BP Portrait Award @ the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery has been holding an open competition for portrait painters 37 years. This is the 27th to be sponsored by BP. As the press release says, ‘Selected from 2,557 entries by artists from 80 countries around the world, the BP Portrait Award 2016 represents the very best in contemporary portrait painting.’

Of the 2,557 only around 40 portraits have been selected to be shown in the three exhibition rooms, and it’s free, so it makes an interesting, undemanding 40 minutes or so of strolling round picking out whatever takes your fancy.

My impression was that this year’s crop is better than last year’s. Maybe I felt like that because so many of them were conventional, some of them very conventional, homages to late Victorian realist style, almost copies of, for example, the burnished, sensuous realism of John Singer Sargent. There is a limit to what can be done with portraits, at least this selection suggests so.

I’ve heard friends complain that nobody does traditional, good old-fashioned oil painting any more. This crop of work suggests the opposite – plenty of artists are doing good old-fashioned oil painting.

I liked:

I didn’t like any of the first, second or third prize winners, and was amazed at the wetness of the work which one first prize.

But I do agree about Petras by Laura Guoke winning a prize, the ‘Travel Award’. This is a big piece, 1.48 x 2 metres and quite stunningly realistic, looking just like a photo, super-real. The thing that really impresses is the use of blurring to make the body look further away, while the hairs on the hands are done with hyper-real intensity. Breath-taking.

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