Joe Dallesandro by Paul Morrissey 1968, k.d.lang by Jill Furmanovsky 1992 & Joe Orton by Lewis Morley 1965 all courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery has gone a bit queer this summer. Beyond the perennial portraits of gay, lesbian, bi or trans (LGBT) people that the initiated can spot around the gallery, there is a selection of colourful portraits of George Melly by his friend Maggi Hambling on offer. The pièce de résistance however is only a few butch strides down the corridor.
The soft-lit, aubergine confines of the Gay Icons exhibition huddle together a selection by 10 prominent LGB figures of 60 photographic portraits they personally deem significant. Waheed Alli has gone rather trashy in his choices, Alan Hollingshurst is high brow, Ian McKellen, political and Chris Smith, cultural. The Village People, Quentin Crisp, Alan Turing or Lily Savage thus end up vying for our attention with Kenneth Williams, Martina Navratilova, Princess Diana or Harvey Milk. No sign of Judy Garland though.
John Lennon, Bernie Taupin, and Rostropovitch also make rather bemusing appearances. The name of the exhibition is the problem here. So many of the "Icons" are not actually icons, let alone gay ones. Elton John chose to nominate his famous mates, while Billie Jean King pitched for her family. Obscure writers are also being dragged out of the photographic closet. Role models, sources of inspiration, they no doubt are but gay icons, they ain't.
Still, despite its flaws this is a ground-breaking exhibition for a major museum and probably a first. Catching a glimpse of these lives sketched in a few words by those who nominated them is an often moving, sometimes funny experience.
In the words of Sandi Toksvig, chair of the selecting panel: ‘How I wish this selection had been available to me when I was young.... How inspirational to have had portraits of the great and the good staring out at me telling me that I was not by any measure on my own.’
By Nicolas Chinardet
Gay Icons runs until 18 October at the National Portrait Gallery and comes accompanied by a varied series of events.