The annual BP Portrait Award has advanced the career of many successful portrait artists: Alison Watt, Philip Harris and Justin Mortimer. Now in its 32nd year, it is one of the most prestigious awards of its kind, clocking 2373 entries from across the globe.
The award encourages artists to focus on developing portraiture in their work. Celebrity is an undoubted appeal; consider the thousands who annually flock to see famous royal portraits a few rooms away from the exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery.
Yet fundamentally portraiture reflects personality and humanity regardless of whether the viewer knows the sitter or not – and it certainly comes across in this year’s competition. The BP Portrait Award 2011 encompasses both a spectrum of human experience and the diverse approaches to conveying it; everyone can relate to and garner something from the exhibition.
This year’s judging panel included Sandy Nairne (Director of the National Portrait Gallery), Paul Emsley (BP Portrait Award First Prize Winner 2007), Jonathan Jones (Art Critic, The Guardian) and Iwona Blazwick OBE (Director of the Whitechapel Gallery).
Wim Heldens, 57, a self-taught professional artist won the first prize of £25,000 and a commission worth £4,000 for ‘Distracted.’ The piece pictures sitter, Jeroen, clad in black and grey leaning against a section of wall, pencil in hand, illuminated by the light pouring through the window.
The attraction of the painting certainly lies in the subtlety of its intelligence and sensitivity. Sandy Nairne praised it as “a quiet but evocative study”. Yet I found it memorable mostly for the fact that it won rather than the painting itself.
Second Prize winner ‘Holly’ by Louis Smith provided a stark contrast to Helden’s painting, in both its subject matter and execution. The 8ft high canvas depicting a near-naked female handcuffed to a rock and surrounded by a huge gilt frame, contains all the qualities of a 19th Century allegorical painting. Inspired by the Greek myth of Prometheus, it resounds a message of composure in the face of adversity as the woman gazes at the eagle with calm, accepting resilience.
The technical brilliance and amazing detail harks back to an era of academic art. Yet it is simultaneously refreshing in a context where artists can make their name through shock tactics alone. Online demonstrations by Smith are available at http://paintaportrait.org/demonstrations/.
In third place was Ian Cumberland’s painting, ‘Just to Feel Normal.’ It depicts an enigmatic, squint-eyed, half smiling head and shoulders study of an angular jawed, stubble-covered friend of the artist. The realism of style and soulfulness of the eyes is inspiring.
The Young Artist Award went to Sertan Saltan, 28, for humorously horrifying image of a woman wearing hair rollers and latex gloves, while sharpening a knife and staring straight at the viewer.
Jo Fraser received the Travel Award for ‘Flora MacGregor’. Other noteworthy pieces include ‘Latoya’ by Alan Coulson and the colourful ‘George O’Dowd’ by Layla Lyons.
For me, Raoul Martinez is a consistent highlight to the award; his style immediately recognisable. Martinez’s ‘Howard Zinn – A People’s Historian’ and last year’s ‘Alan Rickman’ have a beautifully human quality to them, while the plain white background enhances the painterly intensity of their subjects.
The award does not fail to stir controversy. Climate activists beleaguered the award ceremony in protest against sponsorship from BP, claiming the oil company was using the arts to divert attention from its damaging impact on the environment.
Protesters displayed a collection of portraits outside the gallery illustrating the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. One picture, ‘The First Splash Since Spill’, hauntingly pictured a child – the artist’s grandson – playing in oil covered water in Louisiana after being told it was safe.
Meanwhile, artists whose entries for the award were rejected staged an alternate exhibition.
‘Dazed and Refused’ opened at the Hurwundeki Cafe under an east London railway arch on the same day that the official BP exhibition launched. Adam Laurence and Peter Jessett, who led the initiative, have their works alongside 53 other competition castoffs displayed with their rejection letters.
Such attempts to master the art of rejection are not new. The tradition began in 1830s France when artists, rejected by the official Paris Salon, launched their own small-scale shows, ‘Salon des Refuses.’ Such shows celebrated over 3,000 artworks and included the likes of Manet, Whistler, Cezanne and Pisarro. What great masters may be sitting in east London now?
A visit to the official BP Portrait Award 2011 exhibition nevertheless paints an exhilarating picture of the variety of styles that illustrate the outstanding work in production today. The top 55 portraits are on show in the Wolfson Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, from 16 June until 18 September. Visitors also have the chance to nominate their favourite to win a cash prize. Voting closes 4 September.
This article was originally published by HerUni.com.