Gay Icons (National Portrait Gallery 30/6/09) 2 July 2009

I was looking forward to this one; the Gay Icons exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I found the premise exciting and forward thinking. Here is the official description:

This exhibition brings together ten selectors, chaired by Sandi Toksvig, each of whom is a prominent gay figure in contemporary culture and society. Each selector was asked to name six people, who may or may not be gay, whom they personally regard as inspirational, or an icon for them. These people provide a fascinating range of figures - some heroic, some very famous, others less well known...The only limitation placed on the selectors was that the exhibition would be made up of photographic portraits so the subjects date from the last 150 years. - National Portrait Gallery programme

My hopes were that the exhibition would help dispel the many stereotypes (some founded and some not) and present a more insightful look into the lives of Lesbians and Gay men.

I went to the Opening / Private View with two work colleagues so we stopped in the first main room for drinks, canapes and chat with other colleagues. We we also taking the time to do a bit of celeb spotting but only came up with Rhona Cameron and Sandi Toksvig. There was a formal introduction from a representative from the Portrait Gallery who then went on to introduce Sandi Toksvig. She was very funny, very dry, very insightful and inspiring. Mixed in with the introductions were two performances from the cabaret section of the London Gay Men's Chorus who descended from the top of the stationary escalator to sing for us all.

The 15 - 20 member chorus were all in good voice as was to be expected. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the first song, I was thinking it was something for a Disney film and I was doing some serious Googling hoping to spark my memory with a title, but no dice. As you can probably tell, I don't take notes, preferring to experience events for what they are, without a critical eye. I figure I will remember the things that are most important to me. What I do remember well was their second song, the 5th Dimension's 'Up Up and Away'. They wouldn't sing the word 'balloon', instead they would substitute some ' baaah daaahdaaah dah dah's' in a jazz riff generic cabaret sort of way (up up and awaaaay in my beautiful, my beautiful baaah daaahdaaah dah dah). Funny, to me, but it worked. They also seemed nervous and their facial expressions were priceless, very much as if someone instructed them with 'no jazz hands, put that expression in your face'.

After the music and intros I bought the exhibition catalogue book and poster. The poster features Joe Dallesandro of whom I am a big fan. There were two version of the book, one with Joe on the cover (he is the image of the exhibition) and the other, which is only available at the exhibition, features k.d. lang. I bought the Joe version.

The Exhibition:

I have been to two other exhibitions at the Portrait Gallery. The first was a Scavullo exhibition many years ago, which was - brief, and the other was just last year, which was another Opening / Private View. I couldn't tell you what the second one was, I guess that tells you how much impact it had on me. What I do remember in both instances was the small, small space they were in. Gay Icons is in the same space. Although it's laid out well, with all the other viewers crowded in it's difficult to stop and read - and reading is pretty much what this exhibition is about.

When you enter the exhibition space you are met with a large photo portrait of the first selector and from there the selectors six icons portraits follow. This pattern repeats itself and you only have to follow the exhibition around on one wall which is nice. The selectors descriptions / biographies are quite large and well designed with a somewhat complete career overview, whereas the Icons each have a smallish paragraph which just tells you briefly who they are and why they are noteworthy. Here are the selectors and their choices (I'm just giving you the first line or so of the descriptions, they are longer):

WAHEED ALLI (Lord, politics and media)
David Hockney (Painter, printmaker, illustrator, stage designer, photographer), Lily Savage (Drag alter-ego of TV and radio host Paul O'Grady), Jeff Stryker (American porn star), Village People (Disco band), Diana, Princess of Wales, Will Young (Singer and actor)

Joe Dallesandro (American actor), Ronald Firbank (Innovative novelist), Thomson William 'Thom' Gunn (Poet and university teacher), Gerard Manley Hopkins (Poet and Jesuit priest), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Leading Russian Composer), Edmund White (American actor and literary critic)

ELTON JOHN (Musician)
Winifred Atwell (Trinidadian-born pianist and entertainer), John Lennon (Singer, songwriter, artist), Mstislav Rostpropovich (Russian cellist and conductor), Bernie Taupin (Singer, songwriter, poet), Graham Taylor (Football manager and former football player), Gianni Versace (Italian designer)

