BP Portrait Award shortlist
April 22 2013
Pictures: (left to right): 'The Uncertain Time' by John Devane © John Devane; 'Pieter' by Susanne du Toit © Susanne du Toit
Two pictures have been shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award. From the National Portrait Gallery press release:
The two artists shortlisted for the 2013 BP Portrait Award 2013 are John Devane for The Uncertain Time and Susanne du Toit for Pieter.
John Devane (17.08.1954) for The Uncertain Time (1720 x 2490mm, oil on canvas).
A painter who also teaches at Coventry University, John Devane, has an MA from the Royal College of Art. He has been shortlisted for his large group portrait of his three children: Lucy, 25, Laura, 20, and Louis, 15. Painted over three years, the picture sets out to show how children emerge from childhood and begin to assert their independence revealing something of their adult selves. He says: ‘The composition suggests an almost stage-like shallow space constructed in two zones with the three figures presented as if they are awaiting some kind of event’. The artist’s key points of reference are the works of Courbet, Chardin, Degas, Balthus and Samuel Beckett. This will be the second time John Devane’s work has been exhibited at the BP Portrait Award, his In the House of The Cellist was seen in the 1995 exhibition.
Susanne du Toit (05.03.1955) for Pieter (1080 x 830mm, oil on canvas).
Educated at the University of Pretoria and the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, Susanne du Toit is an artist now based in Crowthorne, Berkshire. She has been shortlisted for her portrait of her eldest son Pieter, aged 35. The sitting took place in the artist’s studio, as part of a series of portraits of her family. Susanne du Toit says she allowed Pieter to find his own pose, with the condition that his hands would appear prominently in the composition – she says she has always found hands essential to communicating personality. ‘I look to the body to provide as much expression as the face’, she says. ‘Having said that, the averted gaze of this portrait, which was his choice, struck me as characteristic of his reflective character, and became intensely engaging’.
This year the competition received 1,969 entries from 77 different countries. 55 portraits have been selected for the exhibition (National Portrait Gallery, London, 20 June - 15 September 2013).
Hard to say much about the pictures from the photos so far, but they both look pretty good to me. The main thing is, they're not photo-realist works. Encouraging...
More details here.
New portrait of Maggie Smith unveiled
April 10 2013
Picture: National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery has unveiled a new portrait of Dame Maggie Smith, and it is not good. It is, though, better than the portrait of Kate, so small mercies and all that.
The portrait of Dame Maggie is by James Lloyd. I used to be quite a fan of Lloyd. His early work, like the 1998 portrait of Paul Smith at the NPG, demonstrated inventive compositions and sharp-eyed characterisation. I even remember a long time ago, when I was working at the House of Commons, talking to him about a commission to paint Tony Blair. But sadly his most recent work is not nearly so good. His 2007 portrait of Kenneth Clarke, for example, is a poor likeness, and could be just about anyone's grandparent. You could probably say the same about his Maggie Smith too. The NPG needs to find some better portraitists, and fast.
February 25 2013
Tomorrow Christies will open bidding for the second batch of works from the Warhol Foundation after their decision to sell the lot last year. Intriguingly Christies have decided to offer them in an online auction over the course of one week;
"The timed online format allows clients to browse, bid, receive instant updates by email or phone if another bid exceeds theirs, organize shipping, and pay from anywhere in the world."
This eBay style of auctioneering seems to be all the rage at the moment and a few regional auction houses have also opted for this method of sale, normally for their lesser valued items such as wine as well as unsold lots. With the ever increasing overheads of large commercial spaces, this quicker method of public offering will no doubt become common ground in the years to come.
Kate's first portrait
January 13 2013
Oh dear, it is pretty awful, isn't it? And it’s so big too, which only amplifies the awfulness. When I went to see poor Kate’s new portrait earlier today it seemed I was not alone in instantly disliking it – there was much tittering and shaking of heads among my fellow viewers. That it is hung alongside some of the National Portrait Gallery’s very best contemporary portraits – opposite, for example, Michael Taylor's excellent portrait of John Tavener - further heightens the feeling that we have here a real turkey of a picture. I’m not surprised that it has been universally panned by commentators. But what I am surprised by, given that there is no shortage of good portrait artists out there, is how the NPG allowed this to happen to their new Patron.
