Page 13, 9th November 2007

9th November 2007
Page 13
Page 13, 9th November 2007 — Beating pessimism
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Beating pessimism

with portraiture

Pop Art Portraits

NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, UNTIL JAN 20

The Second World War ended well for America. Britain, however, was left bankrupt. By 1954, when rationing finally came to an end here. consumerism was no longer news in America. Pop Art Portraits begins by contrasting British optimism regarding the new culture with America's jaded sarcasm.

These differing attitudes are demonstrated, somewhat obviously. by hanging British and American art on opposite walls. The floor between them becomes analogous to the Atlantic, over which a rapprochement was later to develop in the 1960s. Further into the exhibition, British enthusiasm and American pessimism hang side by side, before finally conflating in a gloomily ironic consensus.

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg began the process of "dragging art back", from the wild abandon of abstract expressionism that had preceded them, to an art that again represented real things. Their stated aim was a noble one: to save art from itself. Abstract expressionism was seen as dangerously nihilistic. If it were allowed to go unchecked, there might be no return from its downward spiral of cynicism. One of the methods proposed to combat it was a reinvention of portraiture.

Most people are surprised to learn that Andy Warhol was a practising Catholic. But the placid disdain of his Self Portrait (1964) is a model of Renaissance serenity. Indeed, references to the Renaissance are everywhere in Pop Art: fantasy portraiture. invented by Giuseppe Arcimboldo in the 16th century, is central to the Pop project. Nods to it appear most evidently in Derek Boshier's work.

But preoccupations with sex also flavour many of the pieces on display. David Hockney's I'm In The Mood For Love is a tour de force of subversive homoeroticism. The sexualisation of women in the "girlie maps" and advertisements of the period provided a rich feeding ground for artists concerned with the interaction between person and product.

Another concept we are now very familiar with was just entering the mainstream: the fracture hetween the persona of celebrity and the human life beneath it. This enquiry reached its tragic apex with Marilyn Monroe. No woman more completely represented the tensions of the age. There is a secular chapel of sorts at this exhibition, centred, predictably, on Warhol's silkscreen prints.

Richard Hamilton had already demonstrated the potential for dramatic irony with My Marilyn: at this point, Monroe is complicit in the process of manufacturing her persona.

But by the time we reach Warhol's prints, just two years later, there is nothing of Norma Jean left. Warhol's treatment of her is deeply unsettling, masking her in a succession of lurid washes that strip away any potential for rapport. As a commentary on what the idea of Marilyn Monroe had become. it was never bettered.

That said, Monroe as tragic heroine is a retroactive fantasy, a projection. She had no more trouble juggling her personal and professional life than Sinatra, or any other Hollywood star documentaries shot at the time prove it.

But there are other, more serious problems with this exhibition. Pop Art Portraits credits Pop Art with the broadening of "portraiture", but at the same time shows us pictures only of people. Warhol's soup cans are the most significant and profound object portraits of the 20th century, but inexplicably they are absent.

Pop Art's own Roy Lichtenstein showed us that portraits didn't need to be about real people. In The Car depicts fictional characters in the artist's familiar comic book style. This was an explosive beginning for conceptual portraiture. establishing that the imaginary could be valid portrait material. But even Lichtenstein's work is still about people.

"Received wisdom," according the National Portrait Gallery's literature, "tells us that Pop Art is about objects."

So far, so true: Pop Art is about objects, and its great contribution to portraiture was to legitimise objects as subjects for portrait. It is only because Marilyn Monroe became an object that she was good source material. Pop Art would not have looked at her twice simply as a human being; she was loved instead for what she represented. She was not a person; she was an idea an icon, a signifier. In other words, an object.

How extraordinary it is that in celebrating Pop Art's contribution to portraiture, the curator, Paul Moorhouse, has completely overlooked its greatest achievement.

It almost doesn't matter: there are some monumentally important works of art here that more than justify the entry charge.




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