Sunday, 26 June 2011

84. I COULD HAVE BEEN A CONTENDER by WENDY ELIA

c the artist
 NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY  26.6.11

 Oil on canvas   1700 x 1300 mm
BP Portrait Award 2011

 Wendy Elia is a painter, lecturer and tutor. The work shows the artist with her children and grandchildren, some appearing in the photographs and postcards scattered around her studio.But this is no ordinary family portrait.

Just look at the title. ‘...I could have had class, I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody...’. It’s a quote from  On the Waterfront’. Below is a link to a video clip from the film.  

The irony and wit of the title gives us an unconventional introduction to her non-professional life. She is naked. We know that our clothes have an instrumental function (to keep us warm/cool/safe from cuts and bruises etc) as well as an expressive function (to tell the world who we are or would like to be). Yet she stands there vulnerable, courageous, almost daring us to judge.  Her nipple seems to point at the picture (low down on the floor, not high up on the wall)  of Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns at his crucifixion. Another vulnerable figure. Her feet are beautifully painted. They may not win an advertising contract for stilettos, but they are sturdy and strong and human.

I think this portrait brilliantly and poignantly illustrates the self-reflection on ageing, career, family and the meaning of it all in a post modern age, which is a major concern (among men as well as women) in this year’s BP Portrait Award show. Another example is Angela Reilly’s striking self-portrait Departure  which ‘marks the departure from youth to passing middle age’. She scrutinises the physical changes in the upper part of her body, making her consider what is yet to come in her life.  And Thea Penna’s self-portrait in triptych form is another moving example of telling it how it is.

You can see all these portraits and their captions on the link below.

There can hardly be a greater contrast than with the portrait which took the second prize. It’s 8ft high and encased in an ornate  gold frame. A very lovely naked girl is chained to a rock. Her face is not stained with tears, her eyes are lifted calmly to the skies. She waits with calm and equanimity whatever fate is going to befall her. The critic Jonathan Jones, one of the judges, writes ‘(it)  creates a tension between art and pornography. The urge to dismiss it as kitsch may be a defence mechanism, to avoid confronting its uninhibited sexuality’.  The urge to dismiss it may also be because we cannot afford the luxury of celebrating images which reinforce the humiliation and violence millions of girls and women experience worldwide every day. (To read the case against what I've just said, use the link to Jonathan Jones.

That painting reminds me of  The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche. Another innocent helpless young woman facing death while we all stand round and watch. This time it's a fictionalised account of a real event. There is deep pathos as she emerges from the shadows, blindfold and wearing virgin white, appearing to grope towards the execution block.

More postcards of this picture are sold at the National Gallery than any other.
‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’ (T.S.Eliot: Burnt Norton)




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