Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: 'The Queen - Art and Image' at the NPG

The Queen: Art & Image is the latest exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  It's an essay in the history of portraiture over the last sixty years and probably says as much about the artists and photographers who have endeavoured to capture the Queen in 2D as it does about the Queen.

That point was very clear to me last week when I viewed this exhibition - and for that reason alone I recommend this exhibition for all those interested in portraiture.

The exhibition is organised according to decades and moving through the exhibition felt a little bit like reliving one's life.  The Queen ascended the throne a little while before I was born and she's always been there - just as the images of her also became images in my life.

It was totally fascinating to see some of them for the first time and to realise how small they are in reality.  Others impress in ways I wasn't expecting.

I waited a week before writing this review to see what remained with me.
Other thoughts which occurred to me last week and stayed with me this week are that:
  • the exhibition is somewhat smaller but much more interesting than I was expecting - because it operates on a number of layers.  The temporal change is more fascinating than I expected.  You see how the representation of an individual such as the Queen changes over time when interpreted by different people.  Oddly it's almost as it comes full circle over the sixty years - it starts with romance and ends with images which are almost mythical in quality.
  • it's astonishing to be in an exhibition where such a range of diverse artists and photographers have participated in the process of creating an image of the Queen.  Who would have ever thought to see Andy Warhol in the same exhibition as Cecil Beaton?
The Queen Art & Image - in the 1950s and 1960s
an emphasis on the romantic idealistic image and family life
The Queen Art & Image - in the 1970s
The Silver Jubilee and becoming a grandmother for the first time
The Queen Art & Image - in the 1990s
contemporary interpretations of a monarch - including screenprints by Andy Warhol (1985)
Queen Elizabeth II by Lucian Freud (2001)
The Royal Collection
© Lucian Freud Archive
Artists included in the exhibition include:
Two works by Gerhard Richter
(left) Elizabeth I by Gerhard Richter, 1966 (the glazing of this photo is reflecting other exhibits)
(right0 Queen Elizabeth II - a painting by Gerhard Richter, 1967 - emphasising colour and removing detail
© Gerhard Richter
The images which remain in plain view in my mind's eye are:
  • Equanimity - by Chris Levine - which I'll write about in a separate post because it deserves one.
  • an early bromide photo by Cecil Beaton - very romantic and idealised when compared to his colour print done at the time of the Coronation which is completely OTT.
Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton
crop of a bromide print, 1955 (14 3/4 in. x 11 1/2 in. (374 mm x 293 mm) overall)
- click this link for the full photo
- a painting of Windsor Castle fills the background and the Queen is in Garter robes
  • the photographs of the emotional responses of the Queen - seen laughing on a couple of different occasions and also very shocked (by the Windsor Castle fire).  I think we so often see her looking quite serious - or at least "very composed" - that it still comes as something of a shock to see her reacting as an ordinary human being.
Queen Elizabeth II by Eve Arnold
 cibachrome print, 1968
17 1/4 in. x 11 5/8 in. (432 mm x 295 mm)
  • The two paintings by Pietro Annigoni were interesting to see in person - but are probably of limited appeal to most people as I guess a lot of people, like me, found them too remote.  Maybe that's a comment on the conflict between majesty and accessibility? (see Queen Elizabeth II by Pietro Annigoni)
  • Oddly enough, I really liked the Warhols!  The screenprints when seen as a series were a lot more impressive than I was expecting.
  • I'm not sure I liked any of the conventional formal portraits by painters.  Maybe 'like' isn't a word you use much about royal portraits.  I certainly felt the photographic portraits captured her better.
Prince Philip saw the exhibition in Edinburgh and apparently stood for a very long time in front of the Diamond Jubilee Portrait of the Queen with Prince Phillip

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Ediburgh, Windsor Castle 2011
©  Thomas Struth
National Portrait Gallery, London 
It's worth remembering when viewing the exhibition that the Queen is probably the most photographed and painted person in history.  She's the subject of 712 portraits in the National Gallery alone.

Earlier this year I predicted that this exhibition would be one of the ones in the UK which attracted the most visitors this year.  The timing of its arrival at the National Portrait Gallery, after its tour to Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, is perfect for the Jubilee weekend which starts the weekend after next and the Olympics.

Great Quotation - as seen on the wall of the exhibition and associated memorabilia

Facts about the Queen

I was dismayed to learn recently that rather a lot of people don't know too much about the Queen.  So here's a synopsis:
  • Queen Elizabeth II has been the monarch of the UK and the Head of the Commonwealth since 1952 when she succeeded her father King George VI.  She was 25 years old when she became Queen.
  • Her coronation in 1953 was the first to ever be televised (and there is film of the ceremony in the exhibition)
  • She has had three Jubilees: Silver Jubilee in 1977, a Golden Jubilee in 2002 and the Diamond Jubilee this year.
  • She has reigned for the second longest period of any British monarch.  Judging by how active and fit she is, she should beat Queen Victoria's record reign of 63 years and 7 months in the summer of 2015.
How to see this exhibition

WHERE: National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place WC2H 0HE.  Nearest Underground: Leicester Square/Charing Cross
WHEN:  Until 21 October 2012.  
  • Opening hours Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday: 10am – 6pm (Gallery closure commences at 5.50pm) 
  • Late Opening: Thursday, Friday: 10am – 9pm (Gallery closure commences at 8.50pm) 
  • General information: 0207 306 0055 
  • Recorded information: 020 7312 2463 

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