Sunday, July 01, 2018

Michael Jackson: on the Wall at the NPG - Is it Exhibition of the Year?

Michael Jackson: On the Wall is the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It's a bit different - off the wall even - although I have to confess I've not seen it yet.

The exhibition is on display from 28th July to 21st October (and is the exhibition that bumped the BP Portrait Award out of its normal gallery). It's also going to be touring to
  • The Grand Palais, Paris (November 2018 to February 2019), 
  • The Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn (March to July 2019) and 
  • Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Finland (August to January 2020).
It's billed as Exhibition of the Year on the website.  I'm afraid I tend to find that sort of description a bit of a deterrent since it will mean lots of hot sweaty bodies in a gallery I know doesn't cope well with heat.

It's clearly something of a pet project of the Director - for all the sort of curatorial reasons which art historians like
His significance is widely acknowledged when it comes to music, music videos, dance, choreography and fashion, but his impact on contemporary art is an untold story. Bringing this story to light has been a long held ambition of mine. It is rare that there is something new to say about someone so famous, but here it is definitely the case
These two videos (made by Associated Press and London Guide) gives an idea of what the exhibition is like - minus the crowds.

Some of the comments made me think this might very well be an interesting exhibition in terms of pure portraiture as well as being 'about Michael Jackson'.
The exhibition takes an entirely new and quite radical approach by exploring the cultural impact of a unique figure through contemporary art, beginning with Andy Warhol – who, with his usual prescience, was the first artist to depict Jackson in the early 1980s – and continuing to the present day.
Key points about the exhibition for me include:
  • the Michael Jackson story has been told many times - but never in relation to portraiture
  • time for a historical perspective (he would have been 60 in August this year)
  • how do you portray somebody who kept morphing his appearance?
  • Is it an exhibition about how to portray 
    • a celebrity with a strong sense of visual style
    • a myth?
    • or an individual who suffered from severe burns to his head (requiring the use of wigs) and chronic vitiligo?
Rogers noted in his autopsy report that Jackson's lips were tattooed pink, while his eyebrows were a dark tattoo. The front of his scalp was also tattooed black, apparently to blend his hairline in with the wigs he wore. The autopsy confirmed what Jackson told people who questioned why his skin tone became lighter in the 1980s. Jackson had "vitiligo, a skin pigmentation disease," Rogers said. "So, some areas of the skin appear light and others appear dark." (CNN report of the Michael Jackson autopsy)
  • different generations have different ideas about what he looks like
  • includes artwork by 48 artists 
    • from different generations 
    • from all parts of the world 
    • using different media
    • all with a different take on how he should be represented both literally and metaphorically
  • Will it perpetuate the myth or reveal the real person?
One other reason for visiting is that it contains a very large portrait of Jackson as a king on a horse by Kehinde Wiley. It's not a new portrait - but it's the first time it's been seen in the UK. I shall be interested to see what his painting technique is like up close.

Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson), 2010 by Kehinde Wiley.
Copyright: Olbricht Collection, Berlin.
Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
The 48 artists featured are:
  • Rita Ackerman, 
  • Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 
  • Emma Amos, 
  • Lyle Ashton Harris, 
  • Dara Birnbaum, 
  • Candice Breitz, 
  • Appau Jnr Boakye-Yiadom, 
  • Monster Chetwynd, 
  • Michael Craig-Martin, 
  • Dexter Dalwood, 
  • Graham Dolphin, 
  • Mark Flood, 
  • Isa Genzken, 
  • Michael Gitttes, 
  • Todd Gray, 
  • Maggi Hambling, 
Here he is in a horrible painting by Maggi Hambling that makes you squirm and want to run away. It is the worst thing here. | The Guardian
  • David Hammons, 
  • Keith Haring, 
  • Jonathan Horowitz, 
  • Gary Hume, 
  • Rashid Johnson, 
  • Isaac Julien, 
  • Johannes Kahrs, 
  • KAWS, 
  • David LaChapelle, 
  • Louise Lawler, 
  • Klara Liden, 
  • Glenn Ligon, 
  • Sam Lipp, 
  • Isaac Lythgoe, 
  • Paul McCarthy, 
  • Rodney McMillian, 
  •  Dawn Mellor, 
  • Dan Mihaltianu, 
  • Lorraine O'Grady, 
  • Catherine Opie, 
  • Yan Pei Ming, 
  • Grayson Perry, 
  • Paul Pfeiffer, 
  • Faith Ringgold, 
  • Michael Robinson, 
  • Mark Ryden, 
  • Susan Smith-Pinelo, 
  • Donald Urquhart,
  • Kehinde Wiley, 
  • Hank Willis Thomas,
  • Andy Warhol and Jordan Wolfson.

I'm wondering who this exhibition will appeal to......
  • Is the once enormous fan base still as big and still as interested in Jackson?
  • Do portrait artists and fans of portraiture find this type of exhibition interesting and/or stimulating?
Only the visitor numbers will tell the story.

Let's hope the air-conditioning can cope!


For all those who like to check out all the reviews before deciding whether or not to go to an exhibition - see below.

The stars awarded by reviewers are indicated after the link to the review. It has its fans - but the review ratings are not quite those typical of an "exhibition of the year".


  1. Please be aware that all bags must be left in the cloakroom for the duration of this exhibition with no exceptions.
  2. Friends of the NPG can attend 
  3. The exhibition is held in Wolfson and Lerner Galleries at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London, WC2H 0HE
  4. A range of events are held throughout the duration of the exhibition
  5. Members Evening Private View - this exhibition and the BP Portrait Award 2018
  6. Tickets:
    • Advance booking is highly recommended for this exhibition.
    • Tickets with donation from £17.50 - £22
    • Tickets without donation from £15.50 - £20
    • Every Friday 500 £5 tickets are available to anyone aged 25 years and under from 10.00- 21.00. 
    • Members (like me) go free - as many times as they like!

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