This month, up until 10 March, the Scottish National Portrait gallery is hosting the BP Portrait Award. Originally organized by London’s National Portrait Gallery and already running for the 39th year in a row, this competition aims to encourage artists to develop portraiture in their works and is considered to be the most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world. This year the final exhibition includes 47 works by professionals and amateurs selected from 2,667 submissions.
The exhibition is interesting to view at first in the context of other displays in the gallery. All the exhibitions interplay and fascinate by making the viewer stop and fully devote their attention to the person – the main subject in the portrait genre. At the same time, a journey from Victorian portraits to more contemporary ones, encourages the viewer to rethink how the way we view people has changed over the centuries. From being exclusively devoted to the noble, great personalities in earlier centuries, the focus of the portrait today turns to ordinary people in their environments. The award nominees feature portraits of parents, children, a biologist with his specimen, a stressed student before his exams, and many others, and the distance between the subject and its observer decreases.
More than that, through their works the artists reach beyond the person. The portraits encourage their viewers to think about topics such as migration, war, climate change and disability through their very human side. Another recurrent theme among the selected works is the relationship between parents and children. Curiously, some works become a medium through which the authors explore or capture relationships with their beloved ones; one artist, by painting her 17-year-old-son, wants to have time to wonder “what’s going on in that adolescent brain?”, while another captures the last hours of his father’s fight with cancer.
Although at first sight many works seem truly photographic, a closer look at them reveals how the artists attempt to both reflect, and play with, reality. This duality is an especially charming feature of the selected portraits – and perhaps of the genre overall. It is particularly playfully revealed in Miriam Escofet’s An Angel at my Table – the winner of the award. A sensitive portrait of the author’s mother, it surprises and captures the viewer with the moving figure in its corner, which adds surrealistic quality to a very realistic work.
Finally, the exhibition seems to challenge the boundaries of the portrait genre. Some of the selected works do not even display the faces of the subjects, or include only parts of their sitters – such as Derek. I Am – a painting of an eye that belongs to a boy with learning difficulties. And yet such works blend gently into the whole display and succeed in revealing both the subject and the broader theme. This makes the viewer ask – what, then, is a portrait?
All this makes the BP Portrait Award a true celebration of the portrait genre with its charming versatility – and definitely an exhibition not to be missed.
Image: Gary Campbell Hall via Flickr