2018 marks the BP Portrait Award’s 39th year at the National Portrait Gallery. The popular annual award aims at encouraging artists to focus upon, and develop, the theme of portraiture.
As someone who earned my bragging rights for life by taking part in the most prestigious portrait competition in the world, I always pay tribute to the annual celebration of contemporary portraiture.
It might be a celebration for the exhibiting artists, but every year the art critics either groaned at or shrugged it off. The selections are described as uninspiring, although there are always a few pieces that make it all worth it.
The selection process
This year, 2,667 artists from 88 countries submitted one digital image each. Only 215 of these made it through the first selection, and only 48 of those who delivered their painting for viewing to London have been selected for the exhibition.
The competition is tough, but if you are one of those artists that didn’t make it to the finals, then this is what you need to know about how the process of judging is conducted.
Although the rules set out eligibility and entry criteria, the Gallery does not have a specific set of written criteria to guide the Judges.
The judges individually establish their own criteria. The elimination process is a straightforward ‘knock-out’ system of selection: images that didn’t receive a vote from any of the judges are eliminated.
To put it another way, they immediately reject over 80% of the entries on a simple show of hands.
At the second round, the judges will reduce the number further to about 100 portraits.
Then they discuss the remaining portraits and agree on their final selection of works for the exhibition. From these works, the judges nominate their top three portraits. The Exhibition Manager who administers this process scores the judges’ preferences (first choice = 3 points; second choice = 2 points; third choice = 1 point). The scores are tallied to award the top three portraits.
Therefore, if you are an artist and your current masterpiece of technique, likeness, narrative and structure has failed to appear on the walls of National Portrait Gallery, don’t despair! It doesn’t mean the work doesn’t have what it takes to be selected, it means you have to win a lottery of the hearts and minds of the judging panel.
‘Judging anonymously requires each panel member to address precisely what they believe makes an outstanding portrait, weighing up the relative importance of technique, likeness, narrative, structure and the overall impact of a work through a lively process of debate and discussion.’ – Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director of National Portrait Gallery (also Chair of the Judges).
2018 Panel of Judges: Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery (Chair); Dr Caroline Bressey, Cultural and Historical Geographer, University College, London; Rosie Broadley, Head of Collection Displays (Victorian to Contemporary) and Senior Curator, 20th-Century Collections, National Portrait Gallery; Glenn Brown, Artist; Rosie Millard, Journalist and Broadcaster; Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts & Culture, BP
The Prize Winners:
First Prize: An Angel at my Table, by Miriam Escofet
Second Prize: Time Traveller, Matthew Napping, by Felicia Forte
Third Prize: Simone, by Tongyao Zhu
Young Artist Award: A Portrait of two Female Painters, by Ania Hobson
All four artists have been shortlisted for the first time; except for Tonyago Zhou, three have been selected for previous BP Portrait Award exhibitions.
There have been some changes made this year. The value of the awards have been increased – with the main prize worth £35,000 out of £74,000 totals.
On the flip side, the number of exhibitors has been limited even further – from 55 to 48 paintings. Also, the size of the display has decreased as they have moved the exhibition to a different place within the Gallery.
Most of selected artists still come from UK (25). The strongest representation outside of UK comes from USA (8), followed by Spain (4), Germany (2) and Netherlands (2).
The theory that the artists are more likely to be accepted if they have been exhibiting at the Award before seemed to be supported by the fact that 16 participants were previously selected or shortlisted.
Before I looked at individual pieces, I took a stroll to catch the overall impression. I was curious about the final selection and curatorial display. Some years there is more photorealism than in others, and sometimes there are more artworks in the style of the previous year’s winner.
The exhibition this year is created with something for everyone in mind.
Also, because the panel of judges seemed to have a liking of floral and graphic prints, it reminded me slightly of Liberty department store.
A noticeable trend is the family theme- most portraits are of parents, children and siblings; a preference that is also seen in the choice of Prize winners. Many sitters are depicted in their habitat, with an elaborate interior as a backdrop for their portraits.
Both of the largest works at the exhibition are the portraits of artists in their studios.
As usual, there are several pieces included to arouse controversy. Three works lack the minimum requirement to be called a portrait: the identifiable facial features. That clearly challenges the definition of what the portrait should be.
Two other works are stretching the concept of portraiture by either limiting the portraiture to one feature only, or expanding it to an array of figures, including the animals.
However, I doubt there will be much debate about whether the jury made the right choice about the First Prize winner, Miriam Escofet.
The beautifully rendered portrait of her mother says a lot about the sitter and the artist’s emotional connection to her.There is a moving tenderness in this portrait that connects with the viewers, reminding them of their own mothers.
I gave the exhibition another round, picking out some personal favourites along the way.
One painting that drew me in to take a closer look is ‘Sister’ by Zachary Zdrale.
It appears humble in its size and subject, but it is an opulent piece in terms of expressive brush strokes and rendering of light. Despite looking directly at the viewer, the young woman remains a mystery; one of her eyes Is in the light, the other one is in the shadow.
This painting needs to be seen in real life to be fully appreciated.
Then it is ‘Mrs. Anna Wojcik’ by Monika Polak. It’s a painting of an elderly woman with an introspective gaze. Her dress and the wallpaper behind have a similar large floral pattern, painted in such a way it frames her face and hands. The application of the ornament here is more than meretricious; a closer look reveals that the pattern is visible even through her hands. as if she was in a process of fading. The serenity of her expression, her quiet acceptance of an invisibility is her silent message for the viewer: it is a fate that eventually awaits us all.
The piece by Jamie Coreth, ‘Broken Bodies’, is a revealing painting which looks into the heart of its subject. The sadness makes an instant impact on the viewer, provoking an internal response. This is one of the largest canvases at the exhibition, but in this case the size is duly justified. The dark tonality of the painting and the expression of the sitter could have easily become unnoticeable should the painting have been smaller.
The work that stopped me in my tracks is ‘The Biologist’ by Miguel Angel Moya. As an artist, I think this painting is a masterpiece. Perhaps it doesn’t grab the immediate attention, but when I came closer, the technique, the beauty of details, colour, and tonality made me stay and enjoy it for a long time.
Thus I gave it my Visitors Choice.
Regardless of whether one agrees with the judges’ decisions, the BP Portrait Award does what it should: it focuses on the evolving definitions of portraiture. It captures today’s Zeitgeist, it gets people talking and debating about who they think should have won.
Ultimately, it proves that contemporary representational portraiture is not an outdated genre.
* Images used in collages can be seen in their entirety here: