An annual event to get excited about is the prestigious BP Portrait Award. Arguably the most important portrait competition in the world, based at the National Portrait Gallery, London. It is currently on tour and residing at Firstsite, Colchester, UK.
Putting aside the politics of the sponsor, which is not without its protests, the competition produces incredible work. This is unsurprising with the high number of entries from an unrestricted geography. 2017 saw 2,580 entries from 87 countries resulting in talent, diversity and energy.
The sum of these adjectives add up to something more – something quite magical, and, as a non-artist I don’t use the word lightly. As a child believes in the invisibility cloak of Harry Potter, I believe in the magic of these paintings. I do not have the capability to produce such pieces so I can only look on, as an observer, and believe they have been created by something more than an artist and their tools – there simply has to be a sprinkle of magic involved.
Wolfgang Kessler has studied and painted his daughter’s clothing as she has grown up. In DIE VERMUTUNG I, he has reproduced the colour and tactile voluminosity of the fabric draped around her. It is as enchanting as any wizard’s cloak. Seeing my bewilderment, a curator graciously spoke to me about the skill involved and I found myself disengaging – I didn’t want, or need, to know about the reality of creating it. I am happier marvelling, rather than understanding.
Here is a snippet of the painting.
I see this same magic in the realness of VACUUM 2 by Thomas Ehretsmann. No photography will do VACUUM 2 justice. It is a relatively small piece in the exhibition and doesn’t have any colour, but it demands a closer look and keeps your attention. To distinguish it from a photograph is impossible and to get this depth of reality, without the trickery of colour, is impressive. The stains on the shirt, the background detail and the look in his eye, defy belief and make me sigh at the alchemy involved. An illustrator ‘by trade’ he says, ‘I used tiny brushstrokes of semi-transparent acrylic paint in order to try and make the piece look similar to an egg tempera painting’.
At the core of all portraiture is ‘the sitter’, with a range of mediums, techniques and viewpoints then applied. On top of these skills, the common thread weaving between them is the magic of ‘a story’. Each portrait offers a few sentences on the sitter and I mentally add to these words each time I visit, building up my own tale. This is when I feel fully connected with the art as each painting poses a question about the human condition. After five visits I have reached the point where I now feel an emotional connection to most of the paintings and particularly Brett Armory’s oil on canvas, JIJINKA. Inspired by Jijinka – a male transitioning into this, strong and determined looking, female, there is a defiance I love in the resulting painting.
The winning piece GIRL IN A LIBERTY DRESS by Clara Drummond has an enigmatic charm. This was not my favourite piece, but it undoubtedly has an allure about it.
The magic continues with return visits and I most recently took along two primary school children whose faces were full of wonder, which in the age of the selfie, they were keen to capitalise on by transposing these faces onto the artwork. The power of Snapchat! Portraits are recognisable, tangible subjects; instantly identified and easy to identify with, which makes this exhibition an excellent and playful choice for a relatively new gallery still trying to connect with its audience.