Go to Yeo

September 11 2013

Image of Go to Yeo

Picture: Johnathan Yeo/NPG

I saw the new exhibition of Johnathan Yeo's portraits at the National Portrait Gallery yesterday evening. You should go too. It's a small show, but left me with little doubt as to Yeo's talent, for many of the portraits on display are excellent. His portrait of Damien Hirst in a diving suit was given centre stage, and looked impressive, but I suspect in the long term it will suffer by association with a here-today-gone-tomorrow artist. On the other hand, his portraits of Grayson Perry in drag (who was there last night, looking bloody ridiculous in orange and yellow) and Kevin Spacey as Richard III deserve to become two of the great British portraits of the early 21st Century.

The Perry is superbly painted, and benefits from Yeo's greater than usual use of colour (hard to avoid, I guess, when your subject is in drag), while the Spacey is not only well executed, but demonstrates how a good portraitist needs more than just good technical skills - more than anything else, they have to get the overall approach to their subject right. The composition and characterisation of the Spacey portrait, for example, succesfully presents him in a suitably thespian light, but stays on the right side of being a portrayal of an actor, rather than a role. It's a portrait of Spacey as Shakespeare's Richard III, not Shakespeare's Richard III, which sounds simple enough to achieve, but you only need to look at all those hammy 18th and 19th Century portraits of actors, many by good artists such as Zoffany, to see that it isn't. 

I wonder if the exhibition will help propel Yeo onto the next level of recognition and critical acclaim (which I think he deserves). Can he step from being a society portraitist to an artist on the same level as his subjects, Hirst and Perry? That's hard for 'a painter' to achieve these days, and it's even harder for a portraitist. Freud, of course, managed it, but only relatively late on, and as I wrote some time ago, Freud, despite mainly painting people, eventually ceased being a portraitist in the conventional sense. He was a painter of flesh, one of the best ever, but not of character, and in Freud's portraits it is tempting to believe the argument that, beyond mere likeness, a portrait can only ever tell us something about the artist, not the sitter. I don't believe that this is always the case, not with artists like Thomas Gainsborough and, as I'm increasingly finding (in preparation for our exhibition here at Philip Mould & Co in November), the 17th Century miniaturist Samuel Cooper (who painted the famous 'warts and all' image of Cromwell).

Is it the case with Yeo? I think not - one can begin to feel real people in his sitters (easier, of course, when you've met some of them). The question is, how much can we know? One thing you notice about Yeo's subjects in the current exhibition is that (Grayson Perry aside) many of them are visibly enjoying themselves. And why not, you might say, for Yeo is famously good company, but one wonders whether Yeo's approach could benefit from a bit of Freudian dispassion, a sense that the artist has stepped outside his celebrity sitters' fame and studied them with a wider observation. Perhaps that's why Yeo's Grayson Perry and Kevin Spacey are so succesful. Because both subjects are adopting a role of sorts, Yeo has been able to focus on an extra dimension, the kind which, after getting the likeness, the drawing and the painting right, makes a good portrait a brilliant one. 

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