Tuesday, 4 October 2011


The artist painted this portrait in HM Prison Risley, Cheshire. It's one of perhaps a couple of hundred artworks - including paintings, sculpture, music, textiles, drawings. craft, written word, calligraphy, drama, photography - selected for display at the Royal Festival Hall by the Koestler Trust. The Trust was founded 49 years ago by Arthur Koestler, himself three times a political prisoner.  

The competition is open to prisoners, offenders on community sentences, immigration detainees and secure psychiatric patients across the UK. 
This year the judges include Emma Bridgewater (pottery); Jeremy Paxman ( work in any form on the theme ‘Help’); the National Theatre (drama); and Grayson Perry (oil or acrylic painting). Everyone on display receives a participation certificate and about a third receive an award ranging from £20 to £100. The artist keeps half of the proceeds if the work is sold, the remainder going to Victim Support and the Trust itself. 

If you go as I did at 10am when the RFH opens up, you go down to Spirit Level (the basement) into a labyrinth of rooms, empty and silent, with no clear exit. I know from experience that I'll find a few dead ends or the gamelan room on my way out. it seems an appropriate setting for the art around me.

Of the hundreds of exhibits, why choose this one, not one of the award winners? I like the curator's note: ‘it reminds me of Velázquez’s paintings of Spanish princesses...the red and yellow paint hurled at it is exciting and stimulating.’ And I find the title puzzling. 

Does the new (the flare of paint) 'help' the old (a portrait painted  in the style of an  old Spanish master?).  Or could you swop the title round? Does the old 'help' the new? Paint splashed around in Abstract Expressionism, graffiti in galleries etc, is very 20C. But we’ve seen it all before. An explosion of paint is given a new and surprising seriousness when it’s hurled at a child, an Infanta who has stepped straight out of the seventeenth century and continues to stare at us with dead pan face, ignoring the onslaught... 

I’m intrigued that the paint hardly touches her hair, her face and throat. Her frock is certainly spoiled beyond recovery and will never again be her Sunday best. And there are one or two snakes of paint in mid air which might cause some grief when they come to land. But the contrast between serene docility in the top half of the painting and out-of-control emotion at the bottom is indeed ‘exciting and stimulating’, just as the curator said.

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