Last week I visited the BP Portrait Award 2017 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Since I have exhibited in the show twice it holds a special place in my heart as it does for so many portrait artists around the world.
The exhibition is always widely reported on, talked about and debated amongst art lovers, artists and press, and can provide the selected artists with some real career lifts. On top of that the main prize of £30,000 is not to be sneezed at. But does it show the best contemporary portraiture has to offer?
The BP Portrait Award is an open exhibition; this means that any artist can submit their painting and a panel of judges will select the works that make it into the exhibition (for full rules please see the call for entries that goes out every winter). The judges’ panel has a few fixtures, such as the director of the NPG Nicholas Cullinan, BP UK Arts & Culture director Des Violaris and the contemporary art curator of the NPG Sarah Howgate. Three other judges change every year. This year they were Michael Landy (YBA artist), Kirsty Wark (broadcaster & journalist) and Camilla Hampshire (museum manager at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter). Knowing who the judges are should tell us something about what and how they have selected the paintings, and many artists try to second guess the judges’ taste, but I don’t think it will get us far.
Good, Green and Calm
The exhibition overall was good, green and and calm. It was good as most of the works on display were good paintings; they were skilfully painted, some were technically very impressive, and some managed to evoke some more emotional or mental load. I can’t say the show blew me away and I missed the wow-factor.
The show is quite colourful which I liked; the most used colour is green and blue which perhaps shows the preference of the judges or perhaps even the latest interior design or fashion trend. Green is clearly the colour to go for! These earthy colours and the lack of extremely large or surprising works made for a calm show. There were no shockers and few wowzers.
Some of them though….
Some of the works on show look like they are in the wrong medium. Instead of oil paint they look like they should have been executed in photography as a medium.
Some of the works on show I would consider a ‘joke’ which I cannot really appreciate, considering the competition going on to get into the BP.
Some of the works on display I would not consider ‘portraits’ (no matter how good they are as paintings) but it is clear that the term ‘portrait’ has no clearly defined boundaries and we can debate how far you can stretch it. The spaces on these walls are hard fought over and I am not sure the judges should use this occasion to debate the stretchiness of the term ‘portrait’. It is hard and interesting enough to just find the best portraiture in the world.
Some of the works in this exhibition show their clear inspiration taken from old masters. There are some very Freud-ian works, some Rembrandt-esque, some very Sargent-esque and so forth. I am not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing. I suppose it depends on how far the work is the artists’ own and not a study of a great master style. Those are fine lines indeed.
The Best in the World?
Is this the best portraiture in the world? That question is hard to answer. I would say no, it isn’t, as many great master portraitists do not even enter a show like this. There is also a clear but hard to define ‘style’ going on that other international portrait competitions have as well in their own way. But it does show great contemporary portraiture and by its international nature does a good job in making it as all encompassing as possible.
There has been some criticism in the press and on social media about the choice of the 3 prize winners. It has been mentioned that the prize winning portraits are all of women, 2 of which are (half) nude and 1 quite idealised, and they were all painted by men. I find this important as the art world is already full of male artists painting nude women in the name of ‘art’ and I think we should tread carefully into this age-old area of art where some mindset adjustments are vital.
I cannot agree that the winning pictures are ‘sexist’ in nature per se but in the show in general I do think that there is a hint of some gender bias going on which the judges should have been aware of and made a point of. Showing a woman’s breasts does not always evoke thoughts of human essence, nature and purity, no matter how innocently intended. There is simply too much cultural baggage to just ignore.
The winning paintings are beautiful and skilfully done. I have seen the works of Antony Williams and Benjamin Sullivan before and they are both true masters. They both have other works I prefer over the ones on display here, but I am in awe of their artistic skills and they are deserved winners. I did not know the work of Thomas Ehretsmann but the portrait of his wife is very lovely.
One of my favourites in the show is the portrait by Hero Johnson (she will win this show one day). To me, this is how you portray a woman. It oozes respect, intelligence, and pragmatism yet it is warm and protective. The painting is not ‘trying’ too much and is beautifully painted. Coming closer to read the label we learn that the sitter is a fellow artist, who has been struggling to have children and so this little one is a bit of a miracle. I think it shows fairly clearly this painting was created by a woman in that it approaches the sitter as a fellow human being first, as a woman second, and not as a sensual or sexualised woman. Her features are not exaggerated for art’s sake, nor are they idealised for feminine beauty’s sake. She looks like so many women I know and identify with, juggling a million things and living life to the full.
Paul P Smith
Another favourite was the portrait of Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament Norman Lamb, painted by Paul P. Smith. I love the colourful yet muted palette and the intense and pro-active look on his face. He looks like a intelligent friendly chap, great qualities to be able to translate into paint. The skills involved in painting this painterly yet realistic portrait are great and thoroughly appreciated.
Raoof Haghighi painted a portrait of a girl called Sarah and it gives me some Holbein shivers. This portrait is small yet exquisite and highly realistic. The high realism is not photographic; there is a definite painterliness in the slightly blocky shawl, the hint of the schematic use of shapes and colours. All these things are hard to point out exactly but give the portrait its own unique language. She looks at us with an open and friendly gaze, yet she is not easily fooled and always alert. I cannot help (Holbein lover that I am) but wonder whether it would have been even better with a plain background.
Right next to Haghighi’s painting is small window into worry and pain. This portrait by Brian Sayers oozes emotion and I love it for that. It is almost more of a portrait of emotion than a portrait of a person. I am not sure I know who Kane is, seeing this, except that he has some major worries. The retro style I find very appealing.
Julian Merrow-Smith, is better known as the man behind the ‘Postcard from Provence‘ blog on which he posts daily paintings that are all amazing. That man can paint. Fact. I love how you can see how skillfully he manages to move the paint around, to sculpt it into this face that looks at us with slightly inquisitive eyes. The loose brush strokes make this tiny little painting quiver with life and the fact it was all done on such a small scale makes it extra impressive.
Other favourites are by Bao Han (love the painterliness), Maryam Foroozanfar (a master of subtlety), Anastasia Pollard (skills), Alan Coulson (high realism yet no photo-realism is quite a feat. Nice website too), Richard Twose (very evocative portrait and love the dog), Henry Christian-Slane (slightly strangely angled portrait which is all the more expressive for it), Mustafa Ozel (yummy brush strokes), Iñigo Sesma (painterly, moody, blue…mmm), Laura Quin Harris (that detail! so subtle), Anastasia Kurakina and Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón (beautiful portrait of an amazing artist).
The Travel Award, which I won back in 2013 and showed in the 2014 show, was won last year by Laura Guoke, a Lithuanian artist who was brave enough to go and visit a refugee camp in Greece to record the situation and raise awareness. I absolutely love her project and her aims to show and share the situation there. I love that she chose a young volunteer as well as a refugee to show how we are all them and them us. It is a beautiful but sad project which is totally relevant and of today. I admire Laura for being able to put social and political issues in her work.. I only wish there is more of her project in the exhibition, as although her two paintings were large and impressive I would have loved to have seen more paintings and sketches to show us what life is like there. It puts all of our self- and children portraits into perspective.
I must add I love the fact that the National Portrait Gallery has put all the selected works on one page on their website and for each we can read the exhibition label. Great to see it all in one go and have access to a little bit more detail. If only we could be told the size of the paintings and also be able to enlarge the images it would be truly perfect.
The exhibition is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 24 September 2017 and will then tour to Exeter, Edinburgh and Sunderland. All information can be found on the NPG’s website.