BP Portrait Award 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery

I’ve been enjoying the annual BP Portrait Award for some years now (see previous blogs). Knowing what the exhibition is about, and what kinds of works it often celebrates, and so from this, I also ought to be able to identify what was distinctively 2011, new and groundbreaking, about this year’s selection…

Entering the usual National Portrait Gallery room, I saw something very usual. It wasn’t the sense l had the first time I saw a Tim Okamura in 2009, but with the models of 2010 featuring in 2011, suddenly his portraits feel too known. Too aged. As I continued on, by a few portraits in I had decided around one quarter I could identify as being the work of an artist I’d seen before, just by looking at their technique. I could recall where I’d seen it before and whose face had been replaced in a similar looking background. Oh.

The winner, ‘Distracted’ by Wim Heldens, I personally think isn’t as show-stopping as its title would suggest. In a gallery context, with its dulled tones, it isn’t exactly dramatic (is drama all we’re after, maybe not). Certainly it’s not so enigmatic when compared to the second-prize winner ‘Holly’. Where ‘Holly’ feels like it would be suitably set in a church whose worship is to classical art and the cult of beauty, ‘Distracted’ would be most complimented in a home, so maybe there I’d like it more. The painting depicts an unpretentious young man peering around a door with a pencil in hand. It would be in a home that the subject’s real presence, and thus the painting’s real presence would be felt.

Self-taught Dutch artists, Heldens was included in 1998, 2008 and 2010’s exhibitions. Could this have become about congratulating the artists on the journey they’ve taken over the years they’ve been included, and less the individual portrait itself? Are the judges just getting nostalgic as they track the lives and works of their favourite portrait painters? Is the prize designed to be about the artist or the painting? (I had thought the latter.) Is the real impression of this exhibition that the presence of the sitter or the presence of the artist greater and more worthy of reward?

Considering all this, ‘Holly’ by Louis Smith – a contributor in 2009 – is something quite out of the ordinary. And like nothing I’ve seen in contemporary portraiture, like nothing I’ve seen since… Da Vinci. Consequently, this painting has provoked quite some discussion. Disguised as an altarpiece, the content is…surprising. The nude ‘Holly’ is cuffed by her wrists to a wall, and thrusts her beasts out in full shameless exposure. The rocky wilderness provides no comfort, except for a flourishing white plant of hope. Suddenly style has come to the forefront of the show’s considerations, and the question: is the painting of a nude, or is it a portrait simply because it’s called ‘Holly.’

I also greatly approved of the BP Travel Prize winner. This, a grant given in advance of a proposed portraiture project, was wisely awarded to an artist who delivered. The wall-wide painting of a nudist beach in Corfu is one of a place yet it does remain a portrait. For, it doesn’t just include people, it brings together portraits due to the characterisation, individualisation and idealisation of people pictured.

I also enjoyed the variety across: the discotheque of a portrait of Boy George by Layla Lyons; ‘Venus as a boy,’ which was one of few to that tapped heavily into art’s history (and it still achieved surprising results); and ‘Six decades’ which triumphed in concept, execution, and impression, but despite this description was modest in size leaving us positively yearning for more.

And so I’m once again left questioning: is it the presence of the painting, or of the person the portraitist paints, that makes an award-winning portrait? What I could glean from this exhibition was that the presence most felt was that of recurring artists and their works. Though I still left with the images in my mind of many great portraits I’d seen there.

Pictured: Holly, and Six Decades

BP Portrait Award 2011 is at the National Portrait Gallery until September 18



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