Portrait of Portraits – a lesson from the masters

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As it was the last weekend of the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and I was in London, I thought I would sneak in and take a look. To be honest, I’m glad it was free of charge to enter, as not a lot grabbed my attention. I get bored of the super-enlarged photo-realism pictures that seem to be a common occurrence at these shows over recent times; admire the technique, but the imagination and creativity seem to be severely lacking. Most of the other work seemed to be paintings. Just paintings – nothing else, they lacked the feeling, the essence, and the true soul of the sitter. A couple of the smaller more intimate works had much more going for them than the 2m giants by their side. But it’s not saying much, and I don’t want to linger here any longer. Where is the exit?

I moved on and paid my money to delve into the past, an exhibition with the epic film-like title of “The Encounter” (cue dramatic music). This is wonderful! The subtitle: “Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt” hints at what to expect. In truth, there is only one figure study by the big L, and one sheet of studies by Rembrandt, which are great in their own right, but this isn’t what the exhibition is really about. I assume that by shoving these two heavyweight names to the forefront it will draw the punters in, but it wasn’t as crowded as the BP Portrait Awards – more fool them.

The real theme of the exhibition was the relationship of the artist sitting in front of the sitter and the interaction between the two of them. Were they relaxed, or tense? Was the occasion formal or informal? Did the two of them get on? The period of time that the exhibition covers is also significant. The advent of freely available paper in all it’s forms (some of a wonderful colour – see Durer) led to a loosening up of the artist’s abilities allowing images to be created quickly, simply, and at little cost. They could be used as studies for the artist’s apprentices, or as preparatory work for bigger commissions, and finished oil paintings. Throughout this exhibition, you feel that there is a real dialogue between the two antagonists, artist and subject, a spark of energy that fizzles and cracks to and fro. Sadly, I didn’t feel this with any of the BP Award works next door.

Between the bookends of Leonardo and Rembrandt are a host of other gems to be seen. Her Majesty the Queen has lent a whole royal household of drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger that really shows a connection with the various sitters. Their eyes meeting the artists gaze, or alternatively, definitely averting the eyes to avoid contact – what is going on there? The sitters supremely confident, used to the attentive gaze of the portrait artist, or nervous and shy in having their likeness depicted. Some drawings were evidently more quickly laid down, whilst others are laid down with great care and accuracy. Attention to detail.

The portrait of Giulio Pedrizzano: The lutenist Mascheroni (why don’t they have easier names!) by Annibale Carracci is simple, but very arresting; his stare just won’t let you go. I’m not surprised that this picture was chosen to adorn the poster for the exhibition.

Domenico Beccafumi (come on now – who dreams these up!) has done us a wonderful self-portrait the broad dense hatching and beautiful colour looks superbly modern, and belies it’s near 500 years of age (dated c.1525) only given away by the paper and the wash of other designs on the verso of the sheet (it was originally a sketchbook) that have seeped through.

My personal favourite though, is the small oval portrait by Filippino Lippi of “Man wearing a cap, probably Mino Da Fiesole.” This is drawn in metalpoint with white heightening on a prepared paper of a neutral colour. Vigorous lines, expressive handling, and great sense of tonal values gives this man a staggering gravitas that really pulled me in (again and again! – I had to keep returning to it) – wow!

Not a massive exhibition, but truly awe-inspiring stuff from some true masters that really does show the modern pretenders how it should be done.