Michael Jackson: On the Wall exhibition


Τhe National Portrait Gallery in London had a wonderful idea to honor Michael Jackson: to investigate how visual artists have used the image of one of music's greatest showmen.

The exhibition Michael Jackson: On the Wall isn't meant as a survey of the singer's life or music, Nicholas Cullinan (director of the National Portrait Gallery) explains: "But now that a few years have passed since he died, I thought it was time to look at his legacy and his impact on an array of contemporary artists. There's probably no one else in recent history who attracted so much attention from artists wanting to capture his image."

There are 48 artists represented in the exhibition, of whom 46 are still living. The exceptions are Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.

"Andy Warhol always had a keen eye for coming talent and he was the first artist to use Michael as a subject", says Cullinan to BBC. "We have a whole room devoted to his images. Their relationship extended for around a decade until Warhol died in 1987. The exhibition isn't really about Jackson memorabilia but we do display some that Warhol collected".

"I'd mention the idea to artists who would either say they already had a Michael Jackson piece - or in some cases that they would love to attempt one. It confirmed for me how often artists were attracted to his image. Ultimately, we commissioned half a dozen pieces from scratch".

Wiley has sometimes inserted African Americans into images borrowed from Western art history, to provoke discussion of the status of black people in society.

"Wiley's picture was the last portrait actually commissioned by Michael, who'd encountered his work in the Brooklyn Museum during a photo shoot", adds Cullinan.

Cullinan indicated that many of the images in the exhibition are based on photographs "Especially after the success of the album Thriller in 1982, pictures of Michael were everywhere. Hundreds of millions of people knew his videos. Even people who didn't particularly like his music knew the image - so it's fitting that many of the works we've assembled were based on photos. By the 1980s Michael was famous in an almost unprecedented way. So his image proliferated, was reproduced, fragmented and it spread around the world. He meant different things to different people but an important and often moving part of the exhibition is what he achieved as an African American - which is why it was important to include Kehinde Wiley, for instance".

The National Portrait Gallery director knows there are issues such as Michael Jackson's family life and his relationships which, in a more biographical show, might need to be addressed.

"But that's not what we are doing," Cullinan explains. "As we approach the 10th anniversary of his death there are still people with hugely positive and very negative views of Michael Jackson. But it's rare to find anyone who finds him entirely uninteresting."

The final room contains a 2005 piece shot in Berlin called King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson) by the artist Candice Breitz. "I didn't want to end with the sadness of his passing", says Cullinan.

"King is a video piece with 16 young people all performing Thriller from first to last. It's joyful and moving - I hope people will think it sums up the whole show."

Michael Jackson: On the Wall runs at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 21 October. It then travels to Paris, Bonn and Espoo in Finland.