A bid for attention; Art

Portrait painting may sound passe, but at the BP awards FRANK WHITFORD finds life in the old genre yet.

`Every time I paint a portrait,” John Singer Sargent once announced, “I lose a friend.” Few can have believed him. Nobody flattered sitters more than Sargent. His glamorous images of Edwardian society ladies were calculated to show them not as they really were but as they longed to be. Sargent would have been an even better (if, in financial terms, a far poorer) painter had he told the truth.

When Sargent died in 1925, his portraits looked like anachronisms, and the art of custom portraits was in crisis. The purpose it once served had long since been met by photography, and, challenged by the camera’s power to reproduce the appearance of the visible world with breathtaking accuracy, the most gifted artists had moved to less familiar territory. Most of those who did concentrate on portraiture were hacks and journeymen who drew on an ever more exhausted repertory of poses and expressions. Before the first world war, traditionally conceived portraits had already begun to look old-fashioned and redundant.

In spite of a fading belief in the historical importance of gifted individuals on which so much portraiture depended, in spite of the triumph of photography, portrait painting and sculpture somehow managed to survive. The reasons for its continuing existence remain something of a mystery, however. Regiments, Oxbridge colleges, and multinational companies, to say nothing of a few private patrons, persist in the belief that there is something special about paintings rather than photographs of the monarch, commanding officer, principal or chairman on display in the mess, dining hall, executive suite or living room. Why, given the usually depressing results of such commissions, do they continue to award them? Habit and tradition are not the only answers. A painting may not look much like its sitter, but it will usually have more physical presence than a photograph. Even if largely based on snaps, as many portraits are nowadays, a painting will also radiate an authority given it by its uniqueness. In the company of paintings, a photograph, no matter how greatly enlarged and dramatically lit, will always look like a poor relation.

And if the portrait painter is distinguished, something of his celebrity will rub off on the sitter. This explains why so many people queued up to have their faces savagely rearranged by Francis Bacon or risked bankruptcy in exchange for Andy Warhol’s signature on a silkscreen print.

But no account of modern portraiture can be entirely negative. Outstanding portraits that combine a convincing likeness with psychological insight continue to be produced. Chief among the few who make them is Lucian Freud. However, his work also betrays a lack of confidence in the traditional claims of portraiture. He clearly chooses many of his sitters because of their physical peculiarities. He accepts very few commissions, and then only from those he knows well and wants to paint in any case. He rarely names his sitters, even those whose faces are widely familiar. In two marvellous paintings of Jacob Rothschild, the subject’s identity is hidden behind the titles Man in a Chair and Head of a Man.

It is as though Freud is reluctant to admit that he is a portrait painter at all, as though portraiture is a term too limiting or debased to be of any use in his case. He would therefore probably be alarmed to discover that his influence is especially evident in a current show exclusively devoted to the portrait and designed to help keep it alive: the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (until October 20). The small self-portrait by James Hague (which won the first prize of Pounds 10,000) manages to reproduce something of that wide-eyed, sharply focused intensity of Freud’s early work. And Mark Gilbert’s Figure in Black fastens onto one of the later Freud’s most egregious mannerisms those eruptions of gritty paint on the face and hands that suggest less the texture of rough skin than a bad dose of eczema.

The titles of these two paintings are straightforward enough, but others are revealingly pretentious. Among them are Michael Fullerton’s Nietzsche as the Victim, Chris Stevens’s Kevin Hope Wearing Juventus Shirt in Drummitten, Loughras Point, and most wordy of all, Dean Marsh’s The Entomophiliac (Portrait of JR Concealing a Bluebottle under His Tongue).

Perhaps they think that their paintings are not good enough to stand on their own, that such titles will attract attention to images that might otherwise be overlooked. Perhaps, more importantly, they doubt the legitimacy of portraiture in general. Other ploys seem similarly calculated to add interest to otherwise unexceptional subject matter. Among them are exaggerated formats, dramatic viewpoints, unusual locations, and sitters who, like the heavily tattooed woman with a ring through her navel in Frances Turner’s Tota, are already works of art themselves.

It is hard to criticise such attention-grabbing stratagems, especially since several of the paintings are of real quality. Whether they are portraits according to the strictest definition of the term is another matter. I suspect that few of the young artists represented here consider themselves to be chiefly portrait painters at all. How many of them will eventually see their work in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection? How many of them would wish to?

Certainly, the company they may aspire to keep gives little cause for optimism about the future of custom portrait oil paintings from photos. On your way out of the NPG, you pass walls crowded with pictures of politicians, sportsmen, actors and literati. Most of them are mannered and not much like the sitters. The only things to leap out at you and capture their subjects to the life are not paintings at all but caricatures. Portrait painting may be moribund, but these seemingly casual drawings prove that portraiture lives on as vigorously and revealingly as ever not in portrait exhibitions but in the illustrations of newspapers and magazines.

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