Review: Self Portrait Prize 2023

Review: Self Portrait Prize 2023

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The Ruth Borchard Self Portrait Prize, The Atkinson

By  November 15, 2023

“… there is the work of art, the image of the maker and the truth of what he or she sensed, imagined or believed about themselves and how they chose, as we all must choose, to present themselves”

– Laura Cumming, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraiture

Despite self-portraiture having an established place in art history, this Prize is the only art competition of its kind to focus exclusively on the genre. It was inspired by the late, Ruth Borchard, who, between 1958 and 1971, created one of the only UK public collections of self-portraits. 

Stephen Whittle, one of this year’s Judges and Museum Manager of The Atkinson, says the Prize is a way of showing what is going on in the genre: “It’s an opportunity to survey what people are doing in the world of art and what kinds of self portraits are being created these days”.

The competition attracts entries from all over the world, including by artists of international renown such as Jonathan YeoColin Davidson and Liverpool-born, Chila Kumari Singh Burman.


Colin Davidson, Self-Portrait (Photo Credits: The Atkinson)

It was Davidson’s 3-D portrait measuring 105 x 78 x 54 cm, which was selected as this year’s winner. I confess that I found it somewhat overwhelming and unsettling in its gigantic hyperrealism. It looks as if his head has been recently severed and squashed into a box.  If it weren’t for the benign, quite cheerful expression in his eyes, you’d almost want to call the CSI team. It even seemed to intimidate the artist himself as he stood near it to talk about his success.

But joking aside, it is an extraordinary piece and sculpted self-portraits are unusual in the history of the genre. The Judges clearly had no hesitation, in selecting it from 2,000 entries as the recipient of the £10,000 Prize.  Although he already has an established career, this win still means a lot to Davidson: “It is an honour and a privilege and I am beyond thrilled”.

In contrast the tiny, soft pastel, ‘Self in a Cheesebox’, by Elena Degenhardt measures only 9cm in diameter.  It was made when she first moved to France and represents her desire to become an integral part of the culture.

In Katie Sollohub’s 2-minute digital charcoal drawing animation, ‘I Am Not An Artist’, she has overlaid the film with song and spoken word.  In this way she tells us about herself and her life but without showing her face at all.

Joel Ely, Self Portrait as Still Life with Slidesheet, 2023 (Photo Credits: The Atkinson)

Another unsettling severed head features in Joel Ely’s “Self Portrait as Still Life With Slide Sheet”.  Again, he doesn’t look all that unhappy about being separated from his body, though in his artist statement, he reveals that the inspiration for the painting came out of personal as well societal struggles of the past three years.

Before going into the show, which is contained in one gallery, I came upon two of the chosen artists, talking animatedly about being included.  One of them was Shani Rhys James, whose life-size, unabashed, full-length, nude self-portrait boldly greets visitors as they enter the exhibition.  She says it was done in response to one by Lucien Freud: “His is full frontal in hobnail boots and a palette knife. In my painting I wear red platform shoes while brandishing a palette knife. Behind me is a painting of me as a child with my mother”.

Shani Rhys James, ‘Red Shoes and Palette Knife’, 2008 (Photo Credit:The Atkinson)

The other person I bumped into was Virginia Verran, whom I recognised because she was one of my tutors on the MA in Fine Art Contemporary Practice at Falmouth University.  Her elegiac painting is circular, the first on the left wall as you go in.  Portraiture is unusual in her practice and in this her face is partly obscured with what she describes as “interference”.  She says it “relates to neural pathways and synapses” and that after her mother’s recent death, she was “looking to the past to find vital warmth and connection”.

One of the other paintings that particularly appealed to me was by George Rowlett.  The thickness of the oil paint was such that I wondered if it had ever dried beneath the top crust.  But the main reason it caught my eye was because it reminded me of Frank Auerbach or Leon Kossoff’s work, both titans of portraiture.  Sure enough, there is a connection; he had been gifted a box of paints left in Kossoff’s studio and he’d used them in this self-portrait.

One of the Judges of the competition, Director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, describes the continuing vibrancy of self-portraiture: “It has a very distinguished lineage, a very ancient lineage, and it is pretty astounding to see just how much the genre, the format, is still yielding so long after it was first invented”.

There are no restrictions on medium or size for this competition, so, as well as the traditional paintings on canvas, the selected works also include ceramics, neon, photography, needlework, digital drawing and sculpture. The 35 works on show provide a compelling insight into how artists see themselves and how they fit into the world around them.

Alexi Williams, Inner Self II, 2023 (Photo Credit:The Atkinson)

In a recent interview, the Shadow Culture Secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, described the art being produced in the UK as “quirky, eccentric, bonkers stuff that turns out to be world-beating” – a description that is exemplified by the wealth of idiosyncratic works in this exhibition.

In addition, there is a gallery folder containing the artists’ statements, which give fascinating details about their methods and motivations.  The artist, Maggi Hambling, who announced this year’s winner, describes self-portraiture as “a very mysterious process … that sometimes it seems to paint itself”.

Vincent Van Gogh wrote that “it is not easy to know oneself – but it’s not easy to paint oneself either”.  And yet throughout history, despite the difficulty, artists have continued to make themselves the subjects in their own work.  The works in this exhibition are part of that history and of the mystery.

All the exhibits can be viewed here in this online selection of entries but of course there’s nothing to beat seeing the real thing if at all possible.  It is on at The Atkinson, Lord Street, Southport, PR8 1DB, until 16 December 2023.


Posted on 16 November 2023 under Exhibition, General news

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