Connecting with oil and canvas

Annabelle and Guy by BP Portrait Award winner Matan Ben-Cna'an

Last edited: 23 June 2015

Every year, the BP Portrait Award enables artists from many different countries to share their world views, and that has proved to be the case more so than ever in 2015

Ten years ago, Matan Ben-Cna'an travelled from his home in Haifa to study in London with the artist Israel Zohar. Unaware at the time of the BP Portrait Award, he was taken by Zohar to see the 2005 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  “I said then that one day I would enter,” says Ben-Cna'an, “and I have waited patiently for the right moment.”

He has clearly chosen his moment wisely, having won the competition at the first attempt in 2015 with Annabelle and Guy. It is an allegorical portrait of the artist’s friend and step-daughter, depicted with photographic clarity in the blinding sunlight of northern Israel’s Jezreel Valley.

Right time, right sitters

The story behind the image is the biblical tale of Jephthah, an Israelite judge who vowed, should he be victorious in an impending battle with the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first living thing greeting him on his return home. He anticipated it would be a dog, but alas it was his daughter.

“The story has always fascinated me,” says Ben-Cna'an, “and I have been wandering around for several years wanting to execute the idea of representing it in a portrait, but failing to find the appropriate models. Then, last year, I found just the right time and sitters, Guy and Annabelle.”

“I very much like the audience to ask questions while viewing the painting, very much the same questions I deal with. Questions such as why the sitter doesn’t look straight at the viewer, why does he sit the way he sits? These questions can be used to read the painting, to reveal the feeling of it and understand the story without having to know it first.”
countries represented by artists entering this year
years of BP support for the awards
portraits entered into the competition for 2015

Determined by digital

Instrumental in Ben-Cna'an’s decision to enter the 2015 competition was a change introduced this year. Artists were asked in the first instance to submit digital images of their works, rather than the original paintings. “If it wasn’t for the move to digital, I would not have sent my painting this year,” says Ben-Cna'an.

The change has resulted in 2,748 entries to the competition – the highest number in the 26 years of BP’s support. It also encouraged artists from 92 different countries to enter, again a record for 2015.

“I know that the BP Portrait Award motivates artists like no other contest, incentivising us to become better and to focus on the ancient subject of portraiture,” says Ben-Cna'an. “I am still overwhelmed and don’t really realize what has happened. I can say for sure though that, from winning, I will become more confident and have more belief in what I’m doing.”

“This was my first attempt ever, but I would like to say to my fellow artists around the world that you must take the chance and not hesitate; especially now the procedure is digitalised. Even if you don’t succeed, keep on going. Anything can happen!”

Eliza - by Michael Gaskell

Strength in depth

The British artist Michael Gaskell – placed second in 2015 – is living proof of that, as one of the artists most consistently celebrated by BP Portrait Award judges over the years. Recognition for Eliza, a portrait of his niece, aged 14, is the third time Gaskell has won second prize in the competition, and the fifth time he has been selected for the exhibition. 

The third prize went to Borja Buces Renard, a Spanish artist who divides his time between Madrid and Florida. The inspiration for My Brother and My Mother, comes from regular Sunday gatherings at the family home. The absence through ailing health of Renard’s father from the gatherings, and the painting, is acknowledged poignantly by the dissolving forms around the central figures.
Joining the 2015 winners is Greek artist Eleana Antonaki, named BP Young Artist for J., a portrait of a friend and fellow student at the prestigious Parson’s School of Design in New York. The maturity of Antonaki’s painting was remarked on by the special guest speaker at the 2015 awards ceremony, Simon Schama, but her work nearly went unseen. “Transporting art is expensive,” says Antonaki, “more than a plane ticket. So I had to put on a fundraiser. When my fellow students saw this they decided to chip in together and surprise me with money to help with the shipping costs.”

“Winning Young Artist is a great honour for me, especially in a very early stage in my career, and also an honour to find out from the judges how much they appreciated my effort to bridge traditional painting with the contemporary art scene.”

J. by Eleana Antonaki

Completing the picture for 2015 is French artist Magali Cazo, who will depict the lives of a community of bronze smelters in Burkina Faso, having won the BP Travel Award.

Des Violaris, BP’s director for UK arts and culture, praised the winners and also says: “BP would like to thank every artist who submitted their work to the competition. Our aim is to connect more artists with new audiences, and to connect more people with great art.”
  • Entry to the BP Portrait Award 2015 exhibition is free; it runs at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 10 October until 28 February 2016, and Ulster Museum, Belfast, 11 March until 12 June 2016.

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