10th November 2000 at 00:00
Portrait painting always raises intriguing questions about the value of a work of art: does a portrait have to be a good likeness in order to be a good painting? Can a bad painting still be a good portrait? Or a bad likeness a good painting? Walking around the National Portrait Gallery's new show, Painting the Century, is like going to a party: you keep seeing people you recognise but can't quite put a name to.

The exhibition is based on the gimmick of choosing 101 portraits - one for every year from 1900 to 2000. At first it's the handful of villains that grabs your attention: Lenin in his peaked worker's cap, Hitler burning in hell, Mussolini trying to look imposing. Some familiar icons then sail into view: Andy Warhol's "Double Elvis", Richard Hamilton's picture of Mick Jagger's drugs bust, Margaret Thatcher in a blue cap and Bill Gates's face made up of banknotes.

What's outstanding about the exhibition is the sheer range of media on show.

It's also a good place to play Spot the Style: symbolism, cubism, futurism, new realism, surrealism and pop art all beckon from the walls. There are cartoons and videos, wooden blocks and collages. A feast of different approaches, Painting the Century is a powerful reminder of the vitality of portrait painting over the past 100 years.

At the same time, the show is not without its problems. Too many of the pictures are of people who were B-list celebs in their day and are now virtually forgotten; world leaders rub shoulders with ordinary folk. You can't escape the feeling that paintings have been chosen because they fill the right slot rather than because they are good paintings. As so often, the central concept (of having a painting for every year) acts as a constraint rather than a liberator.

Although the gallery's workshops are now booked up, Thursday evening lectures are being held in November. Students up to first degree level can also see the exhibition for the reduced rate of pound;2 if they book in a group two weeks in advance (runs until February 4 2001). Details: 020 7312 2483.

Although Italian film director Federico Fellini doesn't appear in Painting the Century, his legacy is celebrated by English National Opera, where the music from his classic 1954 film, La Strada, forms part of a triple bill. The ENO's La Strada has been created by Nina Rota from the score he composed for the film and is performed by 30 children, aged between nine and 19, from south London. They have been working with the Baylis Programme, run by the ENO's education, community and outreach team.

It's the first time that children from the programme have appeared on the main stage at the Coliseum. Dressed in 1950s streetwear, and tugging the bicycles and prams familiar from Italian New Realist cinema, the children's dance routine has no adults in it and is a glorious piece of street theatre. Part of ENO's ambitious Italian opera seson, La Strada is joined by the company's first staging of Luigi Dallapiccola's The Prisoner, as well as Luciano Berio's Folk Songs. In rep from November 17 to December 13, for five performances only. There will also be a live broadcast of The Prisoner on November 25 on BBC Radio 3. London Coliseum box office: 020 7632 8300; A street scene of a more traditional kind is the Lord Mayor's Show in London (see this week's Big Picture). This year, it takes place on November 11, and the Woolwich bank will once again be parading a float during the procession. This time, however, it will have been designed by pupils from Erith school in Bexley. Building on a similar project from last year, designer Jane Ripley and her team of professionals worked closely with a group of 16-plus art students, allowing six teams to submit their designs to the Woolwich, which has its head office in Bexley.

All the designs were of a high standard, colourful and professionally executed, and the one chosen - by Chris Gilbert, Dean Gray and Paul Gambril - takes as its theme a game show, complete with host and glam assistant, with children dressed to represent the way money flows through our society: plastic card, bank branch, WAP phone and Internet. With music devised by the Bexley centre for music and dance and drama students from Welling school, this is one float to look out for.

If this game show is not exactly a lottery, those of you who would like to gamble on the chance of owning an original artwork by Damien Hirst, Zandra Rhodes, Nick Park or David Bowie for just pound;35 should head for RCA Secret 2000, at the Royal College of Art on November 30. No fewer than 2,000 original artworks - in all media, from oil to crayon, and covering every subject, from a portrait of Tony Blair to colourful abstracts - will be on sale.

It's called "secret" because the identity of the artist will be revealed only after you've bought the work. So you may get a painting by a world-famous young British artist, but the chances are that it will be a piece by an RCA student who may one day be a household name. The money raised will go to the RCA's Fine Art Student Award Fund, and previews of the show start on November 22. Details: 020 7590 4186; As the annual Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (November 15 to 26) gets under way, there's a range of opportunities for young people to work with musicians and artists. The junior composers' scheme, set up last year and led by composers Colin Riley and John Cooney, is a non-competitive project which leads to a selection of students' work being performed. Other events showcasing the talents of pupils include It's All Greek to Me, based on Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera Greek, and Future Perfect, led by visual artist Kate Burnett and featuring storyteller Vayu Naidu. Details: 01484 425082; More reviews at

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