thu 25/07/2024

BP Portrait Award 2013, National Portrait Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

BP Portrait Award 2013, National Portrait Gallery

BP Portrait Award 2013, National Portrait Gallery

It's popular and it's always worth a visit, but a portrait award is an oddity among art prizes

BP Young Artist Award: Owen Normand, Das Berlinner Zimmer (The Berlin Room)

One is increasingly struck by the oddity of an annual portrait prize, or at least I am. Imagine an annual still life award or an open competition for a major prize for abstract art. And imagine how formulaic and stale that would soon become. How many variations of a photorealist table laden with grapes or half drunk glasses of wine could you put up with? Or just think of all those coolly two-tone geometric canvases that’ll come pouring in.

So it’s not just that portraiture was for so long an unfashionable genre, or at least not that alone, that’s had the critics all sniffy and dismissive over the years. To restrict an open art prize to genre rather than form is surely asking for trouble. Cliché becomes unavoidable. We see it in the over-life-size canvases depicting flesh so bruised it’s on the point of putrefaction, or in the noble head of a proud and stoic African woman who stares into the middle-distance, or in the self-portrait of an artist multiplied by some mirror trickery.  It’s not that they are so bad in themselves, but the clichés build up.

It’s more than a competent winner, but the Neel references probably do it few favours

This year’s exhibition is certainly no worse than previous years and a whole lot better than some, though I’m not sure how surprised one should be - given the winning entries are chosen by one panel - that the three winning paintings appear remarkably similar. It's as if the judges knew exactly want they wanted to find before they saw it. This doesn’t suggest that any of them were open to having their ideas jolted about what makes a good portrait. Perhaps that admits of a certain complacence. 

There’s something distinctly Alice Neel-ish about the winner of the first prize, Susanne du Toit’s portrait of her son Pieter (pictured below right): its graphic contours, the slightly stiff bearing of its subject squeezed into a chair that barely accommodates him, the acid-sharp colours.  It’s more than a competent winner, but the Neel references probably do it few favours, for Neel’s characters appear larger than the canvas, so to speak; her portraits are fraught with meaning and replete with ambivalence – are the sitter's nervous or annoyed, content or bored?

Susanne du Toit, PieterLime-green seems to be a favoured colour this year. It provides the backdrop for all three winning paintings: in John Devane’s runner-up The Uncertain Time (see gallery below), a large horizontal canvas featuring three awkward adolescents busy looking preternaturally awkward, as adolescents in paintings often do, and in Owen Normand’s (Young Artist Award) Das Berliner Zimmer (The Berlin Room) (main picture), which is, in fact, a rather arresting, tender and subtly lively close-up portrait of a young woman, the paint loose and buttery, and with one half of the sitter's face deep in unmodulated shadows.

There are a number of well-known faces this year, too, which fits well with the original remit of a national portrait gallery, but which now suggests how uneasily portraiture fits into the contemporary painting canon, if one can be confident that such a thing exists. National portrait galleries are about the celebrity of the subject, rather than a celebration of the work of the artist. Here we have Emeli Sandé, Alastair Campbell, Philip Glass and Noam Chomsky.

Daan Van Doom's black and white Glass comes to us via Chuck Close, but with none of Close’s pore-deep scrutiny. The Vaseline glaze takes the edge off an imposing presence, and the lively ferocity of Close’s portraits, which Doom cites as a major influence, is subdued. That may also be said of the soft-focus Alastair Campbell, by Paul Anthony Barker (see gallery below), but in this case it's doubly amplified. On the other hand, Barker does capture a certain veiled vulnerability, which is a feat.

One very kitsch portrait looks to be a bad joke, but probably, sadly, isn't. David Nipo is an Israeli artist whose subject is his agent (see gallery below) Ronald Fuhrer, of Tel Aviv (Fuhrer must get sick of the raised eyebrows). In his big fur-trimmed coat and theatrically cruel gaze, there is something gaily SS about him. One is almost reminded of Mel Brooks and The Producers. If only one could see the jackboots and the stockings.

Fisun Guner on Twitter

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