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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Hired guns, bounty hunters and horse whisperers

by Jude Rae, 24 March 2016

Ms Anna Burke MP, Speaker of the House of Representatives 2015 by Jude Rae
Ms Anna Burke MP, Speaker of the House of Representatives 2015 by Jude Rae

We spend our lives reading faces – those of strangers, intimates and everything in between. The pleasure we take in the painted portrait is (as it is with all painting) that of re-tracing our perceptions, but portraiture offers something else. Call it what you will: an inbuilt voyeurism, an opportunity to scrutinise; whatever it is, portraits do not function in quite the same way as other kinds of paintings. The drama of likeness, characterisation and narrative tends to override the formal elements that normally structure a work. In some ways, portraiture has more in common with theatre (at the extreme, caricature meets vaudeville). Perhaps this is the reason for its endurance, long after its purely documentary function has been lost to photography. The popularity of the Archibald Prize, which never fails to draw huge crowds, also hints at an inherent democracy in the portrait. Everyone can read a face; everyone can have an opinion. Social status, notoriety, the glitterati – portraits are the original pin-ups, the genre tailor-made for celebrity culture.

A commissioned portrait is one where an artist is contracted to paint (or, less frequently, sculpt) the likeness of an individual or group, usually for the purposes of commemoration. This can be a private affair, such as a family commission, but more often it is an institution or corporate body that does the contracting. The practice is steeped in history from its beginnings in the courts of Europe, and is thus strongly associated with the mechanisms of social status, power and wealth. In commissioning a work, the client usually requires certain conditions which necessarily limit the artist. This tends to contribute to the idea that the commissioned portrait is creatively constrained and that the portraitist is, at best, a kind of spin doctor hired to present a laundered or enhanced version of the subject, or a mercenary enlisted to enforce the social status of both subject and commissioning body for generations to come. At worst, portrait commissions might be considered the realm of the hack and the social climber. From a popular point of view, the very thought of constraints runs counter to notions of creativity and artistic insight, but this is a relatively recent idea. Limits can present extraordinarily exciting creative challenges – ask any architect.

Acute characterisations are also assumed to be the result of intimacy, rather than a commercial exchange between an artist and a previously unknown subject. The commissioned portrait tends to register as diminished in comparison to its more familiar counterparts, which are presumed to robustly reflect the ‘honesty’ of close personal relationships. The fact is, however, that many of the most acutely observed portraits in the great collections are the result of commercial transactions, and depict individuals who were not intimate with the artist. This is the paradox: even the most intimate portrait requires at least as much dispassionate analysis as impassioned participation. In the same spirit as novelists who, often much to the dismay of intimates, mine personal relationships for their work, many of the great painters have cast a ‘cool eye’ over their subjects – intimate and otherwise. Intimacy might even confuse or compromise an artist’s work, as was the case with Francis Bacon, who preferred painting portraits of his friends from photographs, claiming that it protected them from the violence of his project.

So while the practice of painting portraits on commission continues, and indeed sustains many individual artists, attitudes such as these seem relatively unexamined in either popular or even critical commentary. I suppose the field of contemporary art practice is so broad now that portraiture, and more particularly portrait commissions, occupy only a very small, albeit stubbornly enduring corner. Although portraits comprise only a fraction of my studio preoccupations, a portrait commission can both augment my living and present an enduring challenge. My first commission was in the mid 1980s when Robyn Brady, then director of Painters Gallery, was approached by the family of Justice John Lockhart. I had a studio in Ultimo, and Justice Lockhart would walk from the High Court buildings across the Pyrmont Bridge to sit for me during his lunch hour. He was a very good-natured man, which was just as well, as I was nervous. I can’t remember how many sittings we had, but looking back it all seems so leisurely. John certainly had no mobile phone pinging emails! Nevertheless, I did take photographs that, in the end, I felt I had relied on too much. It took years to understand what photography had to offer a portrait painter.

It was more than a decade before I undertook another commission, although I remained interested in painting people, not least because the challenge seemed so practically and philosophically absurd. Nevertheless, I asked friends and colleagues to sit for me, often using a combination of sittings and photographs, partly because I felt it too much of an imposition to ask for more than a couple of sessions. In one project, I explored interiority and voyeurism by asking them to sit for me with their eyes closed; in another I was interested in the light that structures Vermeer’s interiors. One of the latter series, a portrait of fellow artist Micky Allan, won the Portia Geach in 2005. I think this prompted the late Andrew Sayers, then the director of the National Portrait Gallery, to suggest I paint Professor Frank Fenner. Andrew said he thought Frank and I would be a good match, and he must have been right because Frank and I had already got to chatting at the front door of Old Parliament House before we were introduced. 

