Face to face

by Mark Calderwood

For most people, portraiture still means murky oil paintings of dusty patricians and historic explorers, drably adorning the walls of civic buildings. The notion persists that portraiture is mired in the past and far behind the cutting edge of engaging contemporary art.

Yet since ancient times, portraiture has been one of the most popular forms of art, flaunted as an expression of wealth and taste or even at times held to hold the soul of a loved one. But behind that, portraiture holds people in a peculiar way that is unchanged by time. Being the strongly visual and highly social creatures we are, we understand our world through images and other people. Our deeply instinctual response is exactly the same curiosity and genuine emotion we would feel for the actual person standing tangibly before us.

As with any form of art, what defines portraiture has changed entirely as it has moved with the times, embracing bold reinventions of its traditional forms. Portraits now are no longer staid paintings of distantly important personages, but democratic art works created with an awareness that portraits are ultimately not about pomp and formality, but about connecting with people.

It’s clear that the public has an insatiable appetite for images of prominent people- one has only to look at the immense popularity the Archibald Prize, the oldest and most prestigious art prize in Australia. Even those who might normally spurn the intimidating trappings of national art galleries are utterly undaunted by paintings of people, though they might be among Australia’s most distinguished household names. In many ways, the Prize brings national culture and public life to an intimate, personal level anyone can relate to.

‘The benefit of the Archibald especially is that it keeps portraiture in the public eye,’ says Andrew Sayers, director of the National Portrait Gallery. ‘It provides the stimulation for artists to keep creating portraits, and exploring and experimenting with the possibilities of the genre.’ In the same way the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize- won in 2009 by Ben Quilty’s striking image of rock legend Jimmy Barnes- reflects the importance of contemporary portraiture, being the richest portrait prize not just in Australia, but the world.

Of course, the Archibald is well known for attracting as much contention as admiration. The media attention that whirls around the event seizes with glee upon its spectacle and its enjoyably ludicrous controversies, such as 2006’s Supreme Court battle to determine whether Craig Ruddy’s winning portrait of actor David Gulpilil was in fact a painting, or merely a charcoal sketch (and thereby disqualified). As well as being ripe for satire ((the Bald Archy prize, judged by a cockatoo), the Archibald is a favourite target for art critics who enjoy heaping obloquy on portraiture as superficial and deriding its quality as, at best, mediocre.

And with the Archibald not awarded on two occasions in its 88 year history due to the poor quality of the entered works, it begs the inevitable question of what does make a good portrait. Sayers feels that ‘a good portrait comes from the combination of a good artist with an interesting subject. It’s the vivid presence of the person that we find engaging, and feel a connection to.

‘Just like in all genres, there are certainly formulaic and dull works,’ he smiles ruefully, ‘but fortunately there are astute, inspiring and innovative practitioners that can really bring out that compelling force of personality.’

Exhibiting that force of personality was driving ambition of the first chairman of the National Gallery of Australia Gordon Darling and his wife Marilyn, who in 1992 began their tireless quest to establish a National Portrait Gallery for Australia. To raise awareness for the project, retired BHP executive Darling put together an exhibition of over one hundred borrowed portraits. Titled Uncommon Australians: Towards an Australian Portrait Gallery, the exhibition toured State galleries around the nation for two years.

The Darlings felt that Old Parliament House, with its obvious historical associations, would make an excellent home for the Gallery. The Keating government proved amenable to the idea, and in 1994 approved its establishment under the aegis of the National Library. Four years later the Gallery was constituted as institution in itself, and Sayers, formerly assistant director of collections at the NGA, appointed its founding director.

From the outset, the approach of the Gallery was innovative and experimental. The National Library took an imaginative approach to interpreting Australian history and national character through portraiture, providing additional resources to let the paintings ‘speak’. Sayers puts it succinctly: ‘We’re telling the history of Australia though its people.’

But which people? With a national institution, the natural assumption is that this means figures who are important on a national level. But unlike similar institutions, the National Portrait Gallery also celebrates the unsung, those who have nevertheless given flavour and texture to our culture.

‘We’re interested in portraits that have a story,’ says Sayers. ‘Obviously some of those stories have assumed mythical dimensions- Burke and Wills, for example, or Alfred Deakin, but they all come from real people. Our challenge is how to portray those stories authentically- the complexities of people’s lives have a shape and dynamic that rarely fits inside the clichés of mythic history.

‘But the people that history may have overlooked are just as interesting- the first Australian born Governor-General Sir Isaac Isaacs, or campaigner for electoral reform in the 1890s Catherine Spence, or opera singer Florence Austral. It’s people like that, who get a little bit lost in time, that we also want to bring forward.’

Sayers describes the collection as always having a modern edge, something that modern Australia would engage with. ‘The point we are making is that portraiture is a contemporary phenomenon as well as a historical one, and just as relevant today as it ever was. We don’t mind if its painting, photography, video or ceramics.’

