A recently trip to see the BP Portrait Award Exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery was a pleasant surprise for the sheer diversity of work and artists represented there.
Particularly striking, no doubt because of the shared subject with one of my own recent paintings, were two on a theme of of girl-transitioning-into-woman. The first, Portrait of Esta Sexton, age 12 by Paul P. Smith (which adorns the Award poster-art this year) is described as striving to capture those last few months of girlhood. The second work on this theme, ‘Eliza‘ by Michael Gaskell, is described as depicting a “transitional time” in a young woman’s life.
Like both of these, my first portrait (below), completed earlier this year, strove to capture that poised moment, almost a time of breath held, as the fresh young child blossoms into the woman…becomes both newly self-assured yet reticent, measured or even guarded in what she is now prepared to share with the world. That reticence tells its own story just as surely as those now averted eyes keep other personal details locked away; she is in all-new territory and, while she gets to know the lie of the land, her childish ways will be carefully stored until she is quite sure of herself again… Brand new blooms and loss of innocence seem to hang there in equal measure, like blossom on a bough – both there yet almost not, so delicately full of light yet so quickly scattered on the wind, making for a supremely brief moment of light-filled transition – that favourite subject of mine, yet again.
This is what I love so much about portraiture and what made this Award exhibition such a pleasure – “so many faces”, you might shrug, “what’s so interesting about that?” – yet each one of them told a narrative, some more overtly than others but (even when left to your imagination) this narrative could not fail to materialise as you studied creases, postures, those eyes. Nor were these were pristine stories; some were gritty, sad, stark. They displayed old-age, despair and frailty without apology; one, for instance, depicted an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease being given a seated shower by her daughter. Yet none felt as graphically invasive as photography might have been and it was the humanity that seemed to shine through – that is, both the humanity depicted and that of an artist who chose this, with every painstaking brushstroke, as their subject.
You can view the full gallery of 2015 exhibitors here and the exhibition continues until 20th September – well worth a visit if you are in London.