Monday, April 23, 2012

Amy Winehouse Paints the Queen

Celebrity Portraits, Part 1

The greater Los Angeles area hosts a number of world-class museums, and in preparation for AVC field trips to the Getty, whose current exhibitions examine the cult of celebrity, the AVC blog will look at some of the tensions inherent in our worship of famous people.  The Getty itself will be up for analysis in a week, but before then, let's talk about somebody who has the most widely circulated face in the world, namely, Britain's current ruling monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

She is on postage stamps, money, Embassy walls, beach towels, tea pots, and even condoms.  Movies feature her, including the very gripping drama The Queen, and she sits for many state portraits every year.  What makes a portrait "work," and how much should we expect a celebrity portrait to reveal about the sitter's character?

Take for example the late great Lady Di.

Although she's no longer as famous as she once was, this 1991 picture by Snowdon still resonates with many viewers.  She looks up at the heavens (always a good trick to stretch out the neck, making it look younger, and to give the jawline clean angles), communicating with some kind of higher spirit, a spirit which happens to be bathing her in a very flattering light.  We don't know who she's looking at, but it probably isn't Prince Charles.  The tousled hair and oxford shirt don't look butch and instead add to her charm --- she is so good looking, she even looks good dressed as a man.  Is this who she "really" is?  It's a very flattering portrait, and perhaps that was who she "was" --- somebody hungry for fame and somebody whom camera lenses loved to fall in love with.

These sorts of issues will be part of a blockbuster summer show in London soon.  As the 2012 Olympics come to London, all of the museums are bringing out their highest profile shows.  The British Museum, for example, has cornered the market on Shakespeare, while the National Portrait Gallery has a sure-bet crowd pleaser with their overview of "The Queen in Art and Image."

This cover of the exhibit catalog shows her in all of her bejeweled magnificence.  It's worth a trip to London just to see the crown jewels on display in the Tower of London.  We're so used to movie props that it's hard to adjust to seeing bling on this scale --- all of it real.  The portrait here, on the book cover, happens to be the same as one used on stamps and other iconic distribution methods.  Even Michael Jackson hasn't had as much press (good or bad) as the Queen.  But as portraits go, is this a good one?  True, it's based on a photograph, tinted to look like an older style of photography, so in not just pose but visual culture, it's a very traditional piece of work.  Perhaps though this is who she is --- traditional, wise, calm, stable.  No funny stuff for her, thank you.  No abstract expressionism or Andy Warhol.  What makes a celebrity portrait noteworthy?

Maybe a how-to guide would help.  Here's one from the same year this portrait was made.

Don't you love the salacious cover?  What appears to be a totally nude woman --- and inside, we learn she wears only her earrings and a wristwatch, which makes it seem all the more tawdry --- is covered with the paper-clipped note.  She looks demurely into the far distance, not confronting the reader the way that bold Olympia does in Manet's famous portrait.  Of course, I don't think we can get the Queen to sit for a classical nude portrait, with or without her earrings.

Some sitters are eager to disrobe though.  Performance artist Leigh Bowery (1961-1994) was one of Lucien Freud's best nude subjects.  Freud (the grandson of Sigmund) we will get to in just a moment, along with the troubling question of what color flesh really is.  First we should figure out which is more useful, photography or painting, when trying to capture a sitter's essence.  Probably the most famous photographer of famous people right now is Annie Leibovitz, best known for her covers for Rolling Stone magazine, including this startling icon.

She too had worked with Bowery, a performance artist and fashion designer who later died of AIDS.  Here he is on set, prior to a shoot, dressed in one of the latex fetish outfits that was part of his act.

It's a great picture, dark and mysterious, one that turns viewers into voyeurs peeking through the curtains into some strange world of illicit sex.  Yet compare that to Freud's treatment of the same (and at that time, very notorious) subject.

First, here is a photograph of Freud in his London studio, working on a portrait.

As a side note, Freud, who died last summer in the same week as Amy Winehouse, never cleaned his studio, so that the walls and floor were covered with dried paint.  His friend and co-art world star, Francis Bacon, had the same practice, only Bacon's studio had even more rubbish on the floor.  Let's look at a Freud painting of Bowery, not the one in progress here, but one from the same period.

In doing the scan, I have cropped out the penis, but Freud is very much a "warts and all" artist, and never edited out the body for delicacy.  He might crop a subject for artistic reasons, but if so, the genitals usually stayed in.  In any case, isn't it interesting how directly the sitter looks out at us so directly?  He is by conventional standards not a perfect model --- he won't make the cover of Mens Fitness magazine, not unless it's part of a "before and after" sequence.  What this blog can't show is, first, size --- these are huge canvases, life size or larger often --- nor, second, the toothpaste-thick layers of paint, layers that are crusted up like scabs or a bad application of Bondo on a repaired car fender.  Blues, greens, reds, blacks: for Freud, there is no one color that is "flesh," and he builds entire landscapes of color and texture out of the human body.

What would happen if a "warts and all" artist like Freud were to paint the Queen?  For many years this was sort of an insiders' art world joke, along the lines of the Pope at a gay bar or something.  It just was a juxtaposition that never was going to happen.  But in the end, the Queen did sit, and in the end, Lucien Freud was Lucien Freud.  Here is the sitting in progress:

And here is the finished portrait.  (No, you won't find it on any postage stamps.)

