BP Portrait Award 2009 – NPG

In the fine tradition of multinational oil companies papering over dodgy environmental track records via cultural sponsorship BP have spent the last few years embracing the Portrait Award at the NPG. It’s slightly more subtle than the message Shell tried to hammer home in plastering their logo all over the Wildlife Photographer of the Year although not much. It was to the Portrait Award that I journeyed several weeks ago as I don’t have a problem with an oil company sponsoring an cultural events. The arts struggle with sponsorship, especially during a recession and I don’t believe that seeing a company’s logo on flyers for something you like overrides all your prior knowledge or opinions of that company…

Moving on! Portraiture (for me) relies entirely on me getting a sense of that person which I wouldn’t get in one of those professional studios – you know, the ones where you and your loved ones frolic on a white background and look technically lovely but a stranger looking at the picture would be none the wiser as to your inner self. I think that successful poirtraiture says something about the subject, not just the artist.

That leads me to my problem with the winner (Peter Monkman, for Changeling 2). The idea is that Monkman’s series of portraits of his daughter at different stages of her life intertwines with the idea of changelings – one child substituted for another. It says a lot about the painter’s experience of fatherhood and of adolescence but NOTHING about this particular child. Monkman has used his daughter’s face to give form to a feeling and a concept but it doesn’t actually matter whether it’s her or a sibling or some other child altogether.

Changeling 2, Peter Monkton

Changeling 2, Peter Monkton

There were, however, two paintings that I thought were amazing. One was Portrait of my Mother by Hector M. Hernandez, the other was Broken Heart by Donald Macdonald.

I adored the fondness and love that comes through Portrait of my Mother. The artist says that looking over and seeing his mother asleep on the sofa “simply inspired me”. The warm light which gently illuminates her sleeping form along with the care evident in the brushwork and the representation highlight their relationship. This approach also gently reveals something about the artist’s mother despite the fact her closed eyes mean her gaze is absent.

Portrait of my Mother, Hector M. Hernandez

Portrait of my Mother, Hector M. Hernandez

Broken Heart almost made me cry. It shows Charlie – the father of the artist’s fiancée – after open heart surgery and is a prime example of the way I believe the relationship between the subject and the artist should have a profound impact on the piece.As much as the painting expresses the physical aspects of traumatic surgery, it is about the loss of Charlie’s wife 22 years previously. The cool palette, the bruised and vulnerable aging body, the intense shadows and the deep sadness in the expression all create a hugely moving piece which voices a silent pain simply and without fanfare.

Broken Heart, Donald Macdonald

Broken Heart, Donald Macdonald

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