Quentin Crisp (Writer, actor and raconteur), Audre Lorde (American poet and author), Edwin Morgan (Poet), Bessie Smith (Classic blues singer), Billy Tipton (American Jazz musician), Soujourer Truth (Campaigner for abolition, temperance and women's rights)

Christine Amanpour (Journalist), Althea Gibson (American tennis player), Ilana Kloss (South African tennis player), Nelson Mandella (First democratically elected State President of South Africa), Bill, Betty and Randy Moffitt (Father, mother and brother of Billie Jean King), Bob Richards (American athlete)

Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer (Norwegian-born Colonel), Edward Carpenter (Writer), Regina Fong (Dancer, actor and TV presenter Reg Bundy better known as his drag persona Her Imperial Highness Regina Fong), Angela Mason (Director of Stonewall), Harvey Milk (American politician), Walt Whitman (American poet, journalist and essayist)

W.H. Auden (Poet), Benjamin Britten (Composer), Edwin Cameron (South African Supreme Court Justice), John Menlove Edwards (Rock climber and psychiatrist), Alan Turing (Mathematician and logician), Virginia Woolf (Novelist, essayist, biographer and critic)

BEN SUMMERSKILL (Chief Executive of Stonewall)
Maya Angelou (American poet, author and civil rights activist), Francis Bacon (Painter), Ellen DeGeneres (American comedian, actor and television host), Martina Navratilova (Czech-born American tennis player), Joe Orton (Playwright and actor), Ian Roberts (British-born Australian rugby player)

SANDI TOKSVIG (Comedienne, actress, writer)
Rosa Bonheur (French-born painter), Jane Cholmeley (Co-founder of Silver Moon Women's Bookshop), k.d. lang (Canadian pop and country music singer and songwriter), Hilda Matheson (Intelligence officer and first BBC Director of Talks), Gene Robinson (Bishop of the Episcopal Dioceses of New Hampshire), Peter Tatchell (Activist and writer)

Bryher (Pseudonym of novelist, poet and critic Annie Winifred Ellerman), Daphne Du Maurier (Author), Patricia Highsmith (Crime and psychological thriller writer), Sylvia Townsend Warner (Writer and poet), Denton Welch (Painter and writer), Kenneth Williams (Actor and comedian)

When looking through all the lists you can see some obvious patterns of selectors icons working in the same fields as the selectors. It is also evident that each selector was in some way responsible for describing their icons (which would account for some of the inconsistencies of descriptive words that are used).

Because of the confined space and the number of people jostling for a good view without blocking someone else's, I found myself only stopping at the photos of people I wasn't familiar with. Even then, because of the brevity of description, I was left with an - oh - feeling. I never made it to - wow! - just stayed at - oh. I wanted more. I wanted to know how these people influenced the selectors. At what age? To what extent? More.

Like the other exhibit I mentioned (the one I couldn't remember), the exhibitors didn't seem to have an interest in portraits, and this is the National Portrait Gallery. When were they taken, why were they chosen, what were the circumstances? We are privy to the name of the photographers but that was about it. Maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. As it's the Portrait Gallery I guess these cold be considered people portraits, as in profiles. Even when I went down that road I found it unfulfilling. I think the exhibition book is good, mainly because I could take it home and properly digest the information (although I noticed that the photo of Jeff Stryker in the book is different to the one in the exhibition). Still, it's a fantastic idea and I believe it will be an eye opening experience for many. I discovered some new people and I will be researching them soon.

I read that Sandi Toksvig dreamt of a website where anyone could nominate and upload their icons. I think that would be a logical next step. We need to uncover more influences and icons from more people, and not just the prominent or famous. She's got something there. What are your 6? This could run and run.

It's on from 2 July - 18 October, 2009

PS - Alongside this exhibition the Gallery is running Iconic - a season of events which explores fantasy, desire, melancholy, beauty, sexuality, joy and ambiguity - through performance, film, music, literature and talks. May I recommend this?

Film - Sunday 6 September, 15.00 - 17.00

The 'Little Joe' of Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wild Side'. The Valentino of the Underground. The original gay Lonesome Cowboy. A special preview screening of a revealing biographical portrait of Joe Dallesandro - unprecedented access to Andy Warhol's muse. Produced by the actor and his family.

Dir. Nicole Haeusser, USA 2009, 90 min, Cert 18
Tickets £10 / £8 concessions