Is the cult of celebrity undermining portraiture? Helena Roy looks at modern subjects…

A trip to the National Portrait Gallery requires passing the newsagents’ stalls that litter every London tube station and street corner. Here, fluorescent glossy magazines throw pictures of a myriad of celebrities at the bystander. Entering the gallery, you recognise a few faces from those very same stands in the portraits.

Modern society is obsessed with celebrity. The famous are everywhere – infiltrating all areas of our lives. The reason for this is probably economic: celebrities sell. The list is endless: from clothes and false eyelashes to insurance and payday loans. And now, to some extent, artwork.

Classical works habitually depict religious figures – sacra conversazione and biblical tales in glorious paint and sculpture added meaning and marvel to worship for an illiterate congregation.  Some contemporary art is (only partially satirically) mimicking this to benefit from the worship of celebrities. Marc Quinn’s work on Kate Moss depicts her in goddess-like form: she commands worship in Microcosmoss – The Road to Enlightenment; and becomes an avant-garde version of the golden calf in Siren.

Commanding worship - Kate Moss in 'Microcosmoss - The Road to Enlightenment' (2008) by Marc Quinn

But whilst religious tales often had morals to benefit society, celebrity artwork noticeably lacks this: the idol of the skeletal Siren, Kate Moss made headlines for declaring she lives by the motto ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’

A modern golden calf? Kate Moss as 'Siren' (2008) by Marc Quinn

Sam Taylor-Wood has created portraits of David Beckham and Daniel Craig. Jonathan Yeo’s fame soared when he painted Sienna Miller pregnant in 2012 (he has painted Nicole Kidman, Tony Blair and David Walliams, amongst others). These subjects bring attention, but is it the right type? The first portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, by Paul Emsley, was unveiled in January 2013 to slating criticism – but at the National Portrait Gallery the crowd gravitates towards it, ignoring works portraying unknowns that need more than a glance.

We are inundated with pictures of celebrities daily. Society devours their lives in magazines, social networks, films and fashion; inhaling news of divorces, cat fights and diva-like behaviour. In the age of 24/7 media, there is no escape.

Art is a remaining exception. Art allows you to escape from the infectious world of idols to a more obscure, extraordinary medium. But the two are increasingly combined. Celebrity corrupts art by begging for publicity on merit of the subject, not the message, beauty or moral the art can convey.

With religious worship somewhat in decline and celebrity adulation in a shooting trajectory, the most intense portraits are often of unknowns. One of the most iconic is Afghan Girl, the cover of National Geographic in June 1985. Steve McCurry’s shot has been likened to the Mona Lisa, and was taken in the split second when Sharbat Gula (an orphan of the Soviet occupation) unwittingly turned her blazing eyes towards him. The World Press Photography Award 2013 was granted to a heart-wrenching picture of two Palestinian children, killed by an Israeli strike, being taken for burial in Gaza.

'Afghan Girl' – Sharbat Gula, a refugee in Pakistan, captured by Steve McCurry in June 1985
'Gaza Burial', the winner of the World Press Photo Award 2013, by Paul Hansen

Portraiture has the power to present unknowns – those who will never grace the covers of magazines, or have their life stories slavishly consumed by the population. Portraiture has unique stories to tell that are rarely communicated in any other medium. It should focus on these and not succumb, like everything else, to celebrity worship.

With thanks to Marc Quinn, the Telegraph, World Press Photo and Wikipedia for photos.

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