ModPortrait — a vision spreading its wings

Natalie Holland
7 min readJul 2, 2018


ModPortrait is the international figurative portrait competition taking place in Spain. In the fifth year of its existence, the competition became one of the major events of contemporary figurative art.

Founded by the Gallery Artelibre and its Director José Enrique González, the competition focuses on the best of realist and hyper-realist art today.

The annual exhibition is displayed in two spectacular museums of contemporary art.

Museo Pablo Serrano, Zaragoza (left), Museu Europeu d’Art Modern (MEAM)

The show usually opens at the place of origin, at the Pablo Serrano Museum at Zaragoza — and then travels to Museu Europeu d’Art Modern (MEAM) in Barcelona.

Unlike its more established European counterpart in London, the BP Portrait Award, ModPortrait has a specific set of written criteria that guides the judges.

The mastery of technique is a requirement: the drawing, the composition, the colour and the overall impact of the narrative.

The panel of judges are master artists within the representational art. Besides from the Director of Gallery Artelibre José Enrique Gonzalez and the Director of MEAM José Manuel Infiesta, this year’s panel include the Spanish artists Dino Valls, Luis García Mozos, Carlos Muro and César Galicia, and the American artists Don Eddy, Richard Estes, Max Ferguson and Leight Behnke.

ModPortrait is receiving an unprecedented response from the international community of figurative artists.

The contest is growing in size, with contributors from 40 countries, reaching a higher level every year.

Keeping in mind that the contest is not supported by public funding or corporate sponsorship, its success can be explained by an amazing display of talent the public might actually want to see.

Having been juried into the exhibition for two consecutive years, I’ve decided to travel to Barcelona.

Apart from beholding my own work in a company of so many great artists, I was curious to meet the man behind the vision — José Enrique González.

José Enrique González, the Director of Galería ArteLibre

It turns out that the director of the Galería ArteLibre was handling art competitions since the age of 11 — when he won one himself. He received the award for the drawing of the city monument. This was the spark that launched his own artistic career, starting with the art education with the emphasis on drawing.

‘Behind every great painting is a great drawing. This is the foundation that I teach my students every day.’

He always admired — and continues to admire — the classical figurative art.

Later on, he became interested in contemporary realism. He developed a passion for the American artists of the 70s, such as Richard Estes, Ralph Going, Chuck Close, and the Spanish artists such. as Antonio López, Eduardo Naranjo and Cristobal Toral.

At the same time, following with the early development of the Internet, he was waiting for the moment when they could build an image web server.

‘Back then, I thought that I would be the first to create a virtual art gallery — and I did, 20 years ago. I named it ARTELIBRE because it was the most beautiful name a gallery could have: Free Art. I was very excited about having a virtual art gallery and being able to show the whole world the realistic art I liked. But more than anything, it was a way to defend the representational art from the constant attacks coming from the modernist abstraction.’

He never fully understood why the success of abstract painting had to be based on the belief that representation was no longer relevant. Figuration was seen as provincial and idiosyncratic, and even great originals like Stanley Spencer were dismissed and diminished.

‘I can’t imagine that rock artists would promote the greatness of their music by declaring the music of Mozart obsolete. Also, no musician would say that to create good music, one needs to invent completely new musical symbols.’

I asked José Enrique how he developed his idea from the online gallery to the international painting competition.

He explained that since the start of Artelibre 20 years ago, he has gained considerable support and recognition from the figurative art world. He organized exhibitions and art events, published books and supported artists. He loved his work, but it was demanding to manage it by himself. However, shortly after the MEAM opened in 1999, he received a call from the Director, José Manuel Infiesta.

José Enrique González with (from left) José Manuel Infiesta, jurors of Modportrait 2017 Dino Valls, Carlos Muro, exhibiting artists Natalie Holland and Sephanie Rew, artist Richard Estes. The author of this article artist Natalie Holland with José Manuel Infiesta.

