‘Portraiture has had many roles across history,’ says Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery in London. ‘It can be a form of record-making, a consolidation of power or a representation of an intimate relationship between the sitter and the artist.’
In our film (above), Cullinan looks at three portraits in the gallery’s permanent collection that represent different aspects of the genre: Hans Holbein the Younger’s preparatory drawing for The Whitehall Mural, which depicts King Henry VIII and his father, Henry VII; the only portrait of the three Brontë sisters, painted by their brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë; and a portrait of Malala Yousafzai, the activist and the youngest ever Nobel Prize-winner, by the Irananian-born artist Shirin Neshat.
The National Portrait Gallery recently launched its Inspiring People project, which will see the biggest development of its building on St Martin’s Place, London, since it opened in 1896. To help with this major transformation, 24 works generously donated by contemporary artists including Tacita Dean, Martin Parr, Cindy Sherman and Juergen Teller will be auctioned during the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 7 March at Christie’s London.
‘The title of the auction — ARTISTS FIRST — was very deliberate,’ explains Cullinan. One of the founding principles of the National Portrait Gallery, he says, was the idea that it should be about the sitter first and then the artist. ‘With this auction, we wanted to shift the focus and shine a light on some of the extraordinary artists working today.’
The Inspiring People project is being led by architect Jamie Fobert, recently acclaimed for his extension to Tate St Ives, and will see the main entrance repositioned to the north, and new gallery spaces in the east wing. The project will have major benefits for the Gallery’s programming. ‘More innovative exhibitions and displays will allow us to feature the work of leading and emerging artists, and those pushing the boundaries of portraiture,’ says Cullinan.
It is a considerable undertaking, but one the director also sees as an opportune moment to re-think this eminent Victorian cultural institution — in terms of its own history, as an archive of social history, and in questioning British identity today, particularly in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote.
‘One of the reasons we are so proud of this auction is because of the extraordinary breadth and calibre of the artists it includes’ — Nicholas Cullinan
One of the first commissions Cullinan undertook on his appointment as director in 2015 was a portrait of the young Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai. ‘Although the sitters in our Collection relate to British history, they don’t have to have been born in Britain, as is the case with Malala,’ he says. ‘She has had a huge impact both on British culture and internationally, in terms of campaigning for girls’ education and her bravery in standing up to the Taliban.’
Such questions of Britishness are also raised in a new survey of photographs by Martin Parr, which opens at the Gallery on 7 March. The exhibition, titled Only Human, is, according to Cullinan, ‘a fairly wry, sardonic and affectionate take on Britishness and what it means to be British.’ One of the portraits from the show depicting a pupil of Harrow school coated in mud from a football match is offered for sale in the ARTISTS FIRST section of the auction.
‘Martin looks at individuals who are both anonymous and archetypes from different walks of life’, observes Cullinan. The public schoolboy comes from Parr’s series on the establishment, in which the photographer documented the highest echelons of English society. In the context of the huge chasm in attitudes to British identity today, Cullinan agrees the show ‘is very timely right now’.
Later in the autumn, the museum will be staging an exhibition of the American painter Elizabeth Peyton. She has donated a small and very beautiful pencil drawing of the American poet Walt Whitman to the auction.
‘It’s quite typical of Elizabeth’s earlier work,’ says Cullinan of the picture, which featured in her key touring retrospective Live Forever at the
Whitechapel Art Gallery, the New Museum in New York and the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis in 2009. Peyton’s elegiac portraits of quixotic figures are weightless and otherworldly, and raise all sorts of questions about the history and psychology of the people she paints. ‘I know Elizabeth well,’ confirms the museum director, ‘and literature and poetry are very important to her.’
‘Portraiture can be a form of record-making, a consolidation of power, or simply a representation of an intimate relationship between the sitter and the artist’
‘One of the reasons we are so proud of this auction,’ Cullinan goes on to say, ‘is because of the extraordinary breadth and calibre of the artists it includes, many of whom are pushing forward the genre of portraiture today.’
Perhaps the most active among them is Tacita Dean. When Cullinan was appointed the Gallery’s director four years ago, the celebrated Royal Academician was top of the list of artists he wanted to work with. His dreams were realised in the critically acclaimed 2018 exhibition Landscape, Portrait and Still Life, staged across three museums — the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy.
‘At the heart — in fact the spine — of that exhibition,’ says Cullinan, ‘was a series of photographs of Cy Twombly’s house and studio in Gaeta in Italy. I was with Tacita when she first met Cy in 2007, and these photographic portraits, taken after his death, capture the place so well.’
Two images from the series have been donated by Dean to the auction. Doubly poignant is the fact that Dean — a champion of analogue media — made the images using the last ever hand-printed Chromogenic prints.
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Dean’s pictures reveal personal details about Twomby’s life, yet the artist remains alone and unknowable to us. She speaks about the absolute mystery of others. ‘Portraiture has had many different roles across history,’ Cullinan concedes, ‘it can be a form of record-making, a consolidation of power, or simply a representation of an intimate relationship between the sitter and the artist.’