Many people disliked this when it first was released but I think there's a determination in her face, as well as the reality of age.  She has lived a long life, including the dark days of the London Blitz and bombings by the IRA and the wars in Afghanistan and the Falklands.  Her experiences are here, under these many layers of paint, as well as her loyal suffering in the name of duty.  Interestingly, Freud has been influenced by photography, something I don't think many critics have written about.  Look at how tight the crop is here: that's a choice that come from photographic conventions, not the long tradition of art history portraiture.  Goya or Velasquez never cropped sitters that tight, especially not reigning monarchs.  Instead this is a combat photographer's aesthetic, since as the famous war shooter Frank Capra said, "If you're pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

Influence and tradition inform any portrait, painted or otherwise.  Annie Leibovitz has to to deal with those artists who have preceded her, along with the simple fact that she IS Annie Leibovitz, the person has photographed everybody from President Bush to Patti Smith.  Allowed to work with the Queen, she had to think about what to ask her sitter to wear, what kind of crown or tiara to request, what to do about lighting.  Here is what she came up with, followed by what influenced her.

The background is Buckingham Palace, which has a small woodland behind it, even though it is in the heart of urban London.  The Queen wears a cloak that quotes, visually, earlier pieces, including these two.

This was done in 1953 by the then-fashionable Cecil Beaton, less well known today than he once was.

And here's another inspiration for the Annie Leibovitz choice.  It is a painting from one year later, done by Pietro Annigoni, commissioned by (and still owned by) The Fishmonger's Company.

The facial expression here is magnificent, with a steady, faraway gaze that implies selflessness and wisdom.  This is so highly romantic it nearly veers into schmaltz, but somehow manages to stay just this side of sentimentality, helped by the literal and yet regal cloak she wears.  The Fishermongers got their money's worth this time for sure.

In 1968, Cecil Beaton was again on the job, using a boating cloak that we will meet again in the Leibovitz image.

How do we update something like this or the Annigoni?  While the regalia is still extant, clearly the Queen herself has grown older, and clearly too, her schedule is now even more tightly managed.  One gets half an hour for a photo shoot, if lucky.  (In her book At Work, Leibovitz said it was actually only 25 minutes she was given, though she was able to set up lighting beforehand.  For many celebrities, this is a normal constraint.  I know of one photographer shooting a major pro golfer for an ad campaign who was only given five minutes, which was to occur during a break in filming a commercial for some other endorsement.  You had really really better be organized and ready.  No saying, "oops the lens cap was on" in these situations!)

Let's look at the modern one again.

In case you're wondering about the lighting, this is a composite.  The Queen was photographed indoors, then that image was cut and pasted into a scene from Buckingham Palace shot the day before.  This IS a place the Queen might walk daily, but during the 25 minutes, they could not go outside.  There was not time to shift locations and set the lighting up again.  Though a portrait photographer primarily, obviously she understands how landscapes work, too.  As a somewhat related note, Annie Leibovitz has worked twice in the Antelope Valley, at least so far as I know.  She shot Ella Fitzgerald at El Mirage Dry Lake, and she did a portrait of the painter David Hockney somewhere along Pearblossom Highway.  Once many years ago I saw Ansel Adams working in Yosemite.  All of that is to say, if you see some lunatic with a large format camera on the berm of the road, slow down and look twice, since it might be somebody important.

Meanwhile, what does this portrait tell us?  The book The Queen in Art and Image calls it "magisterial."  I am impressed by the drama --- this is somebody dressed for a storm yet not needing an umbrella or even a shower cap.  She is a lone figure, isolated and self-reliant, equal to the stormy wilderness around her.  She is part of the world yet not cowed by the world, and for a relatively petite woman, she fills the foreground with the solid strength of a heavyweight boxer.  Not backed up against a wall, she has the confidence to stand alone in nature, aware and in control.  Empires come, empires go, but long live the Queen: she and her lineage will endure.

This is heady stuff, and I may be over-reading the image.  Maybe Annie Leibovitz (whose bankruptcy troubles are well known) just wanted a free trip to London.  She is still alive and working --- look for her in most issues of Vanity Fair --- while Lucien Freud (and may God rest his soul) had the misfortune to die the same week as Amy Winehouse.  That's bad news, if you care about your obituary; always better in terms of reputation if one passes during a slow news week than one with Michael Jackson in it or Whitney Houston.  

I often think about the afterlife, and not always with reverence.  Do you think they ever, say, give out the wrong hotel room keys, or assign somebody the wrong study buddy?  I am thinking of Lucien Freud, who may or may not have painted the ugliest portrait of the Queen in the history of British art, but who definitely knew what he was doing.  What if somehow his file got mixed up with Amy Winehouse's?  Some day --- far in the future, perhaps --- the current Queen will pass on, and there she will be in Heaven, sitting for yet another portrait.  She will waiting be in the studio, the door will open, and tattooed but sober, in will walk Amy Winehouse, not Lucien Freud.  

What will the Queen say?  

Given how many crisis meetings and wars and bombings she will have endured by then, I doubt much will put her off her pace.  Perhaps she will shake hands and say, there's been some sort of a mix up.  If you're not a painter my dear, then what do you do?

Amy Winehouse can belt out a tune or two and then that will be it ---- she and the Queen can shut the door, put their heads together, and do karaoke until the cows come home.

If only we had access to YouTube in Heaven.