Spotlight on Dress in Contemporary Portraiture: the BP Portrait Award 2011

Brit Pop, by Raul G. Acrylic and permanent marker on canvas

My recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery was expressly to view and review the current photography exhibition Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits. After an intoxicating and nostalgic look at all the glitz and romance of cinema stills, I took a breather from celluloid fantasy and strolled over to see this years BP Portrait Award exhibition. Next week, I promise you a review of the cinema portraits – and costume design as portrayed in them – but  this week I aim to share my transcendant experience of looking at the real clothes of real people right now, as portrayed by contemporary portrait painters. Of course my eye was as ever on clothing – and for this reason in particular the show was a standout. To depict dress-as-portrait or fashion-in-contemporary-lives were surely not the aims of the painters or the exihibition organisers and judges. But for today’s fashion-aware audiences, and tomorrow’s fashion researchers, this show offers a wealth of information –  faithfully and poignantly rendered.

Little Sister, by Tim Okamura Oil on canvas

The BP Portrait Award competition and exhibition, held annually for the past thirty-two years, is billed as the ‘most prestigious portrait competition in the world.’ The works represent an array of artistic styles, and virtuosity reigns – with most of this years fifty-five finalists offerring highly representational images displaying immense technical skill and emotional breadth. Aside from a handful of semi-nude or  nude portraits, all the sitters were pictured wearing clothes. And all the sitters are people who had a portrait of them in their clothes painted in the past two years. Seems like a rather mundane observation in retrospect, but it illuminates the value of these portraits as documents of fashion.

He Who Dares, portrait of AP McCoy by Jennifer McRae Oil on linen

Aileen Ribeiro and Lou Taylor in particular are among the dress historians who remind us that historic portraits are invaluable sources of information on historic dress, textiles and fashion. Before the inception of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, the painted, drawn or engraved portrait was the only visual record of dress. When we picture Queen Elizabeth 1 (not Cate Blanchett as…), it is most probably a painted portrait of her made in her lifetime that we imagine. In a hundred years, or even ten, when we are reminded of say…Lady Gaga – and something she fantastically wore –  it will surely not be a drawing or etching of her we call to mind. Pity though – as wouldn’t it be nice to have known how Boldini might have represented her?

Flora MacGregor by Jo Fraser Oil and charcoal on canvas

Photography is everywhere, proliferated by digital technology, and there are so many photographs of what so many people are wearing in so many places in the world right now. I take it for granted that images of club kids in 2010 in Japan will still be online whenever I may be looking for them. So, it’s really grounding to know that while anyone can record what they were wearing in 2011 with a tap of a fingertip on a smartphone – there are also people  observing and recording by more studied means- and by doing so portraying clothes not as a matter of fashion, but as a matter of fact about who we are.

Yndia in Kente and Antique Dress by Noel Bensted Oil on canvas

The people depicted in most of this year’s portraits are notably not notable in the celebrity sense – although an imposing George O’Dowd makes a particularly flashy appearance in one.  Some of the exhibit captioning provided biographical information of the sitters or the relationship to the artist. But this information was for me secondary to the initial impression made by the clothes, hairstyles and facial types portrayed.

The portraits that illustrate the post, are the ones whose fashion information factor was particular high – or where the sitter’s relationship to dress was a key part of the image.

In these images ethnicity, culture, occupation, gender, age and class are all addressed by what people are wearing. A striped sweater, a pair of Crocs, Kente cloth, Converse All-Stars and racing stripes all have their tale to tell. Instead of offering my musings on these portraits, I hope you will offer me yours.

Venus as a Boy by Wen Wu Oil on canvas

Thanks to the National Portrait Gallery and the BP Portrait Award Competition, the contemporary painted portrait, anachronistic though it may be, will be a portrait of fashion which was always up to date.

Following the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, the winners and selected entries will subsequently tour to:

Wolverhampton Art Gallery
24 September – 1 November 2011

Aberdeen Art Gallery
12 November 2011 – 21 January 2012

The exhibition tour is organised by the National Portrait Gallery


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1 Comment

  • Halley | Custom Posters September 21, 2011 10.55 pm

    Wow, these are very stunning artworks. I love how you used the oil and even charcoal to really create a realistic canvas and details on each are simply amazing.


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