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Catherine Goodman: Portraits from Life

September 21, 2014

ArtsPainting | by Maxine Kirsty Sapsford

This unique, private collection, tucked away in two small rooms at the National Portrait Gallery, is a fascinating display of contemporary expressionism at its most enigmatic. It comprises subjects close to Goodman herself – friends and family – and depicts a broad cross-section of society from a priest to a soldier to an art student to name just a few. Goodman’s lifelong passion for painting led to her being awarded first prize in the BP Portrait Award in 2002 when her association with the Gallery began, and this display of recent work is testament to the new dimension she brings to portraiture.


'The Cook' Sally Clarke, Copyright: Catherine Goodman, Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery
‘The Cook’ Sally Clarke, Copyright: Catherine Goodman, Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Goodman’s portraits convey a person beyond a physical being. Woven into the rough-hewn brush strokes of her sitters’ faces is a multitude of emotions, simultaneously revealing and concealing the fears and desires, the triumphs and downfalls of the person behind the picture. Each layer is like the page of a book, only some are missing, torn or unreadable; lost in light and shade. Perhaps most cryptic however is the way in which all of her subjects appear face-on yet gazing to one side. The absence of eye contact is, to the viewer, profoundly moving. As an artist concerned with the ‘inner world’ of the people who sit for her (Sarah Howgate, curator), one can’t help but acknowledge Goodman’s touching consideration for them in maintaining a level of privacy by not allowing us to see through the ‘windows into their soul’. One of Goodman’s early influences was icons from her Russian heritage known by the same name.


Upon first viewing these portraits, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the stoic, solemn faces represent sadness. Yet look a little closer and Goodman’s palette tells a tale. Harry, the soldier, is a weary soul. In life, eyes are drawn to his amputated and prosthetic leg – the scars of war. In an act of compassion, Goodman almost blurs his lower body into the background, telling his story mostly through his face. In this way, the viewer isn’t compelled to look away. On the other hand, The Art Student, Goodman’s nephew, resonates with the promise of youth. Painted on a yellow base which remains visible in places; the subject’s hair shines, as does his red top. Of her nephew, Goodman says he is ‘a young man looking outwards’. Nonetheless he, like the others, does not gaze out of the portrait. It would appear that colour, or lack of it, is not just reflective of the subject’s state of mind, but also Goodman’s.


'The Film Director' Stephen Frears, Copyright: Catherine Goodman, Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery
‘The Film Director’ Stephen Frears, Copyright: Catherine Goodman, Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery

The largest and most fantastical of her portraits has to be The Artist – Goodman herself. The off-centre placing of her face gives the impression of her staring into a mirror, neither in the background nor the foreground. If you look long enough, the abstract pieces of an incomplete puzzle reveal themselves around her; her palette at the very bottom, the reflection of what appears to be a room behind her, the face of a wild animal and a pair of tusks to the right. Goodman’s self-portrait is at once the most expressive and the most chaotic.


Words by Sarah Wildblood.


Catherine Goodman: Portraits from Life is showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd November. For more information go to npg.org.uk/whatson/display/2014/catherine-goodman-portraits-from-life.php