You've been framed

BP Portrait Award 2005

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

PORTRAITS. There, that's done it. In opening with that one word I might well have alienated a good third of this paper's readers. Because, let's face it, in the fast-moving, sophisticated art world of noughties Britain, the painted portrait is just a little pass. Or is it? The BP portrait award exhibition, transferred from London to Edinburgh, offers a timely chance to reappraise the genre and the conclusion must be that reports of its death have been somewhat exaggerated.

One of the most immediately noticeable facts about this exhibition is the very 'ordinariness' of the sitters. They are all 'people like us', and this rough-edged candour points up the fact that there has always been something slightly unnerving about entering a room filled with faces staring at you. We are accustomed to look into pictures - narrative or abstract. Portraits are the only case in which we find our gaze returned, and for this reason alone we are fortunate in Scotland to have, alongside Canberra, Washington and London, one of only four portrait galleries in the world.

What other artistic genre has its own museum? Landscape? Abstraction? Still life? Only portraiture can boast the honour, and with good reason - both historical and contemporary. When in 1889, with substantial funding from the then proprietor of the Scotsman, the SNPG opened to the public, it was chiefly as a means of education. Here the masses could come and see those whom they should emulate, from statesmen and soldiers to doctors and divines.

This is no longer the prime function of a portrait gallery. Certainly we might come to further our understanding of the character of historical figures and such masters of their craft as Raeburn and Ramsay speak directly to the heart and the intellect. But surely we now visit the gallery primarily to gain an understanding of the human race as a whole. Abstraction and landscape may provide a vehicle for our thoughts and conceptualism an opportunity for profound lateral thinking. But ultimately much of the achievement of mankind is summed up in our relations with one another. We have no greater monument than ourselves.

And, if all art is an ironic attempt to perpetuate the self, then surely in the portrait this impetus is at its most direct. By this I don't mean personal vanity, but a Donne-like absorption with the individual which can open our eyes to the universal.

This show is filled with examples of the theory at work. Not least in the image which confronts you as you enter: Tim Okamura's La Familia, with its tense interaction between six contemporary urban archetypes. A similar familiar reality pervades Paul Birdsall's Waiting for Margaret and Paul Oxborough's Javier.

MOST ENGAGING, though, is the honesty evident in self-portraits by the likes of Charlotte Steel and Gavin Young. The choice of the first two winners seems curious given their relatively anodyne appearance compared with Brendan Kelly's intense portrait of his brother, Annemarie Busschers' huge and vile image of a child with chickenpox and Davide Castronova's menacing diptych Domanda e Risposta. Gregory Cumins' third-prize-winning image of Richard Deacon, however, stands out as a particularly telling portrait of one artist by another and presumably will enter the national collection.

Inevitably there are a few clear borrowings: Bonnie Thompson's debt to early Alison Watt and Stefan Towler's to the heroic wartime portraiture of Eric Kennington.

What is absent here is any evidence of a grand portrait commission from either the corporate sector or aristocracy old and new. The majority of the works are deeply personal conceits, driven more by the painter's fascination with the sitter than any desperate desire for immortality, and all of these factors lead inevitably to a comparison of the works here with another portrait recently given huge national exposure: Rolf Harris's painting of the Queen. This was an old-style commission, albeit in a transparent and unnecessary attempt by the Palace to engage popular support by employing the 'people's painter'.

The result, predictably, is a crashing failure with no more to say than an instamatic snapshot. Were it to be hung in this show, that failure would be evident for all to see. It tells us nothing about the Queen, conveying neither majesty nor emotion. In trying his hand at this most exacting of genres, the man-of-all-things Harris has simply exposed himself as master of none.

In so doing, though, he has also performed an unwitting service to the Cinderella of the visual arts, demonstrating, in a similar way to this show, just how hard it is to succeed in portraiture.

Such a lesson could not come at a better time. With the SNPG's recent application for a 5m refurbishment grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund having being returned pending further evidence that it would 'grow the audience', the whole future of the gallery hangs in the balance. Already voices within establishment circles are questioning the worth of such an institution and seriously contemplating - as happened not so long ago, to public outcry - whether it would not be better to redistribute its riches throughout the other national galleries in their appropriate art-historical schools.

Such an idea needs to be speedily and definitively suppressed. The SNPG must be preserved and enhanced. It is a unique institution which by its very nature transcends the uses of an art gallery and challenges art-historical conventions of display, uniting science and art, philosophy and history in an irreplaceable vision of humanity.

• Until March 12