Feb 2012 Journal

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Art notes

A tea party in a Japanese cemetery; a girl called Anna taken to Italy from Benin City to work in the sex trade; a young man with a nasal deformity; political problems in the Western Sahara; child beauty contestants; a 15-year-old stabbing victim; and a young girl horrifically disfigured by the Taliban for fleeing her abusive husband’s house – these are among the clashing images captured by photographers in the National Portrait Gallery’s 2011 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize (to 12 February 2012).

Social consciousness, political awareness and the need to tell it all through the camera’s lens featured prominently among over 6,000 submissions for the annual prize. Yet the winners came from much less controversial stock. First prize went to Jooney Woodward for her portrait Harriet and Gentleman Jack, featuring a 13-year-old holding a guinea pig in the Royal Welsh Show. She caught the photographer’s eye with her long copper hair and white stewarding coat.

US-born Jill Wooster took second prize for her portrait Of Lili, of her androgynous friend Lili Ledbetter. The third prize went to US-born Dona Schwartz for her portrait of Christina and Mark, 14 Months, in their son’s vacated bedroom, from the series On the Nest, which documents parents facing the empty nest syndrome. Wen, the reflective portrait of Chinese artist Wen Wu in her work space, won fourth prize for Jasper Clarke. The £500 fifth prize was awarded to David Knight for his moving portrait of wheelchair-bound, 15-year-old Andie Poetschka, commissioned by Loud for the Cerebral Palsy Alliance to raise awareness of the condition in Australia. His description of his subject is moving and telling: ‘You don’t immediately notice Andie is in a wheelchair; you just see a beautiful young woman.’

But there is a bigger prize than the Taylor Wessing. The still beautiful mutilated Afghan girl, photographed by Jodi Bieber, was rescued by a women’s shelter in Kabul and brought to the USA for reconstructive surgery and counselling.

The Josef Herman you don’t know was the subject of the Ben Uri’s recent exhibition, which presented a lesser-known view of the artist at work in a small Welsh mining town. In 1944 the Polish-Jewish Expressionist met miner-writer Dai Alexander and visited the small mining community of Ystradgynlais in the Swansea Valley. He became totally absorbed in Welsh culture, grew to love the warmth of the Welsh people and ended up staying for 11 years. There he recreated a series of drawings of heavy, workmanlike and almost sculptural forms, which represent the miners’ dignity in their solid, human grace. In these lightning sketches, light cuts through the darkness of the men at work.

His artistic voice resonates through the Josef Herman Art Foundation, based in Ystradgynlais, which offers an annual award to schools and educational events and an annual prize at the Welsh National Eisteddfod. It promotes refugees like Herman, who ‘arrive with nothing yet contribute so much to their host communities’, according to the Foundation chair, Lynne Bebb.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:Gloucester and the Kindertransport: A city’s response to Kristallnacht
next article:Exploding a myth (review)