7 FEBRUARY 1981, Page 25


Long faces

John McEwen Art from Africa can be seen at the Commonwealth Institute (till 5 April) and is Predictably of more ethnological, sociological interest than anything else. City Populations throughout the continent have increased dramatically over the past 25 years— Lagos, for example, from 400,000 in 1964 to 2 million today — and many of the Pictures (there is only a token amount of sculpture) can accordingly be categorised as M-ban folk-art. One of the more charming items is a barber's sign-board advertising such female hairstyles as 'BBC Lady', 'Boys Fo tire', 'War Front' and the tightly plaited Rings of Love'. The Nigerian and other Wars creep into the documentation, some Mozambiquean pictures touch on slavery and subjugation, a very graphic-design conscious Nigerian poster inveighs against the corrupt influence of mini-skirts with the Order 'Long Leg is Evil, keep yours short', but the general mood is sunny. This may, of course, reflect the fact that almost the entire show is on loan from the private collections 9f European enthusiasts. There is the Inevitable whiff, the merest whiff, of condescension in the choice. It makes somdof the sculpture — for the very self-consciousness (A its tribalism — preferable. British artists, of course, find themselves equally unhinged from tradition. This is Tade very clear by the New Look in British Por.traiture exhibition at the National For!tan Gallery (till 28 February). The search or portraitists is unending and now Itnpe°al Tobacco have had the bright idea of making it official by inaugurating an annual competition for the Imperial Tobacco Portrait Award — first prize £4,000, plus a commission worth £3,000 to paint the portrait of an eminent sitter for the National Portrait Gallery collection, two second prizes of £500, open to all British subjects between the ages of 18 and 40. Long may it continue. The competition has not turned up very much this year, but then the problems confronting a portraitist t6day are legion. The formal portrait has gone with formality and the informal one has been deprived of most of its point by the photograph. To make a worthwhile contribution the portraitist is driven to ever more extreme solutions. However, there are a few general guidelines, most of which have been fatally overlooked by the Imperial Tobacco Award contestants. For instance, if you do not enjoy painting then do not do it. The long faces of these endless self-portraits, the uninformative settings, the neutrality of the poses, the avoidance (usually, of course, for want of skill) of any experiment with colour or texture, make it quite clear that most of the participants consider painting about as much fun as drying dishes. The selectors might have found a place for the painterly efforts of Maggi Hambling and Paul GopalChowdhury, , and the humour of Linda Sutton, but picked the rest of the cherries easily enough, giving first prize to Margaret Foreman's portrait of the President of St John's, Oxford, an effort distinguished by the wit and affection with which she has succeeded in conveying something of his life and circumstance as well as character. This exhibition is instructively offset by two other shows in the same building: The Gentle Eye, photographs by Jane Bown ot the Observer (till 29 March) (also published as a book, Thames & Hudson £6.95) and Sir Francis Chantrey,1781 — 1841: Sculptor of the Great, his busts interestingly juxtaposed where possible with other artists' paintings of the sitters (till 15 March). Jane Bown has the quickest of eyes for the obvious, as a good journalist should. She has little artistic desire to disturb preconceptions: sheep and begaitered bishops are comical; so are backsides. England is nannies by the Round Pond and a sunny evening at Glyndebourne. Her portraits are better for being on occasion less gentle. Perhaps she knew in 1968 that Blunt was a spy, certainly she presents him as one, and she catches Beckett at his most deadly. Sir Francis Chantrey died just when photography was coming in and his sculpture benefits accordingly from having been made in an era of undisturbed artistic confidence. England's last heroic age was well served by his heroic style, and his characterisations often get the better of the painters'. He is particularly good when confronted with lesser figures like Benjamin West, though the naturalism is already beginning to contradict the nobility of intention. Like Sargent in painting, Chantrey is the lastkyfia forrnaline and of about the same, high-flying, second division standard.