Michael Jackson, 1984 by Andy Warhol.
In her 1993 interview with Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey asked the alabaster-faced Afro-American superstar if he bleached his skin. No, he said. "And why is that so important? I'm a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had a chance to talk to him, I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is, not about who he went out with last night or why he decided to sit out in the sun for so long." It's the quote National Portrait Gallery director Nicholas Cullinan cites as he reflects on Michael Jackson: On the Wall, the exhibition he is launching on June 28, and a sentiment he echoes: "This is not about trying to dissect someone's life and character. It's about him as an artist."
Beyond the rhinestone glove and the gates of Neverland, Jackson was an immaculate conception: a black boy who morphed into a raceless and genderless alien creature, and had the world falling at his feet in spite of it. "His work and life seem very relevant now," says Cullinan. "All the discussions we're having about the politics of identity you can really trace back to him."
An Illuminating Path, 1998 by David LaChapelle.
Marking what would have been Jackson's 60th birthday on August 29, the exhibition comprises some 100 works of art depicting his many facets and faces, seen through the eyes of everyone from Andy Warhol to Grayson Perry.
Among them is the last portrait Jackson commissioned of himself, Kehinde Wiley's depiction of him as Philip II of Spain on horseback, after Rubens. Jackson often had himself painted as kings and archangels — easily brushed off as megalomania. "This is someone who grew up in a poor area of Gary, Indiana, in a two-bedroom house with eight siblings, who managed to transcend that," Cullinan argues.
Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson), 2010 by Kehinde Wiley.
In Johannes Kahrs's Untitled (Jesus Aged 43), Cullinan identifies a parallel between Jackson — accused of having a Messiah complex — and old-master portrayals of Christ. "For every stage of Jesus's life there are images, which show Him preaching or being a visionary, the suffering Christ, the tortured body, the dead-embraced Christ."
During Jackson's misconduct trial in 2004 (he was acquitted), Maggi Hambling created a painting from a photo of him outside the courthouse appearing "vulnerable and alone", juxtaposed with "the triumph" of his tiptoeing Florsheim loafers. The work was rejected by the Royal Academy after claims that other artists refused to be near it. "I'd like to think civilised people would see it as a painting of compassion," says Hambling.
Wind (Michael/David), 2009 by Isa Genzken.
Since his death, Jackson has largely been celebrated through pictures from the 1980s, pre trials and tribulations. "Anyone who is different is pilloried," Hambling reflects. "Why shouldn't Michael Jackson change the colour of his skin and dress as he did? This exotic soul, who was persecuted and misunderstood, and clearly a genius... It's a great idea to have this show and reinstate Jackson where he belongs: as an icon and a hero and an extraordinary human being."