Every year I make a trip to London to meet up with an old friend of mine and to visit the BP Portrait Competition that is hung at the National Portrait Gallery. I think it would be fair to say that my friend, Graham, and myself are not short of some strongly held opinions and this exhibition usually gives us the opportunity to express them. In that respect this year's renewal was no disappointment.
Our routine is to independently view the pictures then meet up to share our feelings about what we have seen. This year there were a number of themes to our discussion. First of all is the matter of technique, there being a significant number of photo realistic works where evidence of a painter's hand was difficult to discern. Secondly, there was only one picture in the exhibition where the subject had even the semblance of a smile and thirdly the question of what constitutes a portrait.
Let's look at some of these issues. The first picture here is one that epitomises the technical issue. The quality of technique in this painting is jaw dropping in terms of paint application and drawing. Would that I could even conceive of acquiring such skill. The detail everywhere on this canvas is fabulous but it does pose the question of how does it differ from a well taken photograph?
Mr. Lascelle Barrow - Aurelio Rodriguez
The next picture again is another realistic piece but this one poses another question. The clue is in the title. Salmacis No. 3, tells us that this is probably one from a series of pictures. It also includes a name in the title that may or may not mean anything to the viewer. This was probably the reason that the curator felt the need to append a paragraph to the picture's label making reference to the Greek myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. The question then became one of how did this picture convey issues arising from that myth? This is where it is easy to level the charge of pretension at the curator. To be fair to the artist I made a search on arrival home to find out if there was anything to substantiate the irritating text on the wall of the NPG. Here I found images which were part of the series indicated by the number in the title. Placed in that context the image began to make sense, something that didn't happen with the single image on the wall.
Le (Salmacis No. 3) - Ivan Franco Fraga
I am going to leave the rest of this post for the reader to think upon rather than visit the prejudices of Graham and myself upon you. This selection of paintings were ones that we found of particular interest, all of which show the hand of the painter in one way or another. I'll leave you with these and the question of what constitutes a portrait?
The Postman - Frances Bell
Portrait of Anita Bell in her studio - Agata Wojcieszkiewicz
Today You Were Far Away - Ian Cumberland
The Dialects of Silence (Portrait of Michael Longley) - Colin Davidson
Joachim - Nathan Ford
Paul Ruddock - Eileen Hogan
Jane - Leo Holloway
Tony - Elizabeth Thayer
Footnote: On retiring to the nearest hostelry we came to the conclusion that once again the judges had got it wrong and were deserving of our opprobrium for their selection of so many portraits that failed to move us.