REVIEW: Michael Jackson: On the Wall, National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery examines the life and career of Michael Jackson through the influence he had on contemporary art to great effect in this engaging and fascinating exhibition. 


I have to be honest when I say that I’m probably not the biggest fan of Michael Jackson in the world. I appreciate and respect his immense talent and could happily listen to his songs but I don’t feel I’m as half as devoted as millions of other people are to him.

But when Michael Jackson: On the Wall was announced, I did feel an immense curiosity about the National Portrait Gallery’s unique approach to celebrating Michael Jackson through his influence on contemporary art. What kind of art work would be on display? Would it be an exhibition that ultimately feel soulless and analytical?

The answer to the first question is that it is in fact just like Michael Jackson himself, the artwork on display in the exhibition is bold, brash and completely unique, with each artist featured offering an individual perspective of how they saw the singer. Not all of the work selected is a success (particularly the work featured in the second to last room) and can make the exhibition feel slightly messy, but it does still make for fascinating viewing.

Meanwhile, in answer to the second question Michael Jackson: On the Wall is certainly not soulless and in fact you leave the exhibition feeling a deep sadness at the way Jackson’s life was cut short – particularly  given the extent of his influence on popular culture for decades as well as leaving you wondering what else he could have achieved if he was still around today.


There are many impressive pieces on display throughout the exhibition, not least Graham Dolphin’s Thriller (x20) and Off the Wall (x25) pieces that puts together the album covers with the lyrics of Jackson’s song book – highlighting the immense quantity of music that the singer put out there.

Also impressive are David LaChapelle’s pieces ‘Archangel Michael: And No Message Could Have Benn Any Clearer’ and ‘American Jesus: Hold Me, Carry Me Boldly’ that seem poignant and moving – particularly given the level of respect that Jackson was given for his career that would make it easy to assume he was a saint and a martyr. This sense of reverence continues as clips of audiences enjoying themselves at his concerts and even touchingly at the end Candice Breitz’s video installation of Michael Jackson fans singing along to track by track recreation of the album ‘Thriller’.

But the piece that stood out for me was Jordon Wolfson’s piece ‘Neverland’ in which Michael Jackson’s eyes flitter around the screen, with the sound of water in the background highlighting the goldfish bowl existence that he lived after his rise to superstardom. A poignant, tragic and moving piece of work that gets you thinking about the price of fame.


But the one question that does spring to mind is does the exhibition effectively highlight just how influential Michael Jackson was on contemporary art? Yes it does in the sense that as an artist himself it makes sense that he inspired others to create the work we see here, depicting him in many different ways as well as his personal fascination with art. The way in which the exhibition uses the artist’s words alongside the work themselves offers an engaging insight into how they saw Michael Jackson as an influence in their own work.


The exhibition is a success because it not only showcases how influential Michael Jackson was on many people including artists but also the many different ways in which he inspired people.

Overall, Michael Jackson: On the Wall is deeply fascinating and engaging not only for Michael Jackson fans but for those interested in how the concept of fame and celebrity has a powerful influence on the world of art. Well worth a visit.

By Emma Clarendon 

Michael Jackson: On the Wall will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery until the 21st October. To book tickets click here

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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