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The Narcoleptic Tradition

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The National Portrait Gallery has just unveiled its portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, formerly Kate Middleton. The picture follows loyally in the narcoleptic tradition of royal portraiture, where the sitter gives every impression of having taken a cocktail of Valium and Reader’s Digest. Paul Emsley, who painted it, worked mainly from photos, demurely colouring in sleeves over the bare arms in the original snap and adding dark bits to Kate’s chin. His sitter’s gioconda smirk gives little clue that she knew what was coming.

For more expressive royal paintings, we Belgians need look no further than the works of Delphine Boël. As her homepage tells us, Boël is ‘known for creating multimedia artworks overflowing with colour, texture and humour’. She isn’t kidding. The site shows Boël, arms splayed, in a multi-coloured striped dress on an equally vibrant acrylic-spattered canvas. Its online portfolio showcases her vibrant canvases, neons and sculptures. One of the sculptures is of a giant toddler dressed in Elmer-the-Elephant check, passing green urine, Manneken-Pis style, into a beer glass. Boël’s work relies heavily on text: in one piece, a Belgian tricolour bears the legend ‘don’t ask how sausages are made’; a neon installation flashes ‘Love Child’. The motif ‘blabla’ recurs frequently, often in pictures, but also as a chunky gilded stand for a coffee-table. One of her acrylics, in cerulean, bears the acrostic ‘Fornicate Under Consent of the King’; more bluntly, a diptych announces: ‘Fuck you I exist.’

Aficionados of the Belgian art scene may wonder if her claim to be known for these things stands up; at any rate, the Saatchi gallery asks upwards of $10,000 a go for its Boëls, including some of its blablas. What’s beyond dispute, though, is that Boël, born in 1968, is also known as the illegitimate daughter of King Albert, who wasn’t enthroned at the time, but was already married to the now-Queen Paola. An 18-year-old schoolboy blew the gaff on Delphine’s existence, already a secret de Polichinelle, in 1999, and as her activities show, Boël has refused to be silenced, despite having apparently been brushed aside by the king when she tried to make contact with him. The facts now linger in public limbo, openly known but quietly ignored. The same fate, alas, probably doesn’t await Emsley’s picture.

This post was revised on 15 January.

Comments on “The Narcoleptic Tradition”

  1. Keith Claxton says:

    Revise the post. Remove the comments. Oh dear, self censorship at the LRB.

    So, come on Glen – were you got at? Did you suddenly develop a Middle England sense of good taste and propriety? Did the LRB receive an overwhelming number of complaints about you using Kate Middleton and ‘Male to Female Transgender’ (or was it Transsexual?) in the same sentence?

    No, I know! Two words: Julie Burchill!

    According to wikipedia Glen Newey’s work focuses on among other things ‘the ethics of deception in public life’ and ‘freedom of speech’. So, grist for the mill, I guess.

    • Glen Newey says:

      No, all this has happened without my involvement – in fact I’ve only just seen that the comment about Kate’s resembling a male-to-female transsexual has been pulled. I don’t know whether the LRB received negative comments directly about that. I haven’t – though I think there have been a few remarks on the Twittersphere.

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