Arts > Exhibition review: BP Portrait Award 2017

Posted on June 28, 2017

Francesco by Anastasia Kurakina, 2017 © Anastasia Kurakina

Joe Marshall discovers acclaimed portraiture worth 1,000 words

As human beings ourselves, other human beings are an endless source of inspiration and fascination. This is reflected in the art world, where time and again artists find their muse in the face of a friend, relative or lover.

The BP Portrait Award 2017 has arrived at London’s National Portrait Gallery, for its 28th year. The entries on display have been whittled down from 2,580 to just 50 or so. This year’s winner is a painting entitled Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan. It depicts his wife nursing their eight month old daughter. He is the happy recipient of £30,000 and a commission at the gallery. The image captures a moment of maternal tenderness beyond the surface of the canvas.

Famous people are the focus of a few of the works. Renaissance man Matt Berry, perhaps best known for his comedy series Toast of London, appears in an extremely photorealistic, blue tinted portrait. Elsewhere, renowned poet Carol Ann Duffy stares straight ahead in a piece which captures a sincere depth of feeling beneath her tough exterior.

Dr Tim Moreton by Lucy Stopford is one of the more unconventional images on show. The subjects face is merely suggested by brush strokes, with no distinctive features like a mouth or nose. Another more challenging entry shows just the side of a woman’s head. Her ear, rather than her face is the focal point. Brian Shields has gone one step further and submitted an image of the back of someone’s head. These compositions challenge the idea of what a portrait can be, but of course can be taken either as groundbreaking or a bit of a joke.

The Mayor of Woollahra by Sinead Davies, 2016 © Sinead Davies


Smiles are few and far between in the showcase. The artists are attempting to capture something new and insightful. The finished products aren’t always flattering either. Oliver Cromwell once told an artist doing his portrait to paint him “warts and all”. That was certainly the approach Rowanne Cowley took in her shot at the prize, in which she has recreated all the lines and blemishes on her own face.

Honest Thomas by Alan Coulson is the picture with the most modern looking subject. A bearded man with tattoos and a beanie hat appears pensive. People of his ilk are ten a penny in London, but here we are enticed to look beneath his skin and into his heart.

One picture that drew me in to take a closer look is entitled Francesco. A young man reclines on a chair, a deep brooding expression on his face. He looks like someone with a depressive disposition which he can defend intellectually.

For my money, the best piece is Portrait of Kane by Brian Sayers. It’s an exceptionally revealing painting which looks straight into the heart of its subject, instantly impacting his sadness upon the viewer and provoking an internal response.

The most interesting portraits are a mystery. If the expression of the sitter is enigmatic, or seems to convey a feeling that cannot be captured in words, then an image can hold real power. Its these types of pictures that transcend the art form and can hang in a home where they will be looked at every day, offering something new each time.

Ultimately, this exhibition serves to show the many appearances and interpretations of them that make up human life. In the words of a Groove Armada song, “If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other”.

The BP Portrait Award is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 24th September. Admission is free.

Joe Marshall
Joe Marshall is Exposure’s Arts & Culture Editor. With his written content he endeavours to raid the full remit of arts and culture in London, if he doesn’t drown in it first. He aspires to make a career out of journalism like his heroes Tom Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson and Jon Ronson before him.

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One Response to Exhibition review: BP Portrait Award 2017

  1. Shakira Dyer June 30, 2017 at 9:15 am #

    >If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other”.

    Exactly!

    I think the Honest Thomas one is portraying the ‘everyman’ on the street, who people take for granted. Possibly a white working class man. He wears a green benie hat and black glasses. With his arms crossed, the viewer can make out brightly coloured tattoos. He seems American, as he’s wearing a shirt saying ‘2002 Fell the American Spirit’, with ‘Black Hills Rally’ below the shirt. This may show that, despite his tough exterior, he thinks about his community, or even the community across the pond if he does live in London.

    It really doesn’t even look like a painted portrait, it looks like a photograph!

    > renowned poet Carol Ann Duffy stares straight ahead in a piece which captures a sincere depth of feeling beneath her tough exterior.

    Haha – I can imagine that one! I studied Carol Ann Duffy in GCSE. Great poet, I think.

    These portraits may show that, whether you are former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, or the ‘everyman’ on the streets (of America?) – you are important to someone, hence someone took their time to create a portrait of you.

    Great article as always, Joe!

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