Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: BP Portrait Award catalogue

Have you ever been to the National Portrait Gallery?

It's opposite St Martin-in-the-Fields church, just off Trafalgar Square, and is one of the nicest places to meet friends, dip in for a bit of art, then soak up a bit of London history and culture that drives droves of tourists to visit the city regardless of the time of year.

If you're a skinflint like me, the permanent collections are free. You can select by room or collection. The Tudor and Elizabethan section is my favourite: it's nice to see the faces of characters I've read about.

You can also pay a fee for one of the temporary exhibitions - currently showing Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance and Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.

The NPG runs an annual competition: the BP Portrait Award. They show the shortlist at the gallery each year where you can jostle with large crowds to catch a glimpse of the winners. I've always loved this - a hangover from studying art history at university where Modigiliani, Manet and Ingres produced some stunning portraits - so I decided to visit in summer 2010.

The first prize in 2010 went to Daphne Todd entitled 'Last Portrait of my Mother'. It is a painting of two adjoining canvases and is a haunting depiction of her mother on her death bed, looking cadaverous, to say the least.

The second prize went to Michael Gaskell's 'Harry': a strong, almost photographic view of a young man showing pride, youth and an underlying vulnerability.

Third prize went to the astonishingly hyperreal 'Tim II' by David Eichenberg. I hovered by this painting for a long time, trying to figure out if it was a photograph. The incredible detail was mind-blowing, showing technical and observational brilliance, particularly as it is set in a workshop (not your average portrait setting).

While I loved David Eichenberg, I didn't particularly warm to the other winners. The catalogue includes all of the shortlist; some 58 portraits out a total of 2,177 submissions. There is an introductory essay written by the novelist Rose Tremain. Through personal reflection she describes what it means to be a good portrait painter. It's a beguiling and modest view, what you would expect from an author of her genre and calibre.

These are favourites paintings from the exhibition, most of which don't totally lose their power when reproduced in a small exhibition catalogue.
  • Ciara by Alan Coulson (page 29): hyperreal was a watchword for this exhibition and this is no exception. The depiction of hair and freckles has you craning forward to check if it's a photograph or painted. I particularly love the downwards tilt of the head. The skin tone is beautifully set against the teal background.
  • Gillian by Miriam Escofet (page 37): reminds me Dutch and Flemish still life and portrait painting with the detail of the fur collar and gilt candlestick. Stunningly detailed.
  • Quena by Eliot Haigh (page 40): the chiaroscuro of this very modern portrait reminds me of Rembrandt, but with mid-twentieth century atmosphere.
  • Sandy Watching by Alex Hanna (page 42): anyone who's watched children watching telly will love this. A brilliant depiction of a child concentrating.
  • Sentinel by Lyndsey Jameson (page 47): Stig of the Dump? Lord of the Flies? In Peckham? You decide.
  • iBeats by Michal Ožibko (page 60): don't let the reproduction of this fool you. This is an EPIC painting. Hyperreal and photographic, the 2.2 x 1.7 metre canvas is a triumph of technical skill. The subject is totally immersed in her iPod world and has an ethereal, almost pre-Raphaelite quality (apart from the white earphones).
  • Chris, Art Critic by Fred Schley (page 67): if only because it reminds me of a former colleague (and it's got that same incredible photographic quality of some other finalists).

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