BP Portrait Award 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

The exhibition

The BP portrait competition is in its 38th year. This year it received 2,580 entries by artists from 87 countries around the world. The judges selected a short list of 53 portraits and these are on display at the National Portrait in London. (Entry is FREE so there’s no excuse for not popping in, even for ten minutes.)

From this short list the judges then selected a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize, along with a Young artist and Travel award. There are wall panels next to each painting giving some background to the artist and the sitter. The prize winners have an extra panel explaining what the judges liked about these particular works enough to award them prizes.

Undiverse

Even though there are exactly the same number of works as last year, this year’s exhibition felt somehow smaller to me. The overall standard is still immensely impressive – anybody would be proud to have painted any one of these works – but, taken together, there seemed a bit less variety than I remember from previous years.

For example, having gone round several times, I realised that in the 53 works there were only four black people and one Asian person depicted, plus one painting which showed a Syrian refugee mother and child. That appeared to be ‘it’ in terms of diversity – odd because art galleries are, by and large, hotbeds of political correctness.

The exhibition publicity emphasises that entries come from 87 countries, but you couldn’t really have told just by looking at them. The Syrian refugees were the only people who looked remotely ‘foreign’. And maybe a portrait of an old black guy who looks like he’s from the American Deep South.

So 1. The show feels overwhelmingly white and English.

Reading the wall labels about the artist and the sitter, I quickly got bored of reading that the sitter was a ‘friend’ of the artist and, more often than not, themselves a fellow artist, or writer, or poet, or musician.

2. The subjects were not only predominantly white, but overwhelmingly members of the white, liberal, creative & artistic community.

I began to find this white, middle-class, bien-pensant milieu a bit stifling. Where are the foreigners, the Africans and Asians and Latinos, the manual labourers, the working class, the immigrants – or the rich and arrogant bankers, the oligarchs, their helicopter pilots and security guards, the teeming multicultural masses of the modern United Kingdom and the other 86 countries who sent in entries? Not in this final selection.

The prize winners

This narrowness was confirmed by a look at the prize winners. Four out of the five are portraits of women (the fifth is of a boy). No men. And the judges’ comments on the winners were, I thought revealing. First prize was Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, a portrait of the artist’s wife.

‘The judges appreciated the tenderness and intimacy of Sullivan’s composition, evoking Madonna and Child paintings through the ages and the depth of the maternal bond.’

Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, 2017 © Benjamin Sullivan

Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, 2017 © Benjamin Sullivan

Second prize went to Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann (November 2016), another portrait of the artist’s wife.

‘The judges appreciated the artist’s refined and detailed technique, which adds to the subject’s sense of stillness, strength and serenity.’

Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann, 2016 © Thomas Ehretsmann

Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann, 2016 © Thomas Ehretsmann

Third prize went to Emma by Antony Williams (March 2016), a long-term sitter for the artist.

‘The judges felt that the artist’s intimate and distinctive technique lends the sitter’s form an almost sculptural density and solidity.’

Emma by Antony Williams, 2016 © Antony Williams

Emma by Antony Williams, 2016 © Antony Williams

The Young Artist award went to Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane (2017), another portrait of the artist’s partner.

‘The judges felt that this sensitive painting captures a moment in time and a casual, fleeting expression, rather than the ‘held’ pose more usual in formal portrait painting.’

Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane, 2017 © Henry Christian-Slane

Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane, 2017 © Henry Christian-Slane

So: the winners were four completely realistic oil portraits of white women painted by their husbands or partners, which demonstrate tenderness, intimacy, stillness, serenity, more intimacy and sensitivity. Pretty narrow set of subjects. Pretty narrow set of aesthetic values.

Even in terms of age the subjects all come from the same narrow range – white women in their thirties.

Very samey, don’t you think? Not really any of the ‘diversity’, a quality which London galleries normally bend over backwards to demonstrate.

