Went to the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which was packed with visitors. The technical standard of painting in many of the portraits was astonishing. Skin, hair, eyelashes, veins were depicted with stunning realism and skill. In quite a few cases, visitors were leaning close to the frames and peering at the surface of the portraits to assure themselves that it was painting and not photography. I kept hearing people say, ‘I really thought this one was a photo.’
Seeing many such portraits gave me a slightly sad feeling, as if the artists had set themselves the goal of outdoing digital photography, of showing that the paintbrush is fully the equal of the zoom lens. It felt almost as if this quest had supplanted the wish to explore deeper, hidden aspects of the sitters. Many of the explanatory labels said that the artists ‘wanted to show’ that their subject was this or that, but for me there was a cool, blank feeling about many of the portraits, as though the immaculately painted surface was a barrier.