BP Portrait Award 2018 @ the National Portrait Gallery

The BP Portrait Award is in its thirty-ninth year at the National Portrait Gallery and twenty-ninth year of sponsorship by BP. The competition is open to everyone aged 18 and over, from anywhere in the world.

From the 2,667 entries submitted from 88 countries, 48 portraits were selected to be put on display in the NPG galleries, where you can visit them for FREE. A few weeks ago the judges announced the winners of the first, second and third prizes.

In a commendable move the NPG has made all the portraits available to view online.

Thus you are as free as me to make up your mind which ones you like, and dislike, and to pick out trends or patterns.

Winner of the first prize: An Angel At My Table by Miriam Escofet, 2017 © Miriam Escofet

Winner of the first prize: An Angel At My Table by Miriam Escofet, 2017 © Miriam Escofet

White art for white people

Art is a middle-class, white activity. Some artists are, admittedly, lower-middle-class or working class. A handful are black or Asian. But for the most part it’s a white person’s game. Most art critics and scholars, for example, are comfortably white, professional and upper middle class. Think Andrew Graham-Dixon.

And the vast majority of gallery goers – as I can attest from the 100+ shows I’ve reviewed for this blog, and from the hundreds I visited before I started writing it  – are white, middle class and middle aged.

The white, professional orintellectual milieu of the art world comes over very strongly from the 48 portraits in this exhibition.

Sister by Zack Zdrale, 2017 © Zack Zdrale

Sister by Zack Zdrale, 2017 © Zack Zdrale

Conservatism

As does a powerful feeling of stylistic and visual conservatism.

Maybe it’s the format. Maybe, after 150 years of photography, films, TV and advertising have devised countless ways of presenting the human face in all kinds of formats and situations, maybe the sheer idea of painting someone’s portrait is intrinsically conservative and, well, a bit dull.

But the show reeks of safety and conformity. There are quite a few examples of breath-taking technical dexterity as in, for example, the staggeringly life-like Bertha (2004) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa.

Bertha (2004) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2017 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ocho

Bertha (2004) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2017 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ocho

But it is skill in the service of an essentially conservative, utterly realistic vision.

There is, in other words, a surprising absence of modern art in all the paintings on display. It’s as if van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso or Bacon had never existed.

Numbers

First, a summary of the numbers:

  • 48 pictures
  • featuring 62 people
  • 13 of whom are children
  • so about 49 adults
  • 27 of whom are women (55%)
  • 6 black subjects (12%)
  • 1 Chinese guy

Nationalities

It seemed to me there were more non-Anglo artists than last year i.e. it was a more truly global selection. Thus the three prize-winning entries were by a Spaniard, an American and a Chinese.

  • First prize: An Angel At My Table by Miriam Escofet (Spanish)
  • Second prize: Time Traveller, Matthew Napping by Felicia Forte (American)
  • Third prize: Simone by Tongyao Zhu (China)
Winner of the third prize: Simone by Zhu Tongyao, 2017 © Zhu Tongyao

Winner of the third prize: Simone by Zhu Tongyao, 2017 © Zhu Tongyao

Persons of colour

There’s a portrait of a Chinese guy, but no south Asians that I could see.

I’m not sure if there were any black artists. What was clear is that all (I think) of the portraits of black people were painted by white artists.

  • Portrait of Gifty from Shitima by Huey Glynn-Jones
  • A throne in the West by Massimiliano Pironti
  • Laura by Shawn McGovern
  • David by Robert Seidel
  • Miranda by Meghan Cox
  • Vincent Desiderio by Bernardo Siciliano
  • Portrait of Neema Tambo by Gaela Erwin

Which doesn’t stop some of them being the best things in the show.

Portrait of Neema Tambo by Gaela Erwin, 2018 © Gaela Erwin

Portrait of Neema Tambo by Gaela Erwin, 2018 © Gaela Erwin

But it only takes a smattering of critical theory, or politically correct-speak, to suggest that, on this showing black people are certainly allowed into art galleries – so long as they have been painted by white people.

