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Posts tagged ‘National Portrait Gallery London’

Carl Randall steals the BP Portrait Show

Like so many of these annual open-submission art prizes, the annual BP sponsored National Portrait Gallery BP Portrait Award is very often a bit samey. Each year you get the same collection of oversized hyper-realistic magnified photo-like portraits, showing a person’s every vein and blood vessel, the sparkle in their eye and the grey in their hair. While these works undoubtedly demonstrate an often astonishing skill for painting photographically, the same does not automatically equate to a work’s having any artistic merit. Is it original? Does its composition have the power to move or inspire? Is the sitter’s story told in some original or dynamic way? Give me the coarsely applied brush strokes and unrealistic green-tinted skin of a Van Gogh portrait any day. If a painting looks like a photo, then in my view it should remain a photo.

This year’s BP show has its fair share of these oversized gormless faces filling the walls in all their unappetising detail, as well as a few rather questionable works – the kind which have been executed so badly that the old “my child could have done that” exasperated statement seems a little inadequate. But happily, this year’s BP Award also offers up some truly ground breaking and original work, paintings whose execution is so accomplished that you find yourself staring closely to find a single line of these meticulously detailed works out of place; works which have been composed with such imagination, insight and at times humour, that the entire collection of the National Portrait Gallery should be bypassed before first indulging in these paintings.

Hakone (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Hakone (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

Amusement Park (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Amusement Park (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

Sushi (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Sushi (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

I am talking about the works of Carl Randall, a British born and trained artist, but whose work is so immersed in Japanese culture, that my assumption for at least the first 10 minutes of being mesmerised by his works was that he originated from Japan. For despite his London Slade training, Randall took inspiration when spending time in Japan following his receipt of the prestigious Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation scholarship which he won in 2003. This enabled him to continue his painting career in Tokyo, during which time he was selected to be artist in residence in Hiroshima city (to document survivors of the Atomic Bomb) and he was chosen to represent Japan as artist in residence at the 2007 Formula 1 Races. From there continued what is quite evidently a love affair with modern Japanese culture, which he has since captured in multiple brilliant canvases and sketches which show Japan in all its quirky, colourful and inimitable character.

Shoe Shop (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Shoe Shop (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

Fireflies (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Fireflies (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

Electric Tokyo (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Electric Tokyo (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

I was first acquainted with Randall’s work at last year’s BP Portrait Award, when his black and white painting of some glum-faced melancholic city residents sitting up at a sushi-bar on a commonplace working day (Mr.Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar) won him the BP 2012 Travel Award. This enabled Randall to return to Japan, and undertake a new artistic adventure, painting a new collection entitled ‘In the footsteps of Hiroshige: Portraits of Modern Japan’, which are exhibited at this year’s show.

Mr Kitazawa's Noodle Bar (oil on canvas © Carl Randall)

Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar (oil on canvas © Carl Randall)

I urge all those living in, and passing through London to head to the BP Portrait Award just to look at these brilliant paintings which are both evocative of modern Japan, but also verge on the slightly surreal and idealistic, a sense captured by Randall’s portrayal of slightly deformed head shapes and frequently distorted proportions, as well as his use of vivid colouration and quixotic backdrops. This for me produces the perfect combination of compositional originality and skillful figurative narration. Some, like Randall’s cerulean-coloured Onsen almost remind me of Hockney but with, dare I say it, a more refined execution and altogether superior finish, while his homage to sumo wrestling (Sumo) contains an almost parodied exploration of light and shadow, the likes of which was so central to the atmosphere created in George Bellows’ boxing works, recently shown at the Royal Academy.

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Photo-realistic, boring, overly magnified these are not – they are true art to my mind – portraiture that tells a real story beyond two eyes, a nose and a mouth. I truly hope that Carl Randall represents the future of British portraiture, and that more works like his will fill the BP Portrait Award in the future.

Shinjuku (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Shinjuku (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

The BP Portrait Award is showing at London’s National Portrait Gallery and entry is free. It runs until the 15 September 2013 before touring to the Aberdeen Art gallery from 2 November 2013 to 1 February 2014, followed by the Wolverhampton Art Gallery from 3 March to 14 June 2014.

