thu 20/06/2024

BP Portrait Award 2019, National Portrait Gallery review - a story for everyone | reviews, news & interviews

BP Portrait Award 2019, National Portrait Gallery review - a story for everyone

BP Portrait Award 2019, National Portrait Gallery review - a story for everyone

The annual prize takes the pulse of contemporary portraiture

'Father with Partner' by Marco Krauwinkel, 2018Father with Partner by Marco Krauwinkel, 2018 © Marco Krauwinkel

Once a year, the National Portrait Gallery gives us a slice of immediate social history presented in an array of contemporary painted portraits of the young, the old, and the inbetween.

In its 40th iteration the international competition 44 paintings have been chosen from well over 2000 entries submitted by artists from 84 countries, ranging from Australia to Turkey, with the vast majority being from the UK.

The subjects are from the artists’ worlds: self portraits, family, friends, models. Over the years the ethnicities have widened visibly, in heartening ways. Charlie Schaffer’s Imara in her Winter Coat, is a bigger-than-life-size tender study of a close friend, painted over four months of sittings when both the sitter and the artist, we are told, were going through a period of some emotional difficulties. Imara, studying English literature, is a Brighton friend of several years standing; Shaffer regards both painting and the conversation between sitter and artist as a kind of therapy. Wrapped in her meticulously rendered fake fur coat, she looks away from us, her thoughts seemingly inward. Somehow we too would like to join in the conversation that seemingly has just stopped for a moment.

The Crown by Carl-Martin Sandvold, 2019 © Carl-Martin Sandvold   The Norwegian painter Carl-Martin Sandvold paints himself slightly blurred, with a party crown tip-tilted on his head (Pictured right). The painting done in four days was the result of a conscious decision to paint as quickly as he could rather than taking months or even years. He isn’t looking outwards but keeps his eyes closed in some kind of painful introspection which belies the jauntiness of his headgear. Sandvold interprets his own image as somehow revealing “the absurdity of life, the apparent lack of things like true meaning, clarity, stability, safety and certainty.” Wow: quite a burden but it is a haunting and unsettling painting.

Haunting in quite another way is Massimiliano Pironti’s oil on aluminium portrait of his nonagenarian working class grandmother Vincenza. Titled Quo Vadis? the painting shows us Vincenza sitting in her kitchen (Pictured below left). The white patterned tiles of the wall are portrayed with just as much care as his grandmother’s pearls, clothes, gnarled hands holding a hot water bottle on her lap. Above all it is her face, dignified, strong and sure, which captivates. She is as dignified as a seated Pope, the pose, as we slightly look up to Vincenza, recalling the grand renaissance portrait. It is quietly magnificent. Amazingly Pironiti is a professional dancer, and his knowledge of the body almost literally gives substance to this emotionally affecting painting, a mutual affection almost palpable, which transcends the personal.

The Indonesian artist Fakhri Bohang now living in Germany is working on a series depicting friends from different cultural backgrounds. My Skin is Black My Collar is White shows a confident handsome young man with dark skin, his friend Papise, his face illuminated by the collar of a brilliantly white shirt, which itself is framed by a dark wool jacket. The entire portrait, attractive and beguiling, based on the convention of a renaissance bust. It somehow communicates friendliness, someone who is charming and outgoing, whom we would like to know.

; Quo Vadis? by Massimiliano Pironti, 2018 © Massimiliano PirontThroughout some kind of connection seems paramount. Iván Chacón’s portrait of Aurelio, a relative, shows a youngish middle-aged man in an armchair obviously by his gestures engaged in animated conversation. Some are of models: a striking portrait of a young naked man sprawled in a chair, Marcus by Vanessa Garwood, is part of a series she is exploring of male nudes subject to the female gaze. It is curiously charming and somehow the rather uncomfortable voyeurism which we accept as normal in many paintings of female nudes is absent. Many are psychologically charged. In the Dutch painter Marco Krauwinkel’s stately portrait of two sedate middle-aged besuited men, Father with Partner (Main picture); one has his arm around the other. The image is charged with the slow burn of a heartfelt same sex relationship which was finally acknowledged and accepted by the artist’s family.

There are other heartfelt images: Jeff Midghall portrays his mother in law in Doctor-Patient. The middle aged woman is curled up in a bed in the hospice where once a volunteer she is now a patient. It is unflinching and appealingly defiant. Her manicured hands with bright red polish echo the pink of the bedsheet, the bed now her home.

There is a story for everyone. Each painting is an affirmation of the vitality inherent in different conventions of realism. Altogether the anthology sheds light on a huge variety of human relationships, always attentive and often loving. No one has a case to prove, simply – here we are.

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