With its slightly portentous title, Facing History: Contemporary Portraiture, a new eclectic display of prints and photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (in two small rooms deep in the recesses of the museum) reflects contemporary artists’ strained relationship with art history. A pair of portraits by Grayson Perry – of ‘Mr and Mrs Perry’ – gently mocks American naive portraiture of the nineteenth century. In his signature graphic style, Julian Opie offers bland portraits of a couple in the style of round miniatures (pictured), popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Gavin Turk’s photographic self-portrait is disturbingly like a death mask.
Other portraits subvert the traditional function of portraits to celebrate and memorialise the great, the good, the powerful and the prosperous. Tom Hunter’s richly coloured photograph of a squatter and her baby references Vermeer’s portrait ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’. This girl, we are told, is reading a possession order. She looks like a homeless Madonna, with the light shining on her and her baby.
The most recent acquisition – a series of 34 almost identical miniatures by Bettina von Zwehl – features a V&A visitor-services assistant in profile, posed in the style of eighteenth-century silhouettes popular with the nobility. Gemma Anderson contributes a pair of delicate etchings from her patient-and-psychiatrist series of portraits, symbolically representing their contrasting inner lives, in the tradition of portraits being accompanied by symbols of the sitter’s profession or status.