“I remember this conversation very vividly. It was very short, and here are his exact words: “José Enrique, I admire your work. I visit Artelibre [site] daily and I agree with you 90%. Two people who agree 90% should meet.”

José Enrique agreed 100% and went off to Barcelona. He was impressed by the museum. The two directors had a conversation and from that day, they became friends.

“José Manuel told me that if I would come up with a great collaborative project, he would be willing to support it. I was nurturing an idea to organize a portrait contest for years so I shared it. He responded that it will take time to organize — but that’s how my vision eventually became a reality.’

Today, his vision is supported by the Arts and Artists Foundation, Barcelona Academy of Art and Artemiranda, followed by the recent collaboration with a Chinese association of realistic painters. The latter are going to be ambassadors of the ModPortrait in China.

I was interested in how the process of selection is conducted.

“The team at Artelibre makes a first selection of the online submissions. This selection is sent to all the members of the jury. The members of the jury are asked to select what they consider the 50 best works. From these 50 the selection is narrowed further to best 10 paintings, and from the ten best they choose the winners.”

The finalists ModPortrait 2017 (from top left): Pau Marinello, Kristy Gordon, Roberto Garrillo, Almundena Mahiques, Natalie Holland, Mark Tennant, Kamille Corry, Eddie Stevens, Paul Beel

The number of finalists is limited to 55. The accepted works must be sent to Zaragoza where the jury meets and decides the First Prize and the Honorable Mentions.

Each judge has to explain what they see as the virtues and defects of each painting. Since the opinions are very personal, it might involve long time and debate until consensus is reached.

The first prize winner receives € 6,000 and the acquisition for the permanent collection of MEAM museum.

This year, first prize went to the work ‘The Key’ by Irish artist Conor Walton for the portrait of his son.

The First Prize recipient Conor Walton with the portrait of his son “The Key”, oil on linen, 50 x 45cm

The honorable mentions were given to the works of Su Liu (China), Zhu Junhe (China) and the Spanish artists Carmen Mansilla, Marcos Rey, Pedro del Toro and Iván Franco.

The Honourable mentions (from left): Su Liu, Carmen Mansilla, Pedro del Toro, Zhu Junhe, Ivan Franco Fraga, Marcos Rey

I asked about what one should look for in a good portrait.

“There are rules about the drawing, composition and light; a good portrait can have a beautiful lighting, texture and interesting expression. But a great portrait for me is something that gives an insight into the portrayed inner universe. It must somehow have a secret that you want to take part in.”

Do the different trends arise in the portrait every year?

“It is our starting point — to look for different styles and trends, mixing both emerging and established artists. That enriches the contest. Indeed, every year we find new trends, styles and techniques. Every expression has a place in figurative and realistic art, and we hope that encourages participants.”

As for the future of the ModPortrait, José Enrique Gonzalez has clear ideas about what is going to happen next.

“The idea is to increase the prize value by increasing the participation. This is the only way to stay independent, and that is very important to Artelibre — and to me.’

The problem with corporate sponsorship, he explains, that the one who pays the piper calls the tune. Founders tend to have a very narrow taste. On the other side, the support from public funding is more about satisfying the political ideals of committees than developing a creative idea. That is why so much of subsidized contemporary art has a generic look.

Concluding our conversation, I asked what advice would he give to visitors to make the most of the exhibition?

“I would recommend to look at the techniques, how the expression in a painting has been achieved. But more than anything, I would seek out those pieces that talk to the senses of a viewer. Also, don’t forget to enjoy the atmosphere and surroundings of the museum. It is a truly beautiful place for an exhibition.”

MEAM, exterior(left) and the view of the permanent collection

The exhibition is open from June 22 — July 29, 2018 at the European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM), 5 Carrer de la Barra de Ferro, Barcelona, Spain.

*To see the full images and titles of the paintings used in collages go here:

*To see the video from exhibitions at Museo PabloSerrano and MEAM go here:



Natalie Holland

I am a realist artist with a passion for writing.