Portraits of power
Australian Book Review, May 2009.

ABR editor, Peter Rose, commissioned this essay, asking for between 2,000 and 2,500 words. For reasons of space, he cut it back to 2,000. Those edits removed the penultimate paragraph on philanthropy. I accepted the other cuts but requested the restoration of this paragraph and proposed an alternative cut. Rose was not happy with this suggestion but I believed that he would restore the section. Instead, he persisted in what I see as censorship. Had I known of his intention, I would have withdrawn the article. I had thought of returning the cheque to show that not everyone can be bought. I realised that this would be to reward the offender. Instead, I donated the dollars to the strike fund of the Westgate workers.

When the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) opened in Canberra last December more thoughtfulness was evident in its bookshop than the hang. The volumes are arranged by subject and in alphabetical order: the images accord to no principle beyond decor. Here are five writers; there, four scientists. The randomness of the whole embodies a culture of distraction. The root of this muddle is an evasion of whether the Gallery is to be guided by aesthetics or museology. The want of clarity is compounded by concern among staff not to be identified with a history museum, thereby marring their prospects of finding positions at fine art institutions.

Beyond these peculiarities, the objection to a Portrait Gallery for Australia is immanent in its reason for being. The enterprise began in 1992 as a traveling exhibition of ‘Uncommon Australians’ which I dissected in the September 1992 issue of 24 Hours under the headline ‘An Exhibition of Uncommon Snobbery’. My summation was that the undertaking combined ‘bad history and inadequate psychology with inferior art’. Nothing has improved. The initial selection was allowed into State Galleries because their Directors sought to keep sweet with its sponsors Gordon and Marilyn Darling, since his Foundation funded other art projects.

In 1994, the Darlings’ scheme came to rest in the rear of old Parliament House, with a permanent collection, and special exhibitions of varying merit, historically and artistically. With Janette Howard as Chief Patron of the Portrait Gallery, the Howard government in 2004 authorised construction as a monument to the kind of art you prefer when you don’t much care for art, and to a version of the past which will not challenge what you remember from school. From its inception, the Gallery has been implicated in what became known as the history wars. The Darlings adopted the promoting of ‘notable’ Australians in the wash-up from the 1988 Bi-Centennial celebrations when Gordon Darling was not the only mining company director to feel that his ilk were no longer receiving the respect they deserved.

The NPG has ended up with neither the narrative beloved by Howard nor a cultural studies treatment traduced by his lackeys. For example, early nineteenth-century explorers and settlers have a room of their own for which viewers are provided with no sense of how those figures related to each other, let alone to the patterns of invasion. As a minimum, the room needs a time-line of governors for a citizenry uncertain of whose landing, and where, are commemorated on Australia Day.

The architecture bears no mark of Australianness unless concret brut is to become our national style. If so, the newcomer keeps company with the High Court and National Gallery but scorns the faux Classicism of the marbled National Library and the plastic toilet block which houses the Science and Technology Centre. The NPG’s warehouse design and barren approaches are as antithetical to their environs of lake, lawns and rose-gardens as they are forbidding to visitors. This hostility will disappear behind trees, as has most of the great Canberra ugliness. Because visitors need not pass the information desk before entering the main display areas they are less than likely to pick up the floor plan they will need to navigate that maze.

On entering, viewers encounter an assortment of twenty ‘Unsung Heroes’ and ten Australians in the ‘forefront of contemporary life’, as judged by the public. A partiality is concealed in the selection because the voting took place through the ABC. How likely is it that Bill Deane would have made the top ten if the poll had been conducted over 2GB Talkback?

An invitation to vote cannot disguise the undemocratic bent of the institution’s choices. The class slant of ‘notable’ has resurfaced with portraits of tax-cheats such as the cattle king Sidney Kidman, and fascists such as Francis de Groot. No trade union leader is shown unless he became prime minister, as for Hughes, Curtin and Chifley. By abolishing organised labour, the NPG delivers the triumph that John Howard did not get with WorkChoices.

Indeed, the images go even further by eliminating work, an erasure which is standard operating procedure for bourgeois culture predicated on consumption. In the special show for the launch, ‘Open Air, Portraits in the landscape’, almost the only people working are artists, and all but one of them are Aborigines, unless we accept Jeffrey Smart’s ‘David Malouf’ as a bowser attendant as more than a conceit. In the main display, scientists are to be seen at their laboratory benches and cricketers at the crease, but there is nothing like Dobell’s anonymous cement worker of whose kind Mary Gilmore wrote: ‘I split the rock, /I felled the tree. /The nation was/Because of me’.

