There are some definite perks to this blogging business, and for me this season one presented itself in the form of an invitation to The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace for a tour of their new exhibition, Portrait of the Artist. You can go too of course, and I recommend you do, until Monday, 17 Apr 2017, and the exhibition is open daily, 10:00-17:30 with last admission at 16:15. I got a bacon croissant though, because I’m special.
I’m not just saying this because they fed me - it really is a thought provoking and surprising exhibition and I thoroughly enjoyed it. All chosen from the Royal Collection the selection includes not just self-portraits, but images of artists, formal and informal, made by friends and colleagues. This slightly broader remit means that there are a number of unusual treasures in the exhibition and some thought provoking juxtapositions of private and public personas, performances and intimacies.
As you enter the first gallery you are met by a pair of delicate chalk self-portraits from the 16th century sharing a smaller partitioned space with a Hockney, made with an iPad apparently, and dark, haunted etching of Lucian Freud. You can’t help feeling you are under the eye of the artist yourself as you look at them, and the gaze is penetrating if not pitiless. A strange reversal it is, to walk into a gallery and find yourself under such close examination.
The images artists used to publicise themselves make for an enlightening contrast with those likenesses caught by friends or enemies. In Rubens’s portrait of Van Dyck, the latter is thoughtful, understated, a troubled observer rather than the flamboyant cavalier, and Bartolozzi attacks Maria Conway in caricature. When the exhibition moves onto artists at a work, Rowlandson’s Chamber of Genius is a garret packed with dogs, children and discomfort, while Samuel Drummond presents himself and his studio lit by a shaft of divine inspiration and scattered with military props to make him the recording angel of an imagined battlefield, or not field really, given his most famous painting was the Death of Nelson at which, in this image, he is at work.
The exhibition is full of small contemplative pleasures, such as the image of da Vinci by his student Melzi, and surprises such as Sarah Bernhardt’s Self-Portrait as a Chimera where the actress has transformed herself into a bat-winged monster and an inkstand at the same time, for which she deserves extra points, I think.
I’m embarrassed to admit to say I didn’t know anything of the artist Artemisia Gentilesch until very recently, and I think the curators chose well when they made her ‘Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting’ their headline image for the exhibition. Her story is remarkable - there’s a great article about her here - and the painting itself is extraordinary. It has a sort of muscularity, and intent about it. The artist, focusing on what she is trying to capture on the bare canvas, seems to look round and beyond us whereas those early self-portraits stare you straight in the eye, and it has a vigour and power to it which is almost shockingly physical after those studied acts of self-promotion in the previous rooms.
Well worth the trip to the palace, even if you don’t get a bacon croissant, and for those who can’t make it, the accompanying book by Anna Reynolds, Lucy Peter and Martin Clayton is a thing of great beauty in itself - fascinating text, and superb reproductions.