The answer is, unfortunately, that it was probably inevitable, and for two reasons. The first is our (and the National Portrait Gallery’s) increasing obsession with photo-realist portraiture. The NPG’s main contemporary portrait competition, the BP Portrait Award, now seems actively to encourage photo-realism at the expense of traditional portraiture – indeed, the artist of Kate’s portrait, photo-realist Paul Emsley, himself won the award in 2007. The second reason, which is related to the first, is that there must have been a wish to choose a safe pair of hands for Kate’s first official portrait. One presumes that there was a desire to avoid a ‘controversial’ picture like Stuart Pearson Wright’s (brilliant) portrait of a half-naked Duke of Edinburgh holding a fly. Photo-realism allows for a safely conservative portrait, since the artist is effectively limited to just painting a photograph, one the sitter themselves can approve before anything goes too far.
The problem is, though, that the NPG has ended up with a safe but stultifyingly dull portrait, and, worse, Kate has been subjected to some needlessly negative media and public reaction on one of her first forays into the arts. Regular readers will know that I have long been unimpressed with photo-realist portraiture (to me, painting a photograph requires no more skill than photographing a painting, just more time). However, when done well there is no denying that photo-realism can have an initially impressive impact, as the viewer is allowed to feast on the minutest details of an interesting-looking sitter; the crevasses of a wrinkled face, the intensity of a dazzling eye.
Sadly, Kate’s portrait is not only a woeful piece of painting, it’s also a woeful piece of photo-realism. There are few interesting details for us to be impressed by - indeed, Emsley himself has bemoaned the lack of ‘wrinkles’ on Kate’s face. But although the portrait relies on photographs, it nevertheless attempts a veneer of painterliness, and the result is an awkward collision between banal photography and bad painting. It reminds me of the washed out, soft-focus photos of the elderly one finds in high street studios, or, more commonly, American shopping malls. As a painting, it conveys nothing of note whatsoever, and fails entirely to bring the subject to life. The flesh tones are pallid, stale, and so unbalanced that Kate appears to be recently deceased. Visitors at the NPG need only walk three paces to their right to see, in a series of Mario Testino photos of Kate, that happily she looks nothing like Emsley's picture in real life. Emsley has tried hard, but he is out of his depth.
This painting then is a shining example of the fundamental weaknesses of photo realist portraitists. For all their attention to detail, for all the hours the artist spends standing close to the canvas labouring over a single hair, there is no corresponding sense of overall perspective, and certainly no penetrating exploration of character. The whole becomes lost in the detail. One wonders if they ever stand back and look at their portrait from afar. Might we hope, therefore, that the very public failure of this portrait leads to a reappraisal of photo-realism?
The omens are not good. In a sense, the NPG is merely reflecting the public’s appetite for paintings that look like photographs. We are now so conditioned to looking at the world through a lens, be it in our mobile phones, digital cameras, or on the telly or in newspapers, that we expect our paintings to look like photos too. Stick-in-the-muds like me and Brian Sewell might say that a painted portrait should be the means by which we eschew the instantaneous, one-way, emotionless gaze of the camera lens. But these days too many portraitists rely on cameras, and the result is the increasing eclipse of the oil portrait done from life, in long sittings where artist and sitter could built up at least a semblance of some deeper understanding than is ever possible through photography.
The irony in this case is that there is one person who agrees with me to such an extent that he’s even established his own art school, where art students are taught the traditional techniques of the Old Masters. He is, of course, Kate’s father-in-law, the Prince of Wales.
Update - a reader places the blame more in Kate's direction:
Wait....didn’t Kate receive a degree in the history of art not too long ago? Either her degree should be revoked, or it’s a sad testament to the quality of higher education in this country (not to mention the whole connoisseurship issue...) Here was a good chance for her to champion all the things one hopes and assumes a history of art graduate would have learned with a unique practical demonstration of that knowledge, and all I can hear is scores of parents saying ‘we paid good money for you to study the history of art and that’s what you learned??’
I found the portrait pretty revolting to look at – it reminded me of a Breck shampoo advertisement from the 1960s aged to show how the sitter (missing? dead? fugitive from the law?) might appear today.
Another reader cautions:
At first glance 'Kate' is so ghastly that it transcends the Ecce Mono, and then gradually I wonder if the NPG was tricked into commissioning a conceptual, and subversive, Great Work of Art.
Update II - another reader writes:
Photorealism is an impressive style of art when painted well. However, more often than not this style of painting places the viewer's focus on the painting's technique rather than its subject (and as such, arguably emphasises the achievements of the artist rather than the sitter).
