Portraiture is my favourite form of art. I am inspired and in awe by portrait artists so I was excited to see that The Culture Show were devoting a program to Jonathan Yeo and his preparation for his exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. His paintings are amazingly life like. I think they also manage to convey the personality and atmosphere of the sitter. The Presenter brought up a interesting idea that by analysing all the small facial features that our brains process on a daily basis without thinking about it, he is able to convey an idea or the way he want to present that person while still showing the person accurately. Thus the portrait artist can manipulate the way the person is shown in very subtle ways without the viewer even realising, simply by raising an eyebrow or making the sitter look away etc. This is something that Yeo has been accused of previously in his portraits of Tony Blair, depicting him after the Iraq war. Possibly he was accused of manipulating the image as his father in Tim Yeo the conservative MP. This made me think more about portraiture as a form of art. We all know that throughout history sitters have been known to inflict their requests on the artist when having a portrait done but if the sitter has no say, they are relying on the artist to show them in the way they want to be shown. It’s not as simple as just laying down a likeness especially for celebrities and politicians whose livelihood depends on the public opinion.
Yeo is known for his edgy and sometimes controversial images of celebrities and politicians (eg his portrayal of George W Bush using pornographic images) but this programme didn’t mention this side focussing purely on his more traditional portraits.
His works presented here all had similar styles, the emphasis on the face and sometimes hands, while the background and clothes remain very loosely painted. The contrast between the two styles within the image is characteristic of the paintings. Equally some of his portraits he takes the painting of the face to the very limit of reality, smooth tones and almost photographic quality, while others he leaves much more painterly, leaving great daubs of colour to describe the tones. Both of these styles are equally pleasing and impressive in their own way. I was interested why he would make these decisions and whether he planned this but it wasn’t mentioned. It was a lovely opportunity to see how he paints and the processes he uses to paint.