Far from sampling Australia’s sprawl of occupations and types, the portraits are so demographically askew that a Martian would report that nearly half the Australian population has been employed in the arts. This lopsidedness is another way for the staff to cling to fine art, as is the special exhibition ‘Open Air’ where the quality of the exhibits is superior to those elsewhere in the Gallery, but tangential to portraiture.

‘Commoners’ can be glimpsed in a card photo of John and Jemima Winter from the 1890s, which reminds us that there is no family album of Box Brownie snaps from suburbia, although those kept by the Blaxlands and the Deakins are included; a family of Mackenzies appear in silhouette, appropriately for their unknown lives. The tug of pathos contributed to the inclusion of the composite portrait of three members of a family drowned with the sinking of the Dunbar in 1857. Uncle Tom Cobbly has filled in the cracks with the three policemen killed by the Kelly gang, six convicts from Port Arthur, an Aboriginal cricket team, four members of the 2nd AIF, and two society ladies from The Home.

Crowd scenes are no guarantee of a temper democratic beyond the reach of filthy lucre. For instance, ‘Derby Day’ (1890) by the Austrian-born Carl Kahler, shows Melbourne parvenu, some of whom bribed the artist to place them close to the gubernatorial party. Kahler undertook such jobs in the expectation that those depicted would purchase photo-engravings from his paintings. No mention of this racket appears on the wall notice.

One defence of portraiture is the artist’s ability to reveal character. Disproof of this claim is in the hectares of horrors at the War Memorial which commissions oils of every serviceperson above a certain rank, and every VC winner. Portraits can be distinctive as art and perceptive in character studies, as in ‘Manning Clark’ by Arthur Boyd - but they had been life-long friends. In the ninety-nine other cases out a hundred, the painter has neither the technical knack nor the sensibilities to come within coo-ee of psychological depth. These incapacities are blatant in the bulk of the self-portraits at the NPG. Hence, Robert Hannaford’s 1977 ‘Dame Joan Sutherland’ surprises with its mood of resignation verging on sadness from her career as a Trilby, evoking her lament about Ricky Bonynge: ‘If I don’t do what he wants, he’ll leave me. And I love him’.

As often as not, the want of quality in portraits is an accurate response to subjects who are so one-dimensional as to defy caricature. Jiawei Shen’s ‘Princess Mary of Denmark’ is as flat and as empty as her claims to fame. Had she not been out clubbing during the Sydney Olympics she would not be on magazine covers, still less snap-frozen in oil. Perhaps Shen is mocking her lack of distinction by including the Opera House by the Danish Architect Jorn Utzon and by adorning her with the Order of the Elephant.

The double portrait of the Howards by Josonia Palaitis has been tut-tutted for breaking with tradition by including the spouse in the official portrait of a prime minister. Here too, visual falsity has secured the painting’s purchase on truth and as an archival document. Through the strain of trying to appear as ordinary as they are, Janette is relaxed and comfortable while John seems absent, as if his grinning head had been sewn on by Dr Frankenstein. His clutching her shoulder does not speak of conjugal bliss. The background looks like a cloth in a photographers’ studio, not the Kirribilli House harbourscape to which it alludes.

Opening an institution calls for statements of intent, announcing how you mean to go on. The NPG gives no hint of getting beyond shuffling its collection. Being given a package of 500 stamps of the world does not make a child a philatelist. I shall now suggest concepts for four special exhibitions. That all of these suggestions need not have been presented at the one time is no excuse for the curators’ failing to think up at least one statement of consequence for themselves.

First, the NPG might have focused on the best-known element of face-making in Australia - the Archibald - and the reactions to it in the Bald Archies, a Salon des Refuses, the Doug Moran Prize to counter Modernism, and the Portia Geach Prize for women portrait-painters to redress the predominance of males as Archibald winners. The NPG could have illuminated this circus through sampling one winner per decade to track the fashion in taste, spotlighting the social prejudice built into portraiture by the shock of giving the 1934 Prize to a painter who had portrayed himself as a relief worker. Alternatively, the opening might have showcased one of the regular Archibald prize-takers by bringing together the seven winning portraits of W B McInnes between 1921 and 1936, or the eight by William Dargie from 1934 to 1956.