Although the Gallery proved popular, space in Old parliament House was tight and the Gallery was constrained by heritage considerations. Deciding there was nothing else for it, Mrs Darling lobbied ceaselessly for funding for a purpose-built gallery next to the High Court in Canberra, where space had long been allocated. Her persistence was rewarded in 2004, with the Federal government allocating $89 million for the project.

The new National Portrait Gallery is an open, light-filled contemporary building that leaves stuffy stereotypes as far behind as the innovative art it contains. Care was taken to avoid the building becoming a wild architectural indulgence without a real relationship to the art it cradles. ‘We didn’t want something imposing or extreme which could potentially make people feel somehow unworthy,’ insists Sayers, ‘but something that was simpler and more natural. We wanted to create a more comfortable, democratic environment that says we are all part of Australia.’

Contemporary art galleries are, of course, more than somewhere to hang pictures: they act almost as a living room for the city. For the National Portrait Gallery, architect Richard Johnson of Sydney firm Johnson Pilton Walker created with an elegant design on a human scale. The uncluttered design of the long, low building with its timber and stone materials sourced from around Australia evokes humbler structures like the outback shed, while keeping a crisp feel that flows gently into the surrounding landscape.

Despite misgivings about leaving their historically significant venue, Sayers and his staff are enraptured by their new home. ‘This building simply loves portraits,’ he enthuses, adding that anything they hang looks instantly better in the well-lit, neutral interiors. ‘As a gallery, it embodies the experience you get from portraiture. It’s accessible and enjoyable to everyone.’

Able to display more than 400 works in its permanent and temporary exhibition spaces, the new Gallery decisively carries on the inventive edge of the collection. Guests are welcomed by portraits, not of the Queen or Prime Minister, but motorcycle hero Casey Stoner and subversive music icon Nick Cave.

But the Gallery is not about pop-cultural cred at the expense of critical depth. Their blockbuster exhibition Truth and Likeness boldly put the central cliché of portraiture under the microscope, the idea that a realistic likeness is able to reveal the inner ‘truth’ of the person. Interrogating the idea of realism with Jiawei Shen’s symbolic attributes, Ben Quilty’s meaty abstract slabs of paint and Petrina Hicks’ coldly idealised photographs, the exhibition realised that likeness itself was fugitive and impermanent. Whatever may constitute the ‘truth’ of the image perhaps lies within the eye of the beholder.

The Gallery has always thought of photography as an equal partner with painting, sponsoring the National Photographic Portraiture Prize. It’s certainly true that contemporary photography bears out Sayers’ requisites for intimacy and connection. Struck by a comment from pro surfer Layne Beachley that “whales look you right in the eye, sharks stare straight through you,” Sydney photographer Petrina Hicks decided on a stark image that focused attention on Beachley’s eyes. The resulting portrait is arresting yet intimate- one falls into the champion athlete’s ocean-blue eyes, understanding her as a woman of warmth to match her uncommon strength.

Bringing out such inner qualities requires enormous trust between photographer and sitter.  Actor Russell Crowe says photographer Karin Catt has ‘a unique way of getting her subjects to drop their armour’. Catt’s portrait of Crowe is both open and defensive, a distillation of the bluff and blokey actor’s public image and private personality.

Described as Australia’s most accomplished photographer, Catt’s exhibition Famous was the first by a female photographer to be staged at the National Portrait Gallery, before touring to art galleries and libraries around the nation. Each portrait of her diverse menagerie, from Bill Clinton to Magda Szubanksi, is an eloquent and vivid comment on what we perceive as real in an age of unrestrained celebrity.

Such cutting edge photography rests democratically beside traditional media, and painting still holds a central place in the Gallery. The pride of the collection is undoubtedly a portrait of Captain James Cook by John Webber, R.A, which forms an interesting companion to Robert Hannaford’s incisive portrait of Lowitja O’Donoghue, a work that conveys the Indigenous activist’s indomitable dignity, experience, considerable tenacity and great sadness.

Like other contemporary art forms, portraiture is embracing video and new media technologies.  Video artist David Rosetzky’s innovative multimedia portrait of Cate Blanchett excited critical interest for bringing portraiture to the forefront of media art. Instead of a ‘still’ video painting, the 10-minute digital video portrait depicts the award-winning actor speaking lines that recall her celebrated film roles, while moving to choreography devised by Lucy Guerin, Rosetzky’s characteristic spare elegance marrying seamlessly with Blanchett’s undeniably graceful presence.

Sayers is greatly taken with the work. ‘It’s the perfect way to represent someone whose life is about bringing together words and movement on film,’ he beams. ‘It’s a real step forward for video portraiture, it makes full and conscious use of the medium instead of trying to imitate the painted picture.’

Sayers eagerly anticipates even more sophisticated interactivity coming into play in portraiture. ‘Interactive portraiture has the potential to carry the individual’s presence even more vividly, and add deeper complexities that show all the many things it is. Audiences will be able to get an even clearer sense of who these people are, and what’s made them such a vital part of our nation’s character’.

Published Driven, 2010