Saturday, July 15, 2006

Saturday at the National Portrait Gallery

Angus McBean: PortraitsAfter a horrid week (went down with some sort of flu-like virus on Tuesday - the day I had to get my car to and from Wimbledon for servicing - no fun!), the weekend at least got off to a good start, celebrating Brian's birthday, with me joining Brian himself, his partner David, and their friend Sophie. We went to the restaurant formerly known as The Black Pepper (note to self: try and remember the restaurant's new name next time) and the food was excellent, the staff friendly and fun, and the company even better.

I got to bed at 1am, slightly the worse for drink, but alas was woken up at 4.20am by a swearing shouting match from some pig-ignorant locals who thought it was amusing to just shout obscenites at the tops of their voices until they got someone from the block opposite to argue with them about having been woken up. It's my own fault for sleeping with the window open when I know I'm a light sleeper I guess! Alas, once I'm awake I'm awake and I ended up getting up and starting the day on just 3.5 hours sleep, which is not good for someone who tends to suffer if they don't get a full 7.5 hours of sleep a night.

I'd originally planned a morning of sunbathing, but alas the weather forecasts proved incorrect with cloudy skies that didn't clear until 11am (too hot by then!)so instead I went for 'Plan B': a trip to see the Angus McBean photographic exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I'm going through a phase of 'discovering' old movies from the 1940's at the moment (future blog post to reveal more!) and last week's British Journal of Photography magazine had featured a stunning portrait of Vivienne Leigh by Angus McBean on the cover (a badly scanned version of which appears at the top of this blog entry), advertising the new exhibition of his work. Portrait photography and movie stars together was too good an opportunity to miss, and the £5 admission fee wasn't going to break the bank.

It's a good few years since I visited the National Portrait Gallery, and I really should make a note to check back every six months, because it has some wonderful stuff on show, and admission, aside from a small charge for the odd special exhibition like the Angus McBean one, is free. In the heart of London's tourist area (between the Leicester and Trafalgar Squares) it's an oasis of air-conditioned calm and tranquility - a nice escape from the heat-soaked crowded streets that engulf it in the Summer.

The Angus McBean exhibition itself, if I'm honest, disappointed. Not because the photographs weren't good, but because the lighting was abysmally low and with time-aged pictures it was hard to make out the detail of many of the pictures. One of the highlights should have been the display of the annual McBean Christmas card, where the photographer/artist made himself the subject matter in surreal and fascinatingly inventive ways, but the area was so dimly lit it was hard to make out much of the detail. Madness!

I should add that I am an absolute phillistine when it comes to art, or even most forms of culture - I know what I like, but have no pretensions about my ability to spot great art or bad art - and the small group of luvvies looking at this part of the gallery seemeed to conform to an awfully charicatured stereotype that normally has me running a mile from museums and art galleries. Anybody who's seen John Cleese and his female companion admiring the TARDIS in an old Doctor Who episode (the one set in the Louvre in Paris with Tom Baker) will know what I mean! Two women getting on in years, and dressed rather 'theatrically', given their somewhat advanced years, seemed determined to hold everybody up as they stopped at each photo and gushed, seemingly for ever and a day, on how wonderful each piece was. Half the fun of the exhibition was watching people try and wait for them to move on, and then give up, overtake them and miss a couple of pieces in so doing.

The main gallery itself, which has no cover charge and can be viewed separately from the McBean exhibition, was actually much more interesting because there were no lighting problems, and had patrons that felt much more like my kind of people (which is a polite way of saying I like freeloaders, I guess!). There are several different sections and floors to the main gallery, with something for everyone here I'd have thought.

The main portrait gallery had the usual mixture of art and photographic portraits that would have one gaping in awe at the talent on display one minute, only to be followed by a piece of 'art' that looked like it had been painted by an untrained zoo animal with a brush, or taken by a 'photographer' with a disposable camera who hadn't worked out the basics of framing or focusing. I remember I'd thought much the same on my last visit and some things never change I guess!

I loved the huge colourful, almost 3D-like "National Health" photo's by a female artist with a double-barelled name I've forgotten (but why use highly reflective glass to show them off?), and enjoyed almost all of what was on display in the special 'BP Portrait Awards 2006' section. However I thought it amusing that the 'portrait' that attracted by far the most attention was a ridiculously gimmicky piece of work that featured a section that was a looping, moving film of someone's head embedded in a painting of the rest of their body. I think the piece was called 'Being Watched' or somesuch but I think it should have really been called 'Pretentious? Moi?'. Enjoyable in an odd sort of way, rather like the working exhibitions with buttons that they put in the Science Museum to stop the kids getting bored, but I'm glad it didn't win the BP prize for the portrait of the year!

Elsewhere the Beatles on the Balcony exhibition was interesting enough for fans of the band, if somewhat uninspiring for the most part, being largely dominated by old record sleeves or what I would call 'enlarged snapshots' of the band taken early in their career. I guess one has to provide populist fare to get people in the door, and it was fun to reminisce and admire one or two of the better photographs. A wonderfully staged pillow fight photo alone is worth the visit. If you're in London with not much to do, the Gallery should definitely be on your list of places to visit.

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