, “that inequality grew and poverty increased under Thatcher” (Dr Victoria Honeyman cited in: ‘Viewpoints: How did Margaret Thatcher change Britain’, BBC News, 10 April 2013, online). The systematic deindustrialisation of Britain, especially in the North where the closing of the mines and privatisation of many companies triggered a dramatic rise in unemployment and poverty, caused the breakdown of many working class communities.
Paradoxically, however, against a social backdrop of high unemployment, strikes, rioting, protests and the Falklands war, a cultural revolution, united under an anti-Thatcherite umbrella, was taking place. Dissent for the social reality of Thatcher’s Britain found expression in popular music by The Jam, The Smiths, and Billy Bragg, while the biting satire of Ben Elton and grim authenticity of acclaimed films by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, collectively heralded a golden age for British music, film, theatre and comedy. For fine art, the impact came a little later and for slightly different reasons. Just as Thatcher was leaving No. 10, a new generation of Young British artists began courting notoriety for their bold, conceptually-driven and business-minded approach to art practice. In 1988, Damien Hirst and his fellow cohort of Goldsmiths students set the tone with the now fabled group show Freeze, in London’s Docklands; a truly Thatcherite feat of enterprising that caught the attention of advertising mogul Charles Saatchi who was to play a decisive role in engineering the success of the YBA phenomenon. At the interstice between these two camps is Grayson Perry, whose highly skilled craft techniques and anti-elitist Hogarthian critique are somewhat at odds with the catchy, slick and quick British art boom that helped launch his career in the mid-1990s.
This work epitomises the cultural ‘doublethink’ that represents Thatcher’s radical impact as both revered and reviled, tyrannical and nurturing: Perry succeeds in simultaneously consecrating and desecrating Thatcher’s likeness in Love Letters. Beneath the extraordinarily detailed and immediately recognisable portrait head, Thatcher is rendered a transgender Holy Virgin with suckling infant, her erect manhood poking through the highly ornamental robes that adorn her. Indeed, above the other protagonists of Love Letters, it is Thatcher who occupies the seat of phallic power; her male counterparts appear emasculated in comparison. Salman Rushdie, an outspoken leftwing critic of Thatcher, unashamedly displays his female underwear and notably limp member; while the amputated and restrained figure of Noël Coward hints at the playwright’s famously unacknowledged homosexuality and perhaps even alludes to Thatcher’s highly controversial anti-gay rights legislation of 1988. Twenty-five years after its creation, Perry’s gloriously wicked ‘love letter’ to the Iron Lady of British politics is as complex, multi-layered and highly ambivalent now as it was then. In a contemporary moment similarly divided by issues of present-day politics, Perry’s pot serves as a potent reminder of the deeply controversial and enduring legacy of Thatcher’s Britain.