While I was wandering through London’s National Portrait Gallery recently, following the meandering trail through the rooms to view the exhibit Simon Schama curated of the sixty portraits in “The Faces of Britain”, I was totally fascinated. Not only because there were so many portraits, in so many media, of icon faces of recent times, but because a quote kept ringing through my head.It was a statement in a National Geographic Magazine article in August 2014 on “Before Stonehenge”: “Art offers a glimpse into the minds and imaginations of the people who create it.” This seemed to be so appropriate of the art I was seeing as I followed the “Faces of Britain” exhibit as it was scattered (cunningly, I decided!) through the galleries. Not only were the faces diverse, interesting and evocative of the people depicted, but the actual art created spoke volumes too about the artists, their perception of the portrait’s subject and the times in which the work was created in each case.
The themes of the different sections of the exhibit were Power, Love, Fame, Self and People. Schama had an amazing diversity of portraits from which to choose. The other impression which hit me afresh (I have not been to the Portrait Gallery for some time) is that such an institution is incredibly important in the glue that holds together a diverse, ancient nation. Here, as I walked from room to room, not only through the Schama exhibit, but all the intervening rooms, were the faces of everyone whose name is familiar in history, politics, society, literature, medicine, science, battles, the arts - on and on. A Who’s Who of a nation’s ordinary or distinguished citizens down the centuries, the collective face of a nation that tells of its character, its evolution, its high points (and its low ones), all made visible, vivid and memorable. It was utterly fascinating. Every name one has ever heard of seemed to be represented there, usually in oil portraits of more or less predictable format, but also in drawings, sculpture, photographs and more. Take, for example, the evolution in women's depictions, from Elizabeth I to defiantly feminist (for her time), Laura Knight.
The Schama exhibit condensed some of this wealth of Britain’s citizenry made visible. Some images were the iconic ones we all know. Others were different, thought-provoking, interesting, but, for me, eventually told me more about the British psyche and above all, the psyche of each artist. Take photographer Chris Levine’s choice of using a hologram he made of Queen Elizabeth II closing her eyes to rest during a photo session, versus the more predictable versions of her, alert, smiling and her eyes very much open.
Or miniaturist Samuel Cooper depicting Oliver Cromwell, warts and all, despite his power, in about 1650 – that took some courage, I am sure, as most images left to us of Cromwell had done some “plastic surgery” with a paintbrush.
One of the most fascinating of these portraits, showing so clearly the “mind of the artist” is Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill for his 80th birthday. We all know earlier images of Churchill.
However, with Sutherland, apparently Churchill played every game in the book to preclude the display of this portrait (which he hated) in Parliament, as planned. What should have been a crowning moment in Sutherland’s career, after a dogged completion of the commission and Churchill’s “curmudgeonly defiance”, proved a total fiasco when Churchill denounced it as “modern art”.
Yet we are the richer for Sutherland’s insights and record of Winston Churchill. Just as we owe thanks to all the artists who embark on preserving for future generations their inspiration and insights in the artwork created.