Summer in London. A time for football, tennis, big open-air screens, deck chairs, Pimm’s, barbecues in the garden. But also, and for us more importantly, a time for art, a time to explore new artists, young artists, known and less known ones, “fringe” artists, etc. A time to discover what is brewing in the creative world, and a time to show our own work, and take active part in the conversation. There is a whirlwind of events, from our treasured Open Houses – that give people a chance to meet the artists, buy their work, and talk to them in their living/working environment – to the 250-year-old RA Summer Exhibition, plus London Art Week, Mayfair Art Weekend, Art Night, and so on, where we can do some serious gallery hopping without being intimidated by the fresh painted walls and the pristine assistants. One of the must-go destinations for painters, photographers and, of course, everybody else, is the BP Portrait Award.
Now in its thirty-ninth year at the National Portrait Gallery (twenty-nine of which sponsored by BP), it is the most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world, with an alluring £35,000 for first prize, and a total prize fund of £74,000.
The winning portrait, An Angel at my Table, by Miriam Escofet, was selected from 2,667 entries from 88 countries, submitted for judging anonymously by a panel which included journalist and broadcaster Rosie Millard and artist Glenn Brown.
Although the work entered in the competition “must be predominantly painted in oil, tempera or acrylic and must be on a stretcher or board” and “the human figure must predominate”, there are no other restrictions in terms of theme, style or schooling. Yet, there is an underlying consistency in the works chosen for hanging, that makes us reflect upon the artistic and psychological meaning of portrait. Subject, features, expression, posture, background and props, are among the tools at the artist’s disposal to convey a story. And, while last year’s trend – whether by accident or choice – seemed to be a story about human isolation, sadness and toil, this year – by accident or choice – the story is almost antithetic, it’s an explosion of colour, intriguing feminine beauty, confident posture, aided by a clear interaction between subjects and environment, that conveys a harmonious relationship with their breathing space, if not with the entire world, life and death included. There is hope, strength and dignity, at the expense, perhaps, of introspection, fragility and intrigue. Although those moving props at the winning Angel’s table beckon us to enter a much deeper journey. Certainly a lot to reflect upon.
On a perplexed final note: why so few, if any, self-taught artists enter or are finalists in the BP competition? Are portraits the exclusive domain of art schools? All answers appreciated and encouraged.
First published on the East Finchley Open Artists July 2018 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.