Langford 120, North Melbourne, Australia
23 March–21 April 2013
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
Following the Second World War and the loss of any faith in humanity in the late 1940s the human image in art became increasingly difficult to portray. The existential despair expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea (1938), found a visual counterpart in the images of despair and alienation of Francis Bacon, the expressionism of Oskar Kokoschka, later the remarkable post-Vietnam human images of American born RB Kitaj, the apocalyptic visions of Arthur Boyd and the anguished figures of the Scottish artist John Bellany. Yet ironically providing a medium of escape, abstraction in the visual arts dominated because, after the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, artists mostly found images of humanity impossible to create.
It is timely that as Portraiture in Focus, at Langford 120 in Melbourne, was planned as the first major exhibition of the work of Francis Bacon was being shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales,1 curated by Anthony Bond. Earlier Bond also instigated Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary (2006), in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, London. This brought painted self-portraits by some of the world's greatest artists from the mid-16th century to the beginning of the 21st century. Included were seven from the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, the greatest collection of 1,600 self-portraits in the world, started by Leopoldo de Medici in 1664.
Curator Tony Bond, is one of a significant number of British artists and curators to have migrated to Australia mostly since the 1970s, who have brought with them an appreciation and awareness of the work of the London School of Artists (Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, and London-based RB Kitaj), even though British artists in Australia from the 1970s have themselves developed a wide range of art practices. Their own training in drawing from life has contributed high standards to art education and practice in Australia, sustaining the Archibald Prize and more recently the Dobell Prize for Drawing. They include: as curator, the late Nick Waterlow; sculptors Hilarie Mais and Anne Graham, John Wolseley, John Beard, Andrew Antoniou, Peter Booth, Michael Esson, David Fairbairn, Graham Fransella, Nicholas Harding, and Anita Taylor. Bond described Francis Bacon: Five Decades, for Studio International, in the manner, not of a typical scholar (he trained at the Ruskin School of Drawing, University of Oxford), but as a fellow artist, positing the view that the unusual materiality of Bacon’s paintings can be seen as the most exciting aspect in any reconsideration of his work.
In spite of the raw emotion expressed in Francis Bacon’s images, there is an unexpected affirmation in the choice of formal language and the precision and care applied to the act of painting: the placement of each head, each brush stroke, every subtle hue, the manner in which the figure inhabits the space, and the form within the picture plane are all evident. A quiet authority is established by the artist amid the pain, due in large part to the dialogue he has with art from the past. His ambition as a painter was to define his existential, atheistic stance in a post-photography world. The human form and portraiture in the work of Australia’s Arthur Boyd,2 like that of Bacon, sustains a link to artists of the past, prompting Felicity St John Moore to dub Boyd a postmodernist (Studio International, 1986) yet in the context of the career of Scottish artist, John Bellany whose shares the same debt to the Northern Renaissance as Boyd (ie. Bosch and Breughel), the preoccupation with postmodern theory has compromised the appraisal to some degree of any artist working in an expressionistic mode in the 21st century (inspired by German Expressionism of the early 20th century), such as Boyd then and Bellany now.
Yet before his tragic and untimely death in 1990, Peter Fuller, an early protagonist of postmodernism, considered that Bellany was “emerging as unquestionably the most outstanding British painter of his generation”.3 More than being purely naturalistic portraits, most of Bellany’s portraits are imbued with aspects of a symbolist language, a continuous theatrical masquerade of human experience and folly.4 Recognisable individuals – the self, family members, friends and local individuals – are put together with curious characters from the imagination, where masks and animal features are seamlessly included in an overall comment on the world today, on an inherited body of ideas. Andrew Antoniou was a student of John Bellany at Winchester School of Art, where with Hilarie Mais he also received a strong grounding in life drawing; both have brought to Australia rigorous standards of art practice.
In spite of the remarkable careers of Bacon, Freud, Auerbach, Kitaj, Bellany and Boyd, all of whom lived for 30 or more years in England, the human form was out of fashion in the art world under the influence of abstract expressionism, minimalism, and non-object art. In the past 10 years, a number of key exhibitions on portraiture have been organised, accompanied by scholarly catalogues. Monographs on artists for whom, the human form remained central provide perhaps the best source for detailed accounts of the artist’s approach to portraiture and the exploration of self.5 William Feaver, author of the superb new publication by Blain Southern Gallery, Lucian Freud Drawings, sat for Frank Auerbach on a weekly basis for some 10 years (two of his regular sitters have done so weekly since the 1970s). Few writers are capable of describing Auerbach’s unique working method, or chronicle the creative act of portraiture as he:
Drawing is the concern. Drawing voluminously rather than in outline, the painter jabs the brush into a colour, pushes it around in the big dollop of white (hence the light tones that predominate in recent work), and lays it on, blotting off or scraping back when the going gets claggy or slick. Drawing is the means of working towards a resilient whoever or whatever until it rings true. Over and above and beyond that lies the unenvisaged, attainable only through high-handed application. Zest is not enough. There has to be that fissile mix of the unprecedented and the characteristic. A forehead or a flight of steps, a car headlight or a face sunk in sleep: the images have to be dunked within the whole.
