What is the point of painting a portrait? We live in a photographic age. So, if you want to record a likeness, won’t a snap serve instead? But for thousands of artists, sitters and spectators alike, the painted portrait seems to remain relevant, as the National Portrait Gallery’s annual competition, now in its 35th year, continues to prove.
The 55 paintings on show to the public were selected from a record number of more than 2,300 entries.
What they present, on the face of it, is a cross-section of contemporary society. This is an exhibition that fulfills a historical function. It captures not only a handful of well-known faces — this year Timothy Spall, who plays JMW Turner in the newly released film, and the poet Simon Armitage are among the better-known sitters — but also the looks and styles of their times.
The NPG exhibition introduces us to everyone from the elderly father in his red leather armchair, to the woman who sits meditatively upon the loo. It runs a gamut of possible styles: photorealistic close-ups, Sargentesque swagger portraits, faux-naive replicas and splashy expressionistic works.
In fact, it feels rather too strongly like a “one-of-each” hang and occasionally — as in the case of a woman seen only from the back — it pushes definitions of the genre to their limit.
There are three shortlisted contenders for the £35,000 prize.
Thomas Ganter, painting a homeless man slumped against a chain-link fence, pays homage (not least in its gilded background) to medieval forbears. Richard Twose found himself struck by a sternly gaunt old woman with an edgy haircut and asked her to sit. She turned out to be the former model Jean Woods. David Jon Kassan presents us with his mother, a reluctant poser, apparently, since she keeps her eyes shut.
The winner will be announced today. But I would give the prize to the last of these three. Kassan gets to the heart of why this annual show proves so popular. The sense of relationship is what the painted portrait can still forge. The slow process of creation becomes as essential as the finished product.
The BP Portrait Award is at the National Portrait Gallery from June 26 to September 21