Or to suggest that, in the act of painting them, white artists present a sedate, restrained, bland, mute and very passive image of black people.

Not consciously. Not deliberately. But it seems to be the cumulative effect of a) most of the artists being white b) most of the portraits being stiflingly muted.

Style

Almost all of the 48 portraits are figurative, covering a range of realism, from ‘photographic’ through a variety of more stylised approaches, such as the portraits of Francesca Hayward, and the children’s book illustration-style portrait of Laura.

Only a handful – six (12.5%) that I counted – were deliberately ‘experimental’ or modernist, in composition or style. And even these felt like only soft references to modern art. Or to art that had been and gone a hundred years ago.

Charlie Masson by Alvin Ong is very unlike most of the other straightforward pictures. But isn’t it a bit in the style of Edvard Munch, the Edvard Munch who had his heyday over a hundred years ago?

Charlie Masson by Alvin Ong, 2017 © Alvin Ong

Charlie Masson by Alvin Ong, 2017 © Alvin Ong

Maybe the best ‘experimental’ work is Ako by Nikita Sacha, a self portrait which aims to capture the blurred, faceless, heartless quality of our era of web-camming and skyping.

Not an immediately striking image, it is, though, if you focus on it for a bit, quite an effective depiction of the emptying effect of modern digital communications. You can imagine how a whole series of these would have an appropriately alienating effect.

Ako by Nikita Sacha, 2017 © Nikita Sacha

Ako by Nikita Sacha, 2017 © Nikita Sacha

Group portraits

I counted three group portraits, including a real monstrosity, The New Religion by Conor Walton.

The New Religion by Conor Walton, 2017 © Conor Walton

The New Religion by Conor Walton, 2017 © Conor Walton

Nudes

Just the one (female) nude. According to the wall label:

This self-portrait was painted by Güven as a response to moving from her native Turkey to live in the Netherlands. She says: ‘This new cultural environment, together with the natural surroundings, has provided a new dimension to my feelings and mode of personal experience. In particular, it has enabled me to freely experience my own identity more intensely and at greater depths.’

What this reproduction doesn’t capture is that, once you’ve got over her bare boobs and fanny, and the dark rings under her eyes… once you’ve got past the human figure – her rendition of twigs and grass and leaves are done in staggering realism. I took a while to look at the way every single twig and leaf had been rendered with pinpoint accuracy.

Slightly reminiscent – now I think about it – to the pedantic super-realism of John Everett Millais’s portrait of Ophelia – although the comparison brings out the lack of flowers in the Güven. And, on further comparison, also the stylisation of the face compared to Millais’s naturalism. Has she deliberately made herself look more Turkish? If you really look at the eyes and eyebrows you realise they have a simplified, stylised, cartoon quality.

Self-Portrait by Seçil Güven, 2017 © Seçil Güven

Self-Portrait by Seçil Güven, 2017 © Seçil Güven

Emotion

I noticed at last year’s show that nobody was smiling let alone laughing or, indeed, showing any human emotions at all.

Same again this year.

My friend said, ‘Don’t be an idiot, it’s hard enough getting someone to sit still for hours and hours in the same pose, let alone asking them to sit still for hours with a funny expression on their face.’

Maybe so. But, taken together, it still seemed to me that these 48 unsmiling portraits make for a very constrained, emotionless and, therefore, cold and unengaging experience.

A Throne in the West by Massimiliano Pironti, 2017 © Massimiliano Pironti

A Throne in the West by Massimiliano Pironti, 2017 © Massimiliano Pironti

Keeping it in the family

So there’s a definite lack of emotional diversity. But you could argue that there’s also a strong lack of social diversity, a thought which forces itself on you as you read the wall labels which explain who each sitter is:

The portrait is of the artist’s younger sister, Abigail.

The portrait is of the artist’s friend and studio-mate, Charlie.

The portrait is of Huang’s long-standing friend Chen Ching Ming

The portrait is of Tim, a long-standing friend of the artist.

