The historians of the future, if given only portraits for reference, would likely conclude that the early 21st century was a time of grinding, hopeless misery. The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is one of my favourite museums, yet I am often struck by just how sad most of the sitters for modern portraits appear.
I look at portraits partly to appreciate the beauty of the composition, but mostly to ‘meet’ the subjects. In studying paintings of Henry VII, Elizabeth I, William Wilberforce or John Lennon, I am looking to gain an insight into the person’s character, to round out what I have read or heard about him or her. I’m looking for a glimpse into his or her soul.
Portraits tell stories. They give a face to wars, famines, earthquakes and carnivals. They tell us how to feel about a given event, situation or location, and sometimes they challenge our assumptions about those situations.
When looking at the faces and bodies presented in recent portrait competitions, however, I have noticed that they are almost uniformly dull, burdened and hopeless. Sometimes this is due to the artist’s comment on the squalor of impoverished or lonely lifestyles. Sometimes it is a deliberate challenge to our notions of what makes for a successful or happy life (there often seems to be a young beauty queen, decked out in her finery, standing alone and desolate in a cold, bare space). Often, though, it simply seems to project the artist’s negative, cynical view of life.
I was pleasantly surprised, then, at the number of smiling, hopeful, engaged faces staring out at me from the frames of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the NPG today.
Yes, there was still the lost-looking beauty queen. Yes, there were the celebrities staring blankly down the lens, for the millionth time that day. Yes, there were the obligatory bored and sullen teenagers, challenging the world with their deliberately-empty eyes.
But there was also the cerebral palsy-sufferer whose face said more powerfully than her words: ‘I will get out of this wheelchair. I will learn to walk again. I will not be beaten.’ There was the little Indian boy playing on the dusty, deserted highway, chosen for the image because of his beaming smile, whose brightness gave his daffodil-yellow shirt a run for its money. There were the elderly couple embracing each other as you can be sure they embrace life and, perhaps most arrestingly, there was the twice-widowed mother forced into prostitution in Somalia in order to feed her children. She too was smiling. Not beaming broadly, perhaps, but looking out at the world with hope and a positive attitude despite her crushing circumstances.
I was struck by this portrait perhaps more than any others, because of the sense of hope in adversity. This woman was not going to let her circumstances dictate her emotional life, and that was captured by the photographer to create a powerful image. Yes, the colours, composition and contrasts were technically balanced to support the story, but it was the story which spoke.
It spoke to me especially strongly in its contrast with the photograph nearby of Dolly Parton. Taken as part of a gruelling day of interviews and publicity for her latest tour, the picture showed the star perched on the edge of a huge, white double bed. The surroundings were plush and inviting, but Dolly had her arms wrapped around her body and looked tiny, marooned, and immeasurably sad.
As a social commentary it was incredible: the woman who has everything – fame, glory, a stellar career and everything money can buy – versus the woman who has nothing, who has to swallow her dignity every day in order to feed her children. The former alone and sad in a sea of beauty, the latter hopeful and good-humoured in her small but colourful world.
I wonder why there were so many more cheerful portraits this time round. Is the cultural tide turning prompting artists to depict glimmers of hope amidst the endless round of gloom and misery we hear on the news? Or was it a choice, conscious or subconscious on behalf of the judges, to choose images which were inspiring rather than depressing?
Whatever the reason, I’m very thankful for the change, and hopeful that it will last. Let’s start to celebrate the joy and the hope of life at least as much as we highlight the pain and need. Without the former, the latter simply becomes a greywash of expected misery and not, as it should be, a prompt to compassion and action.