There are people who think there is no future for figurative art, that perpetuating time-honoured forms such as the painted portrait in our fractured, technological age can only lead to embarrassing kitsch. Personally I’ve never bought into that view, but having just set eyes on the first official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, I’m inclined to revise my opinion.
What is it about the conjunction of the Royal Family, oil paint and official commissions that seems to lead inevitably to aesthetic disaster? Even Lucien Freud made a fudge job of his portrait of the Queen. Paul Elmsley’s laboured sub-photorealism isn’t my kind of art, but I can certainly see why his super-detailed painting of fellow artist Michael Simpson won the prestigious BP Portrait award in 2007.
For the Duchess of Cambridge, however, he has produced what looks like a piece of mawkish book illustration, a work that could be read as an almost comical pastiche of a certain kind of ‘sensitive’ painting – that might pass muster on the cover of a Catherine Cookson novel, but will hardly bear sustained scrutiny in a major art gallery.
If Kim Jong un, Supreme Leader of North Korea, had a portrait painted of himself in a similar idiom, we’d all be crowing from the rafters about the pitiful taste of foreign despots.
The misty eyes, the minxish puckering around the mouth, the coils of dark auburn hair are all rendered with a painful literalness – these are features the artist believes the mainstream viewer wants to see, captured in a ‘style’ he believes they will like. There’s no real light, no real form, no real structure in this painting.