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The controversy over King Charles' portrait

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

The newest official portrait of King Charles has some critics seeing red. Actually, it has everybody seeing red. The nearly nine-foot portrait of the monarch features a lifelike depiction of his face, set against a backdrop of abstract reds swirling around and almost subsuming His Majesty. It's an unconventional portrait, and people have lots of opinions about it. To tell us more about the painting and the response to it is London-based journalist Holly Black, contributor for Artnet News. Holly, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HOLLY BLACK: Hello there. Thank you very much for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: OK, so a lot of listeners are likely familiar with the subject, King Charles, but probably less so with the artist who painted this piece, Jonathan Yeo. Maybe just start by telling us what he's known for and how this portrait fits into his body of work.

BLACK: Yes. Of course. Well, he is actually very well known, and I think that his style is also quite well known as well. He's known for, you know, very realistic portrayals of his sitters and this sort of slightly loose style that is usually surrounded by something that would traditionally maybe be called unfinished. So he is someone who's very well known on the British art scene, I'd say, and probably that is quite at least visually familiar to a reasonably broad audience.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, let's get to this painting because there's been a fair amount of criticism leveled at it. It's been memed to death online. It's the butt of a lot of jokes. But can you tell us what the art world's reaction has been to this portrait?

BLACK: Yeah, I think it's fair to say it's - if you were putting it nicely, you would say mixed. And I would say probably it's been a lot more on the controversial side, I think that one of the most interesting things is that nearly everyone has seen this portrait digitally. And that's quite difficult because the sort of compression with this very deep, intense re - very bright red, actually. It's not deep at all. It's super bright, and it's very in your face.

I think a lot of people just think it is too aggressive and it has too many colonial associations with the British Empire, ideas of blood, ideas of military and all these different things that maybe the monarchy doesn't really want to be associated with. And I think from an art world perspective, there is a little bit of an eye roll being, you know, that everyone always wants to talk about royal portraits. And it's almost an element of dismissal, saying this is obviously not a good painting, it's not something that is particularly revolutionary and, yes, we don't like it.

KURTZLEBEN: I've only seen it online. Most people have. What's the difference seeing it in person?

BLACK: When you walk in and you see this portrait, it is actually a remarkable likeness of the king. And it does give a sense of an actual - an intimacy and a person. But I think that when you are viewing this image online - and it really goes to show how we actually consume images these days - is - the color looks very compressed. It looks very bright. And even when you stand in front of the portrait and you try and take a photo on your phone, it completely flattens it and heightens the color in a way that makes it look very peculiar.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, to zoom out here, a lot of art is not appreciated in its time. I know you know this. So I'm wondering, to you, is the backlash or at least part of the backlash to this painting simply because it's different, or is there more to it than that?

BLACK: I think it's worth saying that there is always a media circus with anything to do with the royal family...

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

BLACK: ...In the United Kingdom - and especially when it comes to royal portraits. I mean, as we well know, only a few weeks ago, we had this absolute media frenzy with regards to a photo of the Princess of Wales and her children. So I think that probably the most important thing to take away from it is - I personally don't think that the controversy will last. I'm not sure whether it will be considered a great portrait of King Charles. I wouldn't be surprised if, you know, people's opinions soften with time, especially as more people see it in person. I wouldn't be surprised if people sort of forget about it or don't actually - it's not going to be in the public consciousness for that long is probably a nicer way of putting it.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

BLACK: You know, people will remember the controversy maybe and will maybe look on kinder eyes on the portrait itself as time goes on.

KURTZLEBEN: That's journalist Holly Black, contributor for Artnet News. Holly, thank you so much.

BLACK: No problem. Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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