Face it: Portrait painting is cool again

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The popularity of the BP Portrait Award reflects a new and arguably democratic interest in portraiture. But can work of this kind really explore and express life's complexities? Michael Glover challenges the conventions of an idealised form

What's in a face? This week the National Portrait Gallery in London announced its shortlist of three artists who will be in contention for this year's BP Portrait Award. It contained a fairly familiar mix of subjects: an artist's daughter, represented as a changeling by the English painter Peter Monkman; an artist's son, fleetingly caught between boyhood and manhood by Michael Gaskell (in a manner which suggests that the painter has been looking long and hard at both Holbein and Botticelli); and a portrait of a friend, whose character looks intriguingly indefinable, by Italian painter Annalisa Avancini. The winners will be announced on 16 June, and the show will be on throughout the summer.

The BP Award has been on the annual arts calendar for almost 20 years. It was set up in 1990 to encourage young painters to take figurative painting in general, and portraiture in particular, seriously as a medium at a moment when the more traditional disciplines seemed to be on the point of drowning beneath wave upon wave of new-media innovation. Once upon a time it was only for the young – you had to be under 40 to enter. These days painters of any age can have a go. And they do. The prize is a fairly generous one. First prize was £10,000 when the award was established. Now it is £25,000, although that sum hasn't budged for a decade.

The BP Award is highly popular with the general public, and increasingly so with artists. This year there were nearly 2,000 entries, which represents a 10 per cent increase on last year. The reason for this popularity is a relatively simple one. The exhibition seems to prove that art, after all, can be about truth to our own experience of life. Generally speaking, the subject matter is familiar to all of us. These are the people that we know – or could easily know – and live with, and painted in a manner which strikes the viewer as companionable. There is no abstraction here. It is as if abstraction and whatever it may once have represented to the deluded few had never really existed at all, that it was just a tiny blip, a matter of laughable inconsequence, and that the world of painting has been set to rights, once and for all.

The popularity of the BP Portrait Award is indicative of a new interest in portraiture in general, which is itself stimulated by the number of competitions for portraiture, both painted and photographic, which now exist – flickr's Portrait Classics Competition, for example; the annual exhibition by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and the ICCA competition for digital photos. The show of Gerhard Richter's painted portraits, also on display at the National Portraits at the National Gallery and discussed more fully below, has been hugely popular.

Once upon a time portraiture was the preserve of those who had the means to commission such tributes – only the rich and the influential could be immortalised. Only their images would survive. Now it is open to all. We can all outlive ourselves. This is a portraiture without social boundaries.

The subject has been kicked into new life for a whole range of reasons, not the least of which is the ease with which the digital camera now captures images of us all and transfers them, instantaneously, to social networking sites. We are becoming increasingly accustomed to chronicling and snooping on every movement of our lives, and this interest most often manifests itself in portraits of each other at play. We simply can't get enough of looking at ourselves and each other, drunk or sober, at any hour of the day or night, for better or for worse.

This kind of art, colourful and embraceable, has something to do with the democratic impulse, the wish to share, readily and freely, to incline us to agree that one person is the equal of another. There is no singling out of privileged groups here, no sense that we do not belong to the world that we are looking at, that it is somehow judging us or admonishing us, making us feel slightly small and cowed in its presence. A sign painter grins back at us, levellingly confident as any judge pounding his gavel from the bench.

All this makes us feel cheerful, as if we are all at the same party. It also provokes a slight feeling of unease, that we may after all be missing something, that life may after all be a bit more than this. Yes, something is not quite as it should be – in spite of the fact that we are all getting an equal share of the attention. There is, somewhere here, we often feel, as we look at all these paintings crammed together in these galleries (yes, there is always a feeling that as much has been crammed in as possible, and that we are strolling – or perhaps elbowing – our way through a kind of cheery, noisy, small-town market square rather than an exhibition with all those slightly old-fashioned rules of silence and set-apartness) an underlying wish on the part of the National Portrait Gallery not to make human experience seem too difficult, too painful, too obtuse, too hard to grasp, too complicated, too challenging.

And yet you could say that life is difficult, hard to grasp, painful and obtuse, and that work of this kind is, finally not only too easy on the eye, but also a way of not quite telling the entire truth about the deeper truths of what we are. If this is the case, it would be consistent with much of the entire history of portraiture, which has been, from its very inception, the art of telling lies palatably.

Portraiture has been with us for at least 5,000 years – the Egyptians excelled at it, as did the Romans. And there is nothing which tells porkies about the human condition quite so effectively as portraiture. This has always been the case. Human beings – and especially those human beings who rule over others – cannot bear too much reality. Reality is too imperfect, too messy, too much inclined towards ugliness, disproportion and disorder to be left to its own devices. Reality is staunchly asymmetrical when we crave the reassurance of symmetry.

