Looking Good: The Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud is a small yet perfectly groomed exhibition on at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 24 June to 1 October 2017. This exhibition brings together 28 works that look at the ever changing images of masculine identity projected by clothes, personal appearance and sartorial elegance over the last 500 years; an ever changing image seen through the eyes of artists, painters, photographers and sculptors as they look not only at their sitter’s image but also frequently at their own image.
As has been on more than one occasion famously said “Clothes maketh the man”. They can project tangible assets such as wealth, power and status, but also the intangibles – elegance, individuality, and most elusive of all personal style. Who defines what is style, who has that elusive insight into what looks just right at the right time? This question is one that has never been answered…you are either a style setter or a style follower – the flame or the moth.
The centre piece of this exhibition is Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s final Self-Portrait, c.1640 recently acquired for the nation, and The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is the final and only Scottish gallery to host this high profile painting as part of its national tour. Other paintings including Francois-Xavier Fabre “Portrait of a Man”, Daniel Mytens “James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649” and Andrew Geddes “Sir David Wilkie, 1785 – 1841” contrast sharply in style and content with Lucian Freud’s 1963 self portrait where the process of painting the flesh overtakes the earlier painting of the fashion. Photography of course gives us a different insight into people, their fashion and how their image can be projected and Robert Mapplethorpe challenges our definition of style with “Smutty” while other 20th century style icons including Mick Jagger and David Beckham are represented here side by side on walls with contemporary artists like Scotland’s own John Byrne.
Instructing people how to look good has long been an industry in itself and instruction manuals on the subject from the 16th and 17th centuries onwards have proven an invaluable insight to us today to try and understand just what “Looking Good” meant at different times throughout history. The style instruction industry of course continues its relentless instruction of what to wear in a vast array of media instruction and advertising in the 21st century.
“Looking Good” is an insightful window into male fashion of the last 500 years. Many of the people in these images had enormous wealth and power in their day, and “looking this good” has always been an expensive pastime. Looking good and having the personal style to wear it well though have always been two entirely different things. Oddly enough though, this exhibition only lightly touches on one of the most enduring reasons for the male peacock wanting to look good…to attract a partner.
24th June − 1st October 2017
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Review by Tom King