Portraiture loses its contemporary relevance

For 25 years BP has sponsored a major exhibition showcasing innovations in painted portraiture from across the globe, each deemed to be the best of “contemporary portraiture”: this is the fifth year it has been shown in Edinburgh at the National Portrait Gallery. However, despite the prestige of the £30,000 award, which is granted to one of over two thousand submissions, it leaves you questioning the significance of such a subject in today’s art world.

The shortlisted entries range stylistically, from the hyper-realistic to the expressionistic, standing as a testament to the versatility of painted portraiture. The first artwork seen on entering the small gallery is an enormous, above-the-shoulder portrait of Tony, a friend of Serbian artist Jelena Bulajic. There’s great detail in the image, with verisimilitude to every wrinkle. His eyes stare down at you and are extremely expressive: it is a wondrous thing to look at.

However, there seems to be little more than a semi-illustrative nature to this work and the exhibition, albeit at times invoking great emotion. This is highlighted in the captions displayed alongside the paintings, noting the artist, who the sitter is, where they sat and how long the painting took. Nothing more meaningful is discussed. You could argue that, when seen as a whole exhibition, the BP Portrait Awards is a portrayal of the human condition, showing individuals’ little quirks, but this is perhaps a rather self-indulgent mode of representation. The artist paints his mother, or her lover, or a stranger, for the curiosity they stir in themselves. This is not at all a negative purpose for art, but it keeps the said art in a circle of narrow influence and impact.

The winning work, by Thomas Ganter, depicts a homeless man with a blanket to protect him from the cold. He sits in a full frontal pose with a dramatic gold leaf background, much in the style of a pre-Renaissance religious icon, elevating the subject to a sense of great dignity. This is a common aspect of the exhibition: there are frequent glances to the past, looking to portraiture’s tradition. One artist employs the painterly style of John Singer Sargent; one subject sits before a damask curtain evoking the Old Masters, another uses the exact pigments used by Van Gogh. From this selection it appears that the painted portrait cannot be separated from the past. Thus, how can portraiture be seen as contemporary if it so obviously looks to the past?

In the past year, not one of the top exhibitions noted by the Guardian or Timeout has been an exhibition revolving around portraiture, and the only portraiture exhibition to be held at any of the Tate galleries showed those from the early 20th century, rather than the contemporary art world. Additionally, the White Cube gallery, thought to be one of the most influential gallery spaces, has had all of three painted portrait based exhibitions over twenty years, each featuring the work of Chuck Close.

Close is heavily influenced by photography in his intense realism, so it seems natural that he has such popularity, for photography has overtaken painting greatly for such purposes. Excluding Close, the painted portrait has little favour in comparison to other subjects of contemporary art.

Though the exhibition is a pleasing one of great talent and aesthetics, it is little more than that: pleasing to the eye and to the people involved, but not pertaining to any other significance. The BP Portrait Awards seems to reflect a contemporary attitude to painted portraiture.

 

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