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BP At The National Portrait Gallery

Jamie Leader gets an education at The National Portrait Gallery’s BP exhibition

Published on July 6th 2011.

BP At The National Portrait Gallery

THE first work that catches one’s eye upon entering The National Portrait Gallery is the luminescent heaving breast of Portrait gallery darling, Julian Opie’s, self-portrait. The digital depiction actually moves, which is something that portraits only appear to do when particularly effective, whilst actually remaining stationary. This contemporary portrait occupies an entire wall and is opposed directly by a portrait of Nick Clegg sitting on a brightly striped couch, that looks as though it may have been lifted from Paul Smith’s office and placed in the rather drab, grey and beige room in which Clegg is seated.

She does look like a girl featured in the glossy pages of an edgy fashion magazine, but behind her is a Monet inspired wash of Rose wallpaper, feminising her moody demeanour. This presence is commanding; it is dangerous yet welcoming. 

This year’s exhibition, featuring 55 works selected from a record 2372 international entries, gives a wonderful and striking impression that bombards the eyes with aesthetically pleasing canvases. Upon walking into the current BP Portrait Exhibition, one does not initially know where to start looking. The portraits are cutting edge and this is reflected in the vivid vitality of colour in the first room; in fact, the vibrancy of these portraits depicts the subjects as very much alive, breathing life into each canvas. The individual portraits project an element of the subjects’ personality, along with their interests. There is a contrasting array of styles to enliven the disparate characters on canvas. The mediums, styles and techniques used when creating these innovative and varied contemporary works are eye-catching and interesting. It is art you feel you want to possess, but then this is the most prestigious painting competition in the world. 

Heldens DistractedHeldens Distracted

The layered luminosity of first prize-winner, Wim Helden’s ‘Distracted’, has the deep, rich, penetrating effect of how an old master would look, if it was painted in the 21st century. The luxurious tones of oil paint are commanding, and it certainly displays a technique of virtuosity.Although, it fails to excite or really evoke much feeling from the viewer, it is great because of its natural simplicity. 

Yuri GagarinYuri Gagarin

All of these paintings are spectacular in their own right, but ‘Venus as a Boy’ by Wen Wu is an instantly enticing portrait, which depicts a girl with hooded eyes gazing languidly at the viewer with the butt of a cigarette hanging from seductively puckered lips.  She does look like a girl featured in the glossy pages of an edgy fashion magazine, but behind her is a Monet inspired wash of Rose wallpaper, feminising her moody demeanour. This presence is commanding; it is dangerous yet welcoming. The androgynous beauty is painted in the rakish, bohemian boy’s art school costume, typical of so many pseudo-intellectuals influenced by rock ‘n’ roll excess and French philosophy, from the green velvet jacket down to the worn-in Converse.

Saltan Mrs CernaSaltan Mrs Cerna

On another wall are four panels known as a polyptych, showing a nudist beach scene in Corfu of epic proportions. As the tide rolls out, sunbathing figures are seen amongst a few others posing for the portrait. The physical body is enlarged and in graphic detail. The figures recline and loll on the beach in all their aging and abandoned glory creating a warm-hearted piece depicting adults at play in their element. The painting certainly evokes a sense of voyeurism from the many people in the gallery and likewise, it becomes an instant talking point. Painted by Paul Beel and entitled ‘Epic Mirtiotissa’, one cannot help but notice the parents trying to unsuccessfully avert their small children’s gaze from its shocking imagery. Despite this, children are brazenly going up to Beel’s painting and pointing out the opposite sex’s genitals to their parent. Who says art cannot be both educational and fun?


BP runs at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 September

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