Gallery Visit – Australian portraits 1880-1960

Exhibition Research Point:

This National Gallery of Australia Exhibition is travelling around the country and is currently at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre.

It is described on the UQ Art Museum site as follows:
This exhibition takes a fresh look at portraits from the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, from the 1880s late colonial period to the mid 1960s and the move into abstraction. It features 54 portraits by 34 leading Australian painters, including Tom Roberts, E Phillips Fox, Hugh Ramsay, George W Lambert, Max Meldrum, Rupert Bunny, Violet Teague, Margaret Preston, Stella Bowen, Napier Waller, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Roy de Maistre, Russell Drysdale and John Brack.

Australian portraits 1880–1960 considers the international influences upon Australian portrait painting and the more distinctive turns that Australian portraiture has taken in its own right. Australian artists have often challenged the possibilities of portraiture, rejected the predictable and pushed boundaries in both their choice of subject and their painterly approach.

Research questions responses –
The theme is as detailed above.
The pieces were well spaced, well lit and hung at appropriate heights.
The explanations of the paintings were given in detail alongside each.  This included name of artist, date painted, title and size of work, materials used and in most cases the inspiration and some information on the person depicted.
Overall, no, I did not find it visually stimulating and interesting and the gallery was very, very cold.  Frankly, I found it quite boring.

Further comments:  I first walked around the whole exhibition before looking at a few pieces in more detail.  Obviously the paintings themselves, as in the process of execution, were superb however I found the subjects to be lacking emotion, their faces were generally expressionless, vapid and dull.  I decided to ignore the paintings as a whole and look at individual aspects which were of more interest to me.  I examined a fur collar of a jacket on one, eyes on others and the frill of a tutu and drape of a dress on two other pieces.  A couple of works produced in the manner of cubism showed more energy but I don’t pretend to understand them.  Visually more spark than some of the others though.  Although the catalogue was extensive and was reasonably priced at $30 I was not engaged enough with these 54 paintings to buy it.

The 3 pieces I have chosen to detail are as follows:

Napier Waller paintingChristian Waller with Baldur, Undine and Siren at Fairy Hills,  by Napier Waller 1932, oil and tempura on canvas mounted on composition board. 121.5 x 205.5 cm.

This is quite a restful piece although it is hard to read what expression is on Christian’s face.  The brushwork on the dogs is beautiful.  It looks like a square ended brush has been repeatedly flicked onto the background, each row slightly overlapping the last to give the appearance of wiry hair.  On close inspection they really are lovely.  I like the simplicity of the dress and the folds are well depicted and have helped me to see more shading and shaping that I hope to learn from for the future.  The greenery has enough detail and colour variation to look dimensional but by reducing the saturation of the nearest leaves they remain well behind the subject and don’t dominate.  I don’t know what this style of painting is called, if anything, but I like the slightly flat look it has, nothing seems to be springing out from the canvas.  I find the overall feel to be relaxed, calm and comfortable.

Margaret PrestonFlapper 1925, by Margaret Preston 1928, oil on canvas.  77.3 x 58.5 cm.

The model for this painting was Margaret Preston’s maid, Myra.  It’s a very well known piece here in Australia and I’ve seen it several times and read a lot about the influences and inspirations Preston had up until the point of painting it.  I suppose that makes it more familiar to me and so harder to decide if I like it or not.

However, I have picked it to write about for one reason (and heaven help me if any real art critic should read this because I have no qualification to be picking apart other people’s work).  The detail from the collar line up is excellent, a lot of time and care has been taken to portray Myra, so why are the lines on the dress not so similarly realistically portrayed?  Even the woollen stockings have texture and show some shaping and direction.  I don’t understand why the check lines on the dress show no shaping whatsoever.  Every time I look at this piece my eyes go straight to the bottom right hand side of the picture to the horizontal line across the front.  I found it even more out of sync with the rest of the painting when standing in front of the actual work.

William DobellSketch Portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore, by William Dobell c.1956, oil on composition board.  45.2 x 27.5 cm.

Now here is one that shows a bit of personality.  Even though she has a sparkle in her eyes Dame Mary looks a little aloof, somewhat grandiose and dignified.  I can just imagine her saying something along the lines of “For goodness sake girl, sit up straight.”

A portrait was commissioned to commemorate her ninetieth birthday and this is the preparatory oil sketch.  The colour scheme is muted as Dobell was concentrating on what he saw as essential to a portrait – the depiction of character.  This work is a predecessor for the portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore that can be found on the Australian $10 note and won Dobell the 1943 Archibald.

I love the reduced colour palette, the quick expressive strokes and the way he has captured her essence by being bold in what he has produced.



About Claire B

I'm a passionate printmaker, paper-maker and a poor sketcher (which I'm working to improve). I've stitched from early childhood and am a perpetual student, loving learning and participating in everything creative.
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