03 July 2011

Portrait Award 2011

National Portrait Gallery entranceway mosaic, 14 June 2011 
In my last week in London I made a point of paying one final visit to the National Portrait Gallery, because the free exhibition of the BP Portrait Award 2011 had just opened. It’s always interesting to see what the judges regard as highly skilled work, just as it is for the Photographic Portrait Awards presentations at the same gallery. Certainly, the three top award-winners displayed a strong command of the painter’s art, and I admired the skill that went into the works, but the chosen winners struck me as interesting choices. They were definitely impressive in that they depicted their subjects with talent and painstaking effort, but the relative conservatism of the prize winners left me wondering about the place of modern portrait painting in an age where portrait photography (which I admit, I generally prefer over painted work) is so much more immediate and can be every bit as expressive a medium as the more deliberate, time-consuming art of painting. Perhaps it’s the sheer bloody-mindedness in clinging to an old-fashioned artform that we should celebrate.

All three of the winning paintings pleased the eye and showed impressive ability with the brush. The winning portrait, ‘Distracted’ by the Dutch artist Wim Heldens, was a worthy but rather unassuming head-and-shoulders male portrait that was clearly well-executed but I struggled to see what was particularly special about it. The runner-up, ‘Holly’ by Louis Smith, at least had a certain ‘wow’ factor: the Guardian described it, rather accurately, as 'a naked woman handcuffed to a rock wall waiting, with rather striking calmness, for an eagle to come down and eat her liver'. It combined a sweeping canvas, an ornate mock-antique frame and a neo-classical semi-nude reclining sylph adopting one of the traditional nonplussed, recumbent poses so beloved of Victorian and earlier artists, who adored dabbling in classical and Biblical references just as long as it meant they could paint plenty of scantily-clad artists’ models. Ian Cumberland’s third prize winner, ‘Just To Feel Normal’, had the most character of the top three, imbuing the raddled, over-red face of a dropout with a simple, endearing humanity.

Of the other portraits on display, there was the usual selection of paintings that appealed, paintings that weren’t to my taste, and paintings that I failed to see the point of. I particularly enjoyed Daniel Fooks’ ‘quintych’ – five portraits of the Scottish actor Peter Capaldi (‘The Thick of It’, ‘In The Loop’) – and Edward Sutcliffe’s picture of actress and MP Glenda Jackson, both of which made great use of the character lines in their subjects’ well-lived-in faces. Finally, there was Raoof Haghighi’s ‘Take Me Home’, which was either a cryptic and poetic artistic statement or, more likely I think, just a self-portrait of an artist on his sofa, wearing a silly hat. A small measure of how seriously the artist seems to take himself is the quote attached to the painting, in which he claims the artwork tries to delve into ‘identity and personality that go beyond the scope of the mind and self-realisation or liberation’. Alert Pseud’s Corner immediately!

The free Award exhibition runs until 18 September.
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