Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Canvas, Brush, Paint-Box Brownie; Today's Young Portrait Painters Are More Influenced by the Camera Than by Reynolds or Gainsborough

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Canvas, Brush, Paint-Box Brownie; Today's Young Portrait Painters Are More Influenced by the Camera Than by Reynolds or Gainsborough

Article excerpt


IS that it? This question must have echoed round the BP Portrait Award exhibition a thousand times on the day of its opening, and ten thousand times in the 10 days since. Is that it? Is it in this array of souped-up photographs, this collection of passport and prison mug-shots translated into paint, this stockpile of hesitant, unambitious, complacent and conventional images of human beings by unadventurous painters, employing every orthodoxy of the day, that we must look for impending advances in the art of portraiture, the great leaps into its future? Are these lost souls really commended by the National Portrait Gallery as the heirs to Reynolds, Gainsborough and Lawrence?

It is all very well to enlist the pen of AS Byatt, celebrated novelist, to support this faltering enterprise with an irrelevant essay of ekphrastic bilge, linking these pathetic offerings to the affected simplicities of Matisse and the witty mannerisms of Cocteau, her fervid imagination running away with her in a roll-call that includes Freud, Auerbach, de Kooning, Balthus, Cezanne, Titian, Rembrandt and Frans Hals - but it won't work.

Even the most unsophisticated eye can see that none of these supposedly great names has a jot or tittle of connection with these young inadequates at the NPG, and the art critic immediately recognises the stale copout of the eyeless writer who, knowing nothing of art, is reduced to raising the status of the weak and feeble by writing of them in the context of the strong.

This device, so familiar in the introductions to exhibition catalogues, is employed solely, as here, to lend weight to the ephemeral - the aesthetic equivalent of injecting beef protein into flaccid chicken breasts.

It is now so common as to have become a subcategory of ekphrasis, by which I mean - no matter the definition offered in the Oxford English Dictionary - a work of art inspired by another in a different medium, Keats, for example, responding to the Portland Vase with his Ode to a Grecian Urn. Miss Byatt's contribution is, however, no match for Keats and comes close to mendacious propaganda.

The BP Award requires more, much more, than the wind of a novelist's ekphrasis to blow it from the doldrums of banality. In other years it has ventured to assault the sensibilities of the visitor with things quite hideous. In other years it has surrendered to political correctitude in exhibiting pictures so bad, that their inclusion could only be excused on the ground that the artists came from a racial minority of some considerable number and might kick up an accusatory fuss. In other years it has given way to images that had some virtue as paintings but none as portraits. In other years - though very few - it has awarded prizes to those whom I, too, thought worthy of them, though rarely in the same order.

But this year the standard is so low, so dull, so uninspired, so lacklustre and insipid, that the critic is compelled to question the judgment of the judges.

Of the 858 portraits submitted for the award this year, only 51 have been selected for exhibition. Is it remotely possible that all the 807 rejected pictures were even worse than this miserable six per cent?

And who were the judges? One was a representative of BP, of course, for this giant of the oil industry is the sponsor of the show and the donor of [pounds sterling]38,000 in prize money. Last year's winner was another, a woman who, in 2002, won [pounds sterling]25,000 for a painting bad enough to have come bottom of the heap this year.

Cathy de Monchaux, an artist of sorts in fetishes of silk and leather but to most of us invisible as a painter or portraitist, and now very much a forgotten relic of the 1990s, was the third.

And the fourth was - lawks 'a mercy - Helena Kennedy, a querulous politician with particular interest in, not the arts, but women's rights and civil liberties, and another 1990s fadeout. …

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