Portraiture is a sly medium, always suggesting it depicts a simple truth, particularly in photography, but it is as much about what it conceals or obscures as it is about the character it claims to reveal. The Taylor Wessing prize each year at the National Portrait Gallery emphasises this as it highlights how much a winning portrait is down to craft rather than subject or story. On each wall of this small exhibition hang the faces of actors, butchers, children, officials, friends or family without an order of precedence, Instead, it is the startling background colours, the framing of the subject’s face and the photograph’s composition which always catches my eye.
I have found that although I am interested to see who is judged a winner or highly commended I do not always agree. My particular favourite of the exhibition was Yngvild by Tereza Červeňová (shown above) which appears to make the dreams of the Pre-Raphaelites a reality and actually won the John Kobal New Work prize. I was amazed by how much a photograph could echo such a fantastical genre of painting and yet also be a likeness of someone the Červeňová has met at a wedding. It would be interesting to compare this photograph with others of the same person to tell whether the overwhelming Pre-Raphaelite feel is related to the angle and light or whether it could only have been created with that particular sitter.
The exhibition continues until the 21st of February and creates a delightful pause in a London afternoon. You’ll then be able to see the other winners and let me know what you think!
The peculiarity of John Singer Sargent’s upbringing, as an American born in Florence, allowed him to present a unique insight on both American and European culture during the 19th century. The current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery demonstrates not only this insight but also the skill and position in society that Sargent used to depict it. He quickly rose to fame due to the controversial painting of Madame X, which was sadly not included in the exhibition, and despite the notoriety swiftly became the portraitist of choice for high society. This allowed him to paint the great and the good with relatively security as his reputation would no longer be destroyed with a brush stroke. Nevertheless he still took great pride in his work, once repainting an entire head when he heard the sitter was disappointed with the original result.
Famous faces crowd the walls and each suggests a personality bubbling beneath the oil paint surface. I was fascinated to learn of Sargent’s friendship with Monet, who he painted with his wife over several years and kept one of these paintings in his studio throughout his life. When painting friends Sargent could be more experimental and this often shows through in the simplicity of his palette and the more unusual composition or setting of his subjects. This is especially evident in his paintings of Robert Louis Stevenson, which catch the writer as he strides across a room or sprawls in a chair. He is not treated with reverence as a writer but more interestingly is shown as a man who is married and part of a household. Apparently Stevenson’s wife thought when only the hand in one of the paintings was finished that it was already the best portrait that had been done of her husband.
I particularly enjoyed the paintings of Ellen Terry as I felt they captured her formidable character better than any photographs I have seen of her before. They also portrayed her as an actor of great skill, terrifying all around her as Lady Macbeth, which was unusual for a time which often saw actresses as aberrations or amateurs. I almost felt that I could see Terry mid speech as she claws her way to Scottish power. The detail on this particular painting was very intricate, with gold twisted into her long hair and the feathers glistening on her dress so it was also interesting as a depiction of Victorian stagecraft as well as Terry’s personality.
Unfortunately this exhibition is almost over and is only open until the 25th of May but I would still recommend it if you do get the chance to go!
The current exhibition by Grayson Perry entitled Who Are You? at the National Portrait Gallery is one that I have already returned to several times and thought about a great deal. Perry has created fourteen pieces of art to reflect the people that he met while making a TV programme for the BBC which shares the exhibition’s title. The works include tapestry, pottery and silk along with other mediums and so there is a completely new experience with each piece. This is also encouraged by placing the objects alongside the gallery’s permanent collections. There is a feeling of being a treasure hunter as you follow Perry’s map to discover each new object, unsure of what it could be made of and how easily it might blend into the background of older paintings featuring established personalities. I am still tempted to drop in again as the layout ensures that it is easy to view a section or two without a huge time commitment.