The portraits are of the artist’s mother and brother.

The portrait is of the artist’s sister-in-law.

The portrait is of the artist’s brother, Tom.

The portrait is of the artist’s nephew.

The portrait is of the artist’s mother, herself an artist.

The portrait is of Vittorio, the artist’s colleague and friend.

The portrait is of Nicki, a model and friend of the artist.

The portrait is of the artist’s girlfriend, Verania.

The portrait is of Miranda, a performer, playwright, artist’s model and long-term friend of the artist.

The portrait is of the artist’s daughter, Ilea.

The portrait is of the artist’s friend Antonio.

The portrait is of the artist’s daughter, Bertha.

The portrait is of the artist’s son.

The portrait is of Vincent, a fellow teacher at New York Academy of Art.

The portrait is of Kelly, a friend and regular model for the artist.

The portrait is of the artist’s friend Mark.

The portrait is of the artist’s daughter, Maeve.

The portrait is of the artist’s son, Finn.

The portrait is of Forte’s friend Matthew.

The portrait is of the artist’s brother-in-law, David.

Again my friend said, ‘Don’t be an idiot. These people aren’t rich, you know. Who do you expect them to paint? The Queen? Of course they’re going to paint friends and partners and work colleagues and whoever is available and agrees to sit for them. Hence the popularity of the self portrait, where the poor artist can use the cheapest, most available subject imaginable – themselves!’

Yes. Maybe. But it still makes for a collective portrait of an overwhelmingly white, bohemian, artistic class, reeking satisfaction with all its liberal values and sympathies. The same class, in other words, as the visitors to the gallery. Everyone congratulating themselves on agreeing about everything.

Except that this isn’t the world. Not the real, big, complicated messy world, with its footballers and movie stars and bankers and buskers and Pride marchers and Notting Hill paraders and policewomen and ambulance drivers and nurses and doctors and lawyers and estate agents and plumbers and postmen and builders and decorators and shop assistants and chief executives and PAs and pilots and caterers and farmers and casual labourers.

It’s a world of friends of the artist and the artist’s son and the artist’s nephew and the artist’s mother. Who, in several instances, are themselves artists. Artists making art about other artists. Thus A portrait of two female painters by Ania Hobson. The wall label thinks this is ‘radical’, because one of the girls is wearing boots, thus subverting gender stereotypes blah blah blah. I think it couldn’t be more narrow and limited, because it is an artist painting two other artists and thinking this is somehow new or interesting.

In summary: I felt the absence, in the exhibition, of real social diversity. There’s one writer (Claire Tomalin), a ballerina (Francesca Hayward) and probably a few other job descriptions I’ve missed but, for the most part – it’s overwhelmingly a world of artists and their friends and families. A small world. A tiny world.

Moreover, hardly anyone was portrayed doing anything. No one is portrayed in a uniform or work clothes (except for a number of fellow artists in paint-spattered dungarees). No-one is in a factory or warehouse or at a desk or driving a car or watching telly or cooking food or standing by a bike or a canoe or anything at all interesting or active.

In fact, if I tabulate it, and if we exclude ‘sitting down’ as an activity, then the only human activities being carried out in the pictures are:

  • sitting at a laptop (Charlie Masson)
  • sewing (Patchwork)
  • sketching at a desk (The Oolographer)
  • doing something with biological specimens (the Biologist)
  • playing a lute (in The New Religion)

Maybe it’s this curious absence of human activity of almost any kind which contributes to the strange sense of limbo and deadness which the exhibition as a whole creates.

To end and sum up, here’s a wonderfully realistic painting, done with amazing technique, which I really liked. Its subject is, inevitably, a relative of the artist, in this case a portrait of the artist’s nephew. Andthe little boy in question is not doing anything at all – unlike most little boys of my acquaintance. But he is almost smiling. Which is something.

Found Albert Crouching in the Kitchen by Samantha Fellows, 2018 © Samantha Fell

Found Albert Crouching in the Kitchen by Samantha Fellows, 2018 © Samantha Fell


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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