I am not a regular visitor to this annual award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and it is a few years since I last attended. Arriving at the exhibition earlier this week it was immediately obvious that something had changed. It turned out that the change had been a new approach to soliciting entries which allow the first round of selection to be done using digital images. The result was to greatly increase the number of overseas entries as the entrants only needed to deal with the mechanics of shipping their art to the UK if they had passed the first cut. The result is a significant increase in the number of overseas entries selected for exhibition with Spain, Italy and North America particularly well represented.
The impact of the change has been a marked improvement in the technical quality of the selected entries, though perhaps surprisingly a narrowing of stylistic approaches. The portraits are almost universally traditional in style and approach, rooted in traditional drawing skills and draughtsmanship. If UK Art Schools no longer teach drawing as a core skill, it seems that there are plenty of other institutions in the UK and overseas stepping up to fill that gap. Some of the images very specifically play to historic references, such as Marco Ventura’s portrait of Christian above based on a Renaissance profile picture or Kelly Carmody’s monumental C19 portrait of Father and Son.
While there is a lot to admire in terms of representational accuracy and technique, the missing element throughout the exhibition was emotion. The subjects of these paintings consistently came across as acutely self-conscious and disengaged from the viewer. There was little emotional connection or sense that we were getting insight into the feelings of the subject. I quite like the Father and Son above, for example, but I can’t help but feel that the Father is posing as if for a corporate portrait to grace a boardroom wall; is silent, aloof reserve really what artist and sitter want us to take from this picture?
The same lack of emotional connection was even more obvious in the various female nudes which had been selected for entry. They were all of them masterclasses in figurative techniques with the women portrayed seeming as if they could walk right off the walls. And they were studied attempts too to avoid sensualising the female form for reasons I understand. The challenge though is that the result lacks emotional engagement. It tells us that the artist is highly technically proficient; it tells us very little about the subject: is she happy or sad? content or not? sensuous or not? We have an accurate representation of her form, but her character is a blank.
The silent stare has context in some situations, but not most. One where it does is A Silent and Inconsequential Victory by Dani Trew where we learn that the port air extends a schoolgirl game where the trick is not to look at the circle formed by the left hand. But in general I found that the lack of emotional transmission in many of the pictures represented a failure by the artists to lift themselves above technique and use their portraits to tell a story.
The process of selection for exhibitions like this is necessarily very difficult, narrowing thousands of entries down to less than a hundred works and picking ‘winners’ from that group. I suspect that any group of people looking at the selected entries would have their own favourites. For my part, I was unmoved by the first prize winner but much taken by the picture award second prize, Eliza by Michael Gaskell. This again is a picture rooted deeply in historical tradition with the heal shoulders set against a dark background that avoids any risk of distraction; an approach I personally like. And I feel that Gaskell has here established an emotional connection with a girl emerging from adolescence. It is a small portrait by the standards of the exhibition but it has an emotional punch more intense than most of the works which surround it.