Carl Randall’s website is well worth a visit – also check out the “Japan Portraits” documentary which provides a fascinating insight into the artist in action. You can also find Carl on facebook and twitter. I would finally recommend the superb book Carl Randall: Japan Portraits which is available from the NPG bookshop.

All images are reproduced from with the kind permission of Carl Randall

BP Portrait Prize – Hyper-photorealism is all very well, but I want to see the Artist’s soul on the canvas

As something of a postscript to my post on Friday about the Queen’s Portrait exhibition is a short note about another exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery, the BP Portrait Prize (It’s clever marketing that requires an exhibition’s integral name to be precursored by the name of an international petrol conglomerate, although I’m not too sure how happy I am having to represent said marketing on my own blog just by nature of naming the exhibition). Anyway, I digress. The exhibition, which is now in its thirty-thid year, features some 55 works selected from an open submission of 2,187 international entrants. The sole requirement of entry is that the work is a portrait, painted in the last year.

The height of photorealism – Lindsay Lohan © Ben Ashton (2012)

This year, like most years before it, the Judges of the Prize seem to have been unashamedly seduced by the skills of artists painting photorealistically, rather than with soul. It’s now as predicable an aspect of this show as the British summer is full of rain that when you wander into the exhibition, you double-take, wondering whether you have strolled into a photography exhibition rather than a painting one. The artist paints so fantastically well, and plies his craft with such faultless skill, that one cannot see a single brush stroke and one would swear blind, even upon being 10 centimetres distance from the canvas, that this is a photo before you. This is all very well – there is no denying the skill, and absolute kudos needs to be given to these artists for executing the works with such sophistication – but the problem for me is that, if I wanted to see an exhibition of photos, I would be elsewhere. It is also, to my mind, the inherent problem of the annual offerings of the BP Portrait Prize, and what, for me, makes it all a bit boring.

These paintings do not look like paintings, and as such they do not strike me as bursting with the emotional impact that a very paint-plastered canvas exudes. In the manic multitude of Van Gogh’s plentiful brush strokes, you can identify with the bursts of energy expressed by the artist when he went about executing the work, while in the fragmented, abstracted portraits of Picasso, you can identify with an artist bursting with innovation, with a rebellious streak who wants to give more, to change art as we know it, to pioneer new forms of expression.

Swallow, © Alexandra Gardner 2012

By contrast when you look at the works hung in the BP Portrait prize, first you need to challenge your preconception that the work is actually a photograph, and then you spend your time staring at the work wondering how it is painted. But all of this emphasis somewhat takes away from the story of the sitter. The emotion is somehow lost in the perfection. When you can see no sign of an artist’s presence on the canvas, it becomes craftsmanship, and not art. It loses it’s soul. I compare these works to an exquisitely well crafted table – I would glance at the work and admire the virtuosity of the craftsman, but I would not attempt, nor be able to engage with the work in the same way as I can when an artist’s soul is poured onto a canvas.

The Dialects of Silence (Portrait of Michael Longley) © Colin Davidson 2012

There were some exceptions in this year’s show, and it is therefore unsurprising that these were my standout favourites. In Colin Davidson’s The Dialects of Silence (Portrait of Michael Longley), there is a superbly executed focus on his sitter’s melancholy eyes, which are practically photographic, but then as the work spans outwards, it becomes more and more fragmented, as swathes of paint are hastily applied to the canvas, but with no less effect. This work demonstrates both the soul of the sitter, and the passion of the artist, and that is why, for me, it works incredibly well as a portrait worthy of artistic merit. I also liked Alexandra Gardner’s Swallow which had something of the Gauguin about it. Yes it’s just a portrait, but the insertion of the striking yellow wall paper and the presence of a swallow around the sitter’s neck makes you interact with the work, wondering about the significance of the swallow, and no doubt captivated by the use of bold colour, and realism contrasting with the two dimensional black outline which circumnavigates the figure.

Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, Tokyo
© Carl Randall

However my favourite work of the show was undoubtedly this one, Carl Randall’s Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, Tokyo. This “group portrait” is startlingly original for a number of reasons: the viewpoint from above, its composition: customers on the right, servers on the left, the slice of city life seen through the window, and the exclusive use of black, white and shades of grey. I love the apathetic, indifferent stares of the customers, minding their own business, indulging in quick dinner in a hostile urban environment, thinking no doubt about work and the pressures around them. On the left we are met with the equally impassive stares of the workers, tired after cooking all day and bored of the relentless monotony of their work. But in the middle of this we have this almost embrace, the only human contact in the whole work, when the worker gives a bowl of food to a customer, or the other way round – because they both hold the bowl with two hands, it is akin to a loving embrace, a fusion of worker and customer, and composition-wise it provides the work with a horizontal variance to otherwise brash vertical lines. Brilliant.

Is that a photo?: Silent Eyes © Antonios Titakis (2012)

If the BP Portrait Prize included more works like this every year, it would be a startlingly interesting show. But as ever with exhibitions judged and chosen by a group of outdated art professionals and even a representative from BP (who clearly knows so much about art) we will continue to be shunned by a group of high-gloss works which, like any photo, reflect the viewer and push him away, rather than a show of works which, because an artist has bared his soul or painted a scene of such dynamic composition and interest, the viewer is captivated and invited in. For me, it’s this relationship between artist and viewer which is not just integral to the power and purpose of art, but central to the very definition of what “art” really is, whether it be triggered by a portrait, a landscape or an abstract clutter. Remove the soul of the artist, and the painting becomes just one more image to add to the ever changing visual landscape of the fast-moving world around us. A fleeting encounter, without a lasting impact.

The Queen: Art and Image – at the National Portrait Gallery

You can’t blame the National Portrait Gallery for cashing in on HRH Queen Elizabeth this year. Since her Diamond Jubilee celebrations at the beginning of this month, the popularity of the Queen has been at an all time high – in fact over  90% of those recently polled stated that they were satisfied with the Queen, figures which represent the significant surge of support which is now felt for the Royals in England. In the meantime, tourist numbers lingering outside Buckingham Palace, visiting Windsor Castle, and pouring into souvenir shops all over London have soared . So adding an exhibition of portraits of the Queen into the mix seems like an obvious choice, not least because, having been the subject of at least one official portrait in every of her reign, as well as the subject of numerous photographs and unofficial tributes, there are so many portraits to choose from!

Queen Elizabeth II (Cecil Beaton, 2 June 1953)

I therefore went along to the NPG’s exhibition, The Queen: Art & Image today expecting 60 official portraits lined up, each recognising a gradual change in the Queen’s image, from glamourous young Queen in her 20s, to the Nation’s favourite grandmother. However to my surprise, the exhibition was a little light on the official portraits. In fact it was a little light on paintings altogether, instead concentrating on the Queen’s image, as masterminded  by officials, and seen through the lens of the paparazzi, captured on camera. That is not to say that the exhibition was not historically narrative and collectively interesting.

Queen Elizabeth II (LIghtness of Being) © Chris Levine (2007)

Queen Elizabeth II (Equanimity) (© Chris Levine, 2007)

The show begins and ends with the masterful 3D works of Chris Levine, Lightness of Being and Equanimity. These have to be amongst my favourite portraits of the Queen. The way they are mastered – a print on a lightbox, multilayered so that the Queen’s posture changes as you move around the work, is startlingly realistic. It has never been so possible to feel as though you are meeting the Queen, when in reality such an opportunity is stored away in a box of other pipe dreams such as the big retirement mansion and everlasting fame. Every wrinkle is there to see, but unlike the horrendous portrait by Lucian Freud, also included in the show, the portrait is truthful and yet still utterly glamorous, not least Lightness of Being which captures the Queen, eyes briefly closed, in white ermine, white pearls, and her glittering crown. Even her hair glimmers with a silver sheen rather than dull grey.

Queen Elizabeth II (Dorothy Wilding, 1952)

From this impressive start, the exhibition heads back to the 1950s and thus begins a chronological exploration of the Queen’s changing image and public portrayal. I suppose thinking about it, a load of official portraits would have always been a little contrived, as artists seek to flatter and do deference in the employ of this almost supernaturally important sitter, while photographs capture the Queen as a real person, a loving mother, happy relaxed tourist and here, in the 1950s section, as a glamourous, almost Hollywood worthy young Monarch, with a perfect figure and natural celebrity smile.

