Zurich Portrait Prize 2022 – A Review

Image Credit: Meilin Ava Song, New Beginning, 2022

Emily Sheehy reviews the Zurich Portrait Prize 2022 in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Portraits give us an important glimpse into the lives of both subjects and artists, communicating  specific aspects of the human condition. The Zurich Portrait Prize 2022 brings us the work of some of the best portrait artists in Ireland at the moment. This exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland showcases the shortlisted works and winning pieces of both the Zurich Portrait Prize and Young Zurich Portrait Prize.

The exhibition presents us with a wide range of mediums: oil paintings, photography, coloured pencils, egg tempura, and sculpture. The winning piece was David Booth’s portrait Salvatore, which depicts his friend and fellow artist Salvatore. Using abstract shapes, Booth reflects Salvatore’s solemn and contemplative mood, and portrays the doubt that often accompanies the experience of being an artist.

Another eye-catching work was Enda Burke’s photograph Deirdre by the Window. The use of colour is striking: the artist’s friend Deirdre is shown in a neon swimsuit and hat, looking out the window and holding a toy bunny. The friendship between the two women from childhood to now is captured perfectly, aided by the bright light of the winter sun.

Perhaps the most relatable work was My Bedroom As A Depressed College Graduate by Sorcha Frances Ryder. I can certainly relate to the feeling of fear when leaving the safety of education into a world full of uncertainty and precarity. Ryder represents this state with mementos of her college life: leftover packets of deli food, a bottle of Vodka, torn up receipts and a condom. 

What captured my interest most, however, was the Young Zurich Portrait Prize works. These pieces from artists up to the age of 18 highlight the unique creativity and imagination that young people possess. It was refreshing to see such promising works being celebrated from artists at the beginning of their careers. The overall winning piece was New Beginnings by Meilin Ava Song. The piece shows her mother in the back garden bathing in sunlight, who is painted using bold blocks of colour to depict her mother’s bright and confident personality. 

The personality and interests of the artists shine through in the many self-portraits. For example, Aoife Sweeney’s self-portrait uses her favourite pastel colours and draws from Japanese culture and anime. The winning artist of the 7 – 11 age group, Haochen Gao, reflects on his love for sports and brings people together. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Ross McHale highlights the enduring quality of James Joyce’s work and shows the artist looking back towards the unknown, as represented by the abstract shapes in the piece.

In many of the young artists’ portraits, you could clearly see their vivid imagination and creativity. I was inspired by Macdara, Macdara by James Cowley Lane, a sculpture of his cousin Macdara in plaster and clay. The young artist incorporated his cousin’s favourite toys into the sculpture using imprints of Lego blocks and toy soldiers to reflect his personality. In another piece, 7 year old Cathal Ryan depicts himself as a ‘bullman’ with a bright green background to contrast.

Every one of these portraits was able to evoke the human condition and enable ourselves to empathise with the artist and subject. They bring us closer to our fellow neighbours on the island of Ireland. Pieces from both the Zurich Portrait Prize and Young Zurich Portrait Prize are on display in the National Gallery of Ireland until the 2nd April 2023, with free admission and no booking required.