Art Review: Only Human: Martin Parr, National Portrait Gallery ‘Portrait of a Nation’


Only Human: Martin Parr may well be the closest we come to a contemporary portrait of a nation. Which of course means it is impossible to talk about this cracking exhibition without mentioning Brexit. And I can only apologise for that as, frankly, just the thought of yet more of such talk must be enough to numb even the most Parr-enthusiastic of you. But I also say this because far from detracting from Martin’s work, the dark shadow of Brexit actually challenges the viewer to think more deeply about the attractive colour-saturated images they are observing.

Martin Parr has been fascinated by British-ness and what many of us – until recently – might have referred to as ‘British eccentricity’. Only now, with Brexit a policy rather than the bizarre fantasy of a minority, images of children’s faces painted with the St George’s cross, bulldogs wearing England football shirts and an elderly lady holding an England flag with one hand whilst the other grasps her zimmer frame… Well, such pictures now have a menace about them. A potency.

Where before they might have been cute and even worthy of a laugh, now they feel a little dangerous and unsettling.

Martin has been photographing people for years. Decades. And the images on display from across the UK include some of his most well-known colour-saturated images with some never before seen work. And there’s plenty of other themes that catch the eye other than explicit national pride in this collection.

Class and taste, inevitably, are apparent in images of posh boys at elite universities and – similar to photos beloved by the Daily Mail – those of women in their finest dress a little worse for wear at horse racing events. But there’s also a great celebration of British multiculturalism in the works on display too. In fact, such hopeful images are a welcome source of joy.

Yet interestingly, Martin compares and contrasts this to ‘Britishness’ in other countries, especially former colonies. In a series he calls, ‘British Abroad,’ Martin shows post-colonial societies in which white privilege persists, despite political and economic reform. The vestiges of old British customs in these expatriate communities feel decidedly out of place, and at odds with the contemporary world.

It feels strange – and a little disturbing – to see communities clinging to these fantasy notions of Britain, to habits and fashions long left behind back in the UK with images of odd cardboard cut outs of the Queen presiding over buffet functions. But, like I say, what once would have been laughable is now unnerving.

Although best known for capturing ordinary people, Martin has also photographed celebrities throughout his career. For the first time, this show reveals a selection of portraits of renowned personalities, most of which have never been exhibited before, including British fashion legends Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith, contemporary artists Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry, as well as Pelé.

But it is not the lustre of these celebrities that gives this exhibition its shine, it is Martin’s acclaimed work on the ordinary people of the UK. But, like I say, where before we might have seen quaint rituals and parochial charm, now… Well, now we get to consider this work against the backdrop of where such seemingly innocent national pride can take us.

National Portrait Gallery, London, to May 27, 2019.

Admission £18 (concessions available).

All photographs by Martin Parr. Obviously.

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