BP Portrait Award

July 17 2015

Image of BP Portrait Award

Picture: NPG

Yesterday, I was able to finally see this year's BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. I've always been a fan of the Award and the NPG's advocacy of modern portraiture. But this year's selection was one of the worst yet.

Regular readers will know that I've long ranted against the way photo-realism has infected both the Award, and modern painting in general. This year the BP exhibition is stuffed full of paintings which are specifically designed to look like photographs. Above is Eliza by Michael Gaskell, which was awarded 2nd prize.

Why? What is the point? Painting a photograph is as artistically pointless as photographing a painting. A portrait, in its classic sense, is about more than capturing a person in one moment of time; it is about an artist's studied observation of an individual over a period of time (traditionally over multiple sittings). A photograph, by definition, forces us to focus on a split second. And trying to mimic that photograph forces painters and painting, as a genre, to become nothing more than a human inkjet printer.

Perhaps the problem is that we are now so conditioned to seeing the world through a lens, be it on our TV screens or, increasingly, on our phones. Consequently, we even seem to prefer paintings that format and light themselves in the same way as a photograph - short depths of field, the illusion of flash. But pardon me if I yearn to see at least some modern painters try and exercise a little confidence and independence with both brush and eye.

There were a couple of pictures I liked, but these were all eschewed by the judges. My favourite was a self-portrait by Alan McGowan (below). Good painter.

For one brief moment in 2013, the Award seemed to be turning away from photo-realism - a change I think we must ascribe to the presence of Lucian Freud's assistant David Dawson on the judging panel. This year, however, he is no longer a judge. There need to be more painters on the judging panel in future.

Digby Warde-Aldam in Apollo wonders if the Award has had its day, so poor is this year's offering. 

Update - Alan McGowan writes:

Thank you for your kind comments about my painting in this years BP Portrait Award. I thought I would write to thank you and also to add my tuppenceworth on the issue of the use of photography in painting which you raise and which is a subject which is on my mind a lot. 

The use of photography as primary source material is endemic in the contemporary figurative world and yet I don't think it is being seriously thought about or questioned enough. What does it mean about the artworks and our perception of them and indeed the world we inhabit? If photography is able to capture a certain momentary image then is not the job of painting to do something else? Certainly I think it is possible to work from photographs but its current ubiquity is troubling. Personally I only work from life because I think this is how my work becomes most vivid, and my feeling is that there is a massively rich area of experience and potential to be explored there and that a case has to be made for it.  I recently had two experiences which brought my thoughts on this subject into sharper focus (excuse the pun). 

As you commented the BP Portrait exhibition has many paintings which are not only seemingly derived from photographs, but also embrace the visual language of photography - depth of field etc including details of the sitter such as pores or single hairs which, frankly do not constitute my experience of people or the world around me. To me it would also be true to say that certain of the paintings, those in a more obviously classical tradition, whilst possibly not executed from photographs yet still seem to embrace a kind of photographic aesthetic - in that one gets the feeling that the closer they came to resembling a photograph the "better" they would be thought to be.

At the same time as I was in London for the BP exhibition I  coincidentally had the opportunity to attend a book launch and lecture at the National Portrait Gallery by Roger Malbert of the Hayward Gallery entitled "Drawing People", his overview of contemporary figure drawing which featured the work of many contemporary artists (from what we might call the "conceptual" camp) - the most well known of whom were people like Marlene Dumas and Francesco Clemente. What transpired in the lecture and was confirmed in the question and answer session afterwards was that all of the artists he had chosen are working from photographs or from their imagination - but none of them from life. I asked Roger what he thought the significance of this was but he didn't have a theory about it, although he did personally seem reasonably well disposed towards life work.

The drawings in Malbert's book generally eschew what I would call traditional draughtsmanly skills, and the BP works are generally technically accomplished, so they are diametrically opposed yet ironically they are largely united by a common source in the photograph: I found myself in the National Portrait Gallery between Malbert's presentation of conceptual figuration and the BP exhibition of representational figuration, and it seemed like nearly all of this stuff was underpinned by photography.

