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Jon Bird: Portraits of Power exhibition
February 2016. National Portrait Gallery.

Jon Bird: Leon Golub Potraits of Power

A new exhibition and publication

February 2016

Professor Jon Bird is curating an exhibition of the political portraits of Leon Golub to be held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, with an accompanying fully illustrated catalogue.

The American artist Leon Golub (1922-2004) is best known for his iconic history paintings of Mercenaries, Interrogations, Torture and Riots of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, Golub increasingly explored the effects of power upon the body through facial expression, gesture and pose, investing his dramatic pictorial scenes with psychological tension and depth through the visual exchange between depicted characters and the viewer. For Golub, his source material always derived from media representations: of how the look of power is mediated through the camera lens, a process which is inflected by the interests of elite cultures, whether political, military or social. It was during the 1970s that the ‘look of power’ became dominant in his series of ‘Political Portraits’ of heads of state, corporate, military and religious leaders and Golub produced over a hundred, roughly life-sized portraits, often depicting an individual at various stages of their public office. ‘Francisco Franco’, ‘Fidel Castro’, ‘Mao’, ‘Nelson Rockefeller’ are all visual narratives of arrogance and venality traced across the visage of powerful men, in Franco’s and Mao’s case, from dictatorial extravagance to  mortal decreptitude.

Golub’s portraits of lives lived in the public gaze emphasise the performative aspect of identity, subject’s enacting a role: corporate leader, statesman, general. Playing with the conventions of the genre. Golub introduced less familiar compositional elements: an absence of background or informational detail, scraped pigment suggesting a worn or weathered appearance, an emphasis upon line to trace expression and a restricted palette.

All of the above themes and elements will be present in the selection of images for the exhibition through paintings drawn from collections in Europe and America. The exhibition will also introduce an aspect of Golub’s practice not known in the UK.


In addition to the exhibition, Reaktion Books are publishing an accompanying catalogue with an essay by Bird and Prof Gill Perry (Open University).