National Portrait Gallery BP Award
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t give this Visitors’ Choice winner a second glance...It’s an art style called photorealism, which means that when you see it, it’s so incredibly life-like it could be a photograph. I went round this show several times, once with a friend who needed convincing that yes, all the portraits in front of him were painted by someone; photographs were not allowed.
It’s a portrait of Jakub Wagner, a documentry film maker, by his friend from childhood, the Czech artist Jan Mikulka, and came top of the poll when visitors to the National Portrait Gallery voted for their favourite painting at this year’s BP Award show. It received 2,280 votes, nearly 10% of the poll. Unlike the five who won the BP Awards, there’s no money for this unofficial prize-winner – only glory.
It’s hard to understand what magic guides the subtle, delicate handling of paint and how the artist breathes life into a limited tonal range. Jakub is said to have caught the public’s imagination with its ‘minutely detailed and skilful rendering of hair and skin tones and effective lighting’. Jan, a lifelong friend commented ‘I wanted to capture Jakub’s sensitive nature at short distance’.
But why not a photograph (which would have saved five month’s work, the time it took to complete the painting)? Because five month’s worth of fleeting expressions, words, silences are also captured in the final image and it shows? Because, though wanting our artists to be flamboyant, Bohemian and visiting psychological spaces the rest of us can’t clamber into, we also relish and honour superb craftmanship when we see it?
I have another idea. We live daily life by glancing at other people, not by gazing at them. We know that if we pay serious attention to another face, we enter a new sort of relationship, for good or ill. A gaze can start a love affair - and a street fight. Perhaps because the sitter has already given so much of his time to the artist ( and indirectly to us), we feel we have permission to return the gaze, to stop, reflect, and stay with whatever we experience, in a way we couldn't if we were flicking over to the next photo shot?
This year’s BP Award show was seen by more people than ever before and the good news is that the prize winners and selected entries will be at Wolverhampton Art Gallery 24 September – 1 November and at Aberdeen Art Gallery from 12 November to 31 January 2012. All three at the top of the poll can be seen on: www.npg.org.uk/bp