Jan Mikulka wins prize for self-portraiture

New £20,000 SELF prize coincides with Society of Portrait Painters' annual exhibition.

 

The Royal Society of Portrait Painters has launched SELF, a new £20,000 prize promoting the practise of self-portraiture. The winning work, announced at noon today, was a bleak, photorealistic piece by Jan Mikulka, a contemporary painter living and working in Prague, Czech Republic.

Charlotte Mullins, editor of Art Quarterly and a judge on the prize, says: “This self-portrait draws you to it through its technical proficiency and expressive power. You feel you are standing in front of the artist, watching him concentrate on his likeness - his eyes hooded yet determined, his lips pressed together through concentration.”

Founded in 1891, the Society devotes itself exclusively to the art and study of portrait painting: housing a permanent collection, staging this exhibition and offering bursary funds to new talent. The SELF grant of £20,000 with awarded with the aim of supporting an emerging artist. Mikulka previously won the Visitor’s Choice Award in the BP Portrait Award in 2011 for this similarly piercing image of his longtime friend, Jakob. 

 

The prize coincides with today’s opening of the Society’s annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London.

Over 200 portraits by 100 artists will be hung, with a number of notable likenesses including Guy Kindler’s painting of writer Ian Rankin, Sam Dalby’s picturing of playwright Alan Bennett and Natalie Holland’s portrait of a reclining Oscar Pistorius. A special ‘self-portrait’ section will be devoted to promoting the art form as vanguard in pushing the boundaries of self-representation.

Self-portraiture, the exhibition notes, draws from a different set of aesthetic queues, loosed from the constraints of commissioned imagery (this constraint often being the need to flatter) and can be considered freer to explore character and authenticity. To a degree this appears true, though self-portraiture, like portraiture, has always been as much a barometer for the dominate aesthetics of a period as a way to freely explore “character”, “form” or “beauty”, stoke by stroke. The best practitioners – I think readily of Van Gough, Gustav Courbet and Frida Kahlo but there are, of course, many more – were veraciously brilliant in their use of self-portrait as a playground for articulating identity, but also equally intriguing in their capacity to grasp, mirror and manipulate the visual language of their time.

Painted portraiture is still a powerful tool for the exertion of identity and, in a photographic age, its popularity is a testament to the enduring appeal of painting’s style, subjectivity and technical fineness.

The Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition runs from 9th – 24th May at The Mall Galleries, The Mall, Trafalgar Square, London

(Self-Portrait by Jan Mikulka)

(Alan Bennett, by Sam Dalby)

(Just Oscar by Natalie Holland. Image: Marte Lundby Rekaa) 

(Festus Mogae, by David Cobley RP NEAC)

(Dieu et Mon Droit, by David Cobley RP)

[All images courtesy of Mall Galleries] 

A detail from the winner work by Jan Mikulka. (Courtesy Mall Galleries)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times