Thursday, 20 November 2014

Sky Arts' excellent "Portrait Artist of the Year" is back for another series


If you didn't catch the first series last year, and you have access to the Sky Arts channel, I highly recommend Portrait Artist of the Year. A bit like Gardeners' World, which I wrote about last week here, it celebrates enthusiastic, talented people absorbed in doing something they love. The competition element might be considered vulgar, given that this is ART we're dealing with - but artists have been chasing prizes for centuries. Unlike the sort of pseudo-artists who tend to produce "installations" involving video, objets trouvé and bodily secretions, I presume portrait artists have to rely mainly on real people paying them real cash, as opposed to depending on arts establishment scions shelling out our tax money, and that the paintings they produce therefore have to bear at least some resemblance to the people they're supposed to portray. (Unfortunately, the main prize for this year's competition is a £10,000 commission to paint that ghastly blister, actor Alan Cummings, for the Scottish National Gallery's permanent collection.)

The format for the initial six heats is straight-forward. A bunch of slebs are wheeled in and the competitors are split up into groups and given four hours to paint a portrait of one of them. At the end of the process, three "expert" judges select the best portrait of each celebrity, and then choose one winner, who advances to the semi-finals. The programme's two hosts, Joan Bakewell and comedian Frank Skinner, do a good job: they have a knack of asking the three "expert" judges the sort of questions the average viewer (e.g. me) wants answered. In the episode I caught last night, this meant trying to find out why the three preferred portraits were the ones that looked least like the sitters.

If you watch the video at the top of this post and pick the portraits of Maisie Williams (who's from Game of Thrones, in case you were wondering), John Humphrys and footballer Sol Campbell, just select the painting of each from which it would be hard to identify the sitters - and they're probably the ones the judges picked. You can study the portraits more closely in the gallery to be found here - the relevant paintings are numbers 25-36. For what it's worth (i.e. nothing), I thought the painters who did the best job were Maise and Jessica - I didn't think anyone managed to capture Sol Campbell successfully.

The judges explained their distinctly eccentric choices by telling us that they were looking for something "new". One of them even sneered "If you want a likeness, go to Leicester Square." Arrogant prat. Maybe they should have called the series Innovative, Edgy, Subversive Portrait Artist of the Year Who Isn't Much Good at Capturing a Likeness but Who Titillates the Judges' Jaded Palates and Feeds Their Sense of Innate Superiority You Ghastly Little Philistines.

Despite that, the judges aren't always wrong, and it's well worth a watch.  

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