The Power of Portraiture: Photographic reflections on the BP Portrait Award, 2013 National Portrait Gallery – Marie Naffah

 

Now in it’s thirty-fourth year, the BP Portrait Award continues to be one of my favourite exhibitions. Ranging in style, scale and subject, the exhibition shows a plethora of ways through which one can communicate expression within a portrait. This collection provided me with a reassuring sense of familiarity – there are no daunting or challenging narratives that pervade each work. With certain exceptions of the occasional famous face, the works focus on the artists’ friends or family, aggrandising your average Joe and making them worthy of your time and attention.

 

In my opinion, the most successfully engaging portraits touched on the crucial factors of eye contact and a simplified background but more interestingly, specific examples sparked the question of whether the inclusion of a face is truly necessary. Are we able to access the identity of a person that lacks what is commonly believed to be the most fundamental aspect of the portrait? Using this photographic exploration, I intend to incorporate the aforementioned artistic techniques of portraiture into my own rendition within the digital medium.

 

On entering the display, Hynek Martinec’s large scale, hyper realistic depiction of Zuzana in London (1980) was difficult to ignore. Immediately I was enthralled by a fixed, confident gaze of the sitter, directly confronting me with her intense stare and sincere expression. Is it a photograph? – No, it’s acrylic on canvas, executed with a ruthless attention to detail that imitates and emulates the prevailing impact of a photograph.

 

Above Left: Zuzana in London, Hynek Martinec (Acrylic on Canvas), Above Right: Barny, Marie Naffah (Photograph with enhanced film grain)

What continues to fascinate me is the often taken for granted necessity of the direct gaze. Established in the 17th Century, the device creates a seamless relationship between the subject and audience, thus enhancing the emotional worth of the piece. (For more on this subject, have a look at my earlier entry, Blurring the Boundary, A photographic exploration of Baroque Techniques).

Another common feature that proved particularly noteworthy within the exhibit was the blank backdrop that accompanied each  sitter. Such a simple device that has clearly been intentionally executed in order to confirm that our focus can only be directed to the figure that occupies the foreground. As well as offering a visually satisfying finish, no distractions hinder our personal experience with each character, as we are offered the opportunity to draw our own conclusions to their stories.

Above Left: Self Portrait, Ian Cumberland , Above Right: My Father, Julie Held

Above: Amy, Marie Naffah (Photograph)

Above: Fergus, Marie Naffah (Photograph)

The thing that really stuck with me after this exhibition though, and has sparked further contemplation a week later, is  the question of whether a facial expression is necessarily crucial to a successful portrait? Interestingly, my two ‘postcard worthy’ images both lacked the typical, assumed inclusion of the face, yet managed to conjure up the same emotions without it.

 

Above Left: Net No. 10, Daniel Coves , Above Right: Kristy, Geert Schless

No eye contact, no facial expressions, these portraits really are the game changer regarding  our consideration of portraiture. We’re taken out of our comfort zone and relocated to somewhere that contains a combination of thought provoking and unsettling ambiguity. Love them or loathe them, these portraits may have not won the BP Portrait prize,  but they certainly won my vote. What impressed me most was the artists’ ability to create an emotional stimulus to piety in such a subtle and constructive manner. Perhaps it’s the close attention to the other details of the work, or maybe the focus on each figure’s posture that creates a certain psychological tension, reminding us of the impact of gesture and expression in art.

Above Left: Will, Marie Naffah (Photograph), Right: Rosie, Marie Naffah (Photograph)

Open until the 15th September and admission is free, this exhibition is definitely worth a visit.

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