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Sydney Morning Herald Column

Shakespeare to Winehouse

Published May 14, 2022
Nicholas Hilliard, 'Queen Elizabeth 1' (c. 1575)

Shakespeare to Winehouse may not be the most important show ever held at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, but I can’t think of a bigger one. The most surprising thing about this collection of more than 80 works, drawn from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, London, is how long it has taken the local institution to host a dedicated show from its role model.

John Taylor, ‘William Shakespeare (1594-1616)’

The NPG in London opened its doors in 1856, its Australian counterpart was officially launched in March 1999. One might imagine that a loan show from London would have been one of the highest priorities, but it’s taken more than 20 years to achieve, ultimately abetted by a renovation of the galleries on Trafalgar Square. There was a exhibition of “contemporary portraits” in November 2001, but the current selection is a much grander proposition. The quality of the loans justifies the wait, especially if this was the only way the NPG would ever send us works such as John Taylor’s portrait of William Shakespeare (c.1600-10), the very first picture it acquired.

No-one could pretend that Taylor’s painting is a superior work of art, but it is reputed to be the most accurate likeness of the Bard, and the most likely to have been painted from life. As such, it’s a priceless cultural icon. When I say it’s no masterpiece, I need to add that it’s a solid, convincing portrait that does what all good portraits should, giving us a sense of the personality that lies behind the appearance. Shakespeare looks shrewd and intelligent, with just the hint of a smile. A shiny earring adds a theatrical touch.

Marlene Dumas, ‘Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) (‘Amy-Blue’)

At the “Winehouse” end of the spectrum, we get the very opposite impression. Marlene Dumas’s small portrait of the talented and tragic Amy Winehouse, was painted from a photo, following the singer’s death in 2011. It’s a crude image that responds to Winehouse’s public image, with the distant, sorrowful feelings of a fan.

In this transition, from an image of quality produced by a relatively unknown artist working from a living subject to a mere daub by a world-famous contemporary painter working from a photo, we can sum up the dilemmas of any institution devoted to portraiture. The subject must come first, as there is little room in a national portrait gallery for even the most masterful picture of an unknown, undistinguished sitter. There is, however, no guarantee that a great man or woman will be represented by a great artist. As a result, the gallery is forced to make do with the best likeness it can get, whether it be a painting, a sculpture or a photo.

Then there is the changing nature of fame. In the Victorian era the most revered figures in the eyes of the general public were writers, soldiers and statesman – often craggy old men with crumpled suits and unruly beards. Matronly Queen Victoria was more admired than the most famous actress. Today we are preoccupied with glamour and fashionability. We prize good looks over intellect and prefer youthful energy to age and experience.

Shirin Neshat, ‘Malala Yousafzai (b.1997)’, (2018)

One of the few solid points made by NPG curator, Rab MacGibbon, in a surprisingly shallow catalogue essay, is to note the changing nature of the word “celebrity”. Instead of a fame based on solid achievements, destined to guarantee a place in history, we see it as “a superficial and fleeting public prominence.” Today’s celebrities are tomorrow’s non-entities. Even while they are household names, we hardly know why they are so admired. What has Kate Moss ever done that bears comparison with Dickens or Darwin?

This disjunction between past fame and present-day celebrity creates a kind of two-tier exhibition, with room for John Singer Sargent’s magisterial portrait of Henry James and Mario Testino’s rather ordinary photo of Naomi Campbell; for a dazzling self-portrait by Anthony Van Dyck, and a pathetic bronze cast of her own face by Tracey Emin. Anybody who thinks I’m reflexively preferring the past masters to their present-day counterparts should take a look for themselves. The contrasts are stark.

Shirin Neshat proves that it’s possible to make an insightful, contemporary photographic portrait with her image of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani who has spoken out so heroically on behalf of women’s rights. The poem that has been inscribed across Yousafzai’s serene, resolute expression feels like a testimony to the power of words to bring about change.

James Jacques Tissot, ‘Frederick Burnaby (1842-85) (1870)

Colin Davidson’s 2016 painting of singer, Ed Sheeran, is another impressive contemporary work, but the real stand-outs in this exhibition are the images of the royal court, by Van Dyck, Peter Lely, and the anonymous artists who left memorable portraits of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Sir Walter Ralegh.

Artists such as Van Dyck and Sir Thomas Lawrence are among the greatest portraitists of all time, but neither should we overlook a painter such as James Jacques Tissot, whose Frederick Burnaby (1842-85), shows a suave cavalry officer leaning back on a couch, cigarette in hand, apparently regaling us with stories of his triumphs. Tissot makes brilliant use of the red stripe in Burnaby’s trousers to convey the man’s imposing size and strength, offset by a dandified waxed moustache. A sophisticated brute, if ever there was one.

Sir John Everett Millais, ‘Louise Jopling (1843-1933)’ (1879)

Just as good is Sir John Everett Millais’s Louise Jopling (1843-1933), artist and feminist. Allowing for his undeniable talent, Millais painted so many corny, patronising images of women it’s startling to see how fresh and direct he could be when it suited him. One feels that he not only liked Jopling, he respected her as a person. She is depicted as an individual, not a feminine stereotype.

I can imagine some viewers travelling to Canberra just for the pleasure of seeing the one-and-only group portrait of the Bronte sisters, painted by their brother, Bramwell. Or Sir Joshua Reynolds’s stunning portrait of the young Sir Joseph Banks, or maybe even Patrick Heron’s Cubistic take on T.S. Eliot.

The curators have made a big effort to include portraits that go against traditional gender roles, from the transvestite fencer, the Chevalier d’Éon (1728-1810), to the lesbian author, Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943) dressed in men’s clothing. These portraits are fascinating anomalies, showing people who defied overwhelming social pressures to live and dress as they chose. The images speak eloquently for themselves, but Rab MacGibbon feels constrained to sermonise, in the catalogue, about “racist and sexist social structures”, works that “reinforce the social hierarchy”, and so on. This is at once obvious and sanctimonious, prompting us to look back with pity upon those poor, foolish artists who didn’t share our own enlightened attitudes towards race, gender and democracy.

Patrick Bramwell Brontë, ‘Anne Brontë (1820-49), Emily Brontë (1818-48), and Charlotte Brontë (1816-55)’ (c.1834)

To judge the past in terms of our own moral standards is not only small-minded, it’s profoundly ahistorical. There’s simply no point in complaining that artists in Victorian times didn’t paint enough black people or lacked sympathy with LGBQT issues. This kind of commentary is unworthy of a celebrated institution such as the National Portrait Gallery and the scholarship one associates with British curators and art historians.

As one rarely sees a touring blockbuster with so many high-quality works it’s ridiculous to frame them with specious generalisations. Australian viewers deserve a better memento of this marvellous show than a picture book with a gloss of political correctness.

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare to Winehouse: Icons from the National Portrait Gallery, London

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 12 March – 17 July 2022

 

 

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 May, 2022