Sure, the Archibalds are fun, but here’s a portrait show you should not miss

Shakespeare to Winehouse may not be the most important show ever held at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, but I can not think of a bigger one. The most surprising thing about this collection of more than 80 works, drawn from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, London, is how long it has taken the local institution to host a dedicated show from its role model.

The NPG in London opened its doors in 1856, its Australian counterpart was officially launched in March 1999. One might imagine that a loan show from London would have been one of the highest priorities, but it’s taken more than 20 years to achieve, ultimately abetted by a renovation of the galleries on Trafalgar Square. The quality of the loans justifies the wait, especially if this was the only way the NPG would ever send us works such as John Taylor’s portrait of William Shakespeare (c.1600-10), the very first picture to enter its collection.

Clockwise from top left: John Taylor’s portrait of William Shakespeare, Lorenzo Agius ‘David Beckham, Marlene Dumas’ Amy Winehouse, Patrick Branwell Brontë’s Bronte sisters, Shirin Neshat’s Malala Yousif and Colin Davidson’s Ed Sheeran.

No one could pretend that Taylor’s painting is a superior work of art, but it is reputed to be the most accurate likeness of the Bard, and the most likely to have been painted from life. As such, it’s a priceless cultural icon. When I say it’s no masterpiece, I need to add that it’s a solid, convincing portrait that does what all good portraits should, giving us a sense of the personality that lies behind the appearance. Shakespeare looks shrewd and intelligent, with just the hint of a smile. A shiny earring adds a theatrical touch.

At the “Winehouse” end of the spectrum, we get the very opposite impression. Marlene Dumas’ small portrait of the talented and tragic Amy Winehouse, was painted from a photo, following the singer’s death in 2011. It’s a crude image that responds to Winehouse’s public image, with the distant, sorrowful feelings of a fan.

In this transition, from an image of quality produced by a relatively unknown artist working from a living subject to a mere daub by a world-famous contemporary painter working from a photo, we can sum up the dilemmas of any institution devoted to portraiture. The subject must come first, as there is no place in a national portrait gallery for even the most masterful picture of an unknown, undistinguished sitter. There is, however, no guarantee that a great man or woman will be represented by a great artist. As a result, the gallery is forced to make do with the best likeness it can get, whether it be a painting, a sculpture or a photo.

Nicholas Hilliard's Queen Elizabeth 1 (c. 1575)

Nicholas Hilliard’s Queen Elizabeth 1 (c. 1575)

Then there is the changing nature of fame. In the Victorian era, the most revered figures in the eyes of the general public were writers, soldiers and statesman – often craggy old men with crumpled suits and unruly beards. Matronly Queen Victoria was more admired than the most famous actress. Today we are preoccupied with glamor and fashionability. We prize good looks over intellect and prefer youthful energy to age and experience.

A fair point made by NPG curator Rab MacGibbon, in an otherwise unenlightening catalog essay, is to note the changing nature of the word “celebrity”. Instead of fame based on solid achievements, destined to guarantee a place in history, we see it as “a superficial and fleeting public prominence.” Today’s celebrities are tomorrow’s non-entities. Even while they are household names, we hardly know why they are so admired. What has Kate Moss ever done that bears comparison with Dickens or Darwin?

Portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent

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