Yesterday I went to see the National Gallery’s exhibition, The Queen: Art and Image. I’m not entirely sure what drew me to this. I’m pretty uninterested in the monarchy. On the other hand, I’m extremely interested in portraits (I can’t wait for the Portrait Gallery to re-open.) Portraits can be such effective storytellers.
Overall, few items in this exhibition were revelatory. The section from the 50s to the 80s was mostly familiar, with only a couple of pleasing exceptions in the 50s-and-60s room: the joyful photographic portrait by Eve Arnold and a barely-there grey-and-white image by Gerhard Richter. The second room was particularly uninspiring, dominated as it was by well-worn Sex Pistols and Warhol.
The final room held the only real surprises of the show. Chris Levine’s Lightness of Being is plastered all over Edinburgh, a ubiquitous closed-eyes image that seems in the posters to be rather cartoonish. The reproduction on the National Galleries page does it a bit more justice, showing the detail of the Queen’s lined face and the texture of hair and fur. But I had no idea till I saw it that it’s actually a hologram! The 3D effect is strangely beguiling and the lenticular approach – it changes as you move round it much like Doctor Who DVD boxes – causes interesting shifts in focus, the image slipping from view to be grasped again at the next angle.
The eyes-open version of the same portrait session – Equinamity – also has a hypnotic effect. Despite being in black-and-white, it feels more real and personal than the coloured version, which is almost hyper-real. I was powerfully reminded of my grandmother’s skin and hair. Beautiful.
A 2011 portrait of the Queen with Prince Philip caused a stir in two matronly Edinburgh ladies. “It’s the neck. Elderly women should wear a collar”. “Not a good length, that skirt.” To be fair, the Queen does look slightly puggish. But she and Philip reminded me of the sofa couples in When Harry Met Sally. Very companionate.
The final picture that caught my attention was taken at the opening of the Lawn Tennis Association, by Cathal McNaughton. The Queen is pictured alone in bright blue under an umbrella, stolidly waiting, which a raucous crowd hover above her in the stands. Such a difference from the carefree moment of the Eve Arnold umbrella.
Overall I felt that the talked-about themes of naturality versus artifice, regal versus approachable, weren’t really pulled out adequately by the exhibition – all the comment seemed fairly trite and it seemed to me that there should be more to see.
But worth going to see for the few treasures in the final room.