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The artist, Paul Emsley – who has deep roots in South Africa – is being roundly criticized by professional and armchair art critics alike. There seems no end to the vitriol surrounding this portrait directed against Emsley, Middleton and the royal family. Not having seen the painting nor the person in the flesh, so to speak, I am not inclined to speak out about the quality of the work. For one, the portrait is very large in scale and looking at the picture dramatically reduced to fit on a computer screen means that one cannot be sure of anything. This emphasizes the point that there is really no substitute for experiencing a painting in the real. No matter how much art history you study remotely from the physical object, the corporeal experience of the physical object diligently studied will always be a revelation for any serious art student.

We still have an inherent faith and expectation that the painted image will, and ought to, convey something more about the person than just a likeness – that, somehow, our experience of a painted portrait should contain more than just the visual titillation of the retina and the cognitive recognition of the image as representing a known face. Is this perhaps all just projection? Much of the criticism levelled against Emsley’s portrait of Kate, is that the painting lacks life and that it is so “ordinary” and placid in its execution that it fails to live up to the perceived life characteristics of the person portrayed. This complexity of the relationship between the painted perceived image and the image of the subject in the mind is inevitably fraught with subjectivity and influenced heavily by the deluge of existing imagery of Kate Middleton.

It is therefore not surprising that Emsley’s painting of Kate has failed to meet the subjective expectations of so many people who have already developed an iconic image of her in their mind’s eye. No wonder we have to cope with so many poor, and at times, outrageously disingenuous portraits of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

Being commissioned to paint the portrait of a celebrity has its attractions, besides the long term enhancement of the artist’s reputation, there is also the privilege of spending some time privately with a person who enjoys a privileged status in society. The downside is that the artist has a slim chance of being successful in their portrayal. Vanity and the commissioned portrait always seem to be bedfellows. Usually it is only years after the initial public and critical disdain that the portrait of a prominent figure begins to enjoy public acclaim. Perhaps more often because of the person portrayed than the quality of the painting or sculpture. Paul Emsley had no easy task and perhaps in years to come this painting of Kate Middleton will become “loved”. For now it sets the measure by which any subsequent portrait will be compared.

As an integral part of Western visual culture the portrait has evolved into a specialized practice and an aesthetic subject is no longer dependent on a commissioner for its existence. The active exhibition programme of the National Portrait Gallery in London is testament to the currency that the portrait holds as the museum both solicits, commissions and collects portraits. The annual BP Portrait awards is one such mechanism that solicits entries internationally and sustains the interest in portraiture in the United Kingdom and worldwide.

In South Africa portraiture although only a small aspect of the broader art history of painting, has enjoyed sustained support over many years as traditions such as the painting of the University Vice-Chancellor and company chairman still continue within many organisations. A more public consciousness and awareness about portraiture and the diverse ways it can be approached has yet to develop. The last decade and a half of the new South Africa has been plagued with the ubiquitous and often sentimental homage to leadership through the brash oversized bronze or psychedelically afro-kitsch adorned head and shoulders paintings of the likes of Nelson Mandela, Gatscha Buthelezi or Desmond Tutu.

The recently launched Sanlam Private Investments (SPI) National Portrait award offers a prize of R 100 000 to spur emerging and established local artists to seriously consider the making of portrait. Be it a local celebrity, the granny around the corner or just themselves in two or three dimensions, each will present a unique challenge. Much like the British counterpart the SPI Portrait Award will hopefully bring out the best that South African artists, both professional and amateur can produce, which no doubt will initiate a lively public debate about the winning portrait in August this year. For further information visit www.spiportraitaward.co.za

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