Strolling along the main collection at the National Gallery, I admired a thousand masterpieces displaying the most well-known European artists. In a room full of portraits of wealthy elites representing their greatness and wealth, I was amazed to discover a section of work on display by Kehinde Wiley.
Kehinde Wiley is a Black American artist who reproduces well-known masterpieces. His objective is to highlight the absence of Black figures within European art. His aim is successfully achieved. Wiley’s paintings are in contrast to the other works on display in the rest of the gallery, pointing out the lack of diversity within European galleries. The exhibition displays five of his works, in which he refers to artists of European Romanticism such as Caspar David Friedrich and Winslow Homer. In those paintings, he questions our link with nature and race by giving a large place to the landscape in which he only represents one or two human figures. His realistic style bears an uncanny resemblance with the original work, such as Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘The traveler contemplating a sea of clouds’.
The masterpiece of this exhibition is The Prelude, a film Wiley made this year featuring Black Londoners he met in the streets around the National Gallery. The fact that he sets them in a powerful backdrop of the Norwegian landscape of the fjord, shows the depths of his imagination. It also forges a realistic connection with the existence of societal disparities across ages, to the current times. Kehinde Wiley plays with the contrast created by the whiteness of the snow, generating a beautiful metaphor concerning race and identity. The interesting choice for the setting across the film is one of the key factors of its success. At the National Gallery the film is being shown on six screens displaying different scenes, immersing us into this awe-inspiring landscape. Though set in an inhospitable environment, the sheer strength of the people in the film, walking and bonding with each other, stands out, and is thought-provoking. The classical music used as background score adds a layer of grandeur and enhances the impression, that they are the survivors of the world.
This powerful exhibition is an amazing opportunity to discover Kehinde Wiley’s work and to approach the question of racial diversity within art. It will run until 18 April 2022 at the National Gallery, London. Learn more about it and get your free tickets at https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/exhibitions/kehinde-wiley.
Reviewed by Alix Berthelot–Moritz- Alix is a volunteer writer for Abundant Art. Originally from Normandy, France, she follows her passion for journalism and art by studying at the European Political and Social Sciences of UCL, London. As an international student living in London, she is determined to fully experience and discover the entirety of the city’s vibrant arts scene and share the beauty of it through her writing.