Review: BP Portrait Award at the NPG

by rebeccaswirsky

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Susanne du Toit, 'Pieter'.
Susanne du Toit, ‘Pieter’. Copyright: Susanne du Toit.

While rarely disappointing as an exhibition, the BP Portrait Award occasionally causes frustration in its choice of winners. Not that the chosen aren’t worthy of their positions, but yearly four or five others call for recognition of their artistic excellence. And therein lies the award’s allure.

One finds in writing that there is the ‘hook’ – the irresistible angle that draws us to the heart of what the writer is saying. In many ways, the BP Award is reminiscent to a well edited anthology of short fiction. The brevity of the short story, or the poem, offers a comparison with portraiture. With entries from 77 different countries, the 55 selected portraits are required to work, as excellent short fiction does, with the author/painter making visible much that’s beyond the frame – the suggestion of a life lived, choices made. But with each portrait calling to the viewer in their own way, with their own voice, on what merit should significance be tested? Should scale, subject matter, arrangement of colour, realism of limbs, homage to methodology or another of the many other factors take precedence in the assessment of judge and viewer?

First place lies in the peculiar, winning relationship between these elements, as well as in something deeply personal that catches at the heart as well as the head. This year the judges were unanimous in their choice, Susanne du Toitt’s likeness of her 35-year-old son Pieter. The artist writes in the catalogue of becoming in her career ‘acutely aware of the significance of context to art, and that abstract art offered no relationship to context’.

Lionel Smit, 'Khollswa'.
Lionel Smit, ‘Khollswa’. ©Lionel Smit.

There is room for another winner, also, in the recently instated BP Travel Award: Carl Randall, who offers us insight into modern Japan and the country’s Tokaido Highway. Randall’s subjects, dining in restaurants, standing in rice fields, crowding in sushi bars and on train platforms, are compelling, verging-on-cartoonish studies. Randall’s cohesive style highlights the always negotiable dynamic between a subject’s individuality and the artist’s own representational flair. Discussing his painting Tokyo, Randall says, ‘At first glance, the solid clustered mass of faces in the painting resembles one living organism, but upon closer inspection the individuality of each subject becomes clear. I wanted the eye to oscillate between the two.’

Daubs of lapis – colour of intelligence and religious devotion – stripe Lionel Smit’s portrait of waitress Kholiswa, the rich blues cradling the sitter’s jaw-line, offering nobility to tired features while foregrounding the intimate relationship between sitter and artist. The depth of this painting, its inner emotional resonance, contrasts with the cleverness of its construction.

Frames, also, can lend drama and intimacy, through which one may tip-toe upon the artist’s subject. An example is Jennifer E. Renshaw’s vibrantly tender oil portrait – the inky darkness of the wooden frame and background complementing the perfect stillness of her sleeping nephew’s form.

Jennifer E. Renshaw, 'Portrait of Sean'.
Jennifer E. Renshaw, ‘Portrait of Sean’. © Jennifer E. Renshaw.

And here we return to winner Du Toitt. “I have always found hands essential to communicating personality,” the artist writes, explaining that she allowed her sitter to find his own pose, providing he foreground his hands clearly. Du Toitt’s connection to personality – the human story – supplies the narrative strand for her subjects. “Over the years… my art has become an intensely personal experience and that is where any value it has for other people will come from. In this instance, I know the sitter well, and I want to believe that I captured his inner life.”

Du Toitt’s emotional luminosity rinses the canvas of fuss and gimmick. A skilled, strongly crafted story is left behind, spreading beyond the frame’s confines. Which is all that we could ask of any winner.


This review was first published in July 2013 on the online Royal Academy of Arts Magazine
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