If the aim was to make Kate's portrait seem modern and up to date then it seems a shame, with so many fantastic portrait photographers working in this country, that the final outcome was not a photograph. On the other hand, if the aim was to produce a painted portrait for the sake of tradition and Kate's art historical background, then why not fully exploit the fact that paint is not reliant on reality alone. The result is an uncomfortable hybrid of these two media, no doubt caused by an over-zealous attempt to express the new 'with-it' generation of royals but in a traditional manner. In doing so the painting becomes the equivalent of a postage stamp - it shows the image of the (future) queen, but not much else.
Another reader sees the influence of a recent Leonardo discovery:
I would hazard a guess that it is a rather poor attempt to make the Duchess of Cambrige look a bit like Leonardo's? Salvator Mundi. The blurry picture on the front of the weekend's newspapers made me come to this realisation.
The only real mystery seems to me to be why the expression of her lips don't seem to match the rest of her face.
Art auctions in China
December 31 2012
Video: CRI English/Dominic Swire
This film on the risks of buying art at auction in China by Dominic Swire is worth a click. Aside from some wise words from an art historian based at Peking University, there's also the views from a buyer, Zhou Benli, on what makes a great art collector:
It's really bad if a piece can't increase by 30% in value per year. If you find an artwork that goes up 100 or even 200% a year then you're a great collector. I store my paintings and don't show them to everyone because of insurance issues... It's like looking after treasure.
A reader rants
November 28 2012
A reader writes:
Can´t believe AHN will not rant about NPG new acquisition [a portrait of Amy Winehouse]! Even I am bothered and I am not even English! It is just a bad, bad, bad picture! Painful! Really bad!
Yes, it is pretty bad. Here's the guff to go with it:
Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London, said: "Dumas’s liquid handling of paint carries tremendous emotive power.
"Detail bleeds into and out of her work, directing and dispersing the gaze of the viewer. The rich, translucent blues of this portrait allude to Amy Winehouse’s musical influences as much as to the melancholy details of her career."
If I was in charge of the National Portrait Gallery, I'd have a rule against commissioning posthumous portraits. They always disappoint, usually because, as here, their purpose is overwhelmed by the circumstances of the subject's death. A portrait should be from life. The Amy Winehouse image above is just a memorial.
Hockney's riposte to the barbarians
November 21 2012
With his beautifully observed sketch of the now vandalised 'totem' tree stump, David Hockney proves in one instant why he is (for me) the most adept, talented, communicative and relevant artist at work in Britain today.
In The Guardian, Hockney said of the vandalism:
"It was just an unbelievably mean-spirited gesture," says Hockney as he creates a new sketch shown here.
The 75-year-old artist is convinced the stump was targeted because it had become possibly the most famous piece of dead wood in Britain after he portrayed it in several of his acclaimed landscapes of the countryside around his home in Bridlington. "It is something that has made me depressed. It was just a spite. There are loads of very mean things here now in Britain."
More details here.
November 15 2012
Alas, Sotheby's excitement at their highest auction total ever ($375m) was short-lived. Last night Christie's New York contemporary art sale fetched a record total of $412.2m. The top lot was, inevitably, a Warhol, the Statue of Liberty silkscreen featured in the video above. Another Warhol, of Marlon Brando, made $23.7m. The fact that it last sold in 2003 for $5m gives you an idea of how crazy the art world is.
Carol Vogel in the New York Times says Christie's knew they were in for a big night, because:
...in addition to a great deal of interest in the sale from collectors around the world, Brett Gorvy, chairman of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department worldwide, said there had been a record number of requests for sky boxes — those invitation-only spaces secreted a floor above the salesroom, where the superrich can watch and bid without being seen.
NPG buys portrait of Gerry Adams
November 13 2012
Picture: Irish Times
The National Portrait Gallery in London has bought a portrait of the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams (detail, above).
When should the NPG display portraits of contemporary figures? At what point in history does it decide who deserves to have their portrait included in the national collection? Should the NPG acquire and display portraits of here today gone tomorrow types, as it sometimes does now? Or should it remember that as Shakespeare wrote, 'all that glistens is not gold', and present a more discerning array of the nation's leading figures, one advised by the passage of time and not contemporary notions of celebrity, success or sanctity. If you think the former course is the right one, then there will inevitably be times when the NPG comes to regret spending public money on portraits of people it will one day have no desire to display. Because for some contemporary figures we cannot know now, with confidence, how history will judge them.
Update - a reader tweets:
I shouldn't think Gerry Adams will be wild about being included in the British NPG either!
Update II - another reader writes:
The NPG question is interesting. How much of its mandate is DNB and how much 'Who's Who'? The 'Who's Who' part is always very busy. Gerry Adams's teflon 'statesman' persona means he fits both criteria.
Mr & Mrs Beckham
October 26 2012
A reader sends in this photo from street artist 'Mr Brainwash's' exhibition in Oxford St, London. I suppose we must glad that a street artist even knows who Gainsborough is.
After the Last Supper was over
October 22 2012
Picture: Bence Hajdu/Mail
Hungarian artist Bence Hajdu has an interesting new take on Old Masters - he's removed all the people. More here.
The deranged and the desperate
May 28 2012
Here's a curious one - a 'Damien Hirst' spot painting being hawked via Twitter for 'a minimum of £2million'. The picture is being offered by @TomMersey via the unique (and so far unsuccessful) method of sending the same tweet (above) to everyone he can think of. And when he can't think of anyone, he simply sends a tweet out with the hopeful hashtag of #billionaires.
'It's not vulgar, it's...'
May 28 2012
Picture: Jamie McCartney
Several of you have written in to flag up an exhibition in London's Cork Street, entitled 'The Great Wall of Vagina'. Here's the bumpf, which I reproduce without comment. But do note the last, perhaps unfortunate line:
Female genitalia have long been a source of fascination, recently of celebration but generally of confusion. Today it seems that creating images of the vagina is the sole preserve of pornographers, erotic artists and feminists. Step in British artist Jamie McCartney who has grasped the nettle to create a monumental wall sculpture all about this most intimate of places. For 400 women their privates have gone public... [...]
It’s not vulgar, it’s vulva! This isn’t just sensation, it is art with a social conscience and McCartney wants people to stop, look and listen. This is about grabbing the attention, using humour and spectacle, and then educating people about what normal women really look like. Described as “the Vagina Monologues of sculpture” this piece is intended to change the lives of women, forever. [...]
The Great Wall of Vagina makes for fascinating and revealing viewing which is a far cry from pornography. It is not erotic art. It is not about titillation. McCartney has pulled off an amazing trick - to deliberately make the sexual nonsexual and take you much deeper.
May 23 2012
Picture: Wall Street Journal
In South Africa, a great kerfuffle has developed over a portrait of President Zuma that showed his genitalia. It was later defaced. One for the Tate's forthcoming 'Iconoclasm' exhibition? More details here.
Update: Zuma has gone to court to try and ban the painting.
Meanwhile, in America...
March 27 2012
Picture: LA Times
...the negative campaigning has even spread to art. Or rather, 'art'. This is called 'One Nation under Socialism', and shows President Obama (that well-known communist) burning a copy of the US constitution.
Hirst, the art market, and keeping up values
March 19 2012
Picture: Andrew Testa/Newsweek
In The Guardian, the writer Hari Kunzru casts a thoughtful glance at Hirst values, and looks at how both dealers and institutions can help keep them up:
If I were Larry Gagosian (usually cited in power lists as the contemporary art world's most important player) and I wanted to help my top client shore up the value of a body of work that was losing its lustre as its fashionable 90s aesthetic began to look tired, and the penny started to drop among collectors that at every other dinner party they went to they saw something on the wall that looked awfully similar to the something on their own wall, what would I do?
Long-term value in the art world depends in a certain raw way on scarcity, but is largely produced through a delicate process by which aesthetic value (determined by curators and critics) intersects with market value, determined ultimately by auction prices. One point at which these two types of value intersect is in provenance. The story behind an object – its past owners, where it has been shown, its place in the story of the artist's career, and so on – confers both types of value. A landmark show, geographically dispersed in an unprecedented way, is bound to be remembered as a significant moment in Hirst's career as a global art star. When that show is accompanied by a critical apparatus, chiefly a catalogue raisonnée (a meticulously documented list of works shown, accompanied by scholarly essays), those works become part of a canon and a magical walled garden of significance is erected around them.
As Francis Outred, Christie's European head of contemporary art, told the Economist, this catalogue "could bring reassuring clarity to the question of volume". The pharmaceutical paintings are frankly too financially valuable to too many people for their actual status (banal, mass-produced, decorative) to intrude on the consensus fiction that they are scarce and important. The owners of the 1,100 paintings not in the Gagosian show should be nervous, though. They just lost their AAA rating.
