npg

i had a couple of hours spare in london yesterday so i visited the national portrait gallery, which i do every so often, though because i've been painting portraits recently everything was much more interesting this time and i was standing a lot closer...

really reassuring to see a bad lucian freud (albeit opposite a breath-takingly good self-portrait of his): lord jacob rothschild, the face grey and lifeless, the background sloppy. it looked likes a unwilling commission done at speed.

a portrait of camila batmanghelidjh by dean marsh in the style of ingres' harem paintings (a concept which in itself makes me a little uneasy). the face is really well done but not very captivating. the main subject of the painting, however, seems to be a glorious triangle of silver damask (?) spilling over the divan on which she's sitting. rare to see as much care taken over a background / foreground in a contemporary painting. and even rarer for the background / foreground to be the most interesting thing in the picture.

fascinating to see group portraits in which the sitters have been painted separately and the eyelines therefore don't quite match up. e.g. a rather pedestrian picture of the royal family during the second world war, conversation piece at the royal lodge, windsor, by james gunn - george vi, the queen, elizabeth and margaret - in which everyone seems to be avoiding one another's eye. which, i suppose, they may have been...

photorealism and it's near relatives seems to be the flavour of the decade (especially if you look at the annual npg national portrait awards catalogues). but they work best in reproduction. seeing big photorealistic works in the gallery, however, takes the wind out of their sails.  look closely and you see the brushmarks which reminds you that they have been hidden, which gives the whole work an air of embarrassment and unself-confidence. it's like listening to the sound of violins or trumpets generated electronically on pro-tools. and it might be a rather hackneyed and naive response to ask why you should labour so long and hard to produce a painting that looks exactly like a photograph when you could just take a photograph, seeing paintings-that-look-exactly-like-photographs hung alongside very good photographs does make it a very hard question to answer.

long corridors of victorian gentlemen locked in some kind of repetitive burnt umber hell. all of them head-and-torso poses, everyone wearing a dark suit and standing ram-rod straight, like they've come out of a machine with only the slightest variation. then you look at the labels and realises that these were fascinating men. burns, stevenson, livingstone, tennyson...

that dark background which began life  in the early renaissnce when painters like durer and van eyck started using lenses / mirros and had to isolate and illuminate figures in a darkened room, and which then became detached from it's function and became instead a marker of tradition and seriousness. strange, then, to see how long it has lasted as a trope, when it can kill a painting stone dead, not just through the nineteenth century but into the twentieth, all these pictures weighed down the lightless sludge of the background. and what a joy to see the vivid green in the backgrounds of pictures by graham sutherland or the fantastic craigie-aitchison pink behind willard white in ishbel myerscough's portrait.