Secondly, the opening of a portrait gallery is an occasion to survey the traditions of the genre through changes in media from oils and miniatures to snapshots and now Face Book. Access to images spread with developments in printing techniques from woodblocks through photolithography to the colour covers on Who Weekly glimpsed at supermarket checkouts. Those mass magazines spurred on paparazzi so that full-frontal nudes, or digitalised makeovers, of screen and sports ‘stars’, are downloadable for free. Just as marketers transferred ‘glamour’ from Hollywood to packaged suet, so ‘star’ is now bestowed on performers better designated as satellite debris. Attention to how faces have come to occupy so prominent a place in our consciousness would alert visitors to the NPG to the prejudices lurking in oil paint and gilded frames.

Thirdly, enough family portraits are available to track the lineages of, say, the Fairfaxes or the Wentworths, using those clusters to explore Francis Galton’s notion of inherited genius, or Cesare Lombroso’s claims about congenital criminality. That inquiry would reconnect portraiture to phrenology and to the trade in skulls of primates and Aborigines used to demonstrate evolutionary progress, as at the Australian Institute of Anatomy. The Darwin commemorations are an added reason to include pages from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

Fourthly, the NPG could have set aside one of its bays for an interrogation of the career of a prominent figure, Mary Gilmore or WM Hughes, by bringing together artifacts and images across the decades, including film clips and sound bites. No attempt has been made to integrate media and materials as at the exposition of geographer Griffith Taylor in the entrance walk to the National Library, where his publications and equipment, voice and visage, offer a composite account.

Instead, the Dobell portrait of RG Menzies for a cover of Time in 1960 is stuck up without reference to the contretemps it provoked, and with none of the related visuals, not even a Time cover. Wrenched from its circumstances, the meaning of this portrait is distorted.

The NPG has not been able to conceal its poverty of ideas by borrowing images that few of us would otherwise ever see. For example, the juxtaposing of two by Tom Roberts reveal how he succeeded at positioning heads and shoulders against striking red backgrounds with the Edward Ogilvie but failed in Alexander Onslow. A suite of Roberts’s portraits is offered but not written up as a group, nor are we reminded of his distaste for face-making or his pursuit of commissions to earn a quid: ‘I’ve painted kids in every pose,/ A’kissing their mammie or smelling a rose’, he used to sing, ‘Commissions came in by the score,/ But I resolved to paint no more./ Kiss-Manny school was much too low./ So in for ‘Higher Art’ I’d go’.

Need those of us who believe that the building should never have been funded admit defeat? Lindsay Tanner’s razor-gang on the last budget found it more expensive to suspend construction than to finish. Future rounds of cuts will raise questions of how to make a financially responsible use of the space. The first step will be to return the portraits to Old Parliament. The new building should then become an annex of the National Library so that the vastness of its visual holdings can be available to the public while sparing its managers the embarrassment of not being able to raise the money for their proposed Treasures Gallery.

Who is footing the bill for arts patronage generally will not be clear until the donors’ tax returns are as publicised as their benefactions. The funds for the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute came from a mining-share scam managed by Lord Casey’s father. Ian Potter set up his Foundation in the middle of his stock-price manipulation of Cox Bros, from the consequences of which malfeasance he was protected by his links to the Liberal Party and the Herald and Weekly Times. Dick Pratt gave away some of the millions that he had obtained through price-fixing which increased the cost of every packaged consumer item, making all Australians unconscious philanthropists. The co-founder of construction business, Transfield, and arts patron, the late Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, admitted that to make millions, ‘[s]ometimes you need to bribe, to be tough, even to be inhuman … We camouflage this with a veneer of civilisation’.

Charging that a portrait gallery of ‘notables’ must be un-Australian is not to deny that snobs and sycophants have been as commonplace among us as those who, like Alfred Deakin and CEW Bean, spurned Imperial baubles. ‘Un-Australian’ is a value judgement, not an average. The impetus for a National Portrait Gallery has been un-Australian in the sense of denying Henry Lawson’s ‘They call no biped lord or “sir”’ and depreciating the reluctance among the AIF to salute. Yet the farrago at the NPG is now typical of that strand of Australians who are in the death agonies of groveling towards the rich and powerful, here and abroad.