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Saturday, 27 June 2015

BP Portrait Award 2015

The BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery is an annual highlight of the art calendar and remains one of the most distinguished international portrait painting competitions, showcasing the striking and diverse nature of contemporary portrait painting. Here is a selection of  the works that caught our eye:

The power of portraiture as a visual genre is due in large part to its complex issues of self, identity and technique, particularly related to the idea of space and how one occupies it both physically and psychologically. This year's exhibition includes family members, figurative nudes, expressive sketches and famous faces including Bob Geldof and highlights the genre's diversity in terms of purpose and style. 

First prize was awarded to Matan Ben- Cnaan, an Israeli artist who depicts his friend Guy and step-daughter Annabelle. The work is partly inspired by the biblical story of Israelite judge Jephthah, who promised God that in return for victory over the Ammonites he would sacrifice the first thing that greets him upon his return. To Jephthah's dismay it is his daughter, who is later sacrificed. This allegorical, neo-realist painting is imbued with an uneasy atmosphere, which is reflected in the composition and reinforced through the extreme use of light and shadow. The grittiness of the wall and gravel parallels Guy's (Jephthat's) character, whilst the fig free foretells Annabelle's tragic fate. 
'Annabelle and Guy', Matan Ben- Cnann © Matan Ben - Cnaan
Michael Gaskell's portrait of his niece Eliza was awarded second prize. Gaskell hopes the portrait 'conveys a sense of Eliza's growing confidence as she develops into a woman...but retains some of the self-consciousness which was also present at the time (that she first sat for her uncle as a small child.)' A year before this work began, Gaskell was commissioned to paint an American collector who was particularly interested in the Early Netherlandish artist Hans Memling, which Gaskell believes influenced the lighting and composition of this painting. The influence of Dutch art is paralleled by a more contemporary, timeless character. 
'Eliza', Michael Gaskell © Michael Gaskell

The influence of past art is also evident in 'Charlotte and Emily' by Leslie Watts. Painted in egg tempera, its format was inspired by the portrait of King Henry VII that is part of the permanent collection. The two sitters, who are Watts's daughter and her partner, sat inside a picture frame during sittings so that Watts could see the effects of light and how they interacted with the space. 'Portrait of Christian in Profile' by Marco Ventura shows the influence of Renaissance profile portraits and 'Rocio, Nude on Carpet' by Eduardo Millan depicts a contemporary female nude but also references Greek and Roman classical sculpture. 
'Portrait of Christian in Profile', Marco Ventura © Marco Ventura
'My mother and brother on a Sunday Evening,' by Spanish artist Borja Buces Renard was awarded third prize, admired for its loose, unfinished quality and the close relationship that Renard has captured between the sitters. The painting depicts a snapshot of of artist's family, who would meet at the end of the week, catch up and talk about art. Buces writes that 'I believe an artist should paint the world that surrounds them, that they know really well, to create meaningful art.' 
'My mother and my brother on a Sunday Evening', Borja Buces Renard © Borja Buces Renard
'Sink or Swim', Ian Cumberland © Ian Cumberland
'Sink or Swim' by Ian Cumberland is a powerful self-portrait that visually documents the artist's 'wake up call to try and change the things you have control of.' 'J' by New York based artist Eleana Antonaki won the BP Young Artist Award. The painting depicts the Antonaki's friend and fellow artist Julie Laenkhom, who makes work that focuses on the idea of the 'object as a living thing.' Julie is captured sitting alone in a somber space, meditating at a table and surrounded by objects, which reflects her strong preoccupation with items such as balls of clay. Antonaki's engagement with the isolation of contemporary life is accompanied by her exchange with portraiture as a historical tradition, 'In my portrait, I am referring to the archetypal image of a sitting figure and at the same time to construct an image that exists in a dialogue with the traditional painting space.' 

'J', Eleana Antonaki © Eleana Antonaki
'Charlotte and Emily', Leslie Watts, © Leslie Watts

'Rocio, Nude on Carpet', Eduardo Millan © Eduardo Millan
The BP Portrait Award runs until 20th September 2015 at The National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2H 0HE. 