It is from this point that we begin to see the Queen mature from glamorous young starlet into a rounded family woman, but one who had to bare the full weight of the royal responsibility of her solitary role, as many of the portraits demonstrate. Through the 60s and 70s, her posture becomes more official, and her stride seems more confident and self-assured. Still, moments of rare relaxation, such as the Queen laughing on the decks of her beloved Yacht Britannia are captured during this period, which was probably the last decade of uninhibited happiness before the traumas of the future descended upon her.

Queen Elizabeth II by Patrick Lichfield (1971)

Elizabeth I (this is not a typing error btw) by Gerhard Richter 1966

Queen and Prince Philip survey floral tributes after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales © Peter Nichols, 5 September 1997

Moving into the 1980s, you see the Queen fall into the shadow of Princess Diana, the attention of the public transferring to this more volatile of characters. In the meantime the Sex Pistols released a single, God Save the Queen, with controversial lyrics suggesting the Queen belonged to a “fascist regime” (the artwork for which is included in the exhibition), Gilbert and George betrayed the Queen and Prince Philip in the shape of the “cross potent” (a symbol of the Austrian Fascist party) and Andy Warhol hinted at the superficiality of the Queen in his series of lithographs of the Queen painted as part of his fixation on the cult of celebrity. Onto the 90s, when most of the Queen’s children’s marriages fell apart and her beloved Windsor Castle sustained severe fire damage. While who could have predicted the shock of the late 90s, when Princess Diana tragically died, and the Queen fell victim to a media hunt as the papers decried her failure to show her face in the immediate aftermath. The turbulence of the period is captured by the exhibition, and it is perhaps appropriate that Lucian Freud’s portrait, the ugliest of the them all, is hung at the end of this period.

Queen Elizabeth II, Andy Warhol (1985)

Queen Elizabeth II, Lucian Freud (2001)

Onto the new millennium, where things get good again. The popularity of the Queen surges, and the portraits of the Queen become more respectful, portraying the Queen as a genuine person, a consistent and beloved figurehead, and a cherished icon of not only the nation, but the world. Here hangs another of my favourites and one of the most recent portraits by Thomas Struth, commissioned especially for the Diamond Jubilee. The photograph, which features Prince Phillip and the Queen slightly off centre, sat relaxed on a green, rather elaborate sofa, is delightfully accessible, like a family portrait – you can see every vein, every wrinkle of both sitters, suggesting a warm, human aspect, which is always surprising in those who seem so inaccessible. I also love the portrait for demonstrating the bond between Phillip and the Queen, who sit fairly formally, but who are nevertheless the clear support of one another, forming a single union with a bond which is clear for all to see.

Prince Phillip and Queen Elizabeth II, Windsor Castle © Thomas Struth 2011

I loved too this portrait by Annie Leibovitz (2007) which, with its solitary and dramatic background, and with the Queen dressed in a cloak, references the paintings by Annigoni, and photographs by Cecil Beaton placed at the beginning of the show. And thus, as the exhibition ends, the portraits come full circle, as we see a Queen as much loved now, as then, a Queen who inspires in us all a deep sense of reverence and respect, and for we British, is someone of whom we can be resolutely proud.

Queen Elizabeth, Annie Leibovitz (2007)

The Queen: Art & Image is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 21 October 2012.

Lucian Freud Portraits

Roll up roll up for the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad. All the big wigs of the Brit-art A-list are in town, the banners are up, and the art posters line the saturated platforms of the underground as the PR machine goes into overdrive. As if in response to the cattle cry, the crowds have come to town –  the galleries are packed, the gallery restaurants have waiting times of over an hour, and the gallery shops are partitioned by huge queues of customers cashing in on memorabilia of these big-billed art shows. It’s all really quite stressful.

Next in line to meet my sampling eye was the Lucian Freud portraits retrospective at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Having been in the pipeline for some time, and organised in collaboration with the artist himself, the NPG’s exhibition gained additional poignance when, last July, Lucian Freud died at the ripe old age of 88. He did so working right up until the end, and his unfinished portrait of his studio assistant and dog hangs at the climax of the show.

