Some 2,300 portraits were entered for this year’s B.P. Portrait award of which just 55 were selected to appear. Going round the exhibition today I wished I had been able to see a larger selection. In theory I like pictures with people in them but though, as always, I enjoyed the exhibition, there were surprisingly few that that I actually desired. Many of the portraits were of members of the artists’ families. We all know how family members, much as we love them, can be annoying or boring or both; some of the subjects seemed to have a lot of potential in both respects.
Would some of the rejected works been more exciting? The judges apparently make their selections over a two day period. Assuming they work a seven hour day, each entry submitted must have had about 20 seconds to make an impact. So possibly not; these would have been the portraits that stood out and begged to be noticed. Yet judges are human too and maybe also noticed paintings who reminded them of someone. For instance I liked Geoffrey Beasley’s work Eddy in the Morning because he looked a bit like my own son.
While all the works showed an extraordinary level of technical skill and there were none I thought dreadful, there were surprisingly few that I thought really interesting.There were the inevitable portraits of topless women, one actually doing her hair for heaven’s sake, there were the usual successful men – Fergus Henderson of Nose to Tail Eating fame, he was holding a roast pig; there was Edward Lucie Smith, Simon Armitage and Timothy Spall and assorted people in armchairs. It has been said that big heads don’t generally do well in the BP portrait prize but this year there were several, notably Tony by Jelena Bulajic, massive at 2.7m x 2m and Yunsun Jang’s Mother, nearly as large at 2.4 x 2.1m.
I really liked Bulajoiv’s work; a small screen simply cannot do it justice, Yunsun Jang’s mother looked a tad on the moany side; that might be accurate and I do accept that it is a good portrait but could be hard to live with. I don’t want to live with Yunsun Jang’s moany mother.
The competition is open internationally and is anonymous so one cannot accuse the selectors of choosing their mates, but given the international provenance the subjects were surprisingly non diverse. Though the striking portrait of Engels by Patrick Graham was a notable exception, among the 55 there were just 6 non-white faces, whereas around 40% of Londoners, 13% for the UK as whole are black and minority ethnic.
As subjects, men out numbed women, excluding those in groups there were 30 to 19. There were only about 14 female artists. I think the reason for these figures was possibly the emphasis on classical technique which possibly favours Western educated artists and it can reasonably be argued that that is what the portrait prize is for. Yet surely the prize should also go to great paintings and not just be about technical skill. It would have been interesting to see some more entries from artists from the South.
The winner, Man with a Plaid Blanket by Thomas Ganter was a hugely skillful piece of work. Inspired by the classical paintings in the Stadel Museum, it was of a homeless man whom the artist noticed outside. It is about the contrast between wealth and poverty, all of which is splendidly worthy, but actually in practice somewhat clichéd compounded by the little rose in a paper cup at his feet. It was a brilliant picture of the rug; you could see every fibre, but the face, to my mind, played second fiddle.
On the other hand I did like the second prize winner Richard Twose’s portrait of Jean Woods, who has a splendidly dramatic face. Here in contrast to Ganter’s work, the painting draws one in to look her in the eye.
Also excellent was Mama by Ingracio Estudillo Perez, which won the Young Artist Award This mum looked tired rather than moany; I could live with that.
But my own personal favourite was a small painting by Gauthier Hubert of Jean Yves, a man looking like Vincent Van Gogh. I am not sure who Jean Yves is, possibly the pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet, I don’t think the portrait makes him look especially like Van Gogh. But as a painting I think it works exceptionally well; I like the way that the blue of the background and the blue of the man’s shirt are so close in colour and yet subtly differentiated. I like the way that the blue is also picked out in his eyes. It is possibly not the most technically accomplished painting in the exhibition, but it is a face and a picture you are not going to forget. Unlike many of the portraits in the exhibition, it looks as though it has been painted in this century not at any time over the last hundred years.