"There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face", Shakespeare wrote. Until September 23rd, however, approximately fifty-five emerging artists from Britain and around the world exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery are hoping to prove him wrong. And many of them, with apologies to the Bard, do a fine job of it, presenting their subjects' essences and their likenesses with consummate skill.
Held yearly, the BP Portrait Award is the most prestigious portrait prize this country has to offer. Its winner receives not only a substantial cash prize, but also a commission for a portrait to be included in the gallery's permanent collection. All the works that make it to the walls, though, garner valuable exposure for the artists behind them. As such, they are all of the highest quality. The commissioned portraits on display by previous winners alone testify to the prodigious talents the prize has attracted over the years, yet even the most perfunctory tour of this year's entrants will impress upon the viewer the extraordinarily exacting standards of the competition.
Everyone visitor to the exhibition will, of course, form their own preferences among the portraits and, inevitably, not everyone will wholeheartedly endorse the judges' decisions. I raised an eyebrow at some of them, though the first-place winning entry, Aleah Chapin's monumental nude, Auntie, deserves every accolade it has received. It is a picture that commands attention the moment one turns the corner into the room. A woman of sixty-something stands against an off-white background, her hands folded in front of her, her serene yet penetrating gaze speaks of a lifetime's worth of wisdom while her body, worn by the years, conveys both the frailty and indomitability of age. Arresting, dignified, and beautiful, it is a work that promises great things to come from the Brooklyn-based Chapin.
Other standouts, all in the running for the People's Choice Award, include Peter Goodfellow's disquieting, slightly surreal self-portrait, All Dressed Up for Mam and Dad; a portrait of his daughter by Toby Mulligan that recalls Kirchner at his gentlest and early Matisse; Isabella Watling's Old Master-inspired The Importance of Being Glenn; Gianluca Capaldo's tender and intimate What I See in Her; and Frances Bell's stirring painting of her postman. Compelling and accomplished works all, any one of them could just have easily taken out the top prize.
Many visitors, I imagine, will also remark upon the preponderance of paintings in the apparently suddenly fashionable hyperrealist mode. It is perhaps not surprising, given that last year's winner, Craig Wylie's K, was painted in that style and there is perhaps no better acid test of an artist's technical virtuosity than this immensely challenging, demanding genre. It is bittersweet to note that the movement is at last gaining a foothold in major British public collections, sadly too late for its finest exponent, the Chilean Claudio Bravo, who died last year.
Showcasing some of the finest emerging artists likely to be assembled anywhere, this year's BP Portrait Award is one not to miss. The quality and diversity of works on display is nothing short of astonishing. We should expect to see big things from many of the entrants. Take the opportunity to view the early work of some of the future leading-lights of the art world while you still can, and don't forget to cast your vote for the People's Choice Award.