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Review: National Portrait Gallery salutes gay icons

Ramsey DeHani July 24, 2009
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The large and opulent halls of the National Portrait Gallery play host to an interesting exhibition on the personal histories and inspirations of influential gay and lesbian figures this summer.

The exhibition is marking the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

It is based on ten gay and lesbian people, who were chosen by a special council headed by presenter Sandy Toksvig, who she believes are strong, gay figures in the world. They, in turn, each chose six people, dead or alive, gay or straight, who they felt had inspired or influenced them as a gay or lesbian person.

Among the selectors are sportspeople, politicians, entertainers and writers.

The exhibition sparked controversy when it was announced, as many of those one would associate with gay iconography, such as Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, and Dusty Springfield, are missing from the exhibition.

Instead, it offers a reinvention of the concept of a ‘gay icon’, and interesting, personal accounts of the people who have helped shape each selector’s sexual identity. It also forces us to question what it is that makes an icon.

Were the selectors right to snub such gay legends as Judy for the place of Lily Savage or Joe Dallesandro (Warhol’s muse)? This idea is what gives the exhibition its edge, and without it, it is merely the personal selections of the gay elite, shown to us with formal blurbs of why they mean so much.

There are some hidden gems within the muddling of photographs: Women who caused outrage for writing to the police asking to wear trousers; gay code-breakers; closeted blues singers, the exhibition does indeed have moments of genius (my favourite is still the photo of Lily Savage, irritated and cold on Blackpool Pier).

The photographs themselves are beautifully shot. Sombre framings of the likes of Sylvia Townsend and Winifred Atwell are offset well with colourful and jovial images of the Village People and Elton John, and the occasional cracked, fading shot of the Victorian Age serves to show not just a nod to gay and lesbian figures of today but also an understanding of those who accomplished and lived their lives long before Stonewall.

In the end, while I, like many others I’ve spoken to, would change many of the figures chosen, that’s not the point, is it? The concept of iconography and its effect on the gay culture presents a far more interesting subject than a round off of the glittering queens of old, and it is in this that the exhibition, whilst clumsy and ill-conceived in places, finds its own touch of magic.

The exhibition runs until October 18th.

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