The Royal Society of Portrait Painters  has launched SELF, a new £20,000 prize promoting the practice 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.
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 an annual exhibition and offering bursary funds to new talent. The SELF grant of £20,000 is 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 show 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 Gogh, 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 personality and, in a photographic age, its popularity is a testament to the enduring appeal of the medium's style, subjectivity and technical fineness.
(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]