07 Jul, 2009

Art or fame at the National Portrait Gallery?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The London gallery certainly knows how to probe our celebrity weak spots – last week it lured me in with photographs of Bob Dylan

Everyone has their breaking point. Everyone has their price. Everyone has that one celebrity whose face will draw them into the National Portrait Gallery.

What is it we do when we look at portraits? Do we admire the picture or the person? Some of the most extraordinary works of art in existence are portraits – you need only think of the paintings of Rembrandt to recognise that. But London’s National Portrait Gallery is a collection of people first, and works of art second.

It is doing a lot to redress the balance. A show of Francis Alÿs is about the art, for instance. Still, when all’s said and done, this is a museum of famous people. The reason it survives is that everyone has at least one celebrity they are interested in and would like to see on a gallery wall.

Is it the Queen for you, or Harold Pinter? TS Eliot or Judi Dench? Go on, the museum seems to beckon, there must be someone here to interest you.

Last Friday, walking past, I noticed they’ve got a show of photographs of Bob Dylan. I was drawn in. Downstairs, by the bookshop, is a subterranean room of black and white shots taken by Barry Feinstein during the 1966 tour of Europe, in which Dylan’s new electric sound caused horrified ex-fans to yell insults throughout his performances. Here he is in dark glasses on a bitterly cold and wet day waiting for the ferry to cross the river Severn into Wales. It’s what is called an iconic image, and a finely composed photograph it is, but it’s not the art that drew me down here to look at it. I’m interested in the man. What was he thinking behind those shades? Who was he, then? Who is he, now?

I didn’t find any answers, but I wasn’t complaining. They found my celebrity weak spot. And the beauty of it is that Dylan is not British, so there’s no danger of a meaty-faced expressionist daub of him being commissioned for the permanent collection.

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