I NO LONGER know the purpose of the annual BP Portrait Award. Twenty-eight years ago, when the National Portrait Gallery initiated it with John Player as the sponsor, its point was clear enough, born of dissatisfaction with the various professional bodies to which painters of portraits belong in hope of inclusion in their exhibitions and the commissions that might stem from them. These bodies had for years seemed trapped in doldrums of their own making, the genre of portraiture the very thing to which they should have given life lying in its deathbed, stultified by precedent and clich. The Portrait Award was to be the remedy.
It was, if nothing else, an injection of young blood. With an age restriction that cut aspiring painters short before their 40th birthdays, the middle-aged and well-established painters of judges, military men, academics and chairmen of this, that and the other, were refused entry. We want no splendid uniforms and rows of medals, no robes and wigs, no gowns from academe, no suits from Savile Row and shirts from Jermyn Street, the rules implied; we want portraits painted by painters who paint other things landscapes, townscapes, still life and the quotidian who might bring to portraiture the energy and inspiration of these genres, who will see the portrait primarily as pure painting and not as a record, a document, a chart of features, and least of all as the highly priced (and therefore better) alternative to the photograph. It was an invitation to the young to renew and revive a genre that had been betrayed by the old.
In this the Award was immediately successful. One daring winner, Philip Harris, painted himself lifesize, naked, fully frontal, lying in a ditch with all the detritus that the wayward chuck in ditches described with Ruskinian delight. Roxana Halls at 19 or 20 did not win, but nevertheless gave us the most accomplished nude portrait of herself, beautiful in its frank honesty.
Antony Williams was both daring and subversive with a fine academic portrait that relied wholly on the forbidden formula of such things, but redeemed it with a hint of 17thcentury subtlety. Year after year Peter Edwards gave us vigorous formal portraits with a fierce touch that lifted them from the rut of dull convention. These painters and a hundred others gave the Award a lively start and nourished its promise as the years wore on, making it one of the most important exhibitions of contemporary art in the London calendar, one in which contributors, by virtue of the subject, could not visit the wilder shores of installation, video and abstract art, nor the new minimalism of, say, Martin Creed, but had to employ the low technology of paint on canvas.
In recent years, however, the standard of work included in the annual exhibitions has seemed to slide inexorably into dull incompetence and dependence on the camera; however much the conventions of historic portraiture have seemed to depress the genre, none has been as deadening as the new devices now already stale. I am heartily sick of painters' abject dependence on photography, of the grossly enlarged face looming from the canvas as though it were a dramatic close-up in the cinema, the heightened warts and all that is in part surreal, in part just plain old- fashioned tedious photo-realism.
All four portraits shortlisted for the prizes are, in essence, photographs, and all four are disgusting yes, disgusting, that is distasteful, sickening and repulsive and an offence to both painting and portraiture.
Paul Emsley, the winner of the 25,000 First Prize, and the runners-up, are all, here, guilty men. At least 18 more exhibits are so close to photographs as to have required no other preparation than 10 minutes snapping with a Pentax, in all, more than a third of the 60 inclusions in the exhibition.
I am weary of …