Review of the 2010 BP Portrait Award at London’s National Portrait Gallery
The question of whether or not photography has robbed the painted portrait of its reason for existence has been fiercely debated almost since it’s invention in the nineteenth chest surgeon London century. Photography contributed to the decline of figurative painting, and figurative portraiture is now perhaps the least fashionable type of art with modern art critics. Whilst the public flocks to the BP Portrait award at the National Portrait Gallery every year, the critics from most of the national papers don’t even bother to review it. Those who do wonder in print what the point might be of those portraits in which every clothing fibre, every vein and even every hair pore is faithfully reproduced, which tend to dominate this competition and take home the prizes. This is a shame, as amongst the hyper-realist images which actually mimicked photography to the point where they exhibited ‘blurred’ backgrounds (for example the second prize winner David Eichenberg’s ‘Tim II’ or ‘Sentinel’ by Lyndsey Jameson) there were some interesting works on display.
Granted the majority of the works still handle the paint in a fairly conventional way, but you often have to admire the beautiful way they do so. There are two excellent portraits of children – Alex Hanna’s ‘Sandy Watching’ and Thea Penna’s ‘Lila Pearl’ – which manage to convey an unsentimental yet acutely sympathetic sense of childhood through their formal construction. In particular Hanna’s work displays lovely muted colours reminiscent of the Danish artist Hammershoi. In this work his son is depicted in profile sitting alone on a sofa watching a television which is off-canvas but suggested by the blue glow reflecting back on him. Just returned from his first day at school and in a new school shirt, the portrait implies his move away from the security of the home by an architrave behind him, subtly implying an open door. Penna’s portrait of her daughter Lila similarly captures the child’s vulnerability by the use of an overhead perspective which seems to trap the little girl in a corner, defiantly looking back from behind a toy chest. Every notch and line of the wood of the toy chest is carefully observed, suggesting a child’s familiarity with every aspect of their familiar toys and possessions.
A truly exquisite little portrait that must be admired for it’s sheer virtuosity is ‘Geneva’ by Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco. Completed in one day and with its limited palette of reds, blues, pinks and black it manages to convey so much yet so briefly, in an absolute minimum of broad brushstrokes. The painting is of Geneva Rosett-Hafter, a professional dancer who has sat for del Turco on several occasions and del Turco perfectly captures her elegance and delicate beauty. The painting’s profile (side) view that deliberately excludes the viewer was apparently inspired by Italian Renaissance profile portraits where the head is placed following geometrical principles. Perhaps it is this contrast between the upright and formal pose and the fresh modern paint handling that’s so appealing.
Many of the portraits, seemingly aware of portraiture’s inability to escape from it’s label as an old-fashioned genre, played deliberately with different traditions of the historical portraits. For example ‘The ‘Finger Assisted’ Nephrectomy of Professor Nadey Hakim and the World Presidents of the International College of Surgeons in Chicago, or, The Wise in Examination of the Torn Contemporary State’ by Henry Ward, mimics Rembrandt’s very well-known painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaes Tulp’. It shows Professor Nadey Hakim performing his pioneering new procedure.
Mark Jameson’s ‘That Sinking Feeling’ is a playfully humorous, modern take on the traditional ‘memento mori’ portrait which sought to remind the viewer of the temporality of existence and urged them to guard against worldly vanities. Set in the Paris catacombs the artist is depicted in leather jacket, self-consciously smoking and drinking against a backdrop of skulls and bones, the artificial light reflecting sepulchrally on his own face.