Friday, 26 June 2015

Self-portrait round up

Self-portraiture is one of the most enigmatic topics tackled by the artist and is intimately connected to complex questions of identity, style and technique. Inspired by the success of our ‘Selfie’ exhibition, which closes next Friday, we take a look at some of the seminal self-portraits in Western Art:

'Portrait of a Man', Jan Van Eyck, 1433
'Portrait of a Man', Jan Van Eyck, 1433, © The National Gallery, London
The man’s penetrating gaze as well as the elaborate inscriptions on the top and bottom of the frame, skilfully painted to look like carvings, which read ‘Als Ich Can’ (As I/Eyck Can) and ‘Jan Van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433’, suggest that this painting is a self-portrait. Van Eyck’s subtle use of light highlights how the sitter appears to emerge from darkness, his face and headdress modelled by the light that falls from the left.

'The Desperate Man', Gustav Courbet, 1843-45
'The Desperate Man', Gustav Courbet, 1843-45 © DR 
This dramatic self-portrait depicts Courbet staring straight out at the viewer, pulling back his hair and with his eyes wide open. Courbet was a controversial figure who challenged the established painting genres in terms of subject matter and technique. He openly rejected the large scale, history paintings inspired by classical myths that were favoured by the art establishment. He painted what he saw around him and famously used the less privileged in society as his subjects. This painting acknowledges the popular Romantic approach to portraiture, which was preoccupied with expressing the psychological state of the individual and emphasises his daring personality. 

'Self-Portrait with Palette', Edouard Manet, 1878-9
'Self-portrait with Palette', Edouard Manet, 1878-9, © petrus.agricola, Flickr  
This painting is an unusual work in Manet’s oeuvre and he has capitalised on a rare moment of artistic freedom as both the subject and creator. Manet has often been dubbed as the forefather of Impression and this self-portrait, rapidly painted in a narrow range of tones, demonstrates his stylistic audacity. This is emphasised in the bold light source that highlights the right hand side of his face and the open, visible brushwork, particularly evident in the hand that holds the paintbrush, which blends into the ochre of his jacket. Interestingly, Manet has not reversed the mirror image of himself so he is shown painting with his left hand.

'Self-portrait', Pablo Picasso, 1906
'Self-portrait', Pablo Picasso, 1906, © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society, New York 
This self-portrait depicts a young, athletic Picasso who, like Manet, is holding his palette. In preparatory drawings, Picasso included a paintbrush in his right hand but it does not appear in the final version. This may suggest the equal importance of physical prowess and artistic interiority, which is reinforced by Picasso's staring gaze. Unlike other self-portraits, in which Picasso depicts himself in the guise of beggars or performers, metaphorically representative of the 'outsider artist', this work can be seen as a celebratory manifesto of his unique vision. His artistic power is channelled in his muscular appearance. The stern, mask like and expressionless rendering of his face shows the stylistic influence and 'magic' Picasso saw in African Art and Iberian sculpture as well as reinforcing his power, making a subtle visual nod to an athlete or warrior who covers his face with a helmet. The stylised eyebrows and oversized ear also show the influence of fellow artist Paul Gauguin, particularly his sculpture. 

'Self-portrait with Necklace of Thorns', Frida Kahlo, 1940
'Self-portrait with Necklace of Thorns', Frida Kahlo, 1940, © 2009 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust 
When Kahlo was 18, she was badly injured in a bus accident. After this, she taught herself how to paint and it became a cathartic process that was manifested in symbolic images, which portrayed the cycle of death and rebirth. Her affair with Hungarian-born photographer Nickolas Murray in New York, which ended in 1939 and her divorce from artist Diego Rivera in the same year left Kahlo feeling desolate. During this period, she produced some of her most fascinating paintings and self-portraits. Kahlo faces the viewer and has depicted herself against a background of leaves. The setting contains symbolic references to her suffering, most notably the necklace of thorns that she wears around her bleeding neck. 

'The Son of Man', Rene Magritte, 1964
'The Son of Man', Rene Magritte, 1964, © Flickr 
'At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It's something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict...between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.' 