Why should this be so? Clearly there is a proliferation of photographic imagery and especially now digitally - magazines, advertising, mobile phones, the internet etc, the mediation of experience through reproduction, the rise of the virtual, the "hyperreal"... of course. This is interesting and valid stuff and has been explored by artists going back to Warhol et al, but it is not the only stuff. It is not the only source of our experience. We still live in a world where we negotiate with our minds and our senses - and I think in a much more interesting way than we interact with the images in magazines and on our mobile phones.

My feeling is that there are positive virtues to be gained from working from life. I believe that I do not experience the world in the same way that a camera does; that the technical precision of a photographic view of the  world offers a seductive but basically false rendering, one which is based on an idea of the world as understandable, containable, defineable, precise, whereas my feeling is that the world is full of ambiguity, doubt, compromise and guesswork.

A good articulation of this is contained in Sarah Bakewell's description of Michael de Montaigne's world view "To try to understand the world is like grasping a cloud of gas, or a liquid, using hands that are themselves made of gas or water, so that they dissolve as you close them." To work in a life situation is to directly experience this mobility of experience, and not only that it gives us it as a subject. 

Further I believe that the creation of an artwork - the materials, surfaces, processes and attitudes is somehow analagous to the processes of perception so that the the making of the thing becomes in some way an exploration or example of the partiality of our engagement with the subject/sitter. This whole terrain is to me the stuff of living perception; the interpretation and creation of our own version of the world - nearly all of which is absent from a photograph, so all that is lost before you even start. 

Another quality that photographs emphasise (as well as stillness) is flatness and it seems by extension that, removed from the 3-dimensional qualities of the world, the paint too in photo-derived painting takes on a flatness (which is perhaps even perceived as a virtue) rather than exploring its' sculptural and textural potentials - runniness,  impasto etc, which has been part of the vocabulary of paint going back to Titian, Rembrandt etc. Perhaps for some the technical process of squaring up would have an effect here, as it removes the construction of the painting from any flow or physical momentum.

I had an experience recently of working in a portrait painting situation with a number of artists who took photographs on their ipads and began squaring them up and copying them onto canvas - completely ignoring the models who were sitting! Of course the models were totally undermined and demotivated by this. They were in effect superfluous after their photos had been taken. The absurd situation served to emphasise another terrain which impacts on a portrait and that is the significant contribution of the sitter. The relationship of the artist to the sitter is the stuff of figure work - the space between them is vivified and is in reality the subject of the work. A replacement with a photograph is simply a different, perhaps more controllable, but certainly impoverished thing. I work with lots of life models, mostly very good, and am acutely aware of the contribution they make to a painting.

Why do people work with photographs rather than working from life? I think there are a number of reasons, some more laudable than others. It is more convenient. It is cheaper. It is more controllable. It is expected in the art schools. Technically, in terms of drawing, it is certainly easier. I think the aesthetic of the photograph can seem to represent a form of "reality" which has come to be commonly accepted - related to ideas of accuracy or objectivity, perhaps even a faith in the mechanical. Also the contemporary art world has created a void in which "skillfull" representation can seem a welcome relief from artworks with often no obvious technical merit. I think however, more importantly, it is a lack of recognition of the more fascinating, the profounder and more elusive qualities of working from life: this area is not being understood or promoted. And it is practical so it has to be done to be understood not talked about. The lack of life drawing at school or art school has had a hugely detrimental effect - to the point where even if it is taught now it is largely reduced to the basics of proportional accuracy with little engagement with purpose or context (apart from the contemporary flirtations with a revived classicism).

I think there is enough feeling from all sides - artists, students, the public for a healthier debate about this stuff. It is currently bubbling under but should come out I think, and will be exciting and fruitful when it does.

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