Review: Bailey's Stardust

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 31 March 2014 in Culture
Culture
Anoosh Chakelian is slightly star-struck at the National Portrait Gallery’s David Bailey retrospective

Being greeted by a giant, shaggy-maned Kate Moss is always a good way to start an exhibition – or enter any room, for that matter – and when this glossy black-and-white wonder is just a drop in David Bailey’s star-studded ocean of celebrity portraits, you know it’s the place to be.

Bailey’s Stardust, the largest exhibition of star snapper Bailey’s photos, is like being at a brightly lit society party, full of people you recognise but with whom you could never dare to initiate conversation. The 300 or so portraits selected personally by the photographer provide such a saturated palette of insouciant fame and glam gazes that it’s difficult for the viewer to connect authentically with this collection, beyond cooing in recognition at the stars who line the walls.

Kate Moss by David Bailey, 2013 © David Bailey

And such sparkling stars they are. Modern artist Damien Hirst, open-mouthed in a blurred Edvard Munch-style scream; pop artist Andy Warhol, mouth languidly open, dark eyes right up near the lens; Meryl Streep mussing her hair; David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve angelic and near-identical; a pensive Bob Dylan; Ralph Fiennes with a skull, both looking sleepy; Jack Nicholson looking aggressively cheeky; a young Mick Jagger with his pillowy lips slightly parted… It’s a bacchanalia in black and white.

The mischievous snapshots of the Rolling Stones behind the scenes – Bailey went on tour with them – are fantastic intimate pictures, and a bit more human in their irreverence and use of hilarious props: masks, a dagger, lightbulb and trowel festoon the Stones in one image. Charlie Watts is displayed in one portrait as a one-man-band on a donkey.

Mick Jagger by David Bailey, 1964 © David Bailey

There are also fashion icons, models, intimate little polaroids of Bailey’s wife Catherine, and images of people Bailey encountered while travelling – notable by the fact that they’re unknown. Rare in this exhibition. Papua New Guinea, east Africa, India and Australia provide most of his non-celebrity muses in the collection.

With the photographer being undoubtedly as star-spangled as most of his sitters, there is a nagging sense throughout this exhibition of a private joke the viewer isn’t quite in on. This creates a sort of awed detachment from the portraits – perhaps the truest reflection of society’s attitude to fame.

Until 1 June 2014

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