William Eggleston Portraits at The National Portrait Gallery London

5 September 2016 § Leave a comment

Think of a William Eggleston photograph and it most likely will not feature any people. He is celebrated for his experimental use of colour and the way that he sees complexity and beauty in the mundane and perhaps most likely you will recall simple slices of rural American life: a tangle of wires on a red ceiling, a child’s bike, a coke machine, old gas stations or simply a patch of wall.

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Each of image has a deceptive simplicity and his groundbreaking style soon led to the solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1976, considered a pivotal moment in the recognition of colour photography as a contemporary art form. Democratically photographing whatever is in front of him he claims not to seek depth or narrative. What you see is what you get. “I wanted to make a picture that could stand on its own, regardless of what it was a picture of.”

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Perhaps this is largely true but in a stunning new exhibition that has targeted the portraits, that up to now have perhaps seemed a less important part of his work, and it turns out that quite often there is rather more to the story.

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Gathering together a hundred works from throughout his carer this exhibition soon makes you realise that portraits often features friends, musicians, actors and his own family and relations. They provide a window in to his home life and also reveal for the first time the identities of many of the previously anonymous sitters.

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In his earliest black and white images – we see a selection from between 1960 and 1965 – people were his primary subject. Seemly largely taken unawares they are people going about their daily life. It seems however that for example one was of his housekeeper, another his mother on her bed.

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Once we realise the identities of many of these people and that that Eggleston is not the disinterested, impartial observer that we know from his street scenes we start to understand more about these his life, these people and their times.

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An interest in the bars and nightclubs of Memphis brought about a stock of grainy documentary footage – shown here for the first time – and another surprising set of images. Entitled Nightclub Portraits these were taken with a bulky view camera, rather than his nimble Leica, and with the help of an assistant. Remarkably clear and colourful, formally posed shots that, other than the subjects, they look like they were taken yesterday.

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There are plenty more gems here. A never before exhibited portrait of Dennis Hopper in his car is hung beside one of Eudora Welty (apparently executed in a matter of seconds).

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Another perviously unseen image is that of Joe Strummer, beer in hand, watched by a fan in a Clockwork Orange T shirt. This is a juxtaposition that could look like a casual accident.  Not here though. The punk maverick and Kubrick’s dystopian nightmare are deliberately and deftly placed side by side by Eggleston’s pin-sharp vision.

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A red haired girl spread on the grass, is executed perfectly with focus only on the face and the camera in her hand. A supermarket worker is captured tidying trolleys, in golden light, shadow on wall and watched by a local shopper. A middle aged lady in a flowery dress swings on a garden seat adorned in equally gaudy fabric.

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Eggleston is an artists so well known that perhaps we thought that we knew pretty much everything about him and his aesthetic. How wrong we were. This exhibition, with deep research and clever curation brings a significant understanding to one of the great photographers.

William Eggleston Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23 October 2016

This post also appears on www.cellophaneland.com

lucian freud: painting people at the national portrait gallery

22 March 2012 § 1 Comment

On my way to the Hayward last Sunday to take a look at the David Shrigley exhibition I was blocked off by the St Patricks day parade. I quickly gave up any thoughts of going south of the river and parked up. Negotiating samba dancers and steel drum bands playing Caribbean music (St Patrick of Antigua perhaps?) I made my way past irritating orange-bearded leprechauns and giant Guinness hats to the National Portrait Gallery.

They have named the exhibition Lucien Freud: Painting People, a strange title, as if the next exhibition might be called  ‘Lucien Freud: Painting Still-Lifes’ or ‘Abstracts’ – Freud of course never painted anything other than people.

Nevertheless it is quickly evident that this is a very impressive show that has gathered together some 130 works, predominantly oils, and includes many rarely seen pieces. The curators have sensibly chosen a largely chronological hang which nicely clarifies Freuds often subtly changing styles. It also interestingly puts together groups of works where the sitter was portrayed several times – we all know about the ‘Benefits supervisor sleeping‘ but how many of us realised that there were three more very similar, sizeable, portraits.

As well as the above-mentioned government employee Freud painted a fairly closed variety of wives, girlfriends and children along with sundry friends and an occasional lord, lady and fellow artists



His famous selfishness meant that he needed people who would put up with his notoriously lengthy sittings and these very often seemed to be those closest to him. David Hockney calculated that he spent some 130 hours in a fixed pose but when Hockney asked Freud to return the compliment he allowed him just 2 1/2 hours!
Freud would only paint from life saying ‘I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me’. It often seems as if that turned out to be bored sitters with blank expressions and although that is probably what Freud wanted there are certainly few smiles here. What Freud seems to be painting are bodies, often it seems that all he wants is merely flesh.

The exhibition starts well, his precocious talent evident from his searingly precise early portraits – each hair neatly delineated, every fabric crease clear. Spiky plants, nervous cats and varied gazes adding extra meaning. Later he adds more background before moving on to freer brushstrokes and ever more nudity.

