“A portrait,” observed the British writer Charles Morgan in his 1929 novel Portrait in a Mirror, “should be the image of one spirit received in the mirror of another.” In one of the more than a hundred artworks that comprise the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s national touring exhibition Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize, Morgan’s words ring a self-portrait by Peter Tyndall, painted while the Victorian artist gazed into a circular mirror. One eye closed, the other regarding the artist’s own reflection – and by extension us – Tyndall’s portrait invites consideration of questions pertinent to the exhibition as a whole, chief among them: what is the nature of the gaze in portraiture’s complex, tripartite exchange between painter, subject and viewer?
The Archibald occupies an outsized position in Australian culture. Established by the journalist and publisher J. F. Archibald in 1921 for “the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics, painted by an artist resident in Australia”, the prize is one of the few occasions each year that the arts make it into the national conversation. No doubt, at a time when the cult of celebrity – a phrase that actually serves as one of 11 themes under which the portraits are grouped here – is more pervasive than ever, much of our fascination with the Archibald lies in its depictions of the recognised and recognisable.
One of the more interesting aspects of Archie 100, presented by the Art Gallery of South Australia in a dual exhibition with Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits, is its historical sweep, how a retrospective of this kind can add up to more than the sum of its parts by threading discrete moments in time into something like a narrative of social, political and aesthetic change. In one gallery for instance, themed “In Polite Conversation”, Bryan Westwood’s photorealist portrait of Paul Keating in a signature Italian suit rubs shoulders with The Honourable John Howard, MP (1979), the future prime minister portrayed by his then-neighbour Josonia Palaitis as a suburban rube in shorts, loud shirt and sandals (“relaxed and comfortable”). Here, as throughout the exhibition, I found myself less interested in portraiture’s sometimes deadening mimesis than in ruminating on what AGSA director Rhana Devenport called in her opening address the “entwinement of trust” between sitter and artist.
While it doesn’t acknowledge J. F. Archibald’s xenophobia and support of the White Australia Policy, Archie 100 admirably draws attention to the prize’s Indigenous artists – among them Vincent Namatjira, the first Aboriginal artist to receive the honour – and the historically limited role of women within it. Only one-third of Archibald entrants have been women, and of these only 10 have ever won the prize, which today is worth $100,000. Throughout the exhibition, and in particular the gallery themed “Recasting the Gaze”, the contributions of women to the Archibald are given a corrective gloss, highlighting for example the work of Nora Heysen, the first woman to win the prize and also Australia’s first female official war artist.
Robert Wilson’s Moving Portraits is, albeit in a markedly different way, a similarly star-studded affair. In a series of high-definition, large-scale “video portraits” created by the renowned American theatre director and visual artist, celebrities such as Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and the burlesque star Dita Von Teese appear in intricately staged, often classically inspired tableaux. The images are not photographs but looping videos in which the kinesis of film and theatre is reduced to almost imperceptible movement – the rising and falling of a chest, the subtle wobble of a body holding a difficult pose for what must have felt like an interminable length of time. They reminded me less of what Susan Sontag called photography’s capacity to slice out a moment and freeze it than Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous description of filmmaking as “sculpting in time”.
In two portraits, Mademoiselle Caroline (2013) and Death of Marat (2013), the actor and pop star Lady Gaga appears as the subject of paintings by the French neoclassical artists Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David, respectively. A kind of visual equivalent of lip-syncing, there’s something winningly camp about the meeting of the highbrow and lowbrow inherent in portraits such as these, in their irreverently pushed-up style and meticulous construction.
Cannily presented close by a work from AGSA’s own collection – Christian Waller’s triptych of leadlight windows, Prophet Isaiah, Apostle St Peter, Sundar Singh (1936) – Robert Downey Jr, Actor (2004) casts the actor as the central figure in a homage to Rembrandt’s The anatomy lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). Bathed in the sickly green glow of a primitive operating theatre, Downey Jr’s left arm – a prosthetic – is operated on by a black-clad physician, the arm’s muscles gruesomely exposed. Tom Waits growls from a nearby speaker, extending the portrait’s Jacobean atmosphere into the realm of the aural. Although I could barely make them out amid the hubbub of the gallery, each of the portraits is accompanied by an individual soundtrack, sometimes incorporating spoken text, and frequently by the late American composer and violinist Michael Galasso.
Other portraits are more playful. In the hyperreal Isabella Rossellini, Actor (2005), Rossellini appears in the guise of Japanese manga character Sailor Moon, sporting a lurid yellow wig, bright-red tights and white make-up. Splayed across a designer stool, the background divided into garish blue and green, Rossellini is not motionless but rather seems to glitch forwards in time in small, frenzied increments, limbs unnaturally jerking like something out of a horror film.
Elsewhere, Wilson’s love of theatre surfaces in his portrait of Winona Ryder as an uncharacteristically youthful Winnie from Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (1961), buried up to her neck in a mound of earth. Having spilled out of her handbag, a revolver is picked out by a spotlight and glows almost invitingly, in a reference to another theatre mainstay, the dramatic principle known as Chekhov’s gun. I was fascinated by the interpretive space opened up by such gestures towards narrative and a kind of oblique dramaturgy.
More compelling than Wilson’s human subjects is the series of animal portraits, anthologised under the theme of “Sacred Covenant”. The animals depicted include snowy owls, a porcupine, a black panther and, perhaps most strikingly of all, an elk. In the latter portrait, apparently inspired by Wilson’s traumatic childhood experience of having to hunt deer in Texas with his father, the animal emerges from a cloud of mist, its antlers fanning out to occupy most of the screen like uncannily elongated human hands. There is something deeply exposing about these animal portraits, the way their gaze unsettles notions of subjectivity and of what constitutes a sentient mind. “The animal looks at us,” as Derrida put it, “and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins here.”
Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits and Archie 100 are showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia until October 3.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "Mirrors of the spirit".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription