Last weekend, I registered for the BP Portrait Award, which is an annual portraiture competition held at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It was started in 1979 and was initially sponsored by John Player & Sons, a tobacco company, but British Petroleum took over sponsorship of the competition in 1989 – hence the name. The exhibition opens in June each year and runs until September. For many years it was restricted to UK residents only, but now it is unrestricted, which results in an extraordinary number of entries – last year there were approx. 1,969 entries and only 55 got selected for exhibition. Given how strong many of the unselected works are (which you can see at the Dazed & Refused exhibition, running in parallel to the BP one), the competition is a sheer lottery. Still, it is quite tempting to try, for the first prize is typically £30,000 and last year it attracted over 285,000 viewers.
My friend Andris Wood, with whom I am having a joint exhibition in April this year, is submitting a painting for the 14th time. As for me, it’s my 4th entry (above is my entry from this year, and below from 2013 and 2012.) I’m not sure what exactly makes me persevere and enter the competition again and again, for every year when I go to see those 55 works, I am quite often disappointed. A vast majority of the paintings are hyper-realistic, and, in my opinion, soulless copies of photographs. And I’m not alone in this view – the competition has been receiving criticism from mainstream press in the recent years precisely for this reason. It seems odd that there is such a strong preference for photo-like works, even though the gallery holds a photography portrait exhibition – the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize – where some of these paintings might be more appropriate.
Last year’s winner, though, a very good portrait of her son Pieter by a South African-born artist Susanne du Toit, which picked up the £30,000 first prize, was acclaimed a departure for an award that had been championing the photorealist art. Here’s hoping. In the age of Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook etc., seeing a personal expression and arrangement of paint on canvas is very desirable.
But, like Andris, I feel strangely compelled to keep entering the competition, given that portraiture is one of my top subjects. And if Andris gets in, I might regain my faith in the judges’ view.
The portrait I am submitting was painted last spring, and is a representation of me at the time. It’s quite sad and I have been told that I look older on the painting than I do in real life. This doesn’t surprise me, as over the last year or so I had been giving a lot of thought to the notion of “age”, its perception, implications, presumptions and time passing-related anxieties. If I were to do a self-portrait now (which I have no time for now, as I’m working on a cycle of works for the upcoming exhibition), it would be very different. Perhaps it will be the next year’s entry.
Some of the greatest paintings have been self-portraits – Rembrandt, Dürer, or Vincent van Gogh being the obvious examples, and so I would like to share some of my personal favourites. Needless to say, this is only a selected list as there are plenty more that I praise and love.
When I was a teenager, I went through a phase of absolute devotion to an avant-garde Polish artist who committed suicide the day after the Soviets invaded Poland on 17 September 1939, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz a.k.a Witkacy. He was not just a keen painter but a real multi-disciplinary artist: a phenomenal poet, playwright, novelist, photographer and philosopher. As a painter, he had opened the S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Firm, which offered several grades of portrait from the merely representational (A), to the more expressionistic (B), those for friends created under the influence of drugs (C), ditto but without the drugs (D) and totally freestyle, “pure form” portraits (E). Many of his paintings had annotations in terms of what drugs and substances (tobacco, coffee, peyote) he had been taking whilst painting, and those also fell into various categories. He used almost solemnly dry pastels and charcoal.
All his portraits are extremely powerful, and his self-portraits are no exception.
Francis Bacon’s biggest eruption of self-portraits happened in the 1970s, when he was also commemorating his late lover, George Dyer in large triptychs. His response to questions about this flow of self-portraits was naturally quite sarcastic. In Michael Peppiatt’s The Anatomy of Enigma we can read that Bacon would say: “I loathe this old pudding face of mine (…) But it’s all I’ve got left to paint now.” Self-portraits remained a dominant feature in this work for the rest of his career. The emotional isolation those images convey is palpable, and, however distorted and obscured, his face is always recognisable.
Lucien Freud used to say that “Everything is autobiographical and everything is a portrait, even if it’s a chair.” Sarah Howgate, the curator of the Lucian Freud Portraits exhibition that took place in 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery in London, said that Freud’s agenda behind painting self-portraits was an “obligation to understand the rigors of his process his sitters had to endure.” In the 1960s, and then in the 1980s and 1990s, he came up with a series of “brutally honest” depictions of the self, including the famous painting from 1993 – Painter Working, where the 71-year-old artist is wearing nothing but a pair of boots. The one below is from 1963.
Some of my favourite self-portraits are by Egon Schiele. This gorgeous Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Lamp is unusually calm and gentle, though still very powerful and striking. Shortly before his death, Schiele exhibited at the Secession’s 49th exhibition, held in Vienna in 1918, which was extremely successful and as a result, prices for his drawings increased and he received many portrait commissions.
A couple of artists associated with symbolism and German expressionism, whose self-portraits I very much like, are a German painter Otto Dix and a Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Both paintings, presented below, have a great sense of tension and anxiety. Dix’s work was extremely critical of contemporary German society and the painter focused his attention on the bleaker side of life, depicting prostitution, violence, old age and death. Munch, on the other hand, wrote: “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”
Another striking image is Tamara de Lempicka’s Self-portrait in the Green Bugatti, which has become a signature of art deco. It was commissioned for the cover of the German magazine Die Dame, which apparently acclaimed the artist “a symbol of women’s liberation.” The over-powering sense of self-confidence and sex-appeal which emanates from the painting makes me think of Samantha Jones, the unforgettable character from the Sex and the City television series. Tamara had a relatively short-career, for she never evolved past the polished, glamorous and geometric style but I find her art deco works incredibly strong.
Finally, another female painter – Olga Boznańska. I began with Witkacy, I shall end with a Polish artist. From 1898 until her death in 1940, Boznańska lived in Paris, where she was a member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts as well as the Polish Society of Literature and Art. Nowhere near as cutting-edge as Lempicka, she was a very fine painter nevertheless, and I love the palette of many of the self-portraits.