Warhol, Richter and ‘God Save’ Jamie Reid depict Queen Elizabeth II
Opening today, to coincide with the Diamond Jubilee, is the exhibition The Queen: Art and Image at the National Portrait Gallery. This touring exhibition has already been shown at major art institutions across the UK, in Edinburgh, Belfast, and Cardiff, but joins us now in London just in time for the tourist boom expected during the 2012 Olympic season.
Located in the Porter Gallery, this extraordinary exhibition amasses unique and varied images of Queen Elizabeth II over the course of her reign. As an art exhibition, it presents a dialogue between traditional royal portraiture and an informal approach instigated by mass media. As a biographical account of such a beloved public figure, it is a visual investigation into perhaps a paradoxical identity, one that is at once ordinary and extraordinary, and is an effort to see beyond the portrait surface and into an enigmatic person.
Ranging from the 1950s to present, the exhibition includes a range of media, such as photographs from the Times, video and documentary footage, traditional painting genres, and creative contemporary interpretations of the subject. Each image captures a different ‘face’ of the queen as she fulfils multiple roles – a confident sovereign, a beloved wife, a dutiful mother, a compassionate and thinking individual, or a pop icon. These images over the course of 60 years have influenced public opinion, and either gained her following or disapproval depending on the time.
Iconic artworks feature alongside media photography. Of note, Andy Warhol’s pop images from 1985 give a commodity status to the crown, and Jamie Reid’s God Save the Queen (1977), titled after a song by the Sex Pistols’, brings irony to the throne. However, two works by Gerhard Richter (1966, 1967) where a bust of the queen is either out of focus or enhanced superficially, seems to highlight the thesis of the exhibition: who is the queen, and what does she represent at a given moment in time?
Many extraordinary contemporary works of art play prominently in the gallery. The exhibition includes two holograms donated to the Gallery Collection by the artist Chris Levine (2004), which bookend the installation. It also showcases an elaborately beaded sculpture by Hew Locke titled Medusa (2008), and a newly commissioned work from the German photographer Thomas Struth, a double portrait of the queen and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle. This final image of the show exemplifies the balance between ordinary and special that the entire exhibition seems to suggest is the queen’s dual persona.
The exhibition moves chronologically from room to room, showcasing the change in the queen’s portrait depiction. The images from the 1950s describe a construction of heritage, where the first image in the exhibition is a media photograph depicting the beauty of a young woman thrust into responsibility after her father’s death. Not to miss in the first room is a work by Cecil Beaton (1955) that uses traditional techniques of royal portraiture that date back to the 15th century.
In the next room, the images become more informal, illustrating royal family life behind the scenes, in response to an era suspicious of affluence. In the corner of this room is a still from the 1969 documentary Royal Family where one finds the queen dining with her family in a relaxed setting.
Following this, the 1970s portraits reveal more about the queen’s ordinariness in an effort to reinvent public perception of the monarchy and revive popular interest in the royal family. But the seventies were also marked by the marriage of Charles and Diana, a televised event that placed the young royals in the spotlight, giving the queen an image of formality in light of the media attention. Though for most of this decade the queen is overshadowed by the celebrity status of certain family members, she appears no less influential or prolific in art and media images.
Contemporary art takes over the images of the 1990s, perhaps due to the overall disintegration of a stable image of a family burdened by identity crisis, divorce, estrangement, and a devastating fire at Windsor Castle. From the 2000s to present, there appears to be a rise in public displays of participation in wider social trends, represented by an image of the queen meeting the Spice Girls.
The final image in the exhibition seems to suggest a turn towards rehabilitation of the royal family’s image, with the queen at the helm. Photographed as the still centre in a turbulent storm, artist Annie Liebovitz captures the queen as a stable, reassuring figure, who will guide the UK into the future.
Overall, The Queen: Art and Image attests to the evolution of imagery that has done much to influence public opinion of this adored public figure as well as the English Royal Family. Words: Sharon Strom ©ArtLyst 2012
The exhibition runs at the NPG from 17 May – 21 October in the Porter Gallery