Portraying isolation

1st February 2016 | Daily Life, Musings | 4 comments

Today I went to the BP Portrait Exhibition, a favourite annual exhibition. As for some years now, the emphasis was on near-photographic realism, achieved with admirable technical skill but occasionally at the expense of ‘suggestiveness’ if I could put it like that. By which I mean that as I gazed at the portraits, my thoughts seemed to stop at the level of acknowledging the painters’ brilliant technique. For me, there was a coldness to many of the surfaces.

As we had coffee afterwards, Bob wondered aloud if there had been a single happy portrait in the exhibition. Neither of us could think of one. I went back to check. The nearest I could find to ‘happiness’ were a few portraits of people looking thoughtful, serious or peaceful. But actual happiness? No.

On my second time round the exhibition, I was struck by the number of portraits of isolated people. They were in two categories: 1) the isolated elderly and 2) the isolated young. I’m talking about portraits where ‘isolation’ was actually a declared subject of the picture in one way or another. There must have been at least ten paintings of isolated or lonely elderly people, and eleven or twelve portraits of isolated or lonely young people. What does this say about us?

I realise that when you set out to paint a portrait using a sitter, you need a pose which can be maintained over a long period, which presumably rules out smiling, talking or laughing. I couldn’t know, of course, whether the panel who selected the portraits and awarded the prizes had followed a certain agenda, untypical of the work submitted as a whole. But I was certainly struck by the sheer amount of loneliness on show, and couldn’t help reflecting on why this should be, in a world which, as one of the explanatory labels pointed out, ‘expects to be connected 24/7’.


  1. Rikky Rooksby

    Hello Susan, interesting observations. You ask, what does it say about us? Perhaps that we are not as connected as the digital world suggests. How often do we go into a cafe or restaurant and see a group at a table all absorbed in their own digital devices but not paying attention to each other? Also, in my experience of attending art exhibitions the number of pictures which present people is often very small.

    • Susan Tomes

      I quite agree with your comments, Rikki!
      I often notice that these days, when it is so easy to reply to messages, and there are so many ways of doing so (text, email, WhatsApp, answerphone…) it seems that more and more people just don’t bother to answer messages at all. I find this very peculiar when I know very well that most of them have a smartphone in their pocket with which they could reply instantly, even with just a few words to acknowledge receipt of the message. Communication has become so ‘easy’ that it seems to have gone full circle and become difficult again!

  2. mary cohen

    It concerns me how many small children in buggies look isolated, as they are pushed around by parents absorbed on smart phones. And on public transport it is almost the exception to see a parent engaging in conversation with a small child. Result – crying, stressed children and parents who seem to have no mechanisms for turning tears into smiles. It’s called conversation’.

  3. Pinakin

    Interesting piece. People may be connected 24/7 now (more than ever) but I don’t think they really are connected in a real, meaningful and happy way.


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