Each object within the exhibition is accompanied by a small plaque which explained a little about the person who inspired it and why Perry represented them as he did. There are couples, fathers and celebrities involved as well as friends and soldiers. Perry acknowledges that the identities which he is attempting to reproduce in three dimensional forms are multifaceted and can change due to circumstances such as hardship, illness or necessity. The description alongside his pot for Chris Huhne, the disgraced Liberal Democrat MP, explained that Perry had smashed the carefully patterned pot before reassembling it using gold, an ancient Chinese technique. He felt that the recent destructive events had actually improved Huhne’s identity by forcing a greater degree of individuality into his life therefore making it easier to now sympathise with him. The pot was indeed enhanced by the addition of gold and I thought this was an interesting interpretation of such a well known public drama. However, I would be interested to see what Huhne himself has to say about this representation of his life.
This is the first exhibition by Grayson Perry which I have had the chance to go to and I was excited to see his work, due to already knowing so much about his public persona. However, I quickly realised that although his transvestite alter ego Clare has become as famous as him this became immaterial when facing the artwork. It is clear from the exhibition that Perry enjoys producing art through a variety of media and his choice of crazy and exuberant dresses are another method for him to demonstrate how porous the art world can be. He asks in Playing to the Gallery (more on this later) whether it is not possible to be both loved by the public and a serious artist and Perry’s numerous television and public appearances are encouraging these boundaries to blur.
One of my favourite pieces was The Ashford Hijab, a beautiful silk hijab scarf which also depicted the life of a white girl in Ashford who had converted to Islam and was now married with children. Perry explores why the religion might have attracted her and why she chooses to wear the hijab, something which Western cultures often cannot understand. In the scarf she turns her back on the constant demands of a Western consumerist society and instead reaches out for the solidarity and sisterhood provided by other Muslim women. A sense of community emerges which cannot be matched by the culture she has left behind. I found it fascinating that Perry could present such a sympathetic portrayal on what is a very controversial topic and also create a very beautiful, and possibly useful, object.
Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery provides an insider’s viewpoint on the art world to explain the decisions and conversations that happen behind closed doors. Alongside Perry’s engaging prose are also many amusing drawings which refuse to allow the art world to be too serious and question some of the established assumptions. I found it an easy and enjoyable read that nevertheless challenged my automatic construction of what constitutes art. Perry believes that anything can be art but that does not mean that everything should be called art. While I disagree with some of the reasoning he gave behind this I would argue that it is important to be able to keep art distinct so that it can be critiqued differently from objects which are meant for more commonplace uses. I would definitely recommend the book both for those who are well versed in the art world and for complete newcomers as I think it will provide valuable points of view for all in its assessment of how the worth of art is valued and how it is accepted into society.
If you want some further thoughts on the exhibition check out this blog by Emily, who I went with and who gave me Playing to the Gallery, here. Otherwise you have until 15th March 2015 to go to the National Potrait Gallery as many times as you like – it’s free and easy to dip into. http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/graysonperry/display.php
Every year the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize opens countless windows into lives across the globe at the National Portrait Gallery. The prize is open to all photographers and can be of anyone, famous or not, that the photographer believes should be noticed and recorded. This leads to the faces of politicians, grandmothers, teachers, children and soldiers all staring out into the same gallery space.
This profusion of human faces makes it almost impossible to compare one image against another. Some photographers simply present human life, with its joyous highs and miserable lows, through focused portraits of individual faces for the viewer to aesthetically appreciate whilst others use their subject as an explanation of a wider context. An Afghan girl holding a skateboard suggests a great deal more than an interesting hobby and the soldier standing in rubble is only a small image of a larger picture. This range of motivations behind the portraits inevitably leads to the question of what a portrait should aim to achieve. Is capturing the essence of your subject the most important goal or should there be more material information about their surroundings for the viewer to contextualise? Interestingly the judges chose photographs from both categories to award prizes to with the aesthetically pleasing Konrad Lars Hastings Titlow by David Titlow being given first place. In this image the composition of the light and the almost Old Master depiction of the subjects elevates the photograph above the status of a casual family snapshot.