Ones I liked

By contrast let me share some of the paintings I liked. (They were all paintings. I was disappointed not to see any sculptures or videos until I looked up the prize rules:

  • The work entered must be predominantly painted in oil, tempera or acrylic and must be on a stretcher or board, preferably framed and unglazed. No watercolours, works on paper or pastels will be considered.
  • The work entered should be a painting based on a sitting or study from life and the human figure must predominate.
  • Self-portraits and group portraits are permitted.)

Looking carefully again and again, trying to identify favourites and figure out why, made me really notice how very many of the entries are not just realistic but have a photographic realism.

1. Men

Tough though Honest Thomas looks, he is in fact not only a friend of the artist but an artist in his own right, who makes hand-crafted leather objects.

Honest Thomas by Alan Coulson, 2017 © Alan Coulson

Honest Thomas by Alan Coulson, 2017 © Alan Coulson

Delfin is a portrait of the artist’s father. This might be the only time I’ve ever seen those myriad little shaving cuts which are so common in real life, and which older men are particularly liable to, depicted in a ‘work of art’.

Delfin (1936) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2016 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa

Delfin (1936) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2016 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa

This is another portrait which could be a photograph and is immensely flavoursome. Matt is, as usual, a friend of the artist, and, as usual, is himself an artist, musician and actor.

Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon, 2016 © Martyn Burdon

Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon, 2016 © Martyn Burdon

Lucy Stopford’s portrait of Dr Tim Moreton is a rare exception to the photographic realism of most of the works. It is the only one which gestures to any of the twentieth century’s non-realistic artistic styles or inventions. I liked it for that alone. As to the subject, Tim was registrar at the National Portrait Gallery, arranged for Lucy to see a portrait which was not on display, and they became friends. In other words, another white art world insider.

Dr Tim Moreton by Lucy Stopford, 2016 © Lucy Stopford

Dr Tim Moreton by Lucy Stopford, 2016 © Lucy Stopford

There is a thread in post-war British art which depicts the human subject with a kind of unforgiving ‘honesty’, which focuses on the helpless humanity of the sitter and dwells on their pasty unattractiveness. Ideally the sitter is part undressed but not in the slightest degree sexual. Their state of undress emphasises the ‘candour’ and ‘honesty’ of the image. The image bravely captures their slack muscles, sallow skin, their pasty complexion and flaccid legs with an unflinching ‘honesty’. Generally, we are meant to be moved by the honesty and lack of glamorising of the subject. Oh, cries the painter – the humanity!

Lucien Freud was maybe the most famous exponent of this style, where the skin of white people is in fact a sour yellow interspersed with unhealthy green, the cruelly-exposed body is a thing of pallor and varicose veins. It amounts to a ‘corpse look’.

This portrait of Antonio Lopez seems to me slap bang in the middle of this tradition.

Antonio López by Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba, 2017 © Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba

Antonio López by Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba, 2017 © Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba

(And reminds me of the half-nakedness and deliberate green & yellow-coloured flesh tones of the prize winner, Breech! It’s a popular look.)

In fact this is a characteristic work in a number of ways:

  • the corpse look
  • photographic realism
  • close personal relationship with the artist – Lopez is one of Spain’s most renowned realist painters and the artist, de Aragon, was for some time his assistant.

And there’s one other aspect – see how grim the sitter looks. Not only does his body look dead, but so does his facial expression. The human face is capable of hundreds of facial expressions which we are quick to read and interpret. It was looking at grim Antonio which made me realise that none of the people in any of these paintings has any facial expression at all. It is an exhibition of zombies.

Here’s a portrait of Lemn Sissay who is, by now I was not surprised to learn, a writer and poet. It stands out in this exhibition simply for not being a portrait of a middle-class white person. The orange polo neck jumper and big necklace come from a different zone, a different tradition, as does his hair. The ensemble makes for a striking image.

