You could say – many have – that painted portraiture is under threat as never before. By the middle of the 19th century, photographic representation was beginning to rob painted portraits of their reason for being. Then, throughout the 20th century, the human figure was subjected to relentlessly inventive scrutiny by wave after wave of painters who wrenched the body and face awry to try to capture the real human hidden deep inside.
And now there are other, more recent threats, and, once again it is photography which is menacing and marginalising the painted portrait, but this time for slightly different reasons. The fact is that every kid on the street is a snappy-happy photographer these days – it's as easy as blinking – and although most of these images are here today, gone tomorrow, they do possess a here-and-now vitality, a frantic seizing of the present moment, which causes us to wonder, all over again, whether the painted portrait, which is usually a slower and much more ruminative thing altogether, has any space at all left in which to flourish, no matter how weakly... Isn't it passé, old-fashioned and the kind of thing that only rich people commission – as they have always done, of course?
What better place to find out than at the annual BP Portrait Award? Here we have 58 figurative paintings of the human form, all of an enviable technical excellence. Very few of them take liberties with the human body as painters in the 20th century used to do. So in that respect you could call the approach to painting generally conservative. Occasionally, an image is duplicated or there is a measure of distortion to show pain or angst – but seldom. Some concentrate on the looming face, others the entire body. Daphne Todd's first-prize-winning portrait of her dead mother – Last Portrait of Mother – brings a lot of people up short because it is so worrying to contemplate. Unlike those tough-minded Victorians, we are so unaccustomed to staring hard at death: the sheer length and thinness of the body, its rod-or-twig-like limbs, the strange, unearthly, waxy pallor of the skin, the way the mouth is yawning open and, perhaps most intriguing of all, the fact that the painting consists of two paintings, one partially cutting into the other, which reminds you of various religious paintings from the early Renaissance.
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