Portraiture has always been more than just a record. It has been used to depict beauty, power, virtue, importance, wealth and many other qualities of the sitter. Currently on show in London are two exhibitions exploring what portraiture means today – the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery and From Selfie to Self-Expression at Saatchi Gallery.
The BP Portrait Award is an annual competition that aims to represent the best in contemporary portrait painting, with works ranging from intimate studies of friends and family to bold representations of public figures. In an age where photography is arguably the most important and widespread medium for portraiture, the BP Portrait Award is committed to support the tradition of portrait painting by featuring a variety of styles and approaches to the contemporary painted portrait, while referencing portraiture’s centuries old history.
This year’s winning painting by Benjamin Sullivan, titled Breech!, depicts the artist’s wife Virginia breastfeeding their newborn baby. The tenderness of this mundane domestic scene evokes Madonna and Child paintings through the ages, while also putting forward a decidedly contemporary take on the age-old subject of maternal bond.
Like Sullivan, Charles Moxon is a painter engaging with the question of where contemporary portraiture lies in relation to the Old Masters tradition. Moxon was shortlisted and highly commended for the Young Masters Art Prize in 2012. His portrait of MP Harriet Harman was selected for the BP Portrait award in 2016. He was previously shortlisted for the Final 300 in 2012 and 2013. Moxon’s work is grounded in reference to traditional techniques and processes of Dutch 17th century paintings, which he uses to create profoundly direct contemporary portraiture. Set against pitch-black backgrounds, his subjects are depicted in a way that is highly personal yet gracious. Created with painstaking attention to detail, Moxon’s portraits seek to engage with contemporary sitters as they are.
From Selfie to Self-Expression, currently on at Saatchi, is the world’s first exhibition exploring the history of the selfie from the 16th century to the present day, and celebrating the potential of a form of expression often dismissed for its inanity. The exhibition opens with some of the finest self-portraits ever created by Old and Modern Masters including Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso, Frieda Kahlo, Warhol. Alongside those highly valuable works are spontaneous selfie portraits by contemporary cultural influencers such as Kim Kardashian and Barack Obama. The exhibition argues that what we think of as a selfie – taking our own picture with our own camera – is not entirely new, nor is it frivolous and inane. ‘The selfie is by far the most expansionist form of visual self-expression’ said gallery chief executive Nigel Hurst. ‘The art world cannot really afford to ignore it.’ Self-portraiture is as relevant as ever, and selfies provide artists with the opportunity to imaginatively and richly explore the notion of what the self might really be.
Dutch fine art photographer Isabelle Van Zeijl, whose works were Highly Commended for the inaugural Young Masters Emerging Woman Art prize in June 2017, is one of many contemporary artists placing self-portraiture at the core of her practice. Although inevitably individual in their nature, her self-portraits conjure a sense of awareness and ubiquity; her work is driven by the fascination with the female in all its guises and the pursuit of a universal, timeless beauty. Van Zeijl’s self-portraits evoke the work of the Flemish Primitives, Renaissance masters and Golden Age portraitists. During the Renaissance, the focus shifted to the individual, to ‘great’ men, distinguished and virtuous. Van Zeijl co-opts the cult of Renaissance masculine virtuosity by existing in her practice as both object and subject. Digitally composing her photographs like a painter by using techniques of the past, Van Zeijl reaches beyond the self to discover a timeless vision of female beauty, advancing the genre of self-portraiture in her own, distinctly contemporary manner.
Laura Hospes is another Young Masters artist whose practice is premised on self-portraiture. Hospes was Highly Commended for the Young Masters Art Prize 2017. Her monochrome, high contrast self-portrait Braid received a great deal of praise. Unlike Van Zeijl, Hospes’s self-portraiture is intensely autobiographical, based on her understanding of the self and her personal battle with mental illness. The resulting image is intense and arresting, confronting the viewer with a direct, heavy gaze of a young woman dealing with depression and anxiety. Inspired by the magical work of Francesca Woodman, the black and white portraits of Stephan Vanfleteren and the dark lights of Dutch painter Rembrandt she has developed her own visual language and voice.
By Zhiqin Zhang, Emmanuelle Gautier and Masha Ryabova
Young Masters at the Royal Overseas League continues until September 8th. Join us for our Summer Party on September 7th RSVP.
Featured Image: Laura Hospes, Braid, 2015, Archival Pigment Print, Edition of 7 + 2 AP, 60 x 40cm (23.5 x 15.7in.), courtesy Kahmann Gallery