Lemn Sissay by Fiona Graham-Mackay, 2016 © Fiona Graham-Mackay

Lemn Sissay by Fiona Graham-Mackay, 2016 © Fiona Graham-Mackay

2. Women

Simona is a friend of the artist’s. The painting of her has that deliberately frail, vulnerable vibe found in many of these portraits. Lots of women, across social media and the press, nowadays seem to regard wearing no make-up as a revolutionary and subversive strategy. #nomakeup. Which means my mother was a revolutionary subversive most of her life. The lack of make-up certainly contributes to the sense of vulnerability, to an air of plaintive helplessness.

Simona by Lukáš Betinský, 2017 © Lukáš Betinský

Simona by Lukáš Betinský, 2017 © Lukáš Betinský

This plaintiveness is there in the four award-winning portraits all of which show women au naturel. Maybe I’m making it up but there’s a kind of begging quality to this kind of unvarnished, vulnerable, un-made-up image of women – ‘Look at me, how fragile, helpless and vulnerable I am – but also how honest, how uncompromising’.

But mostly what I notice is how unsmiling this image is. I double checked to see if it’s against the rules to depict someone smiling but no, it’s not mentioned there. It must just be a very widespread convention, a feeling among all these artists, that a serious painting must look serious. That an artistic portrait must be unsmiling, unfrowning, un-doing anything. We live in an era of blank faces.

The subject of this one, Pen Vogier, is, as usual, a friend of the artist’s and, somewhat inevitably, herself a writer, a food historian and a bibliophile. The most obvious feature of the image is the sheeny, shiny yellow dress, rendered with the kind of bright, harsh, metallic finish which reminded me a bit of Tamara de Lempicka. Note the stern expression. Being a bibliophile is obviously a serious business. No laughs in these books.

Pen Vogler by John Burke, 2016 © John Burke

Pen Vogler by John Burke, 2016 © John Burke

According to the wall label the subject of this next portrait, Tabitha, is herself an artist (natch) who struggled with infertility. Tabitha won the Liverpool Art Prize in 2013 ‘for her work documenting her infertility and the eventual birth of Gilda.’ The painter, Hero, is a friend of hers who has also been working on ‘an ongoing artwork’ documenting the process of Tabitha’s pregnancy and the birth of Gilda.

So this is a portrait of an artist who has already won a prize for her portrayal of herself and her struggles, by her artist friend who has been short-listed for a national prize for this portrayal of the award-winning artist.

I am well aware that I am meant to be feeling moved by the sensitivity and candour of the expression on Tabitha’s face, and moved by the story of her battle against infertility, and moved by her eventual triumph, and moved by the figure of sweet little Gilda, nestled asleep against her chest. I have nestled my own little girl against my chest countless times. I know the feeling.

But I have a strong sense of being manipulated. The portrait’s ‘honesty’ and ‘candour’ are utterly conventional. This is the standard stereotyped modern look – stripped down, no make-up, quotidien female humanity in its tough pathos and unflinching vulnerability.

This ‘look’ is to our age what winsome maidens were to Victorian sentimental art – the standard identikit mood.

Tabitha Moses with Gilda, Liverpool by Hero Johnson, 2017 © Hero Johnson

Tabitha Moses with Gilda, Liverpool by Hero Johnson, 2017 © Hero Johnson

The ultimate way for an artist to paint someone close to the artist is to do a self-portrait. Ania is a self portrait of the artist. It records a period of artistic block. I like lines and abstracts so I ought to like the 45 degree orange floor, but for me any vibrancy is eclipsed by the moody misery-guts of the human figure, morosely pushing away the bowl of fruit. ‘I’m so depressed.’

Ania by Ania Hobson, 2016 © Ania Hobson

Ania by Ania Hobson, 2016 © Ania Hobson

Here’s a painting of a sulky teenager. As the owner of two sulky teenagers I recognise the pose and the vibe. It’s yet another stunningly realistic painting which could easily be mistaken for a photograph. The (anonymous) sitter is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

86 (Rhyming Slang for Worth Nix) by Janne Kearney, 2016 © Janne Kearney

86 (Rhyming Slang for Worth Nix) by Janne Kearney, 2016 © Janne Kearney

3. Children

Cecilia is a stunning portrait of the artist’s grand-daughter. Presumably she was told not to smile.

