Sunday, 14 November 2010

Deathbed Portraiture

Excitement is mounting with the imminent arrival of the BP Portrait Award to Aberdeen Art Gallery. A visitor to the gallery today, as many recent visitors have done, struck up the conversation about the upcoming show. As the discussion developed, we inevitably began to talk about the winning portrait.

Daphne Todd won the BP Portrait Award 2010 with a painting of her mother. To say her portrait was painted from life is not an apt description of the method of direct observation from the model. The victorious portrait depicts a dead 100-year-old woman in her deathbed.

This haunting portrayal was painted over three days in the funeral parlour cool room. Daphne Todd, former president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, asked her mother’s permission before she passed away if she could paint the death portrait. Todd said her mother agreed to it but “happy is not quite the right word, she couldn’t care less really.”

The macabre painting has got people talking. Some horrified, others fascinated. Either way, people can’t help but discuss the work. The artist confronts the viewer with the idea of mortality and taps into our innate need to try and perceive the difference between life and death.

Viewers looking at the portrait may be asking themselves how the artist could lovingly paint her mother in this state? What must it have been like to stand in the cool room of the funeral parlour and spend that time with a corpse?

Although I have not performed this exact activity myself, I have carried out something very similar. The day before my Aunt passed away, I sat in the chair beside her bed in the hospice and drew her. There are many reasons why I felt the need to draw her at this time. Feeling comforted by the act of drawing was a form of therapy to cope with the grief I was experiencing.

When an artist creates a portrait, it is a record of the relationship between the artist and sitter. Knowing it was the last opportunity to document the connection I had with my Aunt, I felt compelled to pick up my sketchbook.

Many artists have felt the same and made portraits of loved ones in their deathbeds. With the tears blurring his vision, Claude Monet painted his dead wife Camille. Lucian Freud with his mother and Steven Assael with his father also captured their final intimate moments together. Although each work of art is different with regards to technique, each artist shares the same determination to record what must be one of the worst moments in his or her lives. To create a portrait at this time can either be an attempt at consolation or a harsh acceptance of reality for the artist.

Portraiture is always a product of a relationship. But we must not forget the viewer’s participation in this. Daphne Todd entered her portrait into the most prestigious portrait competition in the world. The decision to enter the portrait upset some members of her family, in particular her brother. Todd said, “I haven’t heard from him since. I’m letting things lie really and there’s not much I can do. I’ve done it now.”

Having made the portrait of my Aunt on her deathbed, I can’t help but feel that what I thought was an act of love and memory on Todd’s part has become more a form of self-publication. Although this portrait has had a powerful effect on me, I somehow wish I had come across it through some other means rather than the BP Portrait Awards.

The BP Portrait Award opens at Aberdeen Art Gallery on the 22nd of November 2010.