Publication of the three short-listed portraits for this year's BP Portrait Award set me thinking about the possible justifications for such a high profile award for a branch of art much regarded as one of its Cinderellas. On the one hand the competition is very popular with the public. On the other, that same public seems to rate portraiture much as it rates still life: charming, but little more. Many artists (apart from portrait painters, of course) seem to rate the competition as an irrelevance. The fact that all the submissions are traditional-style works with not an abstract or an even a remotely avant-garde painting to be seen, might be taken as confirmation of that stance. (In fact the competition was founded specifically to combat the wave upon wave of modern and modernistic works flooding on to the market.) Others consider the whole concept of competition to be out of place in the context of art. However, my interest just now is with portraiture itself and not with the competition - though I will just add that the exhibition is invariably of a very high standard, and this year's short list promises that it will be so again. The entries will be on show in The National Portrait Gallery from the 18th June until the 14th September.
When speaking of portraiture in this context I am ignoring the corporate side of the family, the public representation of the great and the good, the pontiff and the general, the local dignitary in his fine robes, perhaps holding the symbols of his office. I am focussing entirely on the private portrait, the one over which the artist has control and is not in hock to the sitter or his patrons.
It is often said that the human figure is the most difficult of all subjects to render in visual terms. It isn't, of course, the difference between representing Uncle Ben on canvas and, say, a fox, is that we understand in greater detail and with more certainty how a human being (Uncle Ben) is constructed than how a fox is put together, we are more aware of his proportions and contours and what is normal and what outside the norm than is the case with the fox. And even if we take, not a fox but a pet as the example, the argument still applies. No matter how much we may love our dog or our cat, the clincher is that we have never been one, our critical faculties are not engaged to the same expert level. And so we are more confident that we know what is possible or what is right and what is a mistake or a distortion. our judgements have more authority. That is why life drawing, clothed or unclothed, was traditionally the linchpin of art training. (It is not so nowadays, I understand. Art schools are dropping it from their curricula because students are refusing to attend the classes.)
The same factors are at work in the case of portraiture as in that of life drawing, but others come into play as well. As a species we are really very adept at discerning character in a human face. Some individuals, indeed, pride themselves on having such abilities to a particularly marked degree, but all of us are probably reasonably efficient. However, reproducing in paint what we claim to be able to discern - or maybe only intuit - in the flesh is another matter. Even so, the one who could not have painted the portrait, could not have hoped to catch the likeness can maybe see at a glance if the character conveyed is one that hangs together, is a possible, even a convincing portrayal. Even more exacting, and from the same - if heightened - criteria, is the self-portrait. Paul Klee wrote: Art does not represent the visible, it makes visible and to my mind there must be an element of making visible in any work of art.
We must never forget, however, that the portraitist, and especially the self-portraitist, may have a hidden agenda no less than the painter of corporate portraits. Two of the finest show this very clearly. Rembrandt painted dozens of self portraits, more probably than any other artist of his standing, and in each one he is depicted trying on a different role. Rubens painted only four, spread out through the course of his career, and in each he is the same as in the other three. Age did not weary him - or take any sort of toll, so far as his portrayals of himself were concerned. Not a bad way to reassure yourself in life, I suppose.
The images, in order, are: "Manuel" by Annalisa Avancini, "Tom" by Michael Gaskell and "Changeling" by Peter Monkman.
I have been challenged to the following meme by Lizzy Frizzfrock, so here goes...
1. My current obsession, in so far as I have one, is the poetry of W.S.Graham.
2.The item ofclothing I wear most often is probably the oldest shirt I possess.
3.What's for dinner - hopefully either a curry or red snapper.
4. I prefer to listen to either Bach (J.S.) or Benjamin Britten.
5.A word of thanks to Lizzie for thinking of me - I just hope that she will not be disappointed with the result (or the time I've taken to respond).
6.Favourite vacation spot Don't have one really, we tend to make for places we have not been before. Northern Italy of the Norwegian Fjords come closest.
7. I am reading Grey Gowrie's "Third Day : New and Selected Poems" and "Stepping Stones : Interviews of Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll".
8. Four words to describe myself: impatient, optimistic, impractical, forgiving.
9.Guilty Pleasures: Single malts.
10.First spring-cleaning thing: the computer
11. I look forward to finishing my current project, whatever it happens to be - even though I know I shall hate having finished it.
12. I guess I am now supposed to tag a chosen group of fellow bloggers, but instead I am going to demonstrate my independence of spirit and make it an open tag for anyone who would like to take it up. Please leave a note on my blog, though, if you decide to do so.
Whilst on the subject of Facing it and alluding to the post immediately before this, we had our two grandsons for their weekly meal yesterday, the conversation turned to Palestine and Gaza, the younger of the two (18) said: "Well, we caused it Grandad, after all that Hitler did to them, we did the same. It was us who put them in that mousetrap and left them with their enemies." I have never doubted our complicity, but hearing it put that starkly and that particular spin on it... I have not quite gotten over it yet. Is that the way the younger generation sees it, I wonder?
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