Queen Snoozes, Smiles as Portraits Unite Freud, Warhol

"Queen Elizabeth II" By Andy Warhol. The image suggests the Queen's public face is an artificial creation. Source: National Portrait Gallery via Bloomberg

Andy Warhol famously predicted that everybody would enjoy 15 minutes of fame in the modern age.

One of his subjects has had much, much more than that.

Elizabeth II has been a world-wide celebrity since her coronation 60 years ago. Consequently, the new exhibition “The Queen: Art and Image” at the National Portrait Gallery in London (today through Oct. 17) is a demonstration of how many different ways one woman can be depicted.

She has been portrayed by great artists -- Gerhard Richter, Lucian Freud, Warhol himself -- and by others, frankly, far from great. Her image has been treated as an archaic symbol of royalty in a tradition that goes back to the days of Charlemagne, and she’s been on the cover of a Sex Pistols punk single.

After a while, you start to wonder how much any of these pictures tell us about the human being who is their subject.

Some artists have evidently had the same idea. In Richter’s lithograph of 1966, her image, based on a photograph, is hazily blurred -- suggesting a hidden, unknown individual behind the public persona.

The Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto made a photographic study of her waxwork mannequin at Madame Tussaud’s -- you might say he made a picture of her image, except the waxwork looks decidedly weary.

Many of these portraits are more about monarchy than the woman, Elizabeth Windsor. Occasionally we get a glimpse of a private feeling -- as in the shot of her, aghast, inspecting the damage caused by the disastrous fire at Windsor Castle in 1992 (her “annus horribilis”).

Freud’s Matriarch

Freud encountered a forceful matriarch in his oil of 2001. Even his Queen wears a crown.

When she first came to the throne she was presented in a fashion essentially unchanged since the 18th century. In Cecil Beaton’s photographic portraits from the early 1950s she was depicted -- with crown and scepter or wearing the robes of the Order of the Garter -- exactly like her Hanoverian ancestors.

The first of two oil paintings of her by Pietro Annigoni, “Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Regent” (1954-55) is a handmade version of those Beaton photographs: an antiquated dynastic portrait with a dash of added romantic wistfulness.

By the time Annigoni had a second go at the Queen in 1959, his take on her had become odd. The result was bizarre and slightly surreal: part dressmaker’s dummy, part Egyptian mummy. Perhaps by 1969, not even such a dab-hand at official portraiture as Annigoni was quite sure how to represent a ruling monarch any more.

Lichfield’s Celeb

Numerous efforts were made around that time to update the image of the Queen. Photographers such as Eve Arnold and Patrick Lichfield began to snap her more as a celeb than a sovereign.

Was this new, informal likeness any truer? In retrospect, their cheerily grinning Queen seems to have been made over in the manner of a 1960s movie star.

It must be exhausting, being famous -- let alone ruling -- for all this time.

In Chris Levine’s photograph “Lightness of Being” (2007), the Queen wears a crown and furred robes and her eyes are closed: an exhausted withdrawal into inner space. Snoozing or not, she is clearly a doughty survivor, as Freud’s portrait more than hints.

The latest photographic image, by the German artist Thomas Struth, shows her posed with the Duke of Edinburgh at Windsor Castle on a two-seater chair, half throne, half sofa. They look formidable and also strangely normal. Amid all that pomp, they could be the nation’s granny and grandpa.

“The Queen: Art and Image” is at the National Portrait Gallery, 2 St. Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE from today (May 17) through Oct. 21.

Information: +20-7306-0055 or http://www.npg.org.uk.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and lifestyle section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include: Jason Harper on autos, Jeremy Gerard on theater, Rich Jaroslovsky on technology.

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