Magritte depicts himself wearing an overcoat and bowler hat, standing in front of a wall that overlooks the sea and with his face partially obscured by a suspended green apple. This painting resembles The Great War on Facades, which depicts a woman with an umbrella standing in front of a similar wall and overlooking the ocean, her face obscured by a hovering flower. 

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Our pick of iconic portraits to see in London this summer

Inspired by the fantastic exhibitions dedicated to portraiture that we have enjoyed this year so far, including Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery, Self at Turner Contemporary and the BP Portrait Award, an annual favourite that is currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery, here is our round-up of the much-loved portraits that London’s galleries have on offer:

‘Self-portrait with two circles’, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Kenwood House.

‘Self-portrait with two circles’, Rembrandt Van Rijn, c.1665-9 © English Heritage

Considered one of the world's greatest masterpieces and Rembrandt's definitive self-portrait, this powerful painting depicts the artist in his later life, in a meditative space, weighed down by artistic knowledge and melancholy. Following the death of his wife Saskia and three of their children, Rembrandt became bankrupt. In 1663, his mistress Hendrickje also died. Noticeably more solemn than his earlier self-portraits, Rembrandt depicts himself alone and impoverished in his studio, wearing a fur-trimmed gown and white linen cap, holding the tools of his trade that symbolise his unwavering creativity- a palette, brushes and mahlstick. The two circles drawn on the wall behind him are enigmatic, what do they represent? A sketch for a map of the world? Or an allusion to the first drawing made with a stick in sand? 

‘The Arnolfini Portrait', Jan Van Eyck, The National Gallery. 

‘The Arnolfini Portrait’, Jan Van Eyck, 1434, © The National Gallery, London

This portrait depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a member of a merchant family from Lucca, and his wife in a luxurious interior. It has been suggested that Giovanni’s wife is pregnant, although her full-skirted dress conforms to contemporary fashion. Van Eyck has playfully inscribed the painting with an ornate Latin signature that reads, ‘Jan Van Eyck was here 1434.’ The mirror reflects two figures in the doorway and it is often assumed that one may be Van Eyck himself, who raises his hand in greeting. Van Eyck’s preoccupation with the effects of light is evident in his subtle depiction of the glistening brass chandelier. 

‘The Ambassadors’, Hans Holbein the Younger, The National Gallery.

‘The Ambassadors, ‘ Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533, © The National Gallery, London

This double portrait depicts Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England in 1533 and his friend, Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur and ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See. These wealthy and accomplished young men are surrounded by books and instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time, including a celestial globe, sundial, lute, a case of flutes and hymn book. Certain details in the painting can also be seen as religious symbols, such as the broken lute string, possibly referencing religious tumult and the Lutheran hymn book, which may be an appeal for Christian harmony. In the foreground is a distorted image of a skill – a memento mori and mark of mortality. 

‘Equestrian Portrait of Charles I ‘, Anthony Van Dyck, The National Gallery.

‘Equestrian Portrait of Charles I ‘, Anthony Van Dyck, c.1637, © The National Gallery, London  

Van Dyck became King Charles’s court painter in 1632, following his succession to the throne as King of Great Britain and Ireland in 1625. Van Dyck’s portraits of the King affirm his belief in his divine right to govern. Charles I is depicted wearing a medallion of a Garter Sovereign, dressed in armour and holding a commander’s baton. The majestic horse, opulent saddlecloth and page boy holding a helmet reinforce the King’s elegance. This painting was created not long before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, which led to the King’s execution in 1649. 

‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’, Thomas Gainsborough, The National Gallery. 

‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’, Thomas Gainsborough, 1750, © The National Gallery, London

This double portrait is considered one of Gainsborough’s early masterpieces, painted soon after the marriage of Robert Andrews of the Auberies and Frances Carter of Ballingdon House, near Sudbury. Both were from landowning families and it is believed that their fathers negotiated their marriage to consolidate their estates.

Mr and Mrs Andrews are depicted in a landscape that evokes Robert Andrew’s estate and the painting fits the convention of the conversation piece – a small-scale portrait that depicts two or more people outdoors. Mr Andrews holds a gun under his arm and his wife sits on an elegant Rococo style bench.  It is assumed that Mrs Andrews’s unfinished lap signifies a future pregnancy – their eldest son was born the following year. The dominance of the landscape emphasises Gainsborough’s skillful naturalism and particularly his depiction of the changing weather. 