At the end of each session the work comes off the easel and is placed on the floor, displayed casually, like a fresh kill. This is not the moment for critical analysis. There it lies, winded if not slain, close below the easel that holds the larger, current, landscape in progress. What one hopes for, over the weeks and months and years, is that from the familiarity of the pretext – person or place – something marvelously new has been released.6
The death of the portrait in the 20th century is well documented in the scholarly essay by Joanna Woodall in Portraiture: Facing the subject, though she concedes that naturalistic portraiture has never entirely disappeared from the ‘progressive’ arena, citing Joan Miró, Elizabeth Frink and Lucian Freud.7
The feminist movement in the 1970s, challenged received truths, which coincided with and gave impetus to the emergence of Postmodernism. The intervening 30 years has seen the transformation of culture on a particular and also a global basis. In an Australian context this has had a major impact on previous concepts of isolation. It has played a major role in the integration of Australian culture within an international art world. Dialogue through the visual arts played a key role in addressing issues of national and international significance at this crucial moment in Australia’s history.
The very act of mark-making is one of ritual recreation and renewal; life - giving myths emerge in present-day culture with great dynamism and conceptual complexity. Aboriginal art has infused contemporary Australian art with a unique energy and drama.7 Within a global culture, replete with dispossessed individuals as a consequence of war, poverty or forced migration, Aboriginal artist Gordon Bennett’s8 poignant images of man possess a rare universality. Although they might not be portraits in a conventional sense, they lead the viewer into the mind and soul of another, whose insight is an instrument for change.
The influence of Asian culture in Australia over the past 20 years has enhanced existing ideas of the individual, and of spirituality. The work of Dadang Christanto, for whom the head represents the soul, created many works to serve as a memorial to the tens of thousands who were brutally murdered in Suharto’s regime.9 Combined with performative works, his hundreds of images of the head form a unique contribution to art in Australia, and in expanding a conventional definition of the portrait. Christanto is in fact creating a “portrait form” of unknown individuals, not to capture particular likeness but to capture the essential humanity of these individuals in order to denounce the fact that world politicians ignored the abuse of human rights on an appalling scale. Christanto’s work has been embraced in Australia for its poignant tenacity.
With a revival of figurative art in the 1980s came a renewed interest in drawing,10 an art form that exists irrespective of cultural identity. The artists in Portraiture in Focus (2013): Irene Barberis, Anita Taylor and Helen Sturgess have achieved a significant profile in their careers, and have chosen drawing as one of their primary activitities, for here, the conceptual and the subjective, arguably the most vital components of contemporary art practice – connect in drawing more forcibly and more appropriately than in any other form of art.
Dedicated to extending the status and recognition of drawing as pivotal in the visual arts, Irene Barberis’ wide-ranging work includes in a most intimate sense, the painted and drawn portrait. Based in expressionistic perceptual drawing, her practice extends to performative spatial drawing, the use of unorthodox materials, (such as silicon, flexible lights and inflatable, fluorescent plastic breath works), the sewn line, and large-scale installation. Using the human figure as a starting point in many aspects of her work, works, Barberis’s self-portraits are more candid. Following the death of her husband, Adrian Page, in July 2010: Barberis made numerous self-portraits: each mark is unequivocal in its expression of loss. The self portrait in this case constrains the open investigative qualities of the hand drawn and painted works, hinting towards a disjuncture; a fleeting glance intricately dissected then cut into darkened and alternatively radiating forms, conversely understood by her to represent the gender imbalances in art history.
Anita Taylor moved to Australia to take up the position of Director of the National Art School in 2005, from London, where she was Professor of Fine Art and Director of The Research Centre of Drawing at the University of the Arts, London. Taylor’s art practice is based in painting and drawing and “embraces expansive ideas of identity, construct, content and context, with reference to historical precedent through narrative, iconography and interpretation.”
She explains: “I explored myself and my perception of self, and my perception of the difference between [the two.] Alongside, I make a lot of things that then contextualise the idea of female identities, in terms of historical and allegorical, symbolical, narrative and iconographic sequences”.11 Taylor amplifies the scale of her charcoal drawings to make powerful, self-portraits, where the eyes are often averted. Based on the reflection of the subject in a mirror, Taylor uses her arms to conceal nudity, her eyes to capture a suspended moment, a slippage of consciousness, a veneer of appearance. Substantially larger than life her charcoal portraits explore “the female subject as artