Wednesday, 6 August 2014

A quick look at the BP Portrait Award 2014

Finally getting round to publish a short post on the yearly BP Portrait Award Exhibition, now open at the National Portrait Gallery in London. This is one of the most competitive open exhibitions in UK with, this year, about 2400 entries.
The jurors have a vast choice for picking the exhibitors: only two paintings in a hundred make it to the walls of the gallery.

   Every selected work has all the reasons to be there and they are all very good paintings each in their own merit. I wanted to write about the selection as a whole and how the show generally looks.  I wonder if the presence of Jonathan Yeo in the jury has influenced the judging process overall as the exhibition looked more homogeneous than in previous years. 

   Most of the paintings can be classified as belonging to realism and photorealism. The “BP Big Heads” (over-sized close up portraits that have made a constant appearance in the show) have returned this year, but aside from those, most of the paintings on display are within a range of more tightly rendered works from photos to more “painterly” ones but still strongly rooted in realism.

    Probably as a consequence of the realism there is a distinctive lack of colour in the exhibition. Walking in the gallery I felt as the dreaded banning of cadmiums in Europe, that is tragically looming upon artist’s heads, was already in place.
It isn’t only the “classically” trained artists (it occurred to me in a recent conversation that a more accurate definition would be post-neoclassically trained), who normally don't use a very chromatic palette, but also among artists from different countries or schools there is a predominance of tonal paintings, earthy skin tones and neutral backgrounds (with exceptions of course), and pure colour basically appeares when there is an object or garment that is more chromatically saturated, when it is in fact a local colour. Matisse's portrait of his wife wouldn't have a place in the selection, to be clear.

   Another constant of the exhibition is that the sitter matters. Before the opening of the show the NPG released a video in which one of the jurors, the writer Joanna Trollope says that it wasn’t too difficult to see which portraits were about the painter more than the sitter.
 I like portraits that are equally about the painter, about the relationship among the two, about the artist’s vision of the world; however I felt that there are several paintings chosen either because of the celebrity status of the sitter or because of their quirky fashion sense, so works in which the sitter's identity is the most relevant element, and the criterium mentioned by Trollope doesn't seem to have had much of an impact on the selection.

To simplify the eternal painter's dilemma between form and subject ( who do you love more, mummy or daddy?) I ask myself, when considering a portrait : what if this was a photo of the same sitter in the same pose ? What does the fact that the portrait is a painting adds to the work, how is painting integral and essential to the piece?

Mumble, mumble


Dennis Spicer said...

I visited earlier on in the year, a rare occurrence as I am usually not in London at that time so cannot make comparisons with other years re colour. I too tend to pay only brief attention to the gimmicky ones and ones of celebrities or well known people and tend to go toward those that show a balance between painterly qualities and an expression of the personality of the sitter. The brush marks are in a way the personality of the artist I feel and the colours used. But as always I feel that there are too many photo derived pictures and you can go round and tick off the generic styles that get in each year, for instance the artist alone in the garret picture, the confrontational nude self portrait, the hyper detailed every pore visible portrait, etc. Still, apart from that I enjoyed it for the gems that stood out.

Ilaria said...

Great categories... :-))