Too Real?

Keeping in mind the BP Portrait Award has been traditionally open to “young” artists, I found the choice for short listed work for this year to be very interesting. The list has become increasingly photo-realistic in recent years. It is very technically impressive work, but it got me to asking what is it that I view as “great” portrait painting.

Self-Portrait by Alice Neel
Self-Portrait by Alice Neel, 1980,
Oil on canvas

Ask me who some of my heroes are, and Alice Neel and Frida Kahlo would be among the first on a very long list of artists. The perfection is in the imperfection. It is something more than caricature or the artist’s thumb print that draws me in. I love the clumsy mark, the passion and energy, the brave rawness and the awkward honesty.

So when is an image better left as a photograph? This is not to discredit the use of “photo-like” realism in painting, but to ask more of it.

In Vermeer’s most celebrated portrait the handling of the paint, the quality of light, and conveyance of humanity lift it beyond verisimilitude.

There are those who deride what has been termed magic realism, but even in Mary Pratt’s work I find an abstraction and a treatment and celebration of the light, which goes beyond a simple-minded copy of a photograph.

For me, it was when Chuck Close lost the use of his body and hand that his photographic-inspired portraits became stronger, and far more poignant.

Portrait Wunderlich by Gerard Richter
Portrait Wunderlich by Gerard Richter, 1967,
Oil on canvas

With Gerhard Richter’s “photo-painting”, a heightened sensitivity and investigation into the nature of the photographic process makes the work compelling. There is a psychic energy, as if the artist is trying to catch a ghost. In his work, painting lends permanence to images that would otherwise be discarded or overlooked. There is always a sense of a questioning and critical mind at work. The beauty of a found object and brush mark meet in his paintings (or perhaps bad photographs sometime make for better paintings (-: ).

We cannot all do work of this calibre, but perhaps this questioning reflects my own shift as I look towards tempera as a way to start fresh and learn a new language that will be just awkward enough, like painting with my left hand. Perhaps I’m just tired of cringing and trying to be gracious every time someone says “Wow, your painting looks just like a photograph!”