What To Make Of This Year's BP Portrait Award?

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 32 months ago
What To Make Of This Year's BP Portrait Award? ★★☆☆☆ 2
The winning entry of this dramatic family portrait in the sun's glare. Copyright: Matan Ben-Cnaan
The winning entry of this dramatic family portrait in the sun's glare. Copyright: Matan Ben-Cnaan
One of many detailed and realistic portraits, highlighting the ability present in the pool of submissions. Copyright: Michael Gaskell
One of many detailed and realistic portraits, highlighting the ability present in the pool of submissions. Copyright: Michael Gaskell
This portrait of the artist's mother and brother is one of many family portraits on show. Copyright: Borja Buces Renard
This portrait of the artist's mother and brother is one of many family portraits on show. Copyright: Borja Buces Renard
One of the more unorthodox compositions in the show. Copyright: Eleana Antonaki
One of the more unorthodox compositions in the show. Copyright: Eleana Antonaki

Londonist Rating: ★★☆☆☆

The BP Portrait Award attracts painters from across the world, and this year received a record 2,748 entries from 92 countries — largely because it now allows for digital submissions. Standards are high, and the lengthy list has been narrowed down to the 55 on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

But despite it being a stalwart of the art calendar, we've never quite got on board with this exhibition; past versions have been based far too much on a traditional style of painting, which is disappointing because we know of emerging portraitists who are much more exciting and dynamic. This year we're glad to report there is a marked increase in unorthodox styles and settings, whether it be a fold-out diptych of the artist's daughter and her partner, or in another painting where the artist's partner looks forlornly at the two bowls of soup in front of her — a reference to their long distance relationship.

Considering this improvement, we found ourselves questioning why we still weren't won over by this year's exhibition. The answer is that while the entrants are all talented, technically adept painters, very few works actually grabbed us with an emotional connection; we rarely found ourselves stopping and staring deeply at the subject.

The one big exception is also the deserved winner, a painting by Matan Ben-Cnaan of his friend, the friend's step-daughter and their dog. The trio are posed dramatically as the sun bears down on them and their eyes squint in reaction to its intensity. There is an aura of contemplation and melancholy in this work that makes it stand out from the rest.

We're grateful this award exists to recognise portraitists, a diminishing genre in today's art world, but next year we'd like to see many more less-contrived works.

The BP Portrait Award 2015 is on at National Portrait Gallery until 20 September, admission is free. Nearby at Somerset House are a set of photographic portraits commemorating the fallen at the Battle of Waterloo. For more art see the playful Carsten Holler at Hayward Gallery and the opulent Waddesdon bequest at The British Museum.

Last Updated 18 June 2015

S Curran

And yet you were blown away by the work considered one of the worst there.