No country in the world is more passionate about portraiture than Australia. We have more portrait prizes, more prize money, and an ongoing case of amour fou for the Archibald Prize, which is viewed as a national institution, when it would be a very minor affair in most other places.
In the past, Australians saw themselves as a distinctive branch on the tree that was Mother England. We were happy to have the Queen as our Head of State, feeling this did nothing to compromise our hard-won sense of identity. Nowadays, with roughly a third of the local population coming from a non-English speaking background, the question of identity is more complicated than ever.
Is this why we need to keep looking at images of ourselves? Famous Australians, ordinary Australians… We once needed to reassure ourselves we had our full quota of great men (and to a lesser extent, women). Now it seems we have an equally urgent desire to celebrate our diversity, to feel we are a truly modern, multicultural society, open to all varieties of gender and ethnicity. It’s an irony that both conservatives and progressives seem to have the same mania for portraiture.
The exhibition, Who Are You: Australian Portraiture, is a joint venture by the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria – a rare collaboration among public galleries in an era when exclusivity seems to be the order of the day. I saw the show in Melbourne but have held off a review until it arrived at the NPG. Along with the Cressida Campbell survey at the National Gallery of Australia, it provides a good reason for visiting Canberra over the summer holidays.
Who Are You – with no question mark – is an intellectually ambitious project that sets out to interrogate the very nature of portraiture. There are five broad themes: ‘Person and Place’, ‘Meet the Artist’, ‘Inner Worlds, Outer Selves’, ‘Intimacy and Alienation’, ‘Icons and Identities’. Within these categories there’s room for a great deal of crossover. If I wanted to be less charitable, I’d say: “confusion”.
Rarely have I encountered a show with so many fascinating works presented in such an awkward manner. Every room has something of genuine interest, but one needs to separate these pieces from the intrusive framework imposed by a committee of curators. Reading the catalogue reinforces the impression that organisers have been more concerned with making politically correct statements than investigating the complex nature of their subject.
Art history or philosophy, when done well, should aim at a form of expansive, disinterested inquiry, but the mind-set of identity politics is wilfully narrow. At its worst, it ensures that everything by an Indigenous artist, no matter how slight, must be treated with exaggerated respect, while historical works by white, male artists need to be scrutinised for their tacit support of offensive ideologies such as colonialism, racism and sexism. Aesthetics is not part of the equation.
All too often the writer of the catalogue essay or wall label feels it’s sufficient to assert something good or bad about an artist. The subtleties of history and personality get steamrollered in the process. When the writer includes the formula: “I, as a blah, blah person”, it adds an extra layer of sanctimony. Anyone writing from a minoritarian perspective cannot, by definition, be wrong.
This is not a rational process, it’s religious, based not on argument or evidence but on the belief that certain kinds of people have miraculous insights into the truth by virtue of their biological identity. It’s no different from a religion – any religion – defining its adherents as the chosen people and everyone else as infidels.
Personally, I’ve always preferred the infidels.
The other issue that bedevils this show is one of definitions. The commonsense assumption is that a portrait is a likeness of a particular person that may include material that tells us something more about the subject. We like to imagine that a great portraitist reveals insights into the personality of the sitter but it’s often the case that viewers come up with completely different psychological interpretations.
When Lloyd Rees, who was hardly an avatar of the avant-garde calls a painting Portrait of some rocks (1948), it seems particularly simple-minded to take this literally. Rees was suggesting these rocks had great pictorial presence, playfully asking us to anthropomorphise the landscape, as if it had a particular character and personality. If we see the rocks as an actual portrait, then every landscape ever painted is also a portrait.
Another pointless argument is that anything an artist creates is the record of a particular subjectivity, and therefore a self-portrait. When the late John Nixon painted a cross and called it Self-portrait (non-objective composition) – as he did over and over and over – he was giving form to this unremarkable proposition. It’s the most banal idea in the world, although the artist’s admirers virtually swoon at the profundity of it all.
If a cross is considered to be a self-portrait (with or without any sense of Christian symbolism), then every work of art is a self-portrait, and the term becomes so lacking in boundaries as to be meaningless. At no point in the show or the catalogue do the curators make this obvious point. The lack of boundaries may be the only rationale for including one of Patricia Piccinini’s mutant motorscooters, called Nest (2006). If this is a portrait, so is my car.
When we turn to a painting such as Kunmanara Burton’s Ngayaku Ngura (My Country) (2009), the same condrundrum is repeated, with the added knowledge that works painted by Aboriginal artists from the desert communities make no distinction between self and country, past and present. The artist’s tjukurrpa(what we used to call Dreaming) represents an eternal now, a seamless integration of the painter’s subjectivity into a landscape composed of many stories.
While it could be argued that every Aboriginal painting is a self-portrait this is another empty piece of sophistry. In theory it means that any Archibald Prize exhibition might consist of nothing but quasi-abstract, dot and circle paintings. It’s just as futile to see a portrait in Shirley Purdie’s 27-panel work, Ngalim-Ngalimbooroo Ngagenybe (2018), which depicts the land, trees, people, animals, and even a truck.
To call Purdie and Burton’s works “portraits” is to diminish them by attaching them to a European art historical category in which they are, at best, a problematic fit. This is not the case with Vincent Namatjira’s typically witty, multi-panelled portrait of 16 people, ranging from Captain Cook to Eddie Mabo to Gina Rinehardt, or Julie Dowling’s portraits of her extended family. Neither is it inappropriate for a work by Trevor Turbo Brown, who depicts himself as a dingo spirit, or the self-portraits of Peggy Napangardi Jones and Jarinyaru David Downs. Indeed, the rarity of portraits and self-portraits from remote community artists is one of the things that makes these paintings special.
Maree Clarke’s composite possum skin cloak is also worth considering, as it is a deliberate ‘self-portrait’ composed with possum pelts taken from each of the districts that make up the artist’s ancestral homelands.
When one finally stops wondering in what way a particular work might be a portrait, there are many excellent, uncontroversial portraits to see, by artists such as Herbert Badham, Nora Heysen, John Brack, Hugh Ramsay and many others. There is little discussion of the background to any of these images.
It’s good to see John Longstaff, known for brown portraits of men in suits, represented by The young mother (1891), a lucid genre picture that depicts his youthful, difficult bride, Topsy, and their child. Napier Waller’s self-portrait of 1925, The man in black, is notable because it restores the arm he lost in World War One. Inevitably, the show includes one of William Dargie’s portraits of Albert Namatjira, and Lina Bryan’s rakish classic, The babe is wise (1940). Another excellent inclusion is Tracey Moffatt’s 1985 photo of David Gulpilil reclining on the beach, with tinnie and ghetto blaster.
What’s almost palpable in each in these pictures is the spirit with which they were created. The best portraits have the breath of life about them, making us feel we know (or would like to know) the person depicted. It’s an illusion, of course, but art is no less a medium for story-telling than literature. There’s a human fascination in the face that transcends those theories that suggest a portrait can do without a likeness, or even a body. We can expand the concept of portraiture to the point where it disappears altogether, but with this exhibition, it’s not the airy ideas that will draw audiences, but the solid quality of the works.
Who Are You: Australian Portraiture
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 1 October, 2022 – 29 January, 2023