Thursday, June 12, 2008

BP Portrait Prize 2008 - exhibition opens

'K' by Craig Wylie
2100 x 1650mm (82" x 65"), oil on canvas
copyright Craig Wylie

The 29th exhibition for the BP Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery opens to the public today. I visited yesterday and have to say this is the best BP Portrait exhibition I've ever seen. I thought the standard of entries were a marked improvement on last year. It seems to me that the change of rules in 2007 has really injected new life into this annual competition and exhibition.

Out of 1,727 entrants, 55 portraits (compared to 60 in 2007) have been selected for the exhibition. 38 are from the UK and 17 (31%) are from abroad - and well over a third of the portraits being exhibited are by artists over the age of 40.

Whoever hung this exhibition has done a splendid job as one of the reasons there are fewer paintings is that there seem to a number of larger paintings than usual. Some of these have been hung on walls imported to the Wolfson Gallery especially for the occasion.

The prizewinners

I wrote about the four candidates for the prizes at the end of April in BP Portrait Award shortlist announced - a woman will win! This post also includes images of all four portraits. You can also see larger images of all the shortlisted candidates on the website - just click the image in the link.
The media and size are from the catalogue - the millimetres are precise and the inches are rounded.

Having now seen them all in reality, I have to say the finalist portrait which impressed me the most by far is K by Craig Wylie - possibly because apart from the fact that it is immaculately painted it's also absolutely HUGE (it's very nearly 7 feet in height and three times bigger than the next largest finalist). It also faces you as you enter the exhibition which suggests to me that whoever hung the exhibition also decided it needed a prominent position. Of the two younger candidates, again after seeing the portraits, my guess is that the BP Young Artist Award for artists aged 18-30 will go to Peiyuan Jiang. I still don't believe those trees but he's done a wonderful job of painting the skin of his subject. Plus he's done what many artists who paint to commission have to do - he's painted somebody he doesn't know very well.

The finalists and exhibition images

The website now has images of all the portraits which made it to the exhibition stage. It's a pity that details about the portrait are not available on the website for all would-be future entrants. It would great to see online all the explanations about the genesis of the portraits which are posted next to each one in the exhibition - as well as the dimensions. Some are enormous and some are very small - and this fact simply can't be appreciated due to the information which is currently available. I've found one error in the website links so far but haven't yet tried to view all the images at a larger size so there may be more.

As the actual prizewinners will be announced on Monday evening (and I'll be psoting about prizewinners again on Tuesday), I'm going to talk about some of the features of portraits in the exhibition and some of the other portraits which impressed me below.
  • my absolute favourite was Seraph (which means an angel of the highest rank) by Celia Bennett. It's a relatively small work but it's luminous and really lovely. I really believe in this individual.
Seraph by Celia Bennett
oil on canvas on board
380mm x 300mm/15" x 12"

copyright the artist
  • A number of artists paint members of their family.
    • Jose Luis Corella Garcia - painted his daughter playing with face paints in Metamorphosis (oil on wooden board, 1000mm x 1000mm 39" x 39"). This is stunning in terms of both size and composition. I think it might also be the first time I've seen the fingerprint ridges on fingers painted!
    • Alejandro Domingo painted Dad and his newspaper. This is a realistic but sympathetic painting of an older man. I also knew what he was doing without the newspaper even being in the picture. Alejandro has a blog called Eclectic Art (in Spanish)
  • Some self portraits don't attempt to flatter the artist. Andrew Hunt's Self Portrait with Winnie (his five day old daughter) achieved his objective of marking an important event in both their lives and also emphasising the difference between the size of his hands and hers while at the same time showing the reality of what you look like after a few disturbed nights sleep!
  • Technique and presentation sometimes varies from 'the norm' - for example
    • the digital image of Flavia Maria Pitis's portrait Buti does not reveal the super smooth glass like high gloss finish of this portrait.
    • Benjamin Sullivan - winner of the Lynn Painter Stainers Prize in 2007 has produced another triptych in a series of paintings that portray his family and the house he lives in On Duddery Road in Suffolk. I'm now more convinced than ever that Benjamin Sullivan must love painting fabric and pattern as he has done yet another wonderful job on his wife's smock. Compared to last year's Lynn Painter Stainer's portrait this one is a lot more restrained and muted in colour terms. You can see more of his excellent portrait work on his website.
  • Women artists, for some reason, seem to mainly paint
    • or themselves - such as Angela Reilly - who was a finalist and won 3rd prize in 2006 has produced another fine Portrait of herself (this is the faulty link). She says she's absorbed with the impact of ageing on her face.
    • or people where you can't actually see the face very well - such as Harriet White's Boots No 7 or Joanna Yates's Meral. These are both very large and 'in your face' portraits which also partially obscure the subject's features.
The BP Portrait exhibition also has a first this year as it includes a portrait by a 71 year old Royal Academician who already has work hanging in the National Portrait Gallery!

The portrait of Sir Jeremy Isaacs by Tom Phillips CBE RA was commissioned by the Royal Opera House where Sir Jeremy was Director General until 1996. It's being displayed in public for the first time. It made me wonder whether other 'top notch' portrait artists had entered the competition and not been hung!

You can read Tom Phillips's fascinating blog online. In one of the posts he announces that he's officially retired from portrait painting - so I guess it's nice to go out on a first! I'm also intrigued by the fact he's the only RA I know who has a blog (actually he has two - he has another which is dedicated to exhibitions!) and suspect this might because members of his family are also active bloggers - one of whom features in my blogroll!

The process of producing a commissioned portrait

You can also read about Tom Phillip's portrait of Dame Iris Murdoch on his website. I visited a fascinating exhibition elsewhere in the NPG yesterday which deals with the background to and process adopted by artists who have been commissioned to produce a portrait for the NPG. This includes two huge drawings which he did in the middle of this commission when he'd got stuck. They are fabulous! Unfortunately the NPG website has decided to ignore this exhibition despite the fact this it is well worth a visit! The sketchbooks and preliminary work of a couple of artists were absolutely fascinating - and I wish I could reference them but didn't make a note of their names thinking I could link to the website - big mistake!

Women artists and the BP Portrait Prize

This competition - like the portrait world generally - tends to be dominated by male artists. If this post is being read by anybody who is considering entering the competition in 2009, can I suggest that if you are a woman that you actually fill in an entry form!

There's a fairly well known phenomenon in recruitment which I suspect carries over to prestigious competitions. Men will submit a CV if they think they have a remote chance of being taken seriously whereas women will often only submit one if they know they have a good chance of being appointed. If that is the case with competitions also, can I take this opportunity to remind female artists that the percentage of women getting selected for the final exhibition (34%) never mind actually winning this prize - will always remain low so long as women hold back from entering.

So have a go in 2009 - just remember the work entered MUST be predominantly painted in oil, tempera or acrylic. Watercolours, works on paper or pastels will unfortunately NOT be considered (which I think is a very great pity). It should also be a painting based on a sitting or study from life; the human figure must predominate. This post BP Portrait Award 2008 (call for entries) and BP Travel Award gives more details of the requirements in 2008.

Finally, I'm listing previous blog posts about this competition below. I'm also going to be doing two more posts next week about
[Update: This is a link to my blog post about who won which of the BP Portrait Award prizes - Craig Wylie wins BP Portrait Award 2008]