Sunday, 23 June 2013

BP Portrait Award

Picture: Evening Standard
I don't see nearly enough contemporary art, partly because my heart is in the past, and partly because I so heartily dislike the 'official' art promoted at places like Tate Modern and Art Basel. Even the BP Portrait Award had become deadened with tedious and repetitive photo realism, to the point where I didn't even go last year. But today I was heartened by this year's award show. There were some really good pictures, and even many of the less successful portraits were still interesting.

Take Ewan McClure's Self Portrait, pictured above. The thick impasto, broad visible brushstrokes and bold highlights speak to a tradition reaching from late Rembrandt through Lovis Corinth and Lucien Freud. McClure hasn't slavishly imitated. He's used a red ground, visible where he's scratched through the red paint, in contrast to the red highlights added at the end by Rembrandt. It's a bold an innovative attempt at a technique that's tricky to get right, but it's not one of my favourites. In great artists like Rembrandt and Hals the outward form of broad and seemingly random brushstrokes depicts the substance of solid three-dimensional forms. McClure's picture doesn't fully capture the recession of the cheek, and the highlights reflect light rather than personality. It's still an interesting picture, and much more rewarding than the superficial virtuosity of photo realism. 
Picture: BBC
Paul Oxborough's Ved Mehta (above) is an accomplished portrait that stands out for its intrinsic quality, without trickery or self-conscious engagement with history. Ved Mehta is a writer I greatly admire. I especially commend his book of interviews Fly and the Fly Bottle: Encounters with British Intellectuals. 
Picture: FAOA Blog
My two favourites don't reproduce well, but I urge you to go and have a look at Daniele Astone's Self Portrait (above) and Sophie Ploeg's Self Portrait with Lace Collar (below). These two pictures really stood out for me. Astone's large self portrait is wonderful. On a technical level, it's superbly painted. But it's also an extraordinary image, a large but vulnerable figure set in an eerie studio/stage - Watteau's Pierrot for our times. Ploeg has beaten the photo realists at their own game. This painterly picture captures surface and texture much better than a camera, but above all it's an arresting portrait. I want to see more of Astone and Ploeg. 
Picture: Sophie Ploeg Blog
There were other pictures that I liked less, and some that I didn't like at all. But for once I'm going to accentuate the positive. I'm aware that part of my excitement is from confounded expectation of mediocrity. But I think that some of the critical comment that I've read about this year's BP Portrait Award arises from unrealistically high expectations, comparing a selection of portraits from a single year against the curated highlights from a thousand years of art history. Sometimes there is an emphasis on trickery to cover up a lack of technical ability, and I want to return to write more about the tragic diminution of art schools today. The loss is real. But this exhibition shows that some artists have risen above that, and there are some fine pictures in this show.  


  1. Thank you....much appreciated.

  2. Thanks for the heads-up: I can't wait to go and see this for myself - I always enjoy it!