Jonathan Yeo portrait painting National portrait gallery exhibition London21

Depicting Celebrity, Drawing Fame: Jonathan Yeo at the National Portrait Gallery

I took the day off today, and decided to spend a lazy morning. I got up, made a pot of jasmine tea, turned on the radio and read a few magazines. After a quick shower, I decided to indulge in some daytime TV, and I have to say I found it really interesting, as there was a segment where two talk show hosts blamed modern youth’s behaviour to their lack of role models. They claimed that they idolise people that are famous for being famous, instead of gaining their recognition by a skill or talent. You see, ‘Celebrity culture‘ is a strange description for this phenomenon, frequently used to describe the absence of culture as a side effect of the rise of the celebrity status given to people with said lack apparent skill or talent. Reality TV with housewives, Chelsea poshness or Geordie stereotypes, semi naked girls and teenage mothers, bargain hunters and storage auctioneers, beauty queens, lady boys, and Honey Boo Boo Child parade around the screens, met with tutting sounds and eyes wide open. They are branded as a guilty pleasure for a lot of people, and I have to say I feel this is a bit pretentious; is the guilt coming from the audience’s perceived superiority over the people in the show?If so, doesn’t that say more about the person on the sofa that the person on the screen?

However I do not think that celebrity culture is a new phenomenon, and this is exemplified from my favourite gallery in London: The National Portrait Gallery. There you can find framed pictures of celebrities, drawings of movie starts and paintings that go as back as their brush strokes betray.
What is interesting to see though is how someone could take a step back and look at the gallery in a different light; an upmarket gossip magazine, hosting pictures of the most talked about people in their most flamboyant, proud or vulnerable moments. Granted, there are no pictures of Lindsay Lohan coming out of a taxi, but you can find a portrait of Gertrude Elizabeth Lady Colin Campbell, who caused quite a stir with her scandalous affairs back in her time. By pure serendipity I am standing in front of it, and I read that Boldini treat the rules of anatomy with ‘magnificent contempt‘, as he wanted to impart a special glamour to his alluring subject, a ‘fan’ taking a snapshot on his iPhone and seeing his subject through his own Instagram filter.
I stop on my tracks when I see the Jonathan Yeo exhibition, and decide to walk in. It is incredibly interesting how I can recognise every person in the room, and the comparison to a high society magazine comes to mind. Grayson Perry sits quietly in his nightie next to a Damien Hirst in uniform. Helena Bonham Carter is looking perplexed, while Malala Youfafzai faces a solemn-looking Doreen Lawrence. In the next room, a discussion between David Walliams, Stephen Fry, Sienna Miller, Erin O’Connor, Marie Claire Lyle, Idris Elba, Tom Hollander, Nicole Kidman, Norman Jenkins, Jude Law, Prince Philip, and Martin Gayford takes place under the watchful eye of Rupert Murdoch in company of the artist himself.
I sit back and watch the rest of the visitors. They point at the celebrities, take their phone out, Instagram them, and then look at portraits of others that are not as recognisable as the star-studded Yeo exhibition. Is Yeo’s room the National Portrait Gallery’s guilty pleasure? And if not, is it because of the credibility of the painter, the sitters, or the room itself? Is it celebrity culture, or the culture of celebrities?



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