Why does being Gay interest the National Portrait Gallery?

30 June, 2009

In their latest major new exhibition The National Portrait Gallery asked ten prominent gay men and women to reveal the people who have inspired them?

And so I ask the question, with a degree, it must be said, of trepidation, whether or not one’s sexual orientation is relevant or indeed interesting to be used as a theme for an exhibition and what is it that the National Portrait Gallery is trying to say to us?

The ten people invited to contribute to the show include, a poet, two authors, a tennis player, a journalist, a rock star, an actor, a radio presenter, and two politicians. Their chosen icons span the worlds of entertainment, art music, literature, sports, politics and royalty. The photography is by a similarly disparate group. While Mary McCartney shot some [but not all] of the portraits of the selectors, the portraits of the icons are by a wide range of people, from family snap shots to Cecil Beaton. Something of a motley collection of people and portraits that seemingly have nothing bringing them together until the motif of Gay is superimposed.

Joe Orton

Joe Orton

The NPG has chosen themes before; leading people in the fields of science and medicine with a series of portraits shot by Julia Fullerton-Batten, people of faith with portraits by Don McCullin and most recently an exhibition of the private space of artists by Eamonn McCabe. In each of these shows there was a cohesiveness that underpinned the reason for making an exhibition. Discussions could be had as to the merits of the portraits, critical analysis of the photographers commissioned to make the work and interest in the people chosen to represent their professional, political, cultural or religious outlook.

Ray Shannon from the Yorkshire Ambulance Service

Ray Shannon from the Yorkshire Ambulance Service

But in Gay Icons there is no such rigour. The prominent citizens are not directly political or campaigning people who have made their name fighting for gay rights. Neither are the people selected all renowned for their contribution to the struggle to legalise homosexuality. So all we are left with is the fact that the ten people invited to make their selection are Gay. And this is simply not interesting in and of itself. The NPG have missed an opportunity with a lazy nod towards political correctness.

Virginia Wolf

Virginia Wolf

They could have had a fascinating show basing it on Gay Rights campaigners, or presented cutting edge work that is being produced in countries where homosexuality is still illegal.

So just what is the point of Gay Icons? Is it enough of a triumph for Gay Rights that the NPG have used GAY in the title of their exhibition?

2 Responses to “Why does being Gay interest the National Portrait Gallery?”

  1. liz helman Says:

    ..bums on seats no doubt – excuse the pun..i agree with you, but im sure the npg will pull in the pink pound..ive not seen the show, but i saw the catelogue..
    it is uninspiring and pedestrian in its edits. for me a reflection as to how photography is viewed here, and its lack of visibility, as compared to other European capitals. also, as with most things queer – it is never about quality


  2. “The first portrait exhibition to celebrate the contribution of gay people and gay icons to history and culture. 60 photographs selected by Waheed Alli, Alan Hollinghurst, Elton John, Jackie Kay, Billie Jean King, Ian McKellen, Chris Smith, Ben Summerskill, Sandi Toksvig and Sarah Waters.

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