(National Portrait Gallery, London, until 23 September 2012)
Once again it’s time for the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition. These shows are always popular, partly because they’re free and partly because it’s part of human nature to be fascinated by images of other people. You find yourself trying to tease out the stories behind the portraits, to judge the character of the person represented, or the relationship between artist and sitter.
Sometimes, of course, artist and sitter are the same. One of the works which I found most interesting this year was a self-portrait: Today you were far away, by Ian Cumberland. His paintings obviously speak to something in me, because I picked him out last year as well: his portrait of a friend, titled Just to feel normal, won third prize in 2011. This year’s large-scale self-portrait showed Cumberland full-face, staring out of the canvas. His expressionless face is depicted with relentless honesty and, once again, there was a fascination with the texture of the skin, marking out each pore and bristle. What captured me, though, were the purplish, almost bruised hollows under each eye, which gave him such an air of weariness and vulnerability. The portrait shows us a man who has come through a lot, who has suffered, but who is still standing. It was so simple, but it fascinated me. It’s a face you could weave stories around.
First prize this year was awarded to Aleah Chapin, whose portrait Auntie shows a close family friend who has known her since she was born. Unlike last year’s winner, which I felt didn’t really stand out from the crowd, this definitely deserved the prize. It’s an affectionate and sympathetic picture: it manages to be unusual, eye-catching and daring, while still giving a powerful sense of the sitter’s warmth and humanity. Chapin says that she wanted to tell the story of Auntie’s life through her skin, and with soft brushwork she conjures up the thin crinkles on Auntie’s arms, her crows’ feet and laugh-lines. The pose is easy and natural, and Auntie looks as if she’s just about to tell a really wicked joke, with a sparkle in her eye and the hint of a smile. I bet she’s great fun. In an age when the media are feeding us increasingly unrealistic images of the older woman, it’s commendable that the NPG have chosen to celebrate the glorious reality.
Carl Randall’s picture of Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, Tokyo attracted me with its deliberately naive perspective and monochrome tones; there was something of Edward Hopper about it. Apparently Randall specifically set out to explore the contrast of sociability and urban isolation that you find in places like this, and I think he’s done an excellent job. If I were being difficult then I might wonder when a composition stops being a group portrait and begins to be a genre scene… but fortunately I’m not inclined to be difficult today, so I’m simply going to enjoy Randall’s vision of modern city living for what it is.
Another sensitive portrait was Joachim by Nathan Ford, a portrait of the artist’s little boy. Around the edges it is very sketchy but as your eye moves inwards, the likeness coalesces until you reach the child’s eye; it has the sense of something prone to dissipate at any moment, like metal filings temporarily drawn together by a magnet. At the risk of sounding too arty, I wonder whether Ford’s technique was inspired by a desire to somehow show the mystery and mutability of childhood. He has certainly captured something of Joachim’s character. As I stood admiring the portrait, a woman beside me said to her friend: ‘When that little boy’s all grown up, this picture will be a better reminder of what he was like than any photograph.’ She’s absolutely right.
This is a fine example of something less accurate being more authentic. I spent some time wondering about realism in my post on last year’s competition, and this year I noticed that there seemed to be many more traditional portraits and a greater tendency towards photo-realism. But, if something looks exactly like a photograph, how far do we applaud that as a sign of the artist’s skill? Don’t we instead tend to dismiss it as just a copy of a photo; a cheat, in some way? Eavesdropping on some of the comments in the exhibition, that seemed to be the case. If something was too polished and perfect, people didn’t engage with it; they regarded it with suspicion. So perhaps, like the weaver of an Islamic carpet, a painter has to be careful not to be perfect, for fear (ironically) of seeming inauthentic? An interesting problem… Speaking for myself, things feel more ‘authentic’ if there are imperfections. If something is too perfect, it loses its soul.
I should note, in conclusion, that the exhibition catalogue, which reproduces all the portraits on display, is only £8.99 and (unlike most other catalogues) is conveniently handbag-sized.