The BP Portrait Award 2010 at the National Portrait Gallery

My opinion is that portraits have the greatest potential of all the genres to be masterpieces. This is a visceral view of mine, yet for Kenneth Clark it is easily theorised, ‘[certain] portraits are masterpieces because in them a human being is recreated and presented to us as an embodiment, almost a symbol, of all that we might ever find in the depths of our hearts.’ It is the art that reaches into us that has the lasting impression of greatness, and this is how I’d separate my hot-tipped from luke-warm. Though it is very true that each individual will relate to a painting differently, for example the winning Last Portrait of Mother by Daphne Todd, will speak deeply to those who have been faced with this grief, I believe that some portraits, are so blatant, so universal, that the power of its expression crosses boundaries.

Perhaps the most memorable of the exhibition was the striking and surprising, Le Grand Natan by Daniel Enkaoua that absently greets you upon turning the corner to it. The painting is one that evokes energy of the imagination. It is compositionally somewhat empty, but its impression has great brooding breadth. It imprints upon the memory and reawakens the past in a most mysterious way. The child, with feet of a giant, revives memories of shaken moments from The Orphanage. And so it is even more intriguing as a piece when you discover that four year old painted, Natan, is the artist’s son who insisted he be painted the largest possible, as though imposing adulthood upon himself.

There is just one thing that bothers me about portraiture from the last decade: intentionally inaccurate perspective that serves no purpose at all. Did Wendy run out of canvas space in Mary (The Visit V), determined to fit in the (to be true, nicely painted) tiles of the fireplace, and so have to put everything on the squat, like a home-made passport picture that doesn’t fit the ratio of your railcard? Quite what is the point of its extremity in Love Painting – Portrait of my wife Jackie, and our cat Amy, Redbrick Mill Studio by Tony Noble – why inflict upon your viewers that queasy feel of vertigo? Perspective is a great tool in which creativity can be explored to effect. It has the power to altar our perception of a situation, such as the masterpiece Lila Pearl by Thea Penna. In viewing, there is a transferral of emotion from the artist, to her painting, to us. The artist looks down on her child who is boxed into the corner, vulnerable, in the same way the mother resembles due to her responsibility – she feels exposed, watched, and disquieted herself.

Modern portraiture has developed in a fair number of directions, and the BP portrait prize each year celebrates these equally. It is a great opportunity to assess, like the Frieze Fair or the RA summer exhibition, the movements within an annual period. Though I believe this exhibition to be the best opportunity of them all, due to its specialised focus, and competitive status: you are thus able to judge not only what is being created, but what is most valued from that which has been produced.

Pictured: Le Grand Natan, and Lila Pearl

BP Portrait Award 2010 is at the National Portrait Gallery until September 19


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