The portrait of Courtney Pine

The stories behind some of my paintings: this one is about submitting to the BP Portrait Awards, choosing a subject and combining jazz with modern art. Because: why not? Or as Pine puts it:

“Most of the titles, most of the tunes, refer to resistance in one form or another. Because resistance means a lot of different things. Just playing jazz, in the early days, was an act of resistance”.

“I believe in letting the musicians decide what is and what isn’t jazz. And for me, not to open my heart and play everything that is in my head or reflects my experiences, is just wrong.”

Courtney Pine and Piet Mondriaan, celebrating the freedom of jazz.

In 2011 I submitted a portrait of the amazing Courtney Pine for the BP Portrait Awards. This contest, organized by the National Gallery, is a great opportunity for artists from all over the world to ‘compete’ against each other. It’s like the Olympics for portrait painting, or as the Daily Mail calls it: ‘the portraiture Oscars’.

Selection and rejection

The BP is considered to be one of the most prestigious competitions in contemporary art. With quite fuzzy rules on what’s praised and what’s ignored. Submitting is serious work: in 2012 there were more than 2.000 entries from over 70 countries. And this year, in 2018, 2.667 artists submitted from 88 different countries. Only 40 to 50 paintings make the cut, and these are exhibited in The National Gallery in London. And only one wins. Two of my paintings have been selected for the gallery, in 2011 and in 2013. I was also rejected a number of times. Or ‘non-selected’, as we artists prefer to call it.

A few years ago there were different Salons des Refusés in the UK: ‘Best of the Rest’ and ‘Dazed and Refused’. This article from artist Natalie Holland has a lovely sympathetic way of putting it: “if you are an artist and your current masterpiece has failed to appear on the walls of National Portrait Gallery, don’t despair! It doesn’t mean the work doesn’t have what it takes to be selected, it means you have to win a lottery of the hearts and minds of the judging panel”.

Multi-talented jazz musician

In 2011 I submitted a portrait of Courtney Pine, which got selected for the Award. I usually work on commission, but for the BP’s I like to choose my own subjects. Courtney Pine is a multi-talented instrumentalist who brought jazz music to a huge audience. By incorporating reggae from his Caribbean roots, but also by working with drum ‘n bass and hip hop artists. And he believes in practice, practice, practice, which I love.

Pine is a tall guy, a very striking figure with big eyes and long dreadlocks behind his black bandana. I was very fortunate to meet him backstage at the jazz festival in Middelburg, my hometown. I simply asked if he would pose, briefly, for a painting. And he did! In a great pose he chose himself, with his hands folded in front of his lips. Like a silent musical prayer, a funny and symbolic gesture of his love for jazz, for the saxophone.

Mondriaan, dancing

I painted Pine’s portrait on a wooden panel and added a black and white Mondriaan painting as a background. Maybe because of the specific shape of his hands in front of his mouth, plus the folds in his suit: all those lines appearing in the grey oil paint. Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan was fascinated by the light here in Zeeland. But more than that, he was a huge fan of jazz, boogie-woogie and bebop. His abstract paintings are a dance between rhythm and energy. Pure jazz. With that wild freedom, that Pine pours into his live performances and recordings.

Here’s Pine creating music to celebrate Matisse. And here’s the original Mondriaan painting from the Kröller-Müller museum.

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