Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Simon Schama's The Face of Britain - and selfies

Simon Schama talking about the process of Graham Sutherland painting Sir Winston Churchill

This morning I was at the National Portrait Gallery to hear a briefing from historian Simon Schama about The Face of Britain - which this autumn will comprise a major exhibition, a five part television programme and a book.

Simon Schama

Simon Schama's The Face of Britain 

This involves:

  • five new displays under the overarching title of Simon Schama's The Face of Britain - an exhibition from 16 September 2015 - 4 January 2016, at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Admission free
  • a five-part TV series on BBC2 in Autumn 2015 - with the same title
  • a book of the same title to be published by Viking / Penguin Random House, Hardback £30 on 16 September 2015
The temporary displays of images within the permanent collection will be jointly curated by Simon Schama and the National Portrait Gallery curators ed by Chief Curator Dr Tarnya Cooper.

Rather than taking a chronological approach adopted by the permanent displays, the new temporary displays revolve around five themes:
  • Power - this relates to the three different ways a portrait is considered
    • the way we want to be seen (or others want people to be seen) - see the anecdote about Churchill at the end
    • the job of the artist to endorse this perspective - up to a point
    • the way the public views it
  • Love - portraits are very often about creating pictures of people you don't want to lose
  • Fame
  • People - This covers people from less elite backgrounds. It's not just about introspection, it's also about scrutiny and inspection - and will include
  • Self - the "self portrait" section will look at how the artist uses the self-portrait for self-promotion and also focus on how people adopt and/or balance out the two ways of looking at yourself: 
    • the narcissist - self-love
    • after Montaigne - unsparing self-knowledge
Each theme will be in one room for each theme - so related portraits on a theme will be seen side by side even if in reality they are separated by centuries.  The overall scheme of things has been informed by Simon Schama’s innovative and challenging exploration of the development, character and meanings of British portraiture

What was possibly the most interesting aspect of the morning was listening to Simon Schama talk. He's extremely knowledgeable and has the ability to keep talking while hardly taking a breath, while jumping around between centuries and anecdotes. It was rather like an academic monologue - interspersed with absolutely fabulous soundbites!
The issue is what happens when we eyeball one another
We should be involved in looking at people 
The function of art is endurance. You want to remember 'that look'. Portraits provide the 'x factor' which the quick 'dumbed down' version of the selfie doesn't do. They're the equivalent of white noise. Portraits deliver the music. 
Directing him for television must be rather interesting!

I loved his story of how the very famous photograph of Churchill by Karsh - described by Schama as the visual equivalent of "we will fight them on the beaches" - was actually the photograph of a man who was annoyed because he had just been deprived of his Havana cigar!

The papers have rather pounced on just one comment - about selfies - which he made this morning.