Sunday 7 September 2014

The BP Portrait Award

Gina and Cristiano by Isabella Watling, 2013 © Isabella Watlin
Picture: NPG
The annual BP Portrait Award has always one of the best shows in London, and it's been getting even better. The selection in the past couple of years has been more diverse and more to my taste. A few years ago it was rather slavishly following the fashion for photorealism. And fashion is the right word for much contemporary art - all branding and bling. The best portraits are stylish rather than fashionable. They reflect their times and react to new stimuli, but also embody a longer tradition. That's not to say that this year's entries were bland or uniform. Far from it; there is variety and diversity aplenty. There are some good photorealist paintings, but they no longer dominate the show. More pleasing to me was the diversity of ways that portraitists were drawing on art history.

When I saw Gina and Christiano by Isabella Watling, above, I immediately knew that she'd trained in Florence. She studied at the Charles Cecil Studios, which teaches a particularly recognisable style. Think John Singer Sargent and Carolus Duran. Lots of people think that's a strike against them, but many of these portraits are excellent. The greatest old masters turned out apprentices painting in the same style; they were supposed to be able to contribute to the master's output. I can look at these stylish portraits all day, but I'm soon bored by the ersatz originality of attention-seeking fashionistas. Watling's ambitious painting is quite splendid. And I was particularly taken by the wonderful dog. 
Picture: Patrik Graham
Patrik Graham is another artist who trained in Florence. His portrait Engels, above, is an accomplished classical painting, and a strikingly original image. Gareth Reid trained in Florence too. He contributed Northern Bather, another brilliant classically-inspired picture, drawing more on the clarity and light of early Renaissance artists like Piero della Francesca and also, I thought, reminiscent of classic early twentieth century art. These pictures seem never to win prizes, which is a shame. Judging panels want novelty, which seems to me as blinkered as the nineteenth century academic insistence on conformity. That said, I thought this year's winner Man with a Plaid Blanket by Thomas Ganter was very good, though I didn't care for the aggressively foreshortened legs that looked like a wide-angle lens shot.

Natalia Dik's Mother and Child is a superb harmony of yellows, but it doesn't reproduce well. You need to go and see it for yourself, but it really is one of the best things in the show. Next year the BP Portrait Award is allowing entries via photographs of paintings rather than sending originals. That's the right decision, making it easier and cheaper to enter. But I do worry that pictures like Dik's will suffer if they are reviewed only as photographs. And I fear that it may also favour more anecdotal portraits that are closer to illustration than to portraiture, because they often seem more striking in reproduction than in real life.  
Picture: Sophie Ploeg
Travel award winner, Sophie Ploeg, was one of my favourites last year so I was delighted to see the fruits of her travels in this year's show. The theme is lace. She used the travel award to study old lace and its depiction in art, and incorporated old lace in her own paintings that are on display at this year's exhibition.

This wonderful child portrait is part of her 'Four Ages of Woman' series. Child paintings often veer between twee sentimentality or merely small versions of adults. This one captures the tension between a child's vulnerability and unconfidence on the one hand and her incipient independence and individuality on the other. These elegant, classic pictures draw thoughtfully on art history without being pastiches.

I was also delighted that she's written a short book about her year's traveling and painting, combining art history with an account of her own artistic practice. There's lots of interesting background and useful bibliography, and comparative detail photos from artists like Isaack Luttichuys, Rembrandt and Frans Hals, which give a fresh perspective on their different talents. In future I'll certainly look more closely at lace in seventeenth century portraits.

BP Portrait Award, National Portrait Gallery to 21 September, Sunderland Museum 4 October to 16 November and Scottish National Portrait Gallery 28 November to 12 April

Sandy Nairne et al BP Portrait Award 2014 National Portrait Gallery 2014 £9.99

Sophie Ploeg The Lace Trail: Fabric and Lace in Early 17th Century Portraiture. An Interpretation in Paint Blurb 2014 £30

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