Michael Jackson is “On the Wall” at the National Portrait Gallery in London. He would have been 60 years old next month, 2019 is his tenth death anniversary. Probably half the world’s 1980s adolescents were impacted by the art, talent and exceptionalism of the exotic superstar; indeed who in the West doesn’t remember dancing to the soundtrack of Billie Jean and Thriller. Besides being one of the most successful recording artists of all time, Jackson was a cult figure leading the vanguard of fashion, dance, performance art and today’s conversations about beauty, race and gender.

In the exhibition Jackson’s beauty is compared to Michelangelo’s “David” and his genius to Charles Baudelaire; he was an artist, poet, a cultural icon and questionably a megalomaniac. Jackson’s influence and collaborations with other artists Andy Warhol, Isa Genzhen, Glenn Ligon and David Hammons are shown in an eclectic mix of mediums and installations. His journey from wholesome boy in a family band to king of pop is illustrated through photography, video, vinyl and international commentary. The impact that Jackson had on black American and black African youth is explored, the artist Faith Ringgold puts Jackson’s contribution on a par with MalcolmX, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks. Jackson featured on the cover of Ebony, the African-American glossy magazineno less than 15 times.

Jackson’s portrait at the gallery.

The exhibition is entered through an illustrated arch with the heading “Dangerous”, many of the exhibits play on the lyrics or titles of Jackson’s catalogue. It seems to his fans Jackson represented freedom, a cathartic escape from everyday life, fame, ephemerality, survival and even godliness. David LaChapelle’s works show him as a persecuted innocent figure, in the series entitled American Jesus LaChapelle shows Jackson as both a latter-day and modern martyr. In 2005 Jackson was acquitted of all allegations against him.

The tiny studded dinner jacket by Michal Lee Bush is the only token to memorabilia, Jackson’s changing face is seen through the eyes of 48 other artists without pejorative comment. Fusing himself into western history and culture Jackson’s last commission was a swagger portrait of himself on horseback as King Phillip II of Spain, complete with winged cherubs overhead, by Kehindi Wiley in the style of Rubens.  The exhibition is sponsored by fashion mogul Hugo Boss and Sony Music and continues until 21st October before touring to Paris and Bonn in 2019.


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