The shortlist of the annual portrait competition is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It’s the thirty-sixth year of the competition and there were 2,748 entries by artists from 92 countries around the world. Not surprising when first prize is £30,000!
There are 55 portraits on the shortlist displayed in the exhibition, plus a couple more with the travel and young artist awards. About ten of them are self-portraits. A lot of the rest are family and most of the rest are of friends. There are two large female nudes and one of a woman in her underwear. What you won’t find is a single smile!
I probably picked the wrong time to go. Sunday afternoon on a rainy summer’s day meant the place was packed. So it wasn’t that easy to see the portraits. To me it felt like there were too many pictures crammed into too small a space. The gallery provides a Family Trail and extra exhibition labels for children. It’s a great idea to try and interest kids in art but there were a few too many of them running around yelling while their parents ignored them to text and gossip. So maybe I wasn’t really in the mood to appreciate the collection but I found it disappointing.
I don’t mind nude paintings if there’s a reason for it but in neither case did the nudity seem to add anything to the portrait. The majority of the paintings seemed very flat, unoriginal and, in far too may cases pretentious. The brevity of the exhibition labels didn’t help. One painting of a woman was titled ‘Parotia’, which is apparently a bird-of-paradise. There was no explanation for the title, it might have been simply that the hair was sticking up but who knows? Another had the title ‘Red Chair’ and sure enough there is an empty red chair in the painting alongside an elderly couple. Apparently the artist wanted to ‘depict the routine and familiarity of a long life together’ but there is no explanation of the significance of the chair in the painting or the accompanying label. Then there was ‘The Cynic’, allegedly ‘a comment on the contrast between the perceived sexualisation of society, while young people lead an increasingly isolated existence as their social lives are carried out online’. I couldn’t see anything in the painting that achieved any of that.
Others were let down by triteness and by simply not being very good. The ‘Portrait of Sam Goldofsky, Survivor of Auschwitz’ is well painted with every hair, wrinkle and mole captured but I’m not a fan of photorealistic painting – you might as well take a photo. Nor could I see what the artist was trying to achieve. Why is Mr Goldofsky in his vest, looking cold and vulnerable? I want to like ‘My Mother, My Sister’ but it was too contrived and banal. ‘The Convalescent’ at least had some genuine emotion but the blurring gives it a careless unfinished feeling. ‘Annabelle and Guy’ almost looked like someone had photographed dolls it was so flat and unemotional. It was supposed to be inspired by the Biblical story of Jephthah. It is beyond me how two emotionless characters with no connection represent a story of love and loss. Even more distressing, this was the competition winner!
So anyway on to the portraits I did like. One of my favourites was The History Men: Dr Thomas Rohkrämer and Dr Kay Schiller. I liked the colours and the movement. It also reminded me of Newman and Baddiel’s History Today characters so at least something at the exhibition made me smile. ‘A Silent and Inconsequential Victory’ also provided a welcome suggestion of humour and genuine friendship. The three paintings that stood out for me were ‘My Mother and my Brother on a Sunday Evening’, ‘Eliza’ and ‘A portrait of Ben the Masseur’. All three need to be seen in person to be appreciated. ‘Eliza’ glows like a Dutch master. ‘Ben’ has definite personality and I liked how the hands were the focus. ‘My Mother and my Brother on a Sunday Evening’ was, for me, the best painting there. Even tucked away in a corner it pulled you in. They feel like real people in the middle of a conversation. The affection and connection between both the sitters and the artist is very evident. The artist says: ‘I believe an artist should paint the world that surrounds them, that they know really well, to create meaningful art.’ In my opinion he succeeded. The judges of the competition placed him third.
The exhibition will be on until the 20th September and is free. If you can, allow enough time to look round the rest of the Portrait Gallery. They have some interesting portraits that are worth a look.