NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, London
21.9.10Across the Thames by Hungerford Bridge on a blowy day a woman says to a friend ‘Look over there, you’ve got St Pauls....’ She doesn’t say ‘Look over there, you’ll see St Pauls’, because there are times when you don’t just ‘see’, you ‘get’ it, it’s yours for a moment. What will I ‘get’ when I wander around the first floor gallery to look at this year’s BP Portrait Award 2010 show?
I never know what to expect. One year when the AIDs epidemic was at its height the gallery seemed to be full of pale young men. On the walls were portraits of waste and suffering. I remember being sad and angry at such terrible events, but also wishing that there were more portraits of women. Why hadn’t their year been recorded too? This year roughly two thirds of the portraits are of men or boys but this is partly because the entries include a surgical team round an operating table, the all-male Almus Quartet and a series of 12 portraits of passers-by, of which only one is a woman.
What catches my eye is this portrait of a beautiful child. The artist reminds me that children are both tough and fragile; predictable and astonishing. Lila Pearl is enfolded in the luscious warm colours of fruit, against which her jumper has the deep green tang of forest pines. Her contours are curved and gentle yet she’s surrounded by sharp geometrical shapes: parallel lines, diamonds, squares. She’s painted in a corner. Or into a corner? Is she going to squeeze out and dart away? Her hand looks secure and relaxed on the plain wooden table but might she suddenly press it down and make a get-away?
She’s painted, we are told, in the precious light of winter sunshine. The artist writes of ‘(Lila’s) vulnerability (which) I, as her mother, see and feel all the time’. I think what makes this a remarkable portrait is the way the artist also conveys her own vulnerability as a mother. Parenting is a risky business: each child is a one-off product, individually crafted, who needs intensive care over a long period - and there’s no control group to draw on and no chance of scrapping the product and starting again.