The Mask of the Monarchy

In six decades of portraits the Queen’s impenetrable expression has barely altered

Michael Prodger

Historically, royal portraits are only nominally images of an individual: their real subject is an idea. They were designed to show the institution of monarchy itself and the divine right of kings — the personality of the sitter was not a prerequisite. As Edward Burne-Jones noted: “The only expression allowable in great portraiture is the expression of character and moral quality, not anything temporary, fleeting, or accidental.” 

In the pre-photographic age, an official portrait — Hyacinthe Rigaud’s depictions of Louis XIV for example — would be copied and distributed around the realm to sit in government buildings as a symbol of state. The present Queen came to the throne at the tail end of this tradition, but the majority of the portraits of her painted subsequently show not just how perceptions of monarchy have changed, but also something of her own relationship to art.

The National Portrait Gallery’s Diamond Jubilee exhibition, The Queen: Art and Image, contains 60 portraits spanning the 60 years of her reign. This is a considerable feat of winnowing since she is probably the most visually depicted person in history at any rate from life. The chosen pictures include formal portraits and photographs from the likes of Pietro Annigoni and Cecil Beaton to unofficial representations by Eve Arnold, Gilbert and George, and Gerhard Richter, and innumerable press photographers. She remains the personification of an idea in them all, except that in many the idea has changed. 

Annigoni’s famous 1954 image of the Queen standing in Garter robes against a landscape background was disseminated around the empire and has as much in common with Georgian portraiture as Elizabethan. The expression she wears in this picture, of studied inexpressiveness, has hardly altered in other portraits over six decades. Given society’s subsequent shift in attitude towards the Royal Family, from reverence to familiarity, what artists have since probed is the impenetrability of that look. Some have searched for clues of the woman behind the public face and others have appropriated the image itself.

Perhaps two of the clearest examples of these approaches are the portraits of her by Lucian Freud and Andy Warhol. When Warhol depicted her in 1985 it was of a piece with his fascination with celebrity. He took a pre-existing, bland photograph of her and transformed it into a series of vivid screenprints, just as he had with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Her personality didn’t impinge on him at all, these are images of an image; he showed them alongside another series of prints of the Queen of Swaziland. When Freud painted her in 2001, however, he chose an unmonarchical canvas only 20cm tall and filled it with her face. The Queen sat for him over an 18-month period and, despite the crown, his is clearly not a painting about majesty (she wears a blue jacket rather than ermine and the sittings took place in a basement in St James’s Palace) but about old age and experience. The reason the crown — one of her most spectacular — perches so incongruously atop her coiffure is to emphasise the difference between the woman and the institution.

The fascination though is not all one way. While the Queen has inspired both Jamie Reid’s iconoclastic album cover for the Sex Pistols and Chris Levine’s holographic portrait (which required hundreds of shots, each with an eight-second exposure), she herself seems intrigued by what artists make of her. She is not confined by conventional tastes: the Freud portrait, which is not flattering, is in the Royal Collection and she liked Justin Mortimer’s 1998 deconstructed picture — which shows her head floating free of her body — enough to commission him to paint her Lord Chamberlain. She continues to sit too for unlikely royal portraitists, including the celebrity snapper Annie Leibovitz — who in 2007 produced an updated version of Annigoni’s picture.

One can’t help but wonder if there is some part of her that enjoys the rare sensation of ceding all control to someone else or perhaps her fabled sense of duty simply extends to making herself available as an artist’s model too.

If the NPG exhibition is also a record of how British society has changed in the postwar period, the new show at the Barbican, Bauhaus: Art as Life, examines a movement that actively set out both to foment and direct change in Germany. Under its founder, the architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus was an art school with a mission. When he established it in Weimar in 1919 its aims were threefold: to unite the different branches of arts and crafts; to raise the status of the crafts; and to link creativity with industry.

The roll-call of teachers includes many of the great names of Modernism, among them Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky, Klee, Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe, and they fostered in their students the ideals of experimentation and collaboration. Despite this the Bauhaus had a troubled history. It moved first to Dessau and then Berlin, where it was closed by the Nazis in 1933, although it reopened in 1990, after reunification, as a design institution.

The exhibition is the largest here for 40 years and takes in every aspect of Bauhaus design and its utopian vision. The International Style precepts of absence of ornament and the necessity of form following function marked its output in everything from architecture and furniture to fabrics and photography. Although it lasted only 14 years the school was hugely influential: a geometrical and industrial aesthetic lay at the heart of the Bauhaus Gesamtkunstwerk which offered then — and still does — a blueprint for modern living. The 400 pieces in the exhibition are testament not just to the school’s fecundity but to the seriousness of the project that has been watered down to mere style along the way.

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