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Jennie Ottinger’s ‘Princess Series’ is a Perfectly Timed Musing on Diana—and Her Ex-Husband

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'Wedding Party Charles & Diana, 1981' by Jennie Ottinger. (Courtesy of Rebecca Camacho Presents)

The timing of Jennie Ottinger’s Princess Series is fairly astounding. This thoroughly absorbing exhibition of paintings documents pivotal moments in Princess Diana’s life—and it just happened to open the very same week that her former husband finally ascended to the throne. Once upon a time, she was supposed to be sitting next to him. As the rest of the world bears witness to the solemn pageantry of Elizabeth II’s official mourning period, Ottinger’s show is a pertinent reminder that the royal institution isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The full title of the San Francisco artist’s show is, amusingly, Bad Luck Dutch, Your Face is on the Tea Towels: The Princess Series. It’s named after the exact (flippant) phrasing that one of Diana’s sisters used when the bride-to-be wondered before her wedding if a marriage to Prince Charles was a good idea after all. The dark humor inherent in the title is a thread that runs through much of the artwork.

Jennie Ottinger’s ‘Your England Kindergarten, 1980’ shows Diana with two of the kindergarten school children she worked with before her marriage. In the image, she is wearing the infamous white skirt she was mortified to realize was see-through in the sunlight. (Courtesy of Rebecca Camacho Presents)

The paintings of The Princess Series, displayed in chronological order, reflect Diana’s life from the time of her engagement in 1980 to the year of her death, 1997. The images are based on news footage, official photography and photos torn from the tabloids. If you have even a passing interest in the life of Diana, most of them will already be familiar to you. The joy of the series is that Ottinger’s surreal renditions force us to look at those famous moments with fresh eyes and from new angles.

Ottinger’s work, on the surface, can appear akin to controlled chaos. But in The Princess Series, the blank spaces the artist creates, the faces she leaves void, the features she grotesquely distorts, all provide pertinent commentary on hierarchy. The arc of the show presents a tale of who matters and who doesn’t—who gets scrutinized and who gets to be a leering observer. (The wedding congregation depicted in Bride & Groom, 1981 is the stuff of nightmares.)

‘Engaged, 1981’ depicts Charles and Diana in one of their first public appearances as a couple. (Courtesy of Rebecca Camacho Presents)

There are plenty of delicious moments in the show to choose from, but Engaged, 1981, a depiction of Charles and Diana in their first appearance as a betrothed couple, is one of the most striking. Ottinger presents Charles with a facial expression that lies somewhere between a grin and a sneer. Diana wears a picture book smile and the background is made up of broad brushstrokes. It all serves as a powerful reminder that Diana was just 19 at the time of her engagement—a naive girl woefully in the dark about the gravity of her situation.

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Throughout, whether she’s dancing with John Travolta or looking forlorn at a banquet, The Princess Series manages to capture Diana’s essence while also questioning the world she found herself trapped in. The final image of Diana in the show is poignant: alone, mid-dive, plunging into the ocean from a yacht less than three weeks before her death.

Jennie Ottinger’s ‘Black Sheep, 1981’ depicts Diana alone and nervously looking over her shoulder at a polo match. (Courtesy of Rebecca Camacho Presents)

Spending time with The Princess Series in the very earliest days of King Charles III’s reign, it’s impossible not to ponder the gulf between Britain’s royal reality and the one the country was promised throughout the 1980s. Black Sheep, 1981 shows Diana, childlike but for a pair of red high heels—playing dress-up springs to mind—glancing over her shoulder while her husband plays polo. The subtext is that Diana is nervously looking around for Camilla Parker Bowles, just as she famously did when she walked down the aisle that same year. Viewing this painting the same week Camilla became queen in Diana’s place is a surreal and powerful experience, and Ottinger’s work, surreal and powerful regardless of context, more than meets the moment.

Jennie Ottinger’s ‘Bad Luck, Dutch. Your Face is on the Tea Towels: The Princess Series’ is on view at Rebecca Camacho Presents (794 Sutter St., San Francisco) through Oct. 22, 2022. Exhibition details here.

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