The challenge of capturing the most famous faces in the world is to unearth an image that can still surprise.
“It’s not him as a rock star strutting around on a stage,” says Joanna Gilmour, curator of collection and research at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, of the black-and-white photo of David Mick Jagger’s Bailey from 1964. “It’s just him, close. He’s wearing this fabulous jacket with a fur lining that frames his face. It looks more like a fashion shot than a rock star portrait.
The Jagger photo is one of 84 widely varying works loaned to Shakespeare at Winehouse: Icons from the National Portrait Gallery, London, a traveling exhibition making its only Australian appearance in Canberra. Until mid-July, the pieces cover sculpture, digital works, paintings and photography, including self-portraits, all from the UK counterpart of the Canberra gallery.
Topics include sportsmen and rock stars like David Beckham and Ed Sheeran, human rights activist Malala Yousafzai and the Bronte sisters of literature. “You think you’ve seen all the images of these models, but there are so many unexpected moments,” says Gilmour. “It’s an exhibition that looks at the different choices artists have made when trying to convey an idea of someone’s inner being.”
We asked Gilmour to share five highlights from the ambitious cross-section of the global portrait spanning nearly 500 years.
Norman Parkinson’s The Beatles (1963)
Taken in a London hotel room shortly before their debut album please make me happy came out, this photo finds the Beatles on the brink of unprecedented fame. “They’re really young and unaffected by bitterness,” says Gilmour. “Just these equally crazy, cool young guys with glowing eyes and bushy tails. It’s such a fabulous artifact of the 1960s and that time before it all went absolutely bonkers for them. You feel like they don’t know what’s going to hit them, no matter how arrogant they may seem.
Anna Wintour by Alex Katz (2009)
Another dissonant image is this brightly colored and unguarded painting of vogue editor Anna Wintour, pictured without her signature sunglasses. “You really focus on those piercing blue eyes that she has,” Gilmour says. “It’s still a lot of her: there’s that razor-sharp bob that she rocks all the time. But she’s not in the show because she’s super stylish; she’s actually in the section of the exhibit that talks about power. You get an idea of his power and influence just from the force and imperturbability of his gaze.
David Bowie of Lord Snowdon (1978)
Modern music’s great shape-shifter is caught in a surprisingly direct and intimate moment in this black-and-white photo of Lord Snowdon, aka Anthony Armstrong Jones, who was once married to Princess Margaret. “It’s just a striking photo of him,” Gilmour said. “It’s very close, so his head and shoulders take up most of the frame. It’s David Bowie just as the enigmatic and very convincing man he was.
Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard and Associates (1575)
Painted a few years after she was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, this portrait of the first Queen Elizabeth exudes not only her regal allure, but many other layers of meaning, thanks in part to her elaborate, pearl-studded gown. “It’s the best part of 500 years, but when you see it in person, you’d swear it was painted yesterday,” says Gilmour. “The quality and detail of the work is quite extraordinary.”
Sitting alongside images of other royals such as Princess Diana and the current Queen, the portrait reminds us of how manicured the royal image has long been. “We tend to think of manipulation and control of one’s own image as a very modern phenomenon,” she says. “But it goes back to people like Elizabeth I and her father, King Henry VIII, who were very aware of the power of portraiture – and harnessed it accordingly.”
Amy-Blue (Amy Winehouse) by Marlene Dumas (2011)
Tinted blue and tightly cropped around the face of the late singer, this intimate painting is not presented in the section of the exhibition devoted to celebrity, but in relation to loss and memory.
“It’s really making an observation about his image,” Gilmour says. “We all remember her being harassed by the paparazzi, who seem to make a point of photographing people when they’re not looking their best. But this painting is incredibly worthy. Even though it’s posthumous, there’s a sense of intimacy about it, which Amy Winehouse denied during her lifetime. It is to allow him this moment of calm. It’s really very moving.
Shakespeare at Winehouse: Icons from the National Portrait Gallery, London runs daily until Sunday July 17, 2022 at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. More details and tickets.
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