‘Study of Mme Gautreau’, John Singer Sargent, Tate Britain. 

‘Study of Mme Gautreau’, John Singer Sargent, c. 1884, Tate Britain, © Tate

The finished version of this iconic portrait, which depicts Parisian socialist Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, Madame X, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but the full-size sketch is on display at Tate Britain. Madame X was the American wife of a French banker living in Paris. When the painting was shown at the 1884 Salon in Paris, Madame X’s unconventional pose and dress, which highlights her sharp profile and exposed shoulders, was deemed provocative and caused public outcry. Her mother requested that the painting was removed from the exhibition and its controversy was so damaging to Sargent’s reputation that he relocated to Britain.

‘Self- portrait with Bandaged Ear’, Vincent Van Gogh, Courtauld Gallery.

‘Self- portrait with Bandaged Ear’, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889 © The Courtauld Gallery

What I’m most passionate about, much much more than all the rest in my profession – is the portrait, the modern portrait. I seek it by way of colour, and am certainly not alone in seeking it this way…I would like to do portraits which would look like apparitions to people a century later. So I don’t try to do us by photographic resemblance but by our passionate expressions.’

‘I always feel confidence when doing portraits, knowing that that work is much more serious – that’s perhaps not the word- but rather is the thing that enables me to cultivate what’s best and most serious in me.’  

Van Gogh was a prolific portraitist and this seminal self-portrait was painted shortly after he returned home from hospital while living in Arles. Arles was home to his 'studio of the south', where he was joined by fellow painter Paul Gauguin. This turbulent relationship resulted in Van Gogh famously mutilating his ear and marked the end of his aspiration to create a society of like-minded artists. 

The self-portrait is particularly poignant in the history of art, illustrating the unique moment when the artist enjoys a rare sense of freedom a both subject and creator. Despite wearing an overcoat and hat, Van Gogh depicts himself in his studio. His somber facial expression and prominent bandage emphasise the significance of his injury and his acute awareness of his status as an artist. On the left is a blank canvas, an ambiguous symbol of either creative lack or artistic potential. The Japanese print on the right, which resembles an actual print that Van Gogh owned by Sato Torakiyo, highlights the important influence of Japanese art; similarly to Arles, Japan was an exotic place of escape in Van Gogh's imagination and this self-portrait encapsulates the two places. 

‘Girl with a White Dog’, Lucian Freud, Tate Britain. 
'Girl with a White Dog', Lucien Freud, 1950-1 © Tate
This portrait depicts Freud's first wife when she was pregnant. The linear style of the painting demonstrates the influence of nineteenth century French neoclassical painter, Ingres. This, combined with the psychological loneliness that pervades Freud's early work, led critic Herbert Read to label him as the 'Ingres of Existentialism.' The concept that human existence is both spiritually and physically painful was also shared by contemporaries including Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti.

‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’, David Hockney, Tate Britain.

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’, 1970- 1, © David Hockney

This painting forms part of a series of large double portraits which Hockney started in 1968. Working from both photographs and life, the sitters are depicted in their homes. Hockney described the painting as one of his most naturalistic works. Although it is in part realistic, the style is also simplified; there is minimal detail and the composition has been flattened.

Placed either side of a large open window, ‘Mr and Mrs Clark’ are the dress designer Ozzie Clark and fabric designer Celia Birtwell. They married in 1969 and Hockney painted them in their flat in Notting Hill Gate. They are shown in their bedroom because Hockney liked the light. Hockney stated that his aim was to ‘achieve…the presence of two people in this room.’  Hockney faced the technical problem of achieving a balance between daylight and relative shade. Ozzie’s relaxed pose contrasts to Celia’s upright position. On her side of the composition is a vase of lilies, historically a symbol of purity. The cat that sits on Ozzie’s lap also holds symbolic value, signifying somebody who is indifferent to rules. This symbolism makes an interesting allusion to The Arnolfini Portrait, in which a dog at the couple’s feet exemplifies fidelity.