A portrait photograph of British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood hangs next to a portrait of Anglo-American fashion journalist Anna Wintour in a room at the National Museum of Korea in central Seoul’s Yongsan District.
Westwood’s portrait, taken in 2012, is as new and provocative as his own fashion creation; the designer, 71 at the time, stands by the toilet, her hair dyed bright yellow, wearing a t-shirt printed with the slogan “Climate Revolution”.
Meanwhile, Wintour’s portrait, painted in 2009, is simple and smart, as is her bob hairstyle with neat bangs. Interestingly, the creators of the portraits are as famous as the subjects of the portraits. They are the British photographer Martin Parr and the American painter Alex Katz.
In another wall of the room hangs the portrait of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani human rights activist who fights for women’s education and who is the youngest Nobel laureate, created by famous Iranian artist Shirin Neshat in her signature style in 2018. All portraits are part of “‘Icons and Identitys’ from the National Portrait Gallery, London”, a special exhibition which runs at the National Museum until August 15th.
It is a must-see exhibition in at least two aspects. First, the 78 portraits, sculptures, photos and media art currently on display include many works considered to be the highlights of the National Portrait Gallery in London, which, established in 1856, is the world’s first portrait museum. The Seoul Museum was able to borrow the important works as the London Museum began a large-scale renovation last year and will remain closed until 2023.
Highlights include the portrait of playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), which was the first portrait ever obtained by the National Portrait Gallery from its vast and extensive collection, according to Korean museum curator Yang Su-mi; and the portrait of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), one of the most famous monarchs in world history.
Also featured are portraits of revolutionary scientists Issac Newton (1643-1727) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882), whose images are also familiar to Koreans as they appear in many textbooks, along with a group portrait of the sisters. Brontë painted by their little brother. Novelist Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) and poet and novelist Emily Bronte (1818-1848) have big fans in Korea.
Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a statement: “’Icons and Identities’ provides a unique opportunity to view a selection of the Gallery’s most treasured portraits internationally, while the building in London is temporarily closed for our Inspiring People redevelopment. This is the first time that many of these works have left [Britain] and the first time that our exceptional collection will travel to Korea.
Another reason that makes the exhibition a must-see is its particular layout, which differs from that of the National Portrait Gallery. The extensive collection of the Museum of London is presented generally in chronological order based on British history. So visitors, who begin with the dramatic history of the Tudor dynasty, may find it difficult to focus when they finally reach the portraits of contemporary figures.
On the other hand, the Seoul Museum exhibition is organized into five thematic sections: “Fame”, “Power”, “Love and Loss”, “Innovation” and “Identity and Self-Portrait”. Visitors here can see the portraits in a new context and pay attention to those of contemporary figures, such as the video portrait of architect Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) by renowned artist Michael Craig-Martin and self-portraits by artists from renowned Lucian Freud (1922-2011) and David Hockney.
“The exhibit shows the life stories of 76 characters portrayed by 73 artists,” Yang said. “The characters, who have shaped the history and culture of Britain and the world over the past 500 years, also have interesting and touching personal stories, which are suggested in their portraits.”
“In addition, the exhibition explores the many different functions that portraits have had in society throughout history,” she continued. “It also gives an overview of the history of art. Ranging from paintings executed on wood panels dating from the 16th century to holographic works of our time, the works encompass a variety of periods and styles.
Min Byoung-chan, Director General of the National Museum of Korea, said: “This special exhibition was staged in the midst of the global Covid-19 crisis. […] it will serve to quench our thirst for the arts and culture from other parts of the world that we have missed over the past year.
BY MOON SO-YOUNG [[email protected]]