Cecilia by Madeline Fenton, 2016 © Madeline Fenton

Cecilia by Madeline Fenton, 2016 © Madeline Fenton

This is the winner of the BP Travel Award – Jack by Caspar White. Jack is the artist’s nephew. God forbid he should smile. ‘Look serious, boy. This is art!’ It’s very visible brushstrokes are a welcome change to the immaculately photographic surfaces of so many of the works.

Jack by Casper White, 2017 © Casper White

Jack by Casper White, 2017 © Casper White

4. Group portraits

I think there are only two group portraits in the show. Why so few? Group composition is, self evidently, more complex than just plonking one person down in front of you – where are they sitting/standing, what should they be doing, if something is going on what are their responses, their expressions?

In this case (Society, below), as in every single other portrait in the exhibition, nothing is happening and none of them are smiling or showing any flicker of expression.

And, as usual, it is a portrait of some of the artist’s friends, in this case from the Ruskin School of Art. It is also notable for including a rare depiction of a non-white person.

Society by Khushna, 2016 © Khushna

Society by Khushna, 2016 © Khushna

The Levinsons is (I think) the only other group portrait. It stood out visually because you don’t see this kind of chiaroscuro light anywhere any more, in our electrically-lit world. A 21st century family done in the style of Rembrandt.

The Levinsons by Rupert Alexander, 2016 © Rupert Alexander

The Levinsons by Rupert Alexander, 2016 © Rupert Alexander

5. My favourites

I had three distinct favourites. In this kind of show (like the Royal Academy Summer exhibition) I define a ‘favourite’ as a painting I’d actually like to own and can imagine hanging on my wall.

Corinne was one of my three favourite images, not because she’s black (a rare exception in the show) but simply because her face and hair create a different shape from the scores of other very samey, white people with white person hairdos. It’s no surprise that this is one of the exhibition posters and on the cover of the book of the exhibition – it is an exceptional and exceptionally vivid likeness. The combination of the round nose and forehead with the straight black quiff create a bit of tension and visual dynamic which is generally absent from most of the other paintings.

That said, Corinne is a musician and songwriter in her own right and, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Corinne by Anastasia Pollard, 2016 © Anastasia Pollard

Corinne by Anastasia Pollard, 2016 © Anastasia Pollard

Nikki was probably my favourite painting in the whole show – a stunningly realistic depiction of a woman I feel I know or have met and who is just about to start talking, who has a wonderfully appealing air of maturity and experience. I kept returning to this one. The pink top helps. The scraggly hair is a realistic detail. But it is the light glistening on her eyes and the just-parted lips which seduced me.

Nikki is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Nikki by John Borowicz, 2016 © John Borowicz

Nikki by John Borowicz, 2016 © John Borowicz

Jessica is another stunningly realistic image. I just found it overwhelmingly there. The light falling from the left, the shadow created on the wall and across her face. Also, on examination, the way her mild green top brings out the same green in the floral wallpaper behind her and the blue strands of the wallpaper bring out her blue eyes. The fineness of the little silver chain and locket. And when you look up close, the way the inside of her arms is pale while the outside is brown and freckled, like so many light-skinned English people. I found this really hauntingly beautiful. Absorbing.

Jessica is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Jessica by Laura Quinn Harris, 2017 © Laura Quinn Harris

Jessica by Laura Quinn Harris, 2017 © Laura Quinn Harris

Photographs

All the portraits are in oil and acrylic; none of them are actually photographs. But a surprising number of them looked like photographs. Apart from the one ‘modernist’ portrait of Tim Moreton, none of the works really acknowledged that there had been a twentieth century in art – Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Warhol, Klee, Schiele, the Expressionists or Surrealists, it was as if none of them had ever lived or left their mark on the art of the portrait. The only artist whose influence I could see was the livid flesh tones of Lucien Freud’s corpse-people. Other than that the strongest influence seemed to be the photograph.

