'Mona Kate' - it really is just a photo

January 24 2013

Video: NPG

Turns out 'Mona Kate' is even more reliant on photographs than I thought. Says artist Paul Emsley in the above video:

For many years I worked from life [...] but [...] photography today is so accurate and so good that it's really so much easier just to take photographs and work from that.

I find this a sad comment - in fact, it makes me despair. And from a BP Portrait Award winner? Will art history look back at this painting and decide that this was the moment traditional portraiture - the art of painting someone from life (or at least not by relying entirely on photographs) - finally died? If so, then it will forever be the National Portrait Gallery's misfortune (in choosing the artist, and in so readily promoting photo-realism) to be associated with that moment.

Update - a reader writes:

I agree with you about the Emsley's comments on his practise, it is very dispiriting (especially so as I'm a painter myself). But I wonder if he's taken his conceptual thinking in the matter any further? 

Might it be that he's not actually making a portrait of Katherine per se (in the normally understood sense of the term), but has - according to his desire to transmit verisimilitude - instead made a still life painting of a photograph that happens to have her as a nominal subject-matter? This still life of a piece of photo paper with an image on it having then been executed (somewhat paradoxically) in a photo realist style. If he eschews the skill needed to reproduce tones, composition and accurate colour straight from the eye because he thinks the camera capable of doing this much more precisely, then what is he adding to the image by replicating an accuracy (using his eye and brush) that he thinks his eye cannot make in the first place? Futhermore, if he were to place the photo on a table and let it reflect some sheen from the surface, then include both in a depiction, would it not then be more accurately termed a 'still-life'?

Once the photograph has been made, and the decision to replicate it has been made, this can all too easily lead to the neutering of  just about all the potentially interesting creative decisions in an unquestioning drive for a desired verisimilitude of reproduction. Also we must ask how far a mechanically produced photo accords with what he may see with his own eye when Kate was sat before him. If it is very accurate, then he must still use his skill as an artist in mixing tones to accurately represent those in the photo. So, if he needs skill in doing this, why not just skip the photo and use them in front of the subject directly onto his canvas? He'd probably grow more as a painter.That is where the true art lies, and what sorts the men from the masters.

The camera is not an eye.

Another reader makes a very telling comparison with the NPG's excellent portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales:

I never forget Freud's portrait of the Queen when it was published in the papers.  I thought it was quite awful.  Then I saw it in the flesh and it turned out to be a stunner: in fact, one of his very greatest works.

Kate's portrait looked pretty awful in the papers but I did have hopes... oh my God: it's ten times worse in the flesh!  What a great shame.  Compare this with the truly iconic early Diana portrait by Brian Organ: very 80's and very great!  A real icon of its time.  Why this obsession with photo realism and the BP awards?  It's been going on for years and we are all sick and tired of it!  The Duchess of Cambridge portrait is the worst example of its kind. DEPRESSING.

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