The rise and rise of the National Portrait Gallery
Over the last ten years, I’ve watched with interest as the National Portrait Gallery has become steadily more popular. The truth is that this is partly because it’s become much less stuffy than it used to be and much more fun – with more of an engagement with contemporary culture.
There’ve been recent shows on Gay Icons for example, as well as The Beatles to Bowie, Annie Leibovitz, Vanity Fair and, of course, Princess Diana’s favourite photographer Mario Testino.
The subject matter of the NPG’s constantly evolving collection feels much more immediately and obviously relevant to the day to day lives of the everyday public than that of the collections hanging in several of our other major art galleries.
But what strikes me occasionally is that the NPG’s collection is sometimes seen as a bit more lightweight than that of its neighbour the National Gallery for example – and of less artistic merit. And at this point I have to ask why it attracts so many visitors each year.
Are they coming to look at the portraits as works of art or simply to spot the famous sitters? Do they even pay any attention to the artist’s approach to their sitter and how they’ve interpreted their public persona and often instantly familiar identity?
In fact, does the rising popularity of portraiture have anything to do with art at all or is it more to do with our modern-day obsession with celebrity?
The truth is that characters and their stories, famous or otherwise, provide a valuable entry point into the art world for many less regular visitors to galleries. Particularly if they’re not familiar with the history of art but are more familiar with some of the famous sitters on display.
But for me, the appeal of portraiture isn’t just about celebrity. It’s more about personality – and humanity. Whether the viewer knows the sitter or not, he or she is able to connect with the human warmth and emotions portrayed. And if appropriate fill in the gaps in their story – real or imagined.
What would be brilliant is that these viewers move on from this entry point to some of the harder stuff – to sample the delights of some of the more heavyweight art work on offer not just around London but the whole of the UK. But if they don’t, at least they’ve dipped their toe into the water.
And for those looking to dip their toe into the water for the first time, the BP Portrait Award is the perfect place to start. Which might explain why it attracts up to 300,000 visitors every year.
(The winning portrait, Distracted, by Wim Heldens)
This year’s exhibition of entries is just as strong as ever. And its impact is only increased by the fact that it’s shown in the NPG, which boasts a permanent collection encapsulating the history of British portraiture – and perhaps most memorably includes those famous paintings of kings and queens who harnessed the power of portraiture to create iconic images of themselves as the embodiment of power and authority.
We all know them from the history text books we read at school. But if for many of us they represent the starting point in our understanding of the history of portraiture, then the BP Portrait Award represents its logical conclusion – or at least its latest instalment.
In this show, the power and authority of the past has been replaced by the human warmth and emotion which I’m convinced makes contemporary portraiture so popular. And, crucially for those cynics, the majority of the sitters portrayed aren’t celebrities.
I might not have needed much convincing but I was hooked. Maybe you will be too…