BP Portrait Award 2017
National Portrait Gallery, London
Until September 24
The BP Portrait Award is always a very popular exhibition, and no wonder. It’s a showcase, a shop window, and a glimpse either into how people are, or perhaps just how they would like to be perceived. The painters are advertising themselves: the competition attracts entries from all over the world these days and the most successful entrants no doubt find their phones starting to ring a little more. But it’s not just the painters advertising themselves. Often, the sitters, whether they have commissioned the portrait or not, are also taking a conscious decision on how they want to be seen.
Fashions, however, in portraiture change, and it is striking that more than half this year’s exhibition are portraits of people against a barely defined or completely blank backdrop.
From left: A Russian Artist in China, by Han Bao
David Wigg by Sopio Chkhikvadze; Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan
When the setting becomes too elaborate, the result can be comically kitsch to our austere tastes. In one case I don’t know whether to blame the artist, Rupert Alexander, or his sitters, the Levinson family, for the wildly over-the-top group portrait, complete with Velazquez allusions.
When supporting evidence is appropriate and natural, it can make a painting: the glass teacup in Bao Han’s portrait of an anonymous Russian artist (right) is touching.
The most rewarding portraits are those that go beyond a face, and somehow capture a personality. Sopio Chkhikvadze’s portrait of the journalist David Wigg might not be the most conventionally skilled piece of painting here. But she has the sense to place him in an interior, and it perfectly renders his unmistakable appearance, regal, daffy and very slightly frayed round the edges.
Painters seem, however, to be fixated on the head-and-shoulders against a blank wall, which are fine individually, but make for a slightly dull exhibition. I think, too, that future selectors might rebel somewhat against the hyper- realist gigantic head, in which we are meant to coo over the exactly executed stubble and reflection in the eyeball. Sitters, I know, very much like this sort of approach, but the portraits that prove most engaging are also the most painterly – for instance, Ania Hobson’s Lucian Freud-influenced self-portrait, Lucy Stopford’s joyous splurge over Dr Tim Moreton’s features, or Anca-Luisa Sirbu’s snatched image of her son, patiently waiting.
IT’S A FACT
The 1634 paintings of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit by Rembrandt are the most expensive portraits ever sold, fetching $180m in 2015.
Three paintings by men of women fulfilling feminine roles take the top three prizes: a nude, an image of the painter’s wife on learning that she was pregnant, and the winner, Benjamin Sullivan’s image of his wife Virginia breast-feeding their baby daughter. They are good paintings, but it would have been better to have covered the field a little more, particularly as the young artist prize also goes to a male painter, Henry Christian-Stone, with a portrait of his girlfriend.
Portraits that might have been justifiably rewarded in order to acknowledge the variety of the genre include Sinead Davies’s modest portrait of the female Mayor of Woollahra. The portrait I think I like most, however, is Claire Eastgate’s double portrait of the poets Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy. It’s one of the most psychologically resonant here, and the delicate use of familiar objects – a book, absorbing the attention, a mug set down – is part of its powerful effect.
Eastgate succeeds, in quite an unobtrusive way, in showing these women as powerfully intelligent. Clarke seems to be interrogating the book, not just reading it in absorption. Duffy’s gaze, stern but benevolent, is unmistakable. I like the power of these personalities; and Eastgate’s personality, too, rises from the evident enjoyment of the challenge.
A very entertaining show, and once or twice, something more than that.
In 1965, Gered Mankowitz had usurped David Bailey as photographer-in-chief of the Rolling Stones and was accompanying the band on its mammoth US tour
Furr & Mankowitz: 45RPM
45 Park Lane, London
Until August 5
In 1965, Gered Mankowitz had usurped David Bailey as photographer-in-chief of the Rolling Stones and was accompanying the band on its mammoth US tour.
Not bad for an 18-year-old. A shot of Brian Jones on stage – along with two shots of Mick Jagger (pictured) and Keith Richards in Hollywood’s RCA Studios – feature in Mankowitz’s latest exhibition.
He has trawled through his archive of pictures and invited the painter Christian Furr to add touches to some of his favourites, in acrylic, pastel, gold leaf and diamond dust.
Mankowitz’s best-known photos were taken in the Sixties, in many cases in black and white, and Furr adds some suitably psychedelic colour, which helps us focus on the photos anew. And what captivating photos they are.
Mankowitz has a keen sense of composition. He also has a knack of catching rock gods at moments of vulnerability. His photos remind us that rock ’n’ roll wasn’t all about hubris and hedonism. If you looked for it, there was a sensitive side too.