A series of new exhibitions at The National Portrait Gallery - from a selection of Thomas Ruff’s passport-style portraits depicting friends from the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Germany, blown large, full-person scale, to ‘Clifton Collections’ – a series of portraits of residents of the Nottingham estate – have an evocative cohesiveness with the existant ‘Life, Death and Memory’ installation, slotted amongst 18th century paintings. As the NPG copy notes, portraiture has an especial relationship with mortality, depicting the vulnerability of human life at all its stages. This span is particularly pronounced in memento mori portraits, which depicts living subjects posing with skulls - a juxtaposition displayed with such easy commonality that omission of the conventional distance the living place between themselves and death is overlooked.
The installation plays with this concept, revelling in artistic reminders of mortality, from Samuel Joseph’s sculpture of the bronze death mask of John Constable, the Romantic painter, to a photographic self-portrait of Sam Taylor-Johnson, holding a stuffed hair like a weapon. Yet beyond this room, the portraits featured in the new exhibitions don’t escape the trace of mortality and memory. It clings to each frame, like a shadow, or a whisper.
Ruskin Spear’s collage-portrait of Sid James (1962) depicts the comedian in a still from Hancock’s Half Hour. Paint stutters over cardboard, creating the texture of static, freezing James in a dart-focused stare. Pasted echoes of the Radio Times clutter below the abstracted TV-set, the accompanying ashtray alluding to the cigarette clasped in the actor’s mouth. Spear has created a portrait of a public life, a life as received by the public – static, disjointed, staring. It’s as much a depiction of a man as it is of a death, a memento mori to the beating heartbeat of a career, to an age of comedy which has been overtaken. This is, of course, a retrospective impression, yet such is the paradox of portrait.
John Randall Braitly’s Portrait of Elspet Gray and Brian Rix (1967), similarly catches interest in its unblinking depiction of a life. The married actor couple each sit on chairs, staring straight ahead, the space between them amplified by the mass of roses and flowers and thorns which enclose them, trap them in their own corporalities. There is no indiciation of tenderness between them, in the way that the tenderness of a long marriage is often imperceptible to the eye. They are very much woven together, the fronds of leaves enmeshing them in a biological portrait. While flowers commonly allude to fertility, especially in the context of a portrait of a marriage, here the flora suggests a steely steadfastness against the vulnerabilities of ageing, of romantic instability, of death.