Founded in 1856, London's National Portrait Gallery is a place where the people in the pictures, not the pictures themselves, are what count. The museum's website explains: "The National Portrait Gallery was established with the criteria that the Gallery was to be about history, not about art, and about the status of the sitter, rather than the quality or character of a particular image considered as a work of art. This criterion is still used by the Gallery today."
That mission of biographical inquisitiveness and artistic apathy is grammatically odd, but it has endured. If you want proof, the NPG's traveling exhibition "Vanity Fair Portraits" opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It's dull.
An exhibition of 130 celebrity images by numerous photographers, it pays special attention to two: Edward Steichen from the magazine's original incarnation (1913-1936) and Annie Leibovitz from its reincarnation (1983-present). Why "Vanity Fair Portraits" is taking up valuable art museum space is anyone's guess. Steichen and Leibovitz are major celebrity photographers, but they are minor artists.
A presentation of 50 or so magazines in a display case lends a sleek commercial aura. And flat-screen TV monitors showing videos of magazine photo shoots are about as exciting as watching paint dry.
It gets worse. The show is also a collaboration between the NPG and -- Vanity Fair.
Conceived by the magazine's editor, Graydon Carter, it was co-curated by the publication's editor of creative development -- a masthead title that accrues new meaning in this disappointing context. Contributing editor and columnist Christopher Hitchens, a historian and political polemicist unknown as a photographic scholar before now, wrote the chatty lead essay, mostly a chronicle of his employer's brilliance. The entire undertaking is a sort of sequel to "Vanity Fair's Hollywood," a coffee-table tome published with much the same cast of characters (and many of the same pictures) in 2000. Apparently a decent interval has passed.
LACMA is the only art museum on the international exhibition tour. Like the or- ganizing institution, the other two are history museums (portrait galleries in Scotland and Australia) with similar extra-art criteria for the choice of their displays. More's the pity.
When mulling over whether to sign on to present this vaporous show, a bit of historical consciousness might have done LACMA some good. The original Vanity Fair magazine collapsed during the Great Depression. After a 44-year hiatus, it was reborn in the 1980s as a glittery reflection of the excesses celebrated in the Age of Reagan, then shifting into high gear. Now the show is opening in the United States just as that era is itself in full collapse, bumping to an exhausted, ignominious close.
"Vanity Fair Portraits" is a vanity exhibition, plain and simple. And that's precisely what our historic moment needs least right now, especially from a major civic art museum.
christopher.knight@ latimes.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times