London’s National Portrait Gallery Award is something I write about pretty regularly, and the reason is that it is such an excellent initiative. The annual contest has been running for 36 years (26 of these sponsored by the current sponsor BP who took over sponsorship from the tobacco company John Player), and ensures that portraiture remains a discipline that is practised, exhibited and judged. The Daily Mail has even dubbed the award ‘the Oscars of Portrait painting’.
The competition is open to everybody (this year there were close to 3000 entries — from 92 countries), and the final entries and winners are exhibited every summer at the National Portrait Gallery. I try to go and see the show every year, in the past I would take my offspring with me, but now they somehow manage to be (mysteriously) unavailable for outings such as these. So this year I saw the show with my old Uni friend Esteban who was visiting from the US.
I have to say that this year’s show was slightly disappointing. I’ve noticed that the emphasis, over the past few years, is shifting towards photo-realistic work — something which I don’t really understand as you’d think in this day and age we’d want paintings to look like paintings rather than like digitally detailed photo printouts. Then, apart from photo-realism, there is the question of judging: I really do not understand what led to the choice of this year’s winner — an unattractive triple portrait by Israeli artist Mtan Ben-Cnaann or of the runner up Michael Gaskell’s Eliza which looks like a sharply focused photograph. I did like the other runner up though — Spanish artist Borja Buces Renard’s striking portrait of his mother and brother — because it looks like a painted work and is very atmospheric.
Why so many beautiful and memorable portraits were overlooked in the awards selection is not really clear to me. But I do think the show this year was less about painting and more about graphics, photo realism and the ‘spiel’ presented with the painting rather than the image itself.
The work was also slightly grim; a very amusing review by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian noted that “this is a very intense exhibition” and notably devoid of subjects who smile. He also lamented the surfeit of sagging flesh, nude subjects and tattoos. I tend to agree with his assessment but do think that one of the positives of this year’s show was the presence of so many Spanish artists as they had a lovely traditional sort of style to their portraits.
Since the NPG also now runs a Photo Portraiture Award, I remain quite confused by this move towards photo-realism in portrait painting. I really do hope this abates now and we regard these images as paintings, as images of human beings, which tell us in overtly expressive or subtle ways about their outer and inner lives — and not as freakishly detailed works which make painted portraits look like photo prints.
After all, a great portrait needs to be more than just the sum of its parts…