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Prints of pop: Michael Jackson images go up on the wall

A Michael Jackson exhibition marks a new departure for the National Portrait Gallery. Jane Clinton took a look at what’s on offer

20 July, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Thriller (Black and White) by Graham Dolphin

A PAIR of penny loafers attached to helium balloons stand vertically, just touching the floor as a spotlight beams down in them.

The pose is unmistakable: it is Michael Jackson in one of his gravity-defying “leans”. Yet this installation, which is part of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, is also a haunting reminder of how Jackson’s image remains so powerful and recognisable.

Just a pair of shoes or a white glove serve as shorthand for one of the world’s most famous singers.

While Jackson’s influence in music, music videos, dance choreography and fashion is well documented, his influence on contemporary art remains unchartered territory.

This exhibition, entitled Michael Jackson: On the Wall, seeks to address this.

Curated by the NPG’s director, Dr Nicholas Cullinan, it is something of a departure for the gallery which he says “breaks new ground” in its subject matter and the breadth and profile of the artists involved.

There are also the tantalising snippets revealing a Jackson deeply interested and knowledgeable about art. There are his discussions of Reubens’ later brush work compared with the artist’s earlier style and his fascination with Michelangelo.

When interviewed for Ebony magazine in 1993 he remarked: “I’m a great fan of art. If I had the chance to talk to him or read about him I would want to know about what inspired him to become who he is – the anatomy of the craftsmanship.”

It is striking that this very quotes starts off the exhibition which includes works by Andy Warhol, Grayson Perry, David LaChapelle, Keith Haring and Maggi Hambling.

His culture impact and influence is clearly set out.

Michael Jackson by Gary Hume

There is Lorraine O’Grady’s diptych making comparisons with the French writer and Jackson in her work The First and Last is the Modernists; and there are the artists who bring together Jackson and his great friend Elizabeth Taylor in photography and film.

Perhaps the most poignant of the works on display is, however, the very last commissioned portrait of Jackson. Shown for the first time in the UK, the Kehinde Wiley painting shows a powerful, Jackson astride a horse in armour. The painting references Peter Paul Reubens’s Equestrian Portrait of Philip II in the Battle of St Quentin 1557, itself a posthumous portrait.

It was while doing a photoshoot in 2007 for Ebony magazine at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, a site he chose as he wanted to be in a place where “art lives on forever”, that he encountered Wiley’s work.

He commissioned him to paint a portrait of him and they collaborated on how it would look. They also spoke at length about how clothes can work as armour for people. It is striking then that Jackson appears in the full armour.

There was also much discussion about art and Wiley admits he was taken aback by his knowledge of Reubens and art history.

Sadly the commission was finished posthumously. Jackson died on June 25, 2009. He would have been 60 on August 29 and it seems an appropriate moment to reflect of his cultural legacy.

Artists have projected notions of identity and fame and fandom on Jackson. He has been depicted as everything from the “American Jesus” in David LaChapelle’s work, the martyr or the hero. We even do not see him at all, instead are just shown him as reflected by the reaction in his fans’ faces at his performances (as in the video loop by Rodney McMillian where he has taken excerpts from live concerts). But perhaps the most affecting of all the works is the simple rendering of how an older Jackson might have looked.

The artist Hank Willis Thomas has appropriated an image from Ebony magazine from 1984 in which an artist tried to predict what he would look like in 2000. The image is one of a debonair, mustachioed Jackson recognisable from his early days. Few if any could have predicted just how dramatically his appearance would change after his numerous plastic surgeries. With hindsight that one image has a sadness in its naïveté.

Jackson’s life would not be so straightforward.

The artist Michael Craig-Martin, acknowledges this. He has provided a specially commissioned work for the exhibition depicts Jackson as a young boy and describes his work as shot-through with a poignancy of what was to come. It is this gnawing sense of loss that recurs throughout the works and this exhibition.

Craig-Martin writes of his portrait of a young Jackson, as “a beautiful little boy, unambiguously black, a child star, but a child whose subsequent life would become a sad and hopeless search for the childhood he never experienced.”

Michael Jackson: On the Wall is at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, WC2H 0HE until October 21. For more information visit


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