Reframing narratives at the National Portrait Gallery

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Currently, there is an emphasis in London’s galleries on reclaiming and amplifying talked over voices from art history in a bid to diversify their collections, celebrate complexities of experience, and to support the range of narratives expressed in contemporary art.  

To name just a few, Making Modernism at the Royal Academy of Art saw a collection of relatively unknown German women artists who contributed to innovations in modern art and Action Gesture Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-1970 at the Whitechapel Gallery exhibited international women artists whose experimental work shaped Abstract Expressionism. Similarly, the Victoria and Albert Museum presents Windrush 75, closing on 31 December, which sees a series of events exploring the influence of Caribbean art and culture in Britain to mark the 75th anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush. 

Within this movement for diversification and a re-examination of art history, the National Portrait Gallery focuses on curating the complexities of voices, stories, and experiences which have shaped British history through portraiture. This focus informs the gallery’s “Inspiring People redevelopment project which saw the closure of the gallery from 29 June 2020 until 22 June 2023. The gallery’s re-opening sees an exciting re-presentation of their collection and a restoration of the historic building. One can now head to Floor 3 to view the re-display of the Tudor collection and from here you are led through a portraiture timeline of British history.

There is an emphasis in London’s galleries on reclaiming and amplifying talked over voices from art history

Of particular note is a portrait of William Shakespeare painted from life which is the first portrait collected by the gallery, as well as portraits of Ira Aldridge, Ada Lovelace, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Descending through the gallery, Floor 2 displays the “Victorians and “Making a Modern Nation which continues through to “2000 to today on Floor 1. It is on the second floor where Room 19 displays a high concentration of the inspiring figures in the collection on display which includes portraits of Louise Jopling, James Joyce, and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

In pair with these developments, the gallery is working to encourage interest, participation, and engagement with the visual arts; in particular with youth culture. NPG Youth works with young people to create an inclusive gallery through providing events and opportunities as well as collaborating with young producers to present private vewings for their upcoming exhibitions. One such exhibition hoping to draw interest is the re-exhibition of David Hockney: Drawing from Life, which will open on 2 November until 21 January 2024, and over thirty new portraits have since been added to the collection. 

The gallery is also preparing for its anticipated upcoming exhibition The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure which is to be exhibited from 22 February 2024 to 19 May 2024. Curated by Ekow Eshun, this exhibition pulls together contemporary artists to explore the black experience and examines both the historical presence and absence of the black figure from art collections in the West. Featured in the exhibition will be Michael Armitage, Lubaina Himid, Kerry James Marshall, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Amy Sherald.

The National Portrait Gallery focuses on curating the complexities of voices, stories, and experiences which have shaped British history through portraiture

Beyond the “Inspiring People” project, the gallery’s work includes their three-year long project Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture in partnership with the CHANEL Culture Fund, to expand the display of underrepresented women artists who have contributed to British history. Some of this work can be found in Room 29 on Floor 1 which is named “Reframing Women and Self-Portraiture” as well as in the female focused research into women artists or sitters throughout the collection.

Alongside these projects, the gallery’s active research, conservation work, and records in the Heinze Archive and Library continues to deepen and enrich our understanding of British culture and history through visual art. One example of the gallery’s work is the acquisition of the re-discovered portrait of the Brontë sisters painted by their brother Patrick Branwell Brontë. The painting, hung in Room 21, has been deliberately left in its un-restored state by the Gallery as the damage to the painting illustrates the interesting history held in the portrait.

If you are planning a trip to London, it is an exciting time to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. There is so much to see that embraces the diverse individuals who have shaped British history.

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