The Mask of Youth review – Mat Collishaw's spooky audience with the Virgin Queen

The Guardian
The eyes of the latest portrait of Queen Elizabeth I follow you around the room. No, they really do. Mat Collishaw, the former Young British Artist – not so young any more – is having a second life as Britain’s most intelligent creator of digital art. His hyperrealistic mask of the Tudor queen comes to life, whirring and grimacing, to shock visitors in the shadowy former royal chambers of the Queen’s House. As the days darken, the effect will get spookier. By Halloween it should be eliciting shrieks.
The Virgin Queen’s dark eyes dart around nervously. Her mouth opens as if to speak but she cannot find the words. She is dazed by a future she can’t comprehend, a robot ghost staring in horror and doubt at her own painted image – Collishaw’s undead death mask has her eyes fixed on the Armada Portrait, painted in 1588 and a treasure of the Queen’s House after being meticulously restored. Pale-faced and encased in jewels, with her fingers touching the New World on a globe as she contemplates Britain’s imperial destiny, the woman in this painting is the regal embodiment of stout British resistance to an attempted continental invasion. Phillip II of Spain, the most powerful European ruler of the day and widowed husband of Elizabeth’s Catholic sister Mary, thought he could sail in and seize this sceptred isle. But Liz and her dashing sea dogs had other ideas.

The prosthetic mask and the metal mechanism behind it are suspended in a mirrored recess, so when you look at her troubled expression, you also see what she can see reflected in the mirror around her. The Armada Portrait shows Elizabeth I as a young woman, the pearl-skinned Faerie Queene. In reality, in 1588, she was 55. Collishaw’s techno-portrait shows her as she might have looked at that age, without the flattering deceit of the anonymous artist.


It is unsettling to see a figure from history bemused by her own image. Collishaw meditates not just on age and youth – his Elizabeth is about the same age as his YBA generation is now – but the macabre side of portraiture itself. His rubber-faced queen has been decapitated: she has lost everything but her face. It lends a new literalness to the old idea of a portrait as the “head” of someone famous. Though the Tudors were not sluggish when it came to chopping off heads: Elizabeth I’s mother, Anne Boleyn, lost hers to a royally commanded axe; Elizabeth herself ordered the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots.

October 2, 2018
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