Human beings in positions of influence do not want to confront these truths. If reality is like that, it needs to be adjusted. They want to be shown to be other than what they are. And the artisans who are responsible for creating these portraits are in the pay of those who commission them. A pharaoh and a pope have much in common in this respect. The Great One holds the purse strings. He is the puppet master, and the artisan a mere puppet in his hands. The Great One wants to continue to be seen to be great in the hereafter. It is the Great One, finally, who is responsible for the manipulation of the image.

This was the case with the tomb sculptures of the Egyptians and the Romans. Those who were alive wanted, most of all, to align themselves with an immaterial world which would never pass away. And so their own images were not only juxtaposed with images of gods and other fabulous beings, they were also exalted and beautified in their turn, transformed into simulacra of themselves which looked much more serene and exalted than their mere counterparts in life.

The same habits continued down the centuries. Think of the Christian God and his virgin mother, and how yieldingly beautiful they look in the paintings of Raphael, how much they outstrip mere earthly perfections. All the more terrible, then, when this gloriously comely male image of the beautiful is harassed and scourged and crucified. We feel almost as much for the violation of a beautiful model as we do for the killing of a god. Perhaps even a little more. Titian strains to immortalise his human sitters too, to put them on a level with the pagan gods, physically, mentally, giving them a dash and a sense of indomitability. Another variant on the same theme occurred a little later, during the second decade of the seventeenth century, when painters from the Netherlands such as van Dyck memorialised the doomed court of Charles I. Van Dyck's portraits were intended to flatter their subjects into believing in their own greatness and courtly splendour.

To every rule there is also a cussed exception. Flattering one's sitters was something which didn't come naturally to Goya at the beginning of the 19th century – even when they were the royalty of Spain, and you happened to be in their pay as official court painter. With Jean Dominique Ingres, when he painted Napoleon in his study, ever wise, ever watchful, ever awake, we return to the same tradition of flattery. Lies, all lies, you might say.

And, as with the Egyptians, the living were shown alongside objects which enhanced their importance – symbols of earthly power, for example – or wore clothes whose splendour resonated with the awestruck onlooker, so sad in his or her fustian.

In short, every possible means was used to steer the viewer away from reflecting upon the awkward fact that beneath all this visual fanfare, there was that which is common to all of us – mere flesh and bone.

This is why, when Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in the fourth decade of the 19th century, some painters began to heave a sigh of relief, which was almost inaudible at first. Here was another medium, photography, which could do reality's dirty work for them. Painting was now free to do as it pleased – if it so chose.

One small group of revolutionaries – that group which came to be known as the Impressionists, for example – tried to paint light. What an impossible dream that was! Fortunately for them, light proved to be very pretty, and their works proved to be highly collectible. The revolutionaries became, in time, almost as popular as bread. Revolution had quickly joined hands with commerce.

So, in the aftermath of the development of photography, portraiture of the kind to which we were so long accustomed almost died away altogether, for many of the painters whose work we most value. And it is simply not a medium with which we much associate the art of the 20th century, except somewhat tangentially. Or, if artists did resort to it at all, it often seemed to be almost unrecognisably inhuman, to strain credibility. Why?

The painters of the 20th century suffered the burden of living through times which saw more death and suffering than ever before. What is more, thanks to the fact that people could move about much more freely, and that, thanks to the marvels of telegraphy, information passed from place to place with a lightning swiftness, this suffering was known about and felt on the pulses with a terrible immediacy.

Think of how Picasso responded to the terrible bombing of Guernica, for example. It was as if the speed with which the facts became known had to be matched by the speed with which he worked, night after sleepless night, at his studio in the Rue des Augustins.

So reality, for many artists, became a terrible, fractured thing, almost unbearable – godless, pitiless, without redemption – and portraiture itself a terrible, twisted, pain-wracked thing. And it is this sense of terrible, almost unbudgeable oppression that enters into the portraiture – when the painters choose to paint portraits at all.

Think of the portraits of Picasso or Bacon or Kossoff or Auerbach. We stare at almost unrecognisable human beings. It is as if the face has been pulverised and remade in the tortured image of something so bleak that it is barely even recognisable as a human face at all.

Yes, the face. Everything tends to pivot about the face in portraiture. It is the place towards which the eye naturally navigates in order to understand the full nature of what it is to be human. When we see the face, and the eyes at the centre of that face, and all that reassuring symmetry, we breathe a quiet sigh of contentment. We are home at last. Yes, the face is the pole star by which our heart and our intellect naturally steer. Which is why we throw up our hands in horror when we see Picasso's faces of his wives and lovers. They are often ravaged, twisted things, horribly wrenched awry, like a mouthful of well-masticated gum. And yet all this distortion, those Great Masters would argue, was necessary because to do otherwise would be to deny the destructive truth of humans on the world, to soften, to sentimentalise the world in which they lived.

Is this still the case? Some would disagree. Portraiture is back, they would argue. The enthusiastic response, year on year, to the BP Portrait Awards, is one proof of that fact. That pall of bleakness has rolled away. Or perhaps we have learnt how to live our numbed, cynical, hedonistic lives within its omnipresence. What we also notice though – at the annual BP exhibitions and elsewhere – is that painting has made accommodations with the art of photography in different ways, and that this has fundamentally changed the way in which painters paint portraits.

