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BP Portrait Award 2014

27 June 2014 | Jessica Johnston

“I wanted to capture that sense of someone who has learnt to be fearless, looking forward to life still but with a great richness of experience behind her.”

This year celebrates the 25th annual Portrait Award sponsored by BP. Held at the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition once again promises to showcase the very best in portraiture from around the world.

With 55 outstanding portraits selected from a record-breaking 2,377 entries spanning 71 countries, the Portrait Award is made up of studies both formal and informal, in a myriad of styles reflective of contemporary portraiture today

There is something immediately striking about this year’s winning portrait by German artist Thomas Ganter. Entitled Man with a Plaid Blanket the portrait depicts Karel, a homeless man who Granter noticed outside Frankfurt Staedel Museum one afternoon. Gunter was stunned by the similarities between Karel and many of the museums paintings he had just seen.

Judges noted ‘the intensity of the sitter’s gaze and how every texture and surface was rendered in intricate detail.’ From the creases in the blanket to the water drops on the rose, Ganter adds layers of depth to the painting, revealing something new each time one observes it. The artist said that by portraying a homeless man in a manner normally reserved for nobles, he ‘tried to emphasise that everyone deserves respect and care.’ 

Although these artists differ in their approaches to painting, the portraits are unified in their ability to portray the ever-elusive truth and mystery of the self. Each painting is intriguing in its own way and invites the viewer into a curious narrative.

This year’s submissions certainly capture the spirit and personality of their subjects. Some of the more notable portraits include Ben Ashton’s painting of Princess Julia in Meadham Kirchhoff. Demonstrating a painting style suggestive of a fashion photograph, Ashton encapsulates the strong, fearless and imposing presence of Princess Julia on an otherwise bare canvas. Her unique fashion sense is unapologetic and bold, making this portrait one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Similarly, second prize winner Richard Twose’s portrait entitled Jean Woods perfectly captures the intensity and honesty of the model’s striking gaze. Twose recalls how he “wanted to capture that sense of someone who has learnt to be fearless, looking forward to life still but with a great richness of experience behind her.”

As well as appreciating the technical skill of the artist, one is also drawn to the stories surrounding the portraits and their subjects. Lisa Stokes’s curious self-portrait entitled After the Fire ignites the viewer’s imagination. Set against a charcoal black painted canvas, the portrait depicts a solemn looking woman standing next to a pair of dirty white gloves that lay on the ground next to her feet. A coat hanger floats in the air by her head. With the title providing the only clue, viewers find themselves searching for answers by creating possible stories and narratives for the portrait.

One particular style of painting that never ceases to amaze is that of photorealism. Edward Sutcliffe and LI WU DA’s collaborative portrait entitled Copycat depicts well-known art forger John Myatt in unflinching detail. Sutcliffe approaches the human face as if it were a landscape with every pore, hair, vein, line and freckle impeccably translated onto the canvas. One almost feels the need to inspect the work carefully to ensure that it is in fact paint and brush creating this photographic finish.

From the realistic to the abstract, Simon Armitage’s portrait of poet Paul Wright is animated with a rainbow of colours. On close inspection the portrait depicts a blur of colourful and chaotic brushstrokes but with each step back the picture becomes evidently clearer and as if by magic the poet’s face emerges on the canvas.

The Portrait Award provides a fascinating visual storybook in which many different characters appear in unexpected and awe-inspiring ways. This year's exhibition is a showcase of exceptional portraiture worthy of a face-to-face encounter this summer.

The BP Portrait Award 2014 is at the National Portrait Gallery from 26th June - 21st September. Admission is free, for further information please click here.

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