British Royal Family

King Charles III’s blood-red portrait is a stylistic mess

Author: Editors Desk, Perspective by Sebastian Smee Source: The Washington Post
May 16, 2024 at 09:10
An official portrait of King Charles III, painted by artist Jonathan Yeo, was unveiled at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday. (Aaron Chown/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
An official portrait of King Charles III, painted by artist Jonathan Yeo, was unveiled at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday. (Aaron Chown/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

Oh dear, really? It could be worse, I suppose. But I’ve spent a little time looking at images of Jonathan Yeo’s confused, obsequious, oversized and unaccountably frightening portrait of King Charles III. And after trying to like it (a critic’s first responsibility), I’ve realized it’s as bad as I first thought.

You spend most of your time as an art critic trying to express why you think art is, if not great, then somewhere in that postcode. (Falling near the edges is where most of the fun lies; a lot of criticism is about border disputes.) But it’s always instructive to reflect on straightforwardly bad art.

Here, then, is a handy example. Thank you, Jonathan Yeo. Thank you, King Charles, for commissioning him.

Yeo’s royal portrait, unveiled Tuesday at Buckingham Palace, drew an immediate and polarized response online, with comparisons to video game bosseshell and “Ghostbusters 2.” To my mind, the painting is like the last will and testament of an uxorious libertine. It shouldn’t make sense — and guess what? It doesn’t. So many ideas — or really, so many decisions avoided — in the one painting! Do we want pretty or gritty? Abstract or figurative? Symbolism (note the butterfly, standing for Charles’s transformation from prince into king) or realism? Illusion of spatial depth or a flat, all-over effect? Dignified royal reserve or palpable collapse into pathos? It’s all there. A heap of oxymorons, a pileup of platitudes.

 

 

“But no!” you might say. “It’s almost Shakespearean in its capaciousness, its synthesis of polar opposites, its richness of connotation!” But be honest now. It’s not really like that. It’s just sad and confused.

Yeo, a celebrity portraitist of the most bland and unoriginal kind, has been plying his trade for decades. Go to his website and you see his shtick instantly. He paints heads with a veneer of slick, conventional realism and then — gesturing at arty insouciance — leaves parts of the canvas either unfinished or decorated with abstract-looking brushwork in arbitrary colors.

Once in a while, he does something calculatedly provocative, like the time he made a collage of then-president George W. Bush out of pornographic images.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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This latest production, Yeo’s most prestigious commission to date, has already joined ranks on his website with portraits of Camilla (before Charles’s coronation and her elevation to queen consort), Rupert Murdoch, Kevin Spacey, Tony Blair and Paris Hilton.

Thus presented, Yeo’s parade of sitters feels (not unlike Charles) both belated and unconvincing. (Also slightly sordid, wouldn’t you say?) Seen as an ensemble, they almost stir dreams of a Netflix-ready burlesque: “Succession” meets “The Crown.” Steve Coogan plays a plastic surgeon providing facelifts to celebrities before Yeo (Pierce Brosnan) paints their portraits …

Yeo tries to channel Lucian Freud, the artist responsible for the only interesting British royal portrait of recent times. The size of a paperback, it dared to show Queen Elizabeth II, sympathetically but unsentimentally, as an aging woman who happened to be wearing a crown. But Yeo, although he has made at least one homage to Freud, has no understanding of the qualities — truth-telling, responsiveness, aversion to cliché — that made Freud distinctive.

Technically, Yeo is probably better than the creators of those cheap celebrity portraits on sale at stands outside major museums and at tourist sites. But in the end, he employs the same formula: flattery and facility with a sprinkling of symbolism amid splashes of color. Here, the result is loud and lurid (that shimmering, psychedelic crimson almost swallows up the poor monarch). But aesthetically, it’s very weak tea.

 

Samantha Chery and Herb Scribner contributed to this report.

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