As the Zurich Portrait Prize comes to Cork for the first time, Ellie O’Byrne hears how our definition of the genre has expanded in the modern age
As the Zurich Portrait Prize goes on display Leeside for the first time, Crawford Art Gallery director Mary McCarthy is keen to point out the second city’s connection both to the annual prize and to the tradition of portraiture in general.
“When we started talking about hosting the portrait show, we were interested because Cork artists have featured quite highly over the years,” McCarthy says.
The shortlisted submissions for the coveted 2019 Zurich prize, alongside the winning portrait, were exhibited from October in the National Gallery of Ireland. This year, McCarthy is welcoming the show to the Crawford for the first time.
Portraiture is an eternally popular artform, McCarthy says, pointing out the enduring love of Cork audiences for pieces in the Crawford collection, including Murdo McLeod’s photograph of Roy Keane and Victoria Russell’s painting of Fiona Shaw.
“We’re doing a lot of work on the portraiture in our permanent collection at the moment, and we’re quite interested in igniting a conversation around portraiture in general,” she says. “It lets us look beyond the physical, and to know more about the subject and about ourselves.
“What’s really important about the Zurich prize is that you get to see a lot of work, all in context with each other. It’s a lot of faces and a lot of artforms, right beside each other.”
The overall winner of the portrait prize receives a cash prize of €15,000 as well as a €5,000 commission to produce a fresh work for the National Portrait Collection. There are also two prizes of €1,500 for highly commended works.
The 2019 winner was Carlow-born photographer Enda Bowe, with a photographic portrait entitled ‘Cybil McCaddy with Daughter Lulu’, which has been hailed as a contemporary Madonna and Child.
“It’s a very powerful image that lingers longer with you when you see it in the flesh,” McCarthy says of the winning image. “There are so many propositions at play all at the same time.”
As well as the National Gallery’s new commitment to exhibiting outside of Dublin, another first is the inclusion of a separate Zurich Young Portrait Prize, with 20 finalists in four age categories, whose works are being exhibited alongside the main prize shortlist.
“We’re really excited about the work of the younger artists in the show,” McCarthy says. “The portraits by the young artists are really outstanding, incredible images and we’re putting them in the show as equal artists.”
Another Cork connection to the prize comes in the form of Fiona Kearney, director of UCC’s Glucksman Gallery, who served as a judge for the main prize alongside artist Mick O’Dea and Mike Fitzpatrick, the Head of School of Limerick School of Art and Design.
Kearney says it presented an enormous challenge to try to judge from amongst a shortlist of incredible diversity, even raising questions for the judges about what defines a portrait.
“Essentially, these are all moments that were chosen or constructed for our view,” Kearney says.
The winners of the main prize and the junior prize are both photographic, in shortlists still dominated by paintings and drawing. But the Zurich prize is not medium-specific, Kearney points out.
“Because of the prevalence of digital photography in our lives, we might even think of photography before painting when we think of portraits now, even though painting was the traditional medium of portraiture,” she says.
“But one of the wonderful things about the Zurich Prize is that it’s not medium-specific; a portrait can be sculpture or even film.”
“In the shortlist, artists have explored what their medium can do. There are some fantastical paintings in there, that you couldn’t replicate with photography. I think the most successful artists are always those who are thinking really deeply about what their medium can do and how that will extend the engagement they have with the viewer.”
The Zurich Portrait Prize exhibition runs at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork from February 1 to April 13