National Portrait Gallery, London (16 June – 18 September 2011)
The first thing to say about this year’s Portrait Award is that the standard is very high. There are a few weaker pictures but generally the portraits are arresting and technically very impressive. I confess that I’m always drawn to intense close-ups of faces, which I feel really bring out a personality, and there were a couple of particularly striking ones in the show. One was Jakub by Jan Mikulka, which from a distance looks exactly like a photograph. Only at close range can you distinguish the brushstrokes and see the image dissolve into careful arcs of paint. It’s remarkable; and I was also touched by the sitter’s haunted, slightly sulky expression, which makes him look very young.
These technically brilliant painted portraits, in which an artist shows off his ability to execute a work with the verisimilitude of a photograph, do raise questions though. What is the role of photography in contemporary portraiture? And, on the other side of the coin, what is the purpose of painted portraiture in this age dominated by photography? So many of the portraits I saw at the Portrait Award had been executed, in part or in whole, from reference photographs. How does that affect the process of making a portrait? Does working from photographs pose less of a challenge to an artist’s ability, as he can work without worrying about keeping his sitter amused, or without consciousness of time restraints? Can you capture a person’s ‘essence’ more successfully and more authentically if they are there in person as you work?
Is it ridiculous to think that portraiture is about capturing some fleeting essence of the person represented? (And, if so, how does one account for the fascination that portraiture exerts on us?) And, since photography can so capably fulfil the need to record the true appearance of a face, shouldn’t painting seek to explore other ways of representing a person than simply through a hyper-realistic souvenir of their appearance?
I’m playing devil’s advocate, of course. Anyone who knows me will be aware that I admire artists who are able to set down a realistic portrait on canvas. But realistic doesn’t always have to mean polished, smooth and perfect as a photographic print. Moving on to the winner of the Third Prize, Just to Feel Normal by Ian Cumberland, I found a superb example of this. Cumberland did use reference photos in the latter stages of his work, but he began by painting directly onto the canvas, which has somehow given the work added punch by suggesting that the artist is exploring as he goes – it’s not already laid out for him in a photo. His sitter has a strong personality: his cocksure swagger and self-satisfaction radiate off the canvas, but at the same time draw you in. I bet this guy would be a fun drinking companion down the pub.
My personal prize for wit goes to Ohh! by Cayetano de Arquer Buigas, which is a wry comment on the relationship between artist and model. His model, Sara, catches sight of the portrait the artist has been painting of her – a sprawling, blue, Picasso-style nude. Her shocked recoil is captured very well and the whole thing practically sums up the naturalistic vs abstract debate. Just perfect.
Here I have to pause slightly to humbly note a small disagreement with the judging panel. I wonder why they decided to award First Prize to Distracted by Wim Heldens. This is not to detract from the portrait’s quality, which is naturally very good. But, for me, it doesn’t particularly stand out from the others. It is a little drab and doesn’t have anywhere near as much wall-power as the Second and Third Prize winners display. Moreover, the gallery have hung it rather apologetically at the end of one of the dividing walls of the exhibition, in a very modest position. It’s possible to walk right by it without noticing it.
The same cannot be said for the Second Prize winner. Holly, by Louis Smith, cannot be accused of lacking wall power, nor of being drab. It is presented in a 4m high frame, with Corinthian pilasters at each side, a Classical entablature above and full gilding. It takes up the entire height of the wall at one end of the gallery, which is one reason it draws so many eyes. There may be another reason. The setting is a vast cavern, which opens onto a bleak landscape with rocky pinnacles rising up against a grey sky; in the foreground, flowers and grasses cling to the crevices of rocks. It looks as if Louis Smith has been paying close attention to Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks.
But here, instead of the Madonna and Child, you’re faced with a life-sized Titian-haired beauty shackled to a rock with a red mantle draped precariously over her hips. Technically it’s excellent. The very smooth painting of the figure is contrasted by the vigorous treatment of the rocks in the foreground, where craggy impasto has been laid on thickly. The label compared Holly’s pose to that of Prometheus, but for me a far more obvious analogy is Andromeda: a waterless Andromeda. But, impressive and eye-catching as the picture is, should it be here at all? Isn’t it a history picture, rather than a portrait? Where do we draw the line? Another question to ponder…
The final portrait I want to single out was one which appealed to my inner geek. Jade (The Rehearsal) by David Eichenberg is simple but very effective. The ‘sitter’ (who stands, incidentally) dreamily looks beyond us, just skirting our gaze. Her costume is the aspect of the portrait which intrigued me most: a gorgeous, steampunk-goth ensemble of leather, velvet, buckles, worn denim and metal studs. With her jade-green dreadlocks she looks as if she’s just stepped out of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. The roundel format and monotone background are both clever compositional devices which focus the eye on her; as I said, simple but fascinating.
I would be remiss if I concluded without mentioning Paul Beel’s Epic Mirtiotissa, which is one of the entries which has had the most press attention. It’s certainly quite an achievement: a four-panel panorama of a Greek nudist beach. Technically it’s very good. But – call me old-fashioned, prudish, virginal; as you please – I just find it very difficult to be faced with such uncompromising and brutally honest nudity. So, while I can appreciate that it deserved to be chosen for the exhibition, I don’t quite feel comfortable with it. Naturally, in the far room of the exhibition where it occupies a whole wall, it has a constant court of curious admirers. Why not pose one final question: when does portraiture become voyeurism? Should there be a difference? I make no judgements on the matter. What I will say is that this is, as always, a treat of a show; and it’s free. Pop in and take a look: there’s bound to be something or someone that catches your eye.