Portrait of the Hound (2011)

There is no doubting Freud’s stature as a preeminent star of British art. When his painting, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, sold at Christie’s in New York for the sum of US$33.6million in 2008, it broke the record for the highest price paid for a painting by a living artist. It is consequently appropriate that he should be lined up along with the likes of David Hockney and Damien Hirst for blockbuster solo exhibitions which promise to showcase British art to the world. It is also appropriate that the show focuses on his portraits, for Lucian Freud is long associated with his unforgiving nudes, painted with a multi-layered impasto application of fleshy pale paint, striking often uncomfortable and usually unflattering poses, and portraying a deeply penetrated psychological profile cast free from boundaries, clutter or clothing for full and frank disclosure to the world.

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995)

Leigh Bowery (Seated) (1990)

In this show, the NPG give us plenty of raw unabashed flesh to stare at, as Freud’s emboldened, unrepentant portraits confront the audience rather than seduce. In the galleries, there was an almost tangible electricity in the air, as the scale of the show and the sheer number of these awkwardly posed nudes threw light on the often disconcerting relationships between artist and model, the somewhat fragmented and awkward relationship between artist and children, and the range of dynamic but often slightly disturbing characters on show.

Sunny Morning - Eight Legs (1997)

The paintings are never going to be easy to look at, not least because these are not ideological nudes. This is not like looking at the beautifully blended, perfectly shaped backside of the Rokeby Venus (by Velazquez) and appreciating the aesthetics of the scene. These portraits depict ordinary people, with very ordinary bodies in no holds barred portrayal, pubic hair out, penises dangling, sagging flesh. It would be like walking along the street and seeing everyone naked, their legs parted awkwardly, their private parts on full view. It’s not easy to look at, but these portraits are undoubtedly fascinating to view, just because they are ordinary people – people who have bared all to the artist and, through him, to the world.

Girl with a Kitten (1947)

Nonetheless, emblematically Freudian impasto flesh asides, my favourite paintings were those from the beginning of Freud’s career. In this delightfully chronologically curated show, the first few galleries, while packed, showed Freud’s fastidiously executed, perfectly drafted early portraits, when he used very fine brushes and paid close attention to every detail. Thus in the portraits of his first wife, Kitty Garman, you can see every hair on her head, and in the portrait of her wearing a yellow gown (with boob unceremoniously flopping out), each fibre of that gown’s toweling texture is painted. As Freud’s portraits grew less detailed and Freud’s preference was for thicker sable brushes, he still paid close attention to a number of background factors in his work. In Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (1968) for example, the leaves of the plant are painted with excruciating detail – every millimeter of the plant, from its shiny leaves and rough edges, to the dying leaves and dried up ends, are perfectly represented by Freud. His early paintings have lost none of their intensity in being scrupulously painted – the sitters look tense, and the widened eyes, typical of Freud’s portraits at that time, are full of emotional anxiety and unguarded vulnerability. From the very beginning, Freud had an exceptional talent for painting simple portraits loaded with dramatic tension and emotional complexity.

Girl with a White Dog (1950-51)

Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait) (1967-8)

As the show goes on, the works become more ambitious and the nakedness more frequent. This is all very well, but what upset me was not the nudity, but the increased coarseness of Freud’s finish. From his Benefits Supervisor onwards, the texture of his paint finish becomes more and more lumpy which really made my stomach turn. In his 2007 portrait, Ria, Naked Portrait, the face of Ria appears disfigured by a mass of lumpy built up textured paint on her face, which looks more like the affliction of some terrible skin disease. The effect is the same in his final, unfinished painting, Portrait of the Hound (above) where the face of his studio assistant appears contaminated by the same warty contagion. It’s an unpleasant finish which rather repulsed me as I walked away from this show.

Ria, Naked Portrait (2006-7)

Still, this messy end did nothing to dissuade me of the overall merits of this show, and the superb skill which Freud demonstrated throughout his career. Through his paintings, he has created self-contained independent souls who appear to jump from the canvas and steal the attention of the viewer. In this way, Freud leaves behind a multifaceted legacy which will live on wherever his portraits hang. In the meantime, this opportunity to see so many hung together is truly a must-see, and so much more fulfilling than 5 million purple trees lauded down the road in Piccadilly.

Painter and Model (1986-7)

All images above are the copyright of Lucian Freud.