Mario Testino at the National Portrait Gallery

BY Jon Pratty | 31 January 2002

Madonna, Ray of Light album cover, 1998, Miami.

Now on at the National Portrait Gallery in London - famous photos of rich and famous people by a rich and famous photographer.

Visitors to Mario Testino: Portraits can enjoy browsing 120 colour and black and white images of the world's most beautiful people. On until June 4, 2002, the show epitomises a certain kind of accessible, star-friendly, flashy and trashy glamour.

Peruvian-born Testino is one of the world's most sought after snappers. He's often besieged by stars like Madonna wanting to commission him for album covers and portrait shoots: he's also the man to watch out for in the best fashion magazines.

Testino is coveted by fashionistas such as Anna Wintour, Editor-in-chief of American Vogue. "People love to be photographed by Mario" asserts Anna Wintour, Editor -in -chief of American Vogue.

Diana, Princess Of Wales, Vanity Fair, 1997, London

His fame really took hold in the Nineties, after a sitting with Diana, Princess of Wales. Testino re-energised Diana's image: he shot pictures which shocked some royal watchers with an attractive informality. These classically-lit shots showed her in a chic new way and the Peruvian was busier than ever before.

It's an alluring experience, walking round this colourful exhibition. Gallery walls are bright, primary colours. There are few captions. You walk around, gawping at the acres of flesh carefully revealed, partly on display, decorously hidden in actuality. You feel oddly at one with it all: part of this world of brown skin and bare torsos.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Vanity Fair, 2000, New York

There's plenty to see for your £6 entry fee. Prints are enlarged until the silver starts to protest, images are stacked up high like a magazine spread all over the wall. Here and there are Testino's favourites in special photo-shrines: Kate Moss, Madonna, Diana and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Very oddly, HRH The Prince of Wales edges into shot with two truly weird portraits, strangely out of kilter with the sun-tanned, sun-glassed superbodies of the gorgeous cinematic elite. The first princely picture shows our future King standing stiffly to attention in a Prince of Wales check suit (naturally) with a large thick column of stone backing him up.

The second creation is a colour image of HRH squatting uncomfortably on the ground wearing a very rustic tweed coat. Here he's communing with some friendly looking hens. Truly odd and perhaps not one of the kinder pictures on offer.

Kate Moss, The Face 1996, Paris

Elsewhere, standout stuff includes the Madonna section, all curls, costume and intensity. Kate Moss takes a good picture too. There's a gorgeous off-the-cuff quickie of Miss Moss leaning against a car with a mean snarl and a Marlboro in hand.

Elizabeth Hurley, British Vogue, 1999, London

Liz Hurley projects an astonishing heat across the space: in one shot she's reclining lamb-like on a bed with a hint of knicky-knacks showing. In a larger spread she fills the gallery, eyes behind shades, drink in hand, himbo on a sunbed in the distance, a vision from The Valley of the Dolls.

Don't go to this show if you want to see art. It's OK, Hello and Vogue morphed into one vast, rich and fleshy fantasy. Walk down the corridor to the John Kobal Portrait Awards 2001 display if you want great photography that will move you. Here are the faces of the rest of us - not the rich, not the famous or the pretty.

In the Kobal show you'll see dark, fascinating, faces. Tilda by Donald McLellan. Gavin, by Enda Bowe. Young Woman, by Harry Borden. I can't begin to describe the jolt these powerful works gave me after the floss of the Testino experience.

Testino's work lifts a veil on a certain kind of beauty in an almost euphoric way - it's worth a look, but make sure you see some real portraiture while at the NPG: as I left I caught a glimpse of the stunning Mo Mowlem portrait now on display, and was also reminded of the recently revealed, powerfully political Lucien Freud vision of our current monarch.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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