The BP Portrait Award stands, a stubborn tidemark of traditional
skill amid the swift — and some would say shallow — currents of a
contemporary art scene. This, no doubt, is the source of its
fascination. Every year thousands turn up at the National Portrait
Gallery to take a look. They want to see something that they recognise,
to celebrate old-fashioned talent. And, let’s face it, what feels more
fundamental than portraying a person?
But how can this sort of
painting remain relevant in a world where photography has usurped its
role? Frequent visitors to the BP Portrait Award will recognise the
recurrent visual ticks. Here are genre-scene type confections
incorporating the paraphernalia of modern life from the plastic chairs
to the teenage bedsit guitars. Here are the objects that become metonyms
for character — the rings or the half-smoked fags or the clutched
Viewers can enjoy a broad range of styles, from the
flattering elegance of a contemporary Sargent, in which the
evening-dressed sitter slants, a dark diagonal, across the canvas, to
the full-on and brutally unforgiving passport-photo style piece. Too
often, works seem to have been selected because of the sitter. Here is
anyone from a flamboyant Boy George through a stern Glenda Jackson to
the rainbow-kitted jockey A. P. McCoy.
Where a few years ago this
exhibition would be overloaded with Lucian Freud followers attempting to
effect the impasto style by which he transubstantiates oily matter into
living flesh, this year photography sets the sternest challenge. How
can a painter compete with its accuracy or its snapshot authenticity?
Photorealism, for all that it might amaze with its meticulous technique,
is far too prevalent. Several artists even mimic its monochrome and
blurring of focus.
I liked Nathan Ford’s sketchy portrait — a head
like a matchstick that has just fizzled, flared and died. But skill of
the most traditional sort is what the selectors seem to have admired. A
firmly understated but deeply pondered portrait by Wim Heldens takes a
deserved first prize, while the second is stolen by out-and-away the
most eye-catching contribution: Louis Smith’s Holly, a vast Victorian melodrama in an altarpiece of a frame.
Portraiture, unable to discover its place in contemporary society, takes a rest on the laurels of tradition, it seems.
From tomorrow to Sept 18 (npg.org.uk)