Without photography, for example, the silly taste for hyper-realism in painting would not have happened. This is painting trying to compete with photography, an attitude which seems to proclaim: "I too can be as minutely particular as you. I too can dissect every square centimetre of what you have photographed with such painstaking accuracy and replicate it on canvas." Can there be any point to such nonsense? And then there is the unassuageable appetite for casualness – casual chat, casual pose, casual sex – which seems to be everywhere. The documentary art of photography catches life on the wing. Everything is provisional, unfinished, ragged – a little like unedited reality itself. Painters have envied this instantaneous ability to capture unmediated reality, and they have sought to do likewise.

One of the most fascinating experimentalists in portraiture of recent years has been Gerhard Richter, whose painted portraits are currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery too. This is a grainy, fleeting vision of life on the wing as never before. It combines two qualities which feel as though they could never really be in combination – an extraordinary sense of the ephemeral and the random, together with something which is brooding, relentlessly cerebral and analytical.

What is most stimulating about Richter's extraordinarily painstaking painted portraits – which look as if they had their beginnings in grainy, poor-quality photographs – is the way in which they remind us of the fact that those earlier, time-honoured traditions of idealised portraiture were extraordinarily rigid, and that this need not have been the case at all. They were rigid because of the rigidities of the conventions to which they were faithful. Richter's images are grainy, grey, fleeting and blurry – and yet, paradoxically, they feel full of content.

But that content is all about what they are not. That content seems to be in conversation with the sitters of many of those portraits of earlier centuries, and this is what it seems to be saying: the very fact that you may have wanted to be depicted face-on in a very particular way, in those expensive clothes that you chose to wear, surrounded by those comfortable ancestral objects by which you chose to surround yourself, has nothing whatsoever to do with truth-telling, and everything to do with the way you chose to present yourself in that society where you had been striving, life-long, to make your mark and where, yes, you did indeed make your mark, though not quite to the extent that you may have wished.

Some onlookers, slightly cowed and impressed, have taken it for the unvarnished truth about yourself, but they were mistaken. They could not see the wood for the trees.

In fact, that image was nothing but a social construct, wasn't it, made for a very particular purpose, which was to flatter yourself? Now go away and bear this in mind.

So when we next read that portraiture puts us in touch with the "perenially human" or some such tosh, what we need to ask ourselves is this: to what extent is this the old, familiar game of self-flattery, played, as ever, to keep the wolf from the door?

Britain's five best portrait painters

Gerhard Richter is the most startlingly innovative of today's portrait painters. His work, (including "Betty", 1998), is a close shadowing of inconsequential photographic images.

Lucian Freud is a man of the flesh. The painter likes nothing better than to portray a full-figured woman (as in his "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping", 1995), diving into all those tremendously enveloping contours.

Jenny Saville is the most raw and emotive of portrait painters, with a tremendous ability to bring over the sheer pushy physicality of paint ("Hyphen", 1999). Her finest subject has been herself.

Celia Paul paints people she knows well: her mother and close family. Sombre, often eerily lit, (as in "Jane and Rhiannon", 2002) it is a show of naked feeling.

Daphne Todd is one of the most proflic, versatile and sought-after portrait painters of an academic bent at work today. She was the first woman to become president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Her numerous sitters have included Albert Roux (above, in "Albert Roux Esq OBE", 2004), Janet Baker, Tom Stoppard and Spike Milligan. A book by Jenny Pery was published recently which detailed her life and techniques.

The pain of having my portrait painted

By David Lister, Arts Editor

How hard it is to sit still. That utterly mundane thought kept going through my mind and probably my increasingly numb behind too, when I sat for one of the country's leading portrait painters Daphne Todd.

I was painted in the farmhouse studio of the former president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, a woman who had "done" the likes of Tom Stoppard and Spike Milligan.

It's a wary relationship, that of sitter and painter. Stoppard, probably as wary as me, was unfriendly at first. Milligan gave Daphne a private Goon Show. Clever one, Spike. Get them on your side.

Being a sitter is not easy. I did at least 18 hours in three hour sessions, holding exactly the same position, exactly the same pose. I hadn't anticipated how hard it would be to avoid the rudeness of falling asleep, something that many failed to avoid, I was told.

Daphne Todd's portraits are known for revealing the innermost anxieties and insecurities of her sitters. So each time she gave me a long, piercing gaze before suddenly mixing her paints with intense concentration and applying them to the canvas, I wondered what she had seen, those insecurities growing by the minute.

The painting wasn't the Brad Pitt likeness I was hoping for, but I comforted myself it was art not reality. And then came another lesson. If you have one of the country's leading portrait painters, then you are liable to end up in an exhibition. Having avoided cameras and mirrors for most of my life, I now had to avoid Cork Street for four weeks.

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