Symbolic Awards

An obscure review of the 2019 BP Portrait Awards

Father with Partner by Marco Krauwinkel, 2018 © Marco Krauwinkel;
Father with Partner by Marco Krauwinkel, 2018 © Marco Krauwinkel

“The BP Portrait Award is the most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world and represents the very best in contemporary portrait painting. With a first prize of £35,000, and a total prize fund of £74,000, the Award is aimed at encouraging artists to focus upon and develop portraiture in their work. Over the years, this has attracted over 40,000 entries from more than 100 countries.

In its fortieth year at the National Portrait Gallery and thirtieth year of sponsorship by BP it continues to be an unmissable highlight of the annual art calendar.

The BP Portrait Award 2019 will tour to Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh and Ulster Museum, Belfast.” – National Portrait Gallery Website

Why analyze a portrait? Because the visages that we see on canvas often affect us with a depth beyond simple representations of human faces. We feel things deeper than the sum of the noses and lips we see, they mean things to us. Without reflection, they emerge as natural to us when, really, they contain bias, prejudice, and the tang of sensual learned taste. Thinking symbolically is a way to unpack those layers and make secondary that which we were given by nurtured experience.

The Poet by Tina Oršolić Dalessio, 2018 © Tina Oršolić Dalessio;
The Poet by Tina Oršolić Dalessio, 2018 © Tina Oršolić Dalessio

Art’s relationship to the symbol is deep and complex. Even work that states its aim to be anti-symbolic is as symbolic as anything else, and the nature of how the artist has approached their use of symbols is often more revealing than the symbol itself. It depends on how close one wishes to get to those notoriously revealing agents of cultural truth. There is always the possibility that art can show us those parts of society that lie on the cold side of the carriage curtain.

The BP Portrait Awards of 2019 seemed to attract more public attention than in previous years even before a plucky arm of the Extinction Rebellion movement protested BP’s sponsorship of the award. On some level Extinction Rebellion sought to challenge the legitimacy of the award through its association with BP, arguing that money received, and awards given by the hands of polluters is morally repugnant. The point made and remade here is that, currently, the awards are legitimate and BP is not.

Proof of the award’s right-on status must surely lies in the demonstration of diversity in the nominees of the 2019 BP awards. Art is subjective and the concept of best implicit in ‘first place’ is a slippery one to tie down. Was this really the best the world had to offer? Competitions are not simply the designation of the best, but rather the championing of the values and directions that should be championed. Awards are ‘largely political’, as the adage goes, and each award is a celebration of the ‘right sort of thinking’ which makes legitimate its existence for another year. It exists for itself.…[Read more] 

 

Read the full article in Trebuchet 7: Portraits

Trebuchet issue 7 portraits
07: Portraits

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BP Portrait Award 2019 was at the National Portrait Gallery from 13 June to 20 October 2019.

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