Often part of the job of the portraitist is to be ‘horse whisperer’ to a subject who, quite reasonably, is discomfited due to the scrutiny involved in sittings. As a very lively ninety-three year old, however, Frank had already been painted five times, so he was an old hand at sitting for portraits. Nevertheless, he would tend to drop off to sleep with remarkable rapidity unless I engaged him in conversation. Drowsiness is something that affects all sitters, so conversation is essential – not just to ward of sleep but to retain a sense of animation and establish a rapport with the subject, especially in the case of commissions where we are relatively unacquainted. While I very much understand why painters require subjects to remain quiet and still, I have found over time that grappling with the distractions of conversation produces better results in the long run. How this divided attention works is still a mystery to me, and although I have become more accustomed to it with subsequent experience, I do not know of anything quite as exhausting. 

I usually start with a session or two making drawings and taking photographs, during which time I get a sense of the person before me and try to settle on a composition. This is critical, and is governed as much by the way the subject occupies space as it is by formal considerations. The standard boardroom portrait (three feet wide by four feet high) seems to be giving way to the larger requirements of twenty-first century individualism, but location must also be considered. For me, the process is a kind of ‘downloading’ of information – facial structure and changes in expression – in a series of what might seem to be fairly insubstantial notations. I certainly rarely achieve anything like a ‘finished’ drawing. Once the painting is underway, sittings often involve a certain amount of destruction: work undertaken using photographic sources is broken up into a useful mess, which is later partially reconstituted, and then the process is repeated. It is an incremental approach that seems to lend formal clarity and material complexity to the painting, while also reducing the flatness of too much reliance on photography.

For a commission, as with more informal portraits, I will take as much time as a subject can give me, aiming for at least six two-hour sittings, ideally taking place within a month. This is not much in comparison to the many hours commanded by the likes of Cézanne and his predecessors, but constraints also provide opportunities. All artists are opportunists, and perhaps the portraitist is also something of a ‘bounty hunter’. I’m sure Lucien Freud jumped at the chance to paint Lord Goodman in his pyjamas, breakfast being the only time the great man had available for sittings. Jenny Sages once told me, with the excitement of the hunter who worships the mighty stag she stalks, that it took seven years to persuade Helen Garner to sit for her. And you can see it; feel the thrill of the chase in the way the painting captures, in a subtle combination of gesture and expression, Garner’s sharp intelligence and critical energy – even the resistance she feels to being portrayed.

Portraits remain difficult and fascinating to me in about equal measure. Sometimes a commission will offer the opportunity to approach a portrait in broader terms. Pictorial space might be expanded to include an architectural interior or involve elements of landscape, such as the portrait of Dr Alan Finkel, which commemorates his role as Chancellor of Monash University. As a Monash alumnus he has a long association with the university, and his enthusiasm for the upgrading of the Clayton campus was a significant feature of his tenure. The challenge for me was to find a composition that acknowledged this, and integrated the figure of the chancellor. Eventually we found a view from the roof of the carpark that includes part of the extraordinary New Horizons building, along with the more distant Robert Menzies building, erected in 1963 on what was then mostly rural land. 

Often the portrait subjects themselves will present the answer to a particular problem, and the trick for the artist is to recognise the gift. Such was the case with Anna Burke, who was elected Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives in 2012. Anna was quite candid about not relishing the idea of having her portrait painted, but recognised the importance of introducing women into the ranks of the commemorated. By choosing me as her portraitist, we now have the first painting in the Parliament House Historic Memorials Collection, of a woman, by a woman. The question of what to wear is always more of a burden for women than for men, who generally opt for the ‘uniform’ of dark business suit, and then worry about the tie. When Anna donned a remarkable outfit by Tiffany Treloar, I wondered not only how it would look amongst the ranks of grey suits, but also how I was going to paint it! It didn’t take long to see this was the gift. It lends just the right combination of structure and colour to give the painting an edge I could never have come up with myself. It hasn’t yet been hung (at time of writing), but if I’m not mistaken it might just steal the show.

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