What is beauty?

Having visited the National Portrait Gallery last week to see the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize made me think about beauty vs character. Looking at the show over the years a house style seems to have developed. You will most definitely find “red heads” and “twins” (or both!) in the show -there are two of each this year. Not that I don’t appreciate the quaint depiction of these individuals, however, this year I felt drawn to the more intriguing ones such as the “”Mary Beard” portrait by Adrian Peacock.  I like it when a portrait tells a story and the following images for me provoke some food for thought…

What a great impact the Mary Beard portrait has once you learn that the institution that employs her tries to keep her away from the public eye! Or was it her TV appearance that has sparked over 1600 comments about “looks” of female TV presenters: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2138177/Samantha-Brick-Sorry-women-ARE-ugly-TV.html What a hypocritical article given that Samantha Brick does not have model looks herself and no such comment would ever be made about a man with wild grey hair!

Mary Beard by Adrian Peacock
Mary Beard © by Adrian Peacock


The photograph shows Cambridge lecturer Mary Beard her in contemporary fashion surrounded by academic literature- just like you’d expect a well read academic to look like really. Because how much time do you spend on appearance when you have classes to prepare?! Well, someone who hasn’t taught wouldn’t know…For her next photo call she should look less like a victim and rather dress up as Einstein sticking her tongue out to the rest of the superficial observers and employers. What I find funny is the carefully printed  “Mind the Step” sign!

“Man with Owl and Lucy” depicts an encounter with a stranger. The man’s cheeky smile and the inclusion of the framed picture of an owl on the very edge of the frame creates a strange juxtaposition of eccentricity vs. animal obsession. Yet an owl is a wild animal and one wonders about the reasons the old man is holding this beautiful barn owl captive. One could argue an image that creates curiosity is a good image as it can spark discussion but it is also the composition and tonal quality that makes the image interesting for me to look at.

"Man with Owl and Lucy" by Deanna Kolencikova.
“Man with Owl and Lucy” © by Deanna Kolencikova.


Speaking of tonal quality and discussion points surely the Horst von Wächter portrait is absolutely cunning. The artificially lit portrait in the historic setting creates an awe as well as indicating something more sinister. It brings to mind the discussion about German guilt and points to the dilemma that relatives of convicted war criminals face. It reinforced the debate around humanity, values and choices. An interesting article about the Wächter family can be read here: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/7d6214f2-b2be-11e2-8540-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2qUMja8xI

Horst von Wächter by Jillian Edelstein
Horst von Wächter © by Jillian Edelstein


On a different note, Harajuku by Julia Fullerton-Batten is a colourful portrait of a young Japanese woman. The figure is described as the symbol of newly found female independence a woman evolving from her subservient past. The straight pose of the woman under the umbrella suggests confidence yet her eyes look rather sad or even regretful gazing backwards as if she was contemplating the past. This could also be seen a woman trapped by the conflicting poles of old and new. Zeitgeist accommodates this image.

Harajuku by Julia Fullerton-Batten
Harajuku © by Julia Fullerton-Batten


My other three favourites were chosen purely for their melancholic quality:

Not to forget the many overlooked entries that never made it into the shortlist! They can be seen here: http://portraitsalon.co.uk


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