Thursday, 30 June 2011

BP Portrait Award 2011

The 2011 BP Portrait Award opened at the National Portrait Gallery last week so with much excitement I hot-footed it up to London at the weekend to have a look at this year’s selection. The only problem with going to see a show when it’s just opened (or just before it finishes) is that it’s pretty crowded. There was much weaving and jostling as we dodged from one painting to another, all out of sequence and diving for a free space wherever there was one. Not how one wants to experience a show really but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

The BP Portrait Award is a prestigious annual competition which attracts entrants from all over the world. This year there were 2,372 submissions, which doesn’t sound that many actually when you consider that the competition has been going for 32 years and is therefore renowned throughout the art world here and abroad. Maybe portraiture just isn’t that popular these days.

55 works were selected; out of those, the prizes were awarded as follows:

First – Wim Heldens, Distracted

Second – Louis Smith, Holly

Third – Ian Cumberland, Just to Feel Normal

Young Artist Prize – Sertan Saltan, Mrs Cerna

Travel Award – Jo Fraser, Flora MacGregor

It’s disappointing that there doesn’t seem to be anything published about how the judges came to their decision. Apparently they select without knowing who the paintings are by to avoid any form of bias. These things are always so subjective though, and I find I rarely agree with the decisions. I really liked third prize winner Ian Cumberland’s Just to Feel Normal (take note of the size – 1500 x 1000 mm - not a small painting) but the first and second prize winning paintings, well… meh.

There were many other striking works in the show but one that particularly stood out for me (probably because it had a narrative element) was I could have been a contender by Wendy Elia (at the top of this post). There’s plenty going on in this painting which is an interesting take on the family portrait. It shows the artist herself with her children and grandchildren, some in photographs and postcards. The title adds another layer of meaning relating to her career as an artist and a woman in the art world.

I also liked David Carter at Home by Richard Brazier. The perspective was interesting as were the surroundings; I like the way the sculpture on the table echoes the pattern on the carpet. I also like the slightly uncomfortable way the subject is sitting. The diagonals of the legs disappearing out of the canvas give the feeling that maybe the subject was anxious to be off – even though he’s wearing his slippers!

There is the usual range of sizes from the gargantuan Holly with its imposing frame to the rather sweet and intimate Portrait of my father by Tomas Georgeson at just 300 x 230 mm. Smaller still are Matthew Schofield’s Six Decades, a series of six paintings each 10 cm square. Who said big is beautiful?

This year’s BP Portrait Award has the usual high standard of work and is well worth a look. If you’re interested in portraiture check it out.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The self-portrait as signature, experiment and publicity

‘The history of self-portraiture is one of the most fascinating and complex of the whole genre [of portraiture]. Because self-portraits merge the artist and the sitter into one, they have the allure of a private diary, in that they seem to give us an artist’s insight into his or her own personality. However, interpreting self-portraiture as a transparent account of artistic personality is to ignore the many other factors that have an impact on both its creation and reception. Whilst the representational qualities of self-portraits allow them to be used as a means of self-examination, they have also functioned, for example, as signatures, as advertisement for an artist’s skill, and as experiments in technique or expression.
Shearer West, Portraiture

Like many artists, I make the odd self-portrait; working on one at the moment in fact. Does this smack of narcissism? Not really. For me, it’s a question of economics and convenience. I am my most available model and I don’t charge myself anything. I’m always around when I want to draw and I’ll pose in any position or for as long as I want me to. Simples.

Self-portraiture is also a documentary process. Not only am I charting my physical and emotional changes, but also my development as an artist.

I was interested to read what Shearer West has to say on the subject in her rather good book simply titled Portraiture. She expands on the ‘personal diary’ / ‘account of artistic personality’ idea by examining the history or self-portraiture to begin with.

Apparently there were very few self-portraits made before the sixteenth century. Those that do exist tend to be manuscript marginalia or the artist as minor witness / spectator in religious paintings. The theory is that piety prevented artists from bigging themselves up in free-standing self-portraiture; in other words, the main subject of a work. An interesting example of an artist adding himself as a sort of discrete footnote in a painting is Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage (1434) where the painter can just be seen reflected in the mirror on the wall behind the couple.

Albrecht Durer was one of the first to produce free-standing self-portraits (see the above image painted in 1500). An d what a self-portrait! Durer really went for it with the self-aggrandisement in portraying himself as a Christ-like figure. No worries about piety there then. It’s a beautiful, sumptuous painting in which a richly-dressed Durer gazes out at the viewer confidently. There is no trace of the tools of his trade; he has elevated himself from artisan and shows his view of his own self worth. He is declaring himself equal with the wealthy patrons who would have first seen the painting as an example of Durer’s skill.

There are several reasons why artists began to make self-portraits in the sixteenth century, the first being a matter of pure practicality. According to West, flat mirrors weren’t easy to come by outside Venice where they were invented, a significant obstacle to self-portraiture and one that is perhaps hard for us to imagine today. Secondly, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the phenomenon of autobiography as beginning to catch on, which meant that people were becoming increasingly aware of identity and a sense of self. Again, it’s hard for us to imagine a time when the notion of self and personal identity just didn’t exist.

Thirdly, the status of the artist was beginning to change with the setting up of academies and the birth of art theory. These brought the intellectual aspects of artistic production to the fore rather than the mechanical; fine art over craft. As the idea of the role of the artist was changing, so self-portraiture was a way of enhancing these new concepts of the worth of the artist.

So, as well as being a cheap and more flexible alternative to having to pay a model, documenting physical and psychological change and providing a platform for experimentation, self-portraiture gave artists a way of enhancing their status in society.

But there’s more. Early self-portraiture also provided artists with a useful marketing tool to advertise their skills. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they would send them to courts to attract wealthy patrons, effectively touting for business. I suppose with the various method of reproduction we have today, artists don’t need to publicise themselves in the same way. Or at least, those seeking portrait commissions.

There’s a great deal more to say about self-portraiture; West goes on to explore gender, artistic identity, self-presentation and autobiography in relation to it, but I’ll save that for another blog post some other time.