BP Portrait Award 2009
As the BP Portrait Award exhibition returns to Edinburgh Rosalie Doubal explores why portraiture is returning to favour among contemporary artists
For some years now, the BP Portrait Award has proved to be one of the most popular exhibitions in the National Galleries’ calendar – people just love it. In terms of the contemporary Scottish visual art scene, however, portraiture is a rarity. So what is the attraction? Exhibiting personal portraits of family members alongside revealing works of celebrity sitters – Rab C Nesbitt star Gregor Fisher and TV presenter Gail Porter – by both amateur and professional artists, this year’s selection represents a stylistically diverse collection of contemporary portrait paintings. Whittled down from one of the open competition’s largest selection of entries yet, 56 portraits will be on show, including the three shortlisted artists, alongside the work of the BP Travel Award 2008 winner Emmanouil Bitsakis.
‘People like looking at people. That’s why magazines like Hello and OK are popular, because we are naturally curious about what other people look like,’ explains James Holloway, a judge of this year’s award and director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. ‘Also, people can appreciate the skill in these portraits, whereas if it’s a landscape or a piece of conceptual art or installation, its much more difficult to really understand what the artist is trying to do.’
This year’s winning work, ‘Changeling 2’, by Peter Monkman, is a rather unsettling depiction of his daughter. Exploring the concept of the changeling – a child substituted for a fairy, troll or elf – Monkman draws on common notions of adolescence and change. Similarly, Michael Gaskell’s shortlisted work, ‘Tom’, a photo-realist painting that displays incredible skill, depicts a youngster on the cusp of manhood.
‘Adolescence is a very difficult period to paint, it is a time when people are developing characteristics, so it is quite intriguing,’ Holloway explains. ‘I think that’s probably what the winner was trying to get down on paper. I personally tend to go for what I would call ‘good quality painting’, that’s perhaps rather old fashioned, but Monkman’s work seemed to have that, and it had an edge as well.’
This year the competition was opened to international entries and the maximum age limit of 40, which has prohibited older artists in the past, was this year lifted. ‘A lot of people have entered from Russia, South Africa and Eastern Europe. And that’s really interesting because you do get different national characteristics coming in, for example there is this school of technically accomplished St Petersburg painters who work in a very traditional style.’
With this burgeoning international interest in the award, there must be great ramifications for the genre and medium, for since the 1960s, figurative painting has occupied a rocky position in the Western art world. It was an intriguing and telling decision, then, to include on the judging panel artist Gillian Wearing. The 1997 Turner Prize winner has time and again produced works that expand on the notion of portraiture. Exploring the disparities between public and private life, between personal and collective experience, Wearing has produced many photographic and video portraits that toy with traditionalist views of the medium.
‘Twenty years ago portraiture was “beyond the pale”,’ Holloway exclaims. ‘No serious artist would touch it – they thought it ghastly. Whereas now, lots of young artists are tackling it. They are interested in identity and therefore, portraiture. Its much more acceptable in the more contemporary sphere.’
BP Portrait Award 2009, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, Sat 12 Dec–Sun 21 Feb.