Road to 2012: Aiming High at the National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery presents their largest commission, compiled over three years, showing some key figures of the Olympics. Representing not just the athletes, but staff, organisers and torchbearers, familiar faces and those behind the scenes, each image is accompanied by background details and a quote from the subjects.
Portraiture allows us to stare at people in ways we don’t normally get to. Sometimes the artist can capture an intimate look from their subject normally reserved for private; sometimes portraits can take a surprise twist and make us look again at a quirk in a person, and sometimes they reveal to us what a wonderful and odd thing it is to be part of humanity. With over 100 photographs taken by seven photographers, all such approaches are here represented, including those where folk stand about, staring out awkwardly. But even that type of portrait has plenty of provenance, as evidenced by centuries of stiff poses elsewhere in the gallery – perhaps showing human traits other than frame-filling personalities so often required to propel oneself to the finish line.
Sports stars such as Mark Cavendish look charismatic and determined as photographed by Anderson and Low. The athletes are not photographed in action, but clues to the extraordinary background trials they put themselves through are clear – the image of the four young gymnasts in a cloakroom is strangely compelling as they chalk and bandage up. The women’s GB hockey squad stand off-field, a paradoxical balance of nature and contained aggression, looking ready to let rip.
Nadev Kander presents slower, more sculptural and beautiful black and white studies of four young athletes. Also by Nadev Kander, torchbearers are cut out and suspended, life-size, floating from the wall, their inspirational stories also elevating them from the ordinary.
Jill Edelstein’s photographs frame more humour than the others – her double portrait of transport organisers driving through the Blackwall Tunnel has a surreal edge – and artist Martin Creed wears a funny hat, also a funny moustache, hair and jumper. Anish Kapoor, the sculptor of the Orbit Tower, is pictured with red stains on his fingers, and so in an action photo of sorts.
Swimmer Rebecca Adlington and diver Tom Daly wear clothes! Bettina von Zwehl places her subjects next to their elements, in more natural settings than we normally see them, allowing other aspects of their personalities to emerge.
We hardly need reminding of the vast logistical effort involved in organising the 2012 Olympics, yet it is insightful to pause for a moment and appreciate all the myriad personalities and fields of effort shown in these portraits and glimpses of lives, and all the essential contributors, the musicians, the artists, the caterers, presenters and politicians. Photographers Brian Griffin, Finlay McKay and Emma Hardy add more artistic insights, and ensuring in the variety that there will be favourite Olympic images for every taste.
Running concurrent with Road to 2012: Aiming High, is the BP Portrait Awards, also free, which shows a multitude of more painterly approaches to contemporary faces.
Road to 2012: Aiming High runs from 19th July to 23rd September 2012 at the National Portrait Gallery, St. Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE. For further information or to book visit the exhibition’s website here.