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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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About grace

by Penelope Grist, 20 January 2020

Portrait of Susan Wakil AO
Portrait of Susan Wakil AO, 2019 Jiawei Shen. © Jiawei Shen

When writing about an exceptional woman these days, it is not the done thing to begin with what she is wearing. But we must eschew this convention for the National Portrait Gallery’s recently acquired portrait of Susan Wakil AO by Jiawei Shen.

The painting’s elegant subject bears a warm half-smile, which illuminates her evening ensemble from French designer Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Opéras – Ballets Russes’ autumn/winter 1976-77 collection. The artist has captured the sheen and fall of Wakil’s green moiré silk skirt, and the blue, pink, and purple detail in her silk chiffon blouse. Sergei Diaghilev’s extraordinarily influential avant-garde company, the Ballets Russes, was based in Paris and toured Europe and America between 1909 and 1929. The New York Times suggested that Saint Laurent’s ‘revolutionary collection’ would ‘change the course of fashion in the world’.

An outfit with such an influential place in fashion history sits comfortably with the story of its wearer – replete with such elements as a flight from world conflict and transformative contributions to the arts, health and education in this country. Poised and graceful, with slightly tilted head and hand in pocket emphasising her relaxed bearing, Wakil inhabits her haute couture garments, resplendent under Shen’s smooth brushwork.

Born in Bessarabia in 1933, Wakil fled as a teenager with her aunt to Australia from war-torn Eastern Europe. Now lying within Moldova and Ukraine, Bessarabia was then disputed territory, with the Soviet Union and Romania laying claim to it. Wakil’s mother did not survive the conflict. Her father had been imprisoned in a Siberian gulag, but joined his daughter in Australia upon his release. Susan met and married Isaac Wakil in Sydney in the 1950s; Isaac was born in Baghdad, arriving in Australia from Iraq after the ‘Farhud’ – a violent dispossession of the Jewish population in 1941. Together, the Wakils became successful entrepreneurs in the clothing business.

The Wakils were generous philanthropists throughout their careers, providing significant financial support to Opera Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the Sydney Jewish Museum. The 1970s and 1980s saw the Wakils purchase numerous properties across inner city Sydney. From 2014, they poured the proceeds from sales of these – now highly valuable – Sydney properties into their eponymous foundation, and through this vehicle took their benefaction to a remarkable level.

The foundation gave a record $35 million to the University of Sydney for construction of the Susan Wakil Health Building, and provided for twelve annual scholarships at the Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery. The Art Gallery of New South Wales received the Wakils’ record $20 million donation in support of the new Sydney Modern wing, to be completed in 2022. In 2015, the foundation endowed the Anna and Mark Reznik Centre of Learning at the Sydney Jewish Museum, in Susan’s parents’ memory. They funded major public education scholarships and an initiative to bring new audiences to the opera. The National Portrait Gallery was a grateful recipient of their support in 2019, with the Susan and Isaac Wakil Foundation contributing generously to the staging of the exhibition Women in Vogue.

At their Vaucluse home in 2017, the Wakils were honoured with a private investiture to mark their appointment as Officers of the Order of Australia, a result of their extraordinary philanthropy. At the ceremony, Robin Amadio of The Wentworth Courier noticed the cards that Yves St Laurent hand painted and would send to his friends at New Year’s. While Susan and Isaac Wakil had kept to themselves in more recent years, the couple were regulars in the Sydney social pages of the 1970s, Susan sporting French couture purchased on regular trips to Paris, where the Wakils became friends with St Laurent.

The portrait of Susan Wakil is unusual in the Gallery’s collection in not being painted from life. Isaac Wakil asked Jiawei Shen to paint it from a photograph to commemorate Susan, his ‘devoted wife, a partner, a friend, his pillar and his icon for 62 years’, as the notice of her passing ran in The Sydney Morning Herald in May 2018. Painted from a moment in the midst of her life – a pinnacle of style on the way to the gallery or opera – the work is a poignant image in perpetuity of this graceful, generous and deeply loved woman.

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Susan Wakil AO

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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