Exhibition review catch-up: National Portrait Gallery

It’s certainly been a lot longer than I intended since my last post, but it’s been a hectic and crazy couple of months- a month of travelling, spotty reception at the best of times, and an international move.

I’m no longer living in London, but I was able to see a few interesting blockbuster exhibitions before I left including two at the National Portrait Gallery: Vogue 100 ad, Russia and the Arts. (Although, sadly, I missed Sunken Cities and the Sicily Exhibition at the British Museum- if you’ve seen them, let me know how they are!)

Vogue 100: A Century of Style 


The subject matter here is obviously incredibly interesting- 100 years of iconic photography, photographers, fashion, and models. Visually stunning, and interesting to see the progression throughout the years. As purely a retrospective, it works, particularly in areas that progress entirely chronologically- such as the room where there is one magazine from each year. But connections, progressions, and comparisons are left to a large degree up to the viewer and what you take out of it.

I walked away from the exhibition feeling that there was a lot of missed potential, maybe particularly after visiting the Lee Miller exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. After that I knew what important roles Vogue had really played, particularly at certain periods in history, and this exhibition felt a bit superficial in comparison. I also have several notes in regards to odd placement choices for both texts and photographs.

The exhibition was very crowded, even on a a Tuesday morning, and was hard to navigate in some spaces. In some of the rooms there were many small images all placed together along one wall, but not many others distributed in the rest of the space, meaning crowds of people all clumped together. Other rooms had images that were very high up on the walls, meaning that people were constantly backing up to try and see them- and often into each other. Labels though, of course, were small and on the wall. So lots of navigating around people, trying not to back into them or block their views. Text was also sometimes in odd places, shoved into odd corners or nooks, which threw off any sort of narrative flow. In the room devoted to the 1930s there were booklets with all of the text, which was a good idea, but these quickly ran out, so some visitors did not have any access to this text.

Another observation was about who was attending the exhibition- it was very heavily the ‘ladies who lunch’ crowd, dressed to the nines. Maybe this is expected for this type of show, but given all of the conversations happening in the museum field right now about expanding audiences, diversity, and sustainability, it did really strike me how homogeneous the attendees were. There was also the odd art student or two, and in general I was hearing the occasional insightful comment discussing the photography, the history of Lee Miller’s work, and the exhibition, but many more about the famous faces on the covers.

Overall, an interesting exhibition if you are into fashion, photography, or art, but I did feel there was more that could be done.

The exhibition shortly moves onto Manchester.


Russia and the Arts


This exhibition was a pleasant surprise. I visited on a whim, without any specific expectations, or really any specific knowledge. After visiting, I thought it was a great example of the type of interesting exhibition that can be done with portraiture, which I have a feeling doesn’t always have the greatest appeal.

The exhibitions focuses on portraits of writers, actors, musicians and patrons between 1867- 1914, and is divided into sections on the arts including Writers and Theatre.

The text did a great job of making connections between the various people represented, providing biographies on painters and sitters, early collectors, explored the relation to the developing style of russian art, talked about censorship, and explored political commentary. The text really made the portraits come alive with what they represented.

It is a small exhibition, but worth stopping into.

It is on until June 26, and can also be explored online, including an audio tour by the curator. http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/russia-and-the-arts/exhibition/tour.php


Were you able to see either of these exhibitions? What did you think? Or any other interesting exhibitions?

Stay tuned for many more blog posts soon (fingers crossed!). I visited several other exhibitions, including Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art, saw a few great examples of interpretation, did a lot of travelling, saw a lot of street art, and have had some interesting debates about heritage, authenticity, accessibility, and whether or not to use labels and when.








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