And there is plenty of nudity. There are bodies of all sorts – lovers, wives, daughters and, as if there is not quite enough flesh to be found, the more than ample Leigh Bowery and afore-mentioned benefits supervisor then appear. At this point (from about the 1990’s) it was hard to maintain interest in examination of every successive painting – I yearned to see clothed models or background detail – some blessed relief from the  relentless visual attack of the naked bodies.
Ever more acres of green, grey and pink appear in increasingly awkward poses, the flesh topped with impassionate, sad or distant faces, eyes gazing blankly in to the distance. More and more Freud seemed to be painting Beckettian existentialism. Most traces of emotion and expression have long disappeared – these are now paintings of blank acceptance of human frailty and decay. It is an exhibition that is not easy to follow right to the inevitable end, but one highly deserving of a visit.
Lucien Freud: Painting People runs at the National Portrait Gallery Trafalgar Square until 27 May 2012

london public art galleries – top ten

13 September 2010 § 2 Comments

It is a cliché I know. Nowadays one can hardly open a newspaper or switch on the TV without being assaulted with yet another ‘best/worst of’ listing. As soon as something enters the public realm it is instantly categorised, tabulated and graded – from Rooney’s indiscretions to ways of cooking artichoke,  nothing is allowed to escape the ratings police. 

My excuse is a visiting friend from San Francisco, interested in modern & contemporary art, has asked me to send him a list of those galleries that he should definitely take time out to visit. Any guilt in populist list-making thereby assuaged by the potential education of an American philistine. Here then are my very personal top ten public galleries (private galleries listed tomorrow) – starting at ten and working up to the (overly long and unnecessary pause to build up an unconvincing and unjustified tension that was previously totally lacking) ‘winner’; 

10. Zabludowicz Collection. A messy collection of future ’emerging’ artists, most of whom never quite fully ’emerged’. Put together by a curator employed by a multi-millionaires wife. Anita Zabludowicz seems to have no knowledge of art (is she more interested in social status?) but she has found a handful of good works, put them in a converted church and created a very interesting place to visit. 

9. Dulwich Picture Gallery. A lovely gallery with a fine permanant collection (pre-twentieth century). Temporary exhibitions hit and miss. Recent Paul Nash was a cracker. Current Wyeth so-so. After the long hike out to Dulwich you will be glad to find an exceptionally nice restaurant and terrace. 

8. National Portrait Gallery. It is always a pleasure to wander around their peaceful galleries finding a new gem. Some interesting temporary exhibitions (currently there is the annual BP Portrait Award and Camille Silvy, 19th century documentary photographer) and a local secret – a wonderful top-floor bar with views of Trafalgar Square. 

7. Saatchi Collection. The exhibitions here always seem to be frustrating and fascinating in equal measure. The work is of uneven quality, but is nevertheless always worth visiting and is shown in an excellent space. Enjoy a break at the cafe/restaurant on the pretty square afterwards or stroll down Kings Road. 

6. Tate Modern. Of course it has to be there. Sometimes frustrates with messy curation, has some big chunks missing from its collection and thinks that teaching children about art involves playing facile games that fill galleries with noisy groups. Membership benefits include a cramped lounge busier and less pleasant than the public facilities. Visit weekdays outside school holidays. 

5. Camden Arts Centre. Has a knack of putting on exhibitions of artists that have been overlooked, misunderstood or simply long overdue. A must-visit gallery if you want to keep one step ahead. This autumn Rene Daniels on the 23 September is followed by Simon Starling on the 16 December 2010. 

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4. Whitechapel Gallery. This is a gallery that is always worth a visit. The home of always excellent, often ground-breaking, exhibitions. This is Tomorrow in 1956 was so iconic and memorable that a current small show looks at some plans, letters and posters -quite interestsing. It has the best gallery restaurant in London – alternatively pop around the corner for a Brick Lane curry. 

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3. Serpentine Gallery. Take a relaxing stroll through Hyde Park (ie: don’t take a taxi!) to reach one of my favourites. The exhibitions, usually monographic, are invariably interesting and well-curated. An excellent Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition is on until the 19th September 2010. And then there is the pavilion to enjoy – this year Jean Nouvel’s red construction makes an uneasy contrast to the green of the park! 

2. Courtauld Gallery. Step a few yards off the hustle and bustle of the Strand in to an oasis of calm. A must-visit gallery that is often overlooked. Go to see the amazing Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works as well as their Fauvist, Bloomsbury and German Expressionist collections – and much much more. And dont forget the cafe. 

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1.Estorick Collection. A delight. A north london townhouse in a peaceful back street holds a fine collection of Italian 2oth century art. The futurist works are especially good and there is always an interesting temporary exhibition. Coming up is Against Mussolini on the 22 September 2010. I hardly need to add that they do a great cappuccino. 

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