Presumably, the forthcoming Tate show will fuel the beast for a little longer. Meanwhile, even I hear rumours of auction houses actively turning away Hirsts at the moment. There are just too many. And if they all went into auction at the same time...
On Tate's new seeds
March 5 2012
Picture: Graham Turner/Guardian
A reader writes:
To answer your question, yes!
Perhaps the reason behind the Tate/ArtFund decision not to disclose the price is that they are embarrassed. However, as you rightly say, that is not a valid reason. If they believe in the 'work' they must be able to defend the expenditure.
For the ArtFund to collude in this, when they are always begging for funds from their members, is a disgrace.
Strong stuff. I've asked the Art Fund if there was any reason behind not releasing the extent of their contribution. But answer comes there none.
Of course, it is possible that the secrecy is to protect a super low price paid to Mr Weiwei, which would be seen as lowering the market rate for his seeds. But why would the artist want his benevolence to be secret?
It would be interesting to know what the going rate for Weiwei's seeds was before the recent Tate installation, to compare with what they fetched after it. I suspect, in other words, that in return for all that publicity and establishment endorsement, Mr Weiwei owes the Tate a big favour...
Update: it has been hinted to me that the lack of disclosure has something to do with the artist's recent run-in with the Chinese authorities. Presumably, if that is the case, Weiwei won't be selling anything publicly at auction for a while either.
Tate buys Wei Wei sunflower seeds - but won't say for how much
March 5 2012
Picture: Graham Turner/Guardian
The Tate has bought 8m of Ai Wei Wei's porcelain sunflower seeds. More details in The Guardian. But, intriguingly:
The Tate acquired the work with the help of a grant from the Art Fund charity, but has not revealed the price.
Why not? For more on Wei Wei seed prices, see my earlier post.
The Art Fund may publicise the amount and purpose of a grant in whatever way it thinks fit, other than in relation to grants for the purchase of objects coming up at auction or in other cases in which the Art Fund agrees that it would be appropriate to waive this right. The Art Fund will publish the cost of all Art Fund-assisted Objects unless the Beneficiary can satisfy the Art Fund that there is a valid reason why such information should be withheld.
I'm intrigued as to what the 'valid reason' in this case is, if there is one. If public money is involved, it had better be a good one, don't you think?
March 2 2012
Just as I was thinking 'I haven't done a Guffwatch for a while', along comes Christie's New York with some glorious candidates from their forthcoming ''First Open' Post-War Contemporary Art Sale'.
Here's the introduction to Wade Guyton's Untitled (above, inkjet printed on linen, executed 2006), estimated at $200,000 - $300,000:
A candid example from the artist's ongoing series of "printer drawings," Untitled poses a poignant double query of form and function. By folding the primed linen in half and repetitively feeding it through a large-format inkjet printer, Guyton performs an obsessive ritual that can only be realized by modern means of photographic reproduction. And all the while, the artist is also paying a personal tribute to form by referencing modernism and conceptualism.
Phoney words for a phoney picture. Think of it this way, if Nick Penny wrote verbiage like that to describe Titian's Diana and Callisto, we'd laugh at him.
Still, proof that even those skilled in art guff can sometimes struggle to produce anything meaningful may be found in Christie's catalogue entry for the top lot in their sale, a Hirst spot painting estimated at $600-800,000. The entry is simply a lame and seemingly random excerpt from a 1996 interview with Hirst. Here's a snippet:
Damien Hirst: Imagine a world of spots. Every time I do a painting a square is cut out. They regenerate. They're all connected.
Stuart Morgan: Why are you cutting out squares? Is this a cipher for infinity?
DH: It's an idea of painting and I've always wanted to paint but this is more sculpture than painting. I guess it's infinity.
SM: And in front much smaller versions of infinity, like people dying. [...] How do you feel about nature?
DH: I've seen better (laughs). There isn't anything else.
In case you were wondering:
First Open is the perfect opportunity for new and established collectors who are eager to discover emerging artists and ready to explore lesser-known works by famous artists.
In other words, the not so good stuff (laughs).
February 20 2012
Picture: Norwich Evening News
This time in Norwich, where the police intervened to 'give words of advice' after two male nudes by artist Peter Kavanagh appeared in 'SinSins' shop window. The pictures were then removed. And it isn't the first time Norwich police have had to act:
In January, a display depicting a mannequin urinating on a wall had to be taken down from a shop window at clothes shop Philip Browne in Guildhall Hill, after a single complaint to police.