Why the Queen is the latest royal icon

George Condo’s 2006 painting Dreams and Nightmares of the Queen is grotesquely cartoonish and doesn’t really resemble the monarch – it was nicknamed The Cabbage Patch Queen for looking like those hideous squashy 1980s toys – but the hair and dresses mean one would guess who it was even without the title. It is the queen as an artist’s toy.

More recently, street artists including Banksy and Pegasus have co-opted his image. In an unusually apolitical and uncritical stenciled mural in Bristol in 2012, Banksy smashed Ma’am with fellow icon David Bowie via a Ziggy Stardust-style flash makeover. Meanwhile, Pegasus presented her as a pin-up girl, posing coyly in front of a pastelized Union Jack (is it remarkable that it’s in the colors of the trans pride flag?) on a North London pub door in 2015. Still, like many Queen appropriations, there’s a hefty dose of affection in these high-profile reimaginings. And these depictions are perhaps less about the queen herself and more about celebrating a certain irreverent sense of Britishness.

There’s cheekiness and affection in Alison Jackson’s photographs and films of royal lookalikes, too – titillating the viewer by seeming to suggest Ms Windsor likes to flutter at the betting office, take selfies with the little ones- children and sings on the piano. There’s a cozy humor to the suggestion that she’s just like us, after all – something her official portrayals certainly never achieved, or perhaps even attempted.

Even more mischievous – or cruelly provocative; take your pick – is the huge portrait of Kim Dong Yoo from 2007. What looks like a blurry or pixelated image of the queen turns out, upon closer examination, to be made up of hundreds of tiny hand-painted images of… Princess Diana. His title ? Elizabeth versus Diana.

This mention of Diana might lead us to the other thing that makes the Queen a pure visual icon: the fact that she’s probably the last in the line of royal icons. Diana would be the only other royal to come close, her adored and revered image still the subject of exhibitions over her looks – but her death was too tragic to really allow her face to be used as lightly as the Queen’s sometimes is.

As for the others…we know too much about Charles, William, Kate and the rest of the Royal Family to assume the Queen’s mantle in this regard. She may have retained her unknowability and dignity in an age of oversharing – but her family members are like reality TV stars, their every move documented and analyzed. We think we know them, their personalities and their flaws. Elizabeth II will surely be the last royal to be so well known, but so little known.

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