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Interpretive see-saw at the NPG

In Museums on March 24, 2010 at 9:51 am

I visited the National Portrait Gallery last week to see their two temporary exhibitions. I found them to be quite different.

Irving Penn: Portraits was a beautiful show with a great wealth of sitters from this eminent 20th-century photographer. From Cecil Beaton and Truman Capote to Woody Allen and Arthur Miller (via Igor Stravinsky and Audrey Hepburn), it’s a rollercoaster through the who’s who of the second half of the last century.

But while the pictures are all wonderful, I felt as if it was lacking some story. I got a sense of how his portraiture changed over time, but only in a very basic way – he stopped taking full-length photographs and moved away from grimy settings to intimate close ups. Other than that, the context was pretty weak.

Each section is introduced by a piece of panel text on the wall – not reproduced in the booklet, alas – and then it’s just the pictures with their sitter’s name and sometimes a one-liner in the book. Not knowing much about Penn, I even had to leave the exhibition space to check when he was born on the title panel, as it wasn’t included in the show! But that said, I had a lovely time in there and saw some beautiful things, very elegantly displayed, given the number of images in a small room.

By comparison, The Indian Portrait 1560-1860 was the polar opposite. This exhibition sets itself a prospect to the visitor in the title. My main question as I entered the space was – why those dates? I’ve still no idea. The material all fits in that date range, but there’s no explanation of why.

Here, my search for contextual material and story was not necessary as the very clear visual language of the space let me know what I needed to do, how the pictures were grouped and clearly showed me where the contextual information was. But alas, the interpretation of the paintings stopped there.

These aren’t the easiest paintings to access if you’re not used to looking at them. They’re so incredibly detailed in places and have wonderful depictions of life – at court and in myths and legends. The labels – now thankfully present – seemed to spend most of their time talking about contextual history though, and not what we can actually see in front of us.

But again, I had a great time in there, delving into the history of Indian portrait painting and spotting the trends and differences between periods, styles and artists. They’ve secured some amazing loans in, which is testament to the lobbying power of the NPG.
It’s just a shame that in one of these exhibitions I was left craving context. And in the other – where context was present – I was still left wanting substance. The permanent galleries of the NPG are great at writing about what visitors can see in front of them. Perhaps some of that could filter into their interpretive text in exhibitions as well.

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