Most find it hard enough sketching a piece of fruit, let alone using oil pigment to paint a sitter in such a way that the resemblance between the work of art and its subject is uncanny. Portraiture dates back over five thousand years, yet it is easy to forget that before the invention of photography paintings, sculptured works or hand drawings were the only way of capturing the individual. Over the centuries the painted portrait increasingly came to embody wealth, prestige and status. The flemish Northern Renaissance artist Jav van Eyck earned his place in the canon of art history for his commissioned portraits of merchants, bankers and elite couples. One only need venture into the National Gallery and study his masterpiece The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) to appreciate his technical genius and the symbolic power of portraiture.
The current BP Portrait Awards 2017 bears witness to the continuing impact of painted portraiture as an artistic form. It is the awards’ 38th year and BP’s 28th year of sponsorship. With the addition of the Next Generation project, which aims to inspire 14-21 year olds through the art of portraiture, the programme continues to actively support international and emerging artists of all ages. 2,580 entries from over 87 countries were meticulously scrutinised and whittled down to the selection that is now on show to the general public until September 24th. This year’s winner, Benjamin O’Sullivan, secured the award for Breech! (2017), a portrait of his wife breastfeeding their 3 month old child; nonetheless it is difficult to comprehend how the judges were able to single out first, second and third prize, such is the diversity of works on offer.
The breadth of approach and technique is what makes the show so captivating and informative. Take Brian Shields self portrait, Archipelago (2016). In this medium sized canvas painted with gel and acrylic, the sister is turned away from the viewer and framed against a mirrored background. It is an unsettling work, challenging convention by combining both portraiture and the self-portrait within one work of art. The viewer is faced with their own image in the mirror as well as the back of the sitter, whose white t-shirt and shaved pale head create a jarring effect. Placed next to Archipelago as a counterpoint is The Lesions (2016) by Charles Cecil, a Florence Academy of Art Graduate, Rupert Alexander. This is a recognisable form of portraiture, in which a family gather round a previous commission by the artist that is placed upon an easel within the classic studio setting.
The moods evoked by the works on show are as diverse as their approach to the genre. In Fiona Graham McKay’s Lemn Sissay (2016), the social commentator and poet jumps out of the canvas as his eyes and endearing smile follow the viewer around the room. By contrast Daniel Coves Blind Portrait (2017), the first front-facing portrait the artist has made in many years, feels sterile. His female subject is seated in what appears to be a silk throw, staring expressionlessly into the foreground, her posture reinforcing a sense of loss, despair and emptiness, as does the bleak environment, she inhabits. Ultimately the work projects a strong sense of loneliness and isolation, which is emphasised further by the single glass jar that stands alone, framed by the sitter and chair.
The technical brilliance of so many of the exhibits is a testament to the talent on show at this years BP Portrait Awards. This in no way detracts from the quality of O’Sullivan’s intimate winning portrait and is further reflected in the strength and skill of the runners up; Thomas Erthsmann’s Double Portrait (2016), Anthony Williams Emma (2016). Portraiture enables us to view people through the eyes of another, and to understand history through the lives of those who shaped it or who were subjects of the world that took shape. Being granted the opportunity to win £30,000 along with a commission and the significant publicity that accompanies such a prestigious event within the annual art calendar can only be a positive in the campaign to support international contemporary artists.
BP Portrait Award 2017 is at the National Portrait Gallery from 22 June to 24 September.
Words: Lara Monro
Editor: Emma Bourne