A cheeky smile can get you pretty far in life, and even further in art. Just ask Mona Lisa, her semi-smirk has helped make her the most famous painting ever. That’s because that smile is enigmatic: we don’t know why it’s there or what it represents.
English painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye pushes that idea – the enigma of the portrait – to an extreme. In this huge show, her first major institutional exhibition in the UK, her figures smile and grin and frown and laugh, and we never, ever know why.
Partly that’s because every character here is imagined, every setting is made-up. Yiadom-Boakye creates these worlds, these people, and fills in none of the blanks. It’s up to us to try to figure it all out. What’s being said in the dark tension between the two women in ‘To Improvise a Mountain’? What’s being cheersed in ‘Songs in the Head’?
Yiadom-Boakye is a very, very good painter
And these are just the set pieces, we’re left even more adrift in figuring out the emotions of the straight-up portraits. It’s intense, absorbing, overwhelming – like being given a novel you desperately want to read, but in the wrong language.
It helps that Yiadom-Boakye is a very, very good painter. Thick and rough with the brush but just precise enough. You see nods to art classics: the intense humanity of Alice Neel, the amazing composition of Manet, the darkness of Goya. There’s the shimmering Degas orange of ‘Geranium Love Sonnet’, the deranged Vermeer energy of ‘Bound Over to Keep the Faith’, and on and on.
But every figure here is black. It’s like Yiadom-Boakye has reshaped art history in her image, swapped the endless white faces of the portraits of the past for a small handful of black ones. It’s a simple but brutally powerful move.
In a world full of opinions and hot takes, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye creates a universe with no answers, no end points, just a million stories to lose yourself in.