I wonder if the super-powerful cameras everyone now possesses in their mobile phones are killing art. People will carry on painting till the cows come home. But Picasso wandered round Paris with Picasso images in his head. Paul Klee’s imagination was left relatively untouched to fantasise about his scratchy cartoon people. Whereas a modern person is bombarded not only by advertising hoardings, movies and TV, but by friends ‘sharing’ photos of themselves and the kids on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and a hundred other digital programs.

It’s not that we’re being bombarded with images – that’s obvious. And it’s not just that these tend to be images of the human face. My point is that we are being bombarded by photographically realistic images of the human face, and that this is having a corrosive effect on the human imagination.

As if the space to conceive of the human face and body in alternative ways, in unorthodox geometries or garish colours, is being systematically closed down. I don’t own a smart phone because I dislike their creeping invasion of people’s time and minds. They seem to me to be enforcing an insidious, creeping conformity of vision.

It’s just a personal speculation, but I wonder if smart phones are destroying the artistic imagination. I wonder if the ubiquity of their extraordinarily high resolution cameras is killing off any non-naturalistic ways of seeing the world and – in particular and as this exhibition has promoted me to wonder – of seeing the human face.

Conclusion

The National Portrait Gallery’s BP 2017 Portrait exhibition felt less varied than last year.

It felt overwhelmingly white.

With only one exception I can remember, the portraits are all highly traditional and realistic, many of them almost photographic in their accuracy.

Almost all the sitters seemed to be friends or family of the artist – and most of them were artists or musicians or poets in their own right.

What about the designers, engineers, doctors and nurses, electricians, builders, chefs, policemen, soldiers, sailors and candlestick makers which make up our society, the postmen and plumbers, the lorry drivers and checkout girls, the bankers and insurance brokers, the mortgage brokers and estate agents, the PR and press and communications and engagement officers, the school inspectors and bus drivers, the journalists and cameramen, the beauticians and masseurs, the personal trainers, the footballers and cricketers and rugby players and pentathletes, the carers and nursery nurses, the oil rig workers and tour operators, the civil servants and solicitors, the security officers and prison warders and social workers who live and work among us?

Not one is here.

Let alone the more obvious, politically correct categories like immigrants, people of all sorts of colour (Asian, Chinese, South American), the mentally ill, the disabled, the injured or disfigured, the flamboyantly gay or lesbian or trans…

Or just the flamboyant and theatrical and made-up and snazzily dressed, period – models and actors and Essex girls and lads on the pull and people who’ve had cosmetic surgery and ended up looking like fish – any one of the thousands of types and categories of weird and wonderful people who populate this wacky planet?

None.

What about depicting some of the 21 facial indications which scientists have recently tabulated and defined? Smiling, smirking, frowning, laughing, shouting, burping – expressing anger, surprise, happiness, fear, hate, disbelief, awe, respect, astonishment? Or actions involving the face like putting your hand over your mouth, over your eyes, picking your nose, cupping a hand to your ear, sticking out your tongue, closing your eyes, winking, staring, eating, drinking…?

Nada. Nichts.

From this exhibition you would deduce that the world is a white world populated entirely by artists, artists’s wives, artists’ friends, musicians, poets, actors and yet more artists, none of whom ever wear anything interesting or have any facial expressions. A world of unsmiling white zombies.

Beautifully depicted, many stunning works – but of such a narrow world. Minuscule. Microscopic.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. Wonderful post – what amazing portraits!

    Reply
  2. Jose

     /  September 11, 2017

    Fantastic review. Couldn’t agree more with the zombiefied whiteness comments.

    Reply

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