BP Portrait Award

Publication: The Times.    
October 2015

At first glance, this annual show, now in it 36th year, is a safe and rather conventional collection of painted portraits. The final entries have been selected from a total of over 2700 submissions. This year, for the first time, the entries were submitted electronically, so the fifty-five finalists here come from as far afield as Turkey, the Czech republic, Spain, Australia and Canada.

There is a predominance of representational, highly realistic approaches to the portraiture genre, with occasional forays into symbolism, metaphor and the sub-genres of self- ­­or group portraiture.

There are some shocking moments: images of pain, desperation and loneliness, and other works full of empathy or love.

José Luis Corella’s painting of his uncle, ‘Juanito’, uses every blemish, every blood vessel, every line and wrinkle to convey the watery-eyed confusion of old age.

Daniel Coves ‘Back Portrait no 8’ shows a standing female figure from the rear in the hallway a small Berlin flat. It’s a lonely, despairing image, full of isolation and fear, accentuated by the harsh glare of a bare light bulb and the predominance of greys and black.

Michael Gaskell’s image of his 14-year-old niece, ‘Eliza’ is the work of a highly accomplished craftsman. Gaskell’s work owes much, as the catalogue notes, to Dutch 17th painting, in particular Vermeer. Gaskell has been a frequent entrant in previous years, and here he takes the second prize, worth £10,000.

Portraiture, taken in its broadest sense, relates not only to the technical skill of the artist but also to their ability (implicit in the the etymological roots of the term) to reveal, to disclose or expose the personality, mood or feelings of the sitter.

The image shows a teenage girl in transition to womanhood, her skin clear and blemish free, her face almost without makeup. The top button of her shirt is fastened, suggesting she is ‘buttoned-up’, virginal, innocent.

The winner of the 2015 award, Israeli Matan Ben Cnaan, presents an altogether different type of image. Although clearly influenced again by the ‘Old Masters’, Ben Cnaan typically depicts Biblical narratives in a contemporary setting. There is often an underlying sense of menace, or violence, in his work. This work is no exception. It shows a seated man with a large, powerful dog next to a young woman whose right hand sits gently on the man’s left shoulder.

Ben Cnaan notes that the sitters are close friends (Guy and his step-daughter Annabelle) and that the portrait was inspired by the story of Jephthah from the Book of Judges. After leading the Israelites into victorious battle, Jephthah vowed to God to sacrifice the first thing that greeted him on his return home. Believing that it would his dog Jephthah was, however, met by his daughter whom he was forced to sacrifice.

Everywhere in this image is a sense of harshness and fracture. The intense light casts deep shadows and the broken masonry and derelict concrete walls present a contemporary portrait not just of a family but of a nation, and a wider region.

Many of the images here are of friends, lovers, spouses, brothers, mothers. It is precisely the intimacy and familiarity of such portraiture which accounts for much of the show’s success, demonstrates the popularity of painting and one of