(National Portrait Gallery, London, until 15 September 2013)
Wilting slightly in the glorious heat, I popped into the cool halls of the National Portrait Gallery this lunchtime, to see this year’s BP Portrait Award exhibition. As ever it was an intriguing array of styles, techniques and concepts – some of which I liked, some of which I didn’t – and, as ever, I came away with a little collection of personal favourites.
Generally speaking the exhibition seemed to be a little more painterly this year, a little less obsessed with the dream of photorealism. In both 2012 and 2011 I wondered about the purpose of photorealist portraits in the modern world. Although I can’t help but admire these artists’ remarkable skill, I still prefer portraits which give the impression of having been executed directly from life, without making it too obvious that they were copied from high-res photographs. None of the prize-winning portraits really captured my imagination this year, and so I’m going to be focusing here on a handful of other pictures which impressed or amused me.
Let’s kick off with the image I’ve chosen to open this entry: the playful, technically excellent Heterochrome by Greg Kapka. I loved the use of the magnifying glass to throw the face off-kilter; moreover, it gives the impression that the sitter (the artist’s friend Fraser) is returning our scrutiny. Due to the cropping here, you can’t see the papers at upper left, but they include Kapka’s copy of a self-portrait by Fraser and an art quote written out in Fraser’s handwriting, as well as the glimpsed edge of the train ticket to London which Kapka had bought for the purposes of delivering the portrait to the judging panel. The trompe l’oeil is absolutely superb. Normally I don’t fall for this sort of thing, but I was convinced that the papers were loose, tucked into the frame, until I leaned right up to the surface of the painting; it’s all to do with a very clever flick of impasto at the lower right corners of the papers, and the darkening of shadows beneath. Wonderful stuff.
My other favourites included Daniela Astone‘s Self Portrait, which was very different from the other self-portraits in the exhibition. Rather than representing the artist up close to the picture plane, this large canvas placed a standing, full-length Daniela in the middle of an incredibly atmospheric hall, presumably her studio. Glimpsed around the sweep of a curtain, she stands in a very self-conscious, nervous way – she apparently isn’t used to painting self-portraits – staring out from under her hair with a mixture of challenge and vulnerability. I loved everything about this: the mood, the shadowy space, the timelessness of her outfit… it was a really haunting piece. It was about two metres tall, so unfortunately the small image I post here won’t do it justice. Then there was a more conventional self-portrait by Jamie Routley, titled Inner Dialogue, which nevertheless had another clever concept showing the artist glancing over his shoulder at us, while progressively receding away from us in a series of mirrors. It was an old-fashioned, Old-Mastery sort of picture, given a modern twist with its evocative loose brushwork and its air of spontaneity.
Finally, among the portraits, I was very impressed by Agnes Toth’s Drummond Money-Coutts: The Magician. I hadn’t previously come across DMC, as he calls himself, but I loved the portrait Toth has painted of him. Full of showbiz flair, it shows the magician from three different angles (a tribute to Van Dyck?), setting up his next card trick, and I admired the way that it manages to be very precise and accurate without trying to be slavishly photorealistic. The cool, subtle tones were very refreshing in a show where so much is highly-coloured, and I thought Toth did a great job of suggesting DMC’s smoothness and concentration.
I want to devote a paragraph to the Travel Award section of the show, because this year it displayed paintings of Japan by Carl Randall, whom I flagged last year for his picture of Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, Tokyo. Looking back, I’m rather miffed to see that I used the phrase ‘naive perspective’ last year, because I’ve got exactly the same thing written down on my notes for today. The more I see of Randall’s paintings, the more I like them. They’re quirky, fresh, stylised and very crisp. His figures are usually slightly elongated and he tackles perspective rather as Duccio did, conveying distance by raising the characters behind to a higher plane than those in front, without accompanying it with the expected recession.
His views of Japan combine sets of small, colourful canvases, focusing on different aspects of Japanese life, with a large monochrome view of a restaurant, Shibuya, in pencil and ink. In the latter, I particularly liked the view through the window of the restaurant, which gives us a glimpse of the crowds waiting to cross the road outside Shibuya station. With a miniaturist’s eye for detail, Randall has packed in all manner of urban tribes: women in traditional kimonos; modern business people; Goths; punks; girls in sailor suits; and young women in Western-style fashion. It’s a tantalising picture of Japanese culture and, even though I know next to nothing about Japan, I found it completely absorbing. Do spare the time to look at this little section at the end of the exhibition; and in fact Randall actually has another entry in the main body of the show, Shinjuku, Tokyo, which is another amazing large monochrome showing commuters bustling along at the train-station, absolutely crammed with jostling, individual faces.
The Grumpy Art Historian has also seen this exhibition, some weeks ago in fact, and you can read his very lucid and detailed thoughts here. I had forgotten, and was delighted to be reminded, that he also picked out Daniela Astone’s Self Portrait as a favourite.