Every year, the National Portrait Gallery in London hosts a competition for portrait artists: The BP Portrait Award. The work that gets included is the ‘best of the best’, and entries pour in from around the world from artists hoping to be selected; in 2015 they chose 55 out of 2,550 entries.

This year one of the reviewers complained that the curators had gone a very traditional route when choosing the contents of the show.

“A visitor to this exhibition may be fooled into thinking contemporary portraiture has barely moved on from the Van Dycks in the gallery upstairs.” He writes. “… it seems this discipline has stagnated.” (In case you are unfamiliar with Van Dyck, he was an 17th century portrait artist, lived at court, painted kings and lots of other miscellaneous royalty, and pretty much lived a darned good life.) He adds, “These works are excellent but they lack a sense of the new; there is nothing …that makes us approach a painting in a different way or to makes us challenge what portraiture can be.”

This is an ongoing discussion in the world of portraiture, revolving around what makes for a good “modern” portrait. It is part of a larger stance in the art world of denouncing realism and applauding the abstract and conceptual. Part of the idea is that if you are not doing something new or different, if you are not trying to push your genre “forward,” then you are not a serious artist. Maybe you actually aren’t an artist at all.

The reality is that if someone commissions you to paint a portrait, they generally expect the resulting painting to unmistakably resemble the subject—but now portrait artists are being criticized for doing that very thing. There is art and there is Art, and a traditional portrait, however well executed, is being relegated to the lower case. There are artists, and Artists.

A lot of this comes down to your definition of “forward,” in the line “pushing your genre forward.”

When a portrait artist paints a faithfully rendered likeness, with true-to-life colors, proportions and perspectives, it appears they may now come under fire for repeating something that has already been done. When did working your whole life to master a very difficult skill become a worthless goal?

There is an episode of MASH where Frank and Margaret hire a wood carver to create a bust of Colonel Potter. They go to the carver’s tent to meet him, and ask to see some samples of his work. He reverently holds up a plank of wood with the comment, “Used to be round.” Frank sputters, “But it looks like a two by four!” To which the carver, with great pride, replies, “Thank you.”

No doubt Mr. Khan thought his comment about modern portraiture resembling “ the Van Dycks upstairs” was an insightful jab at a group of artists who continue to paint in a traditional style. I for one would be cartwheeling through the halls if someone thought my work in any way resembled a Van Dyck.

And if anyone ever looks at one of my portraits and protests, “but it looks just like her!” I can only bow my head, like the old wood carver, and proudly say, “Thank you.”

Click here to read the original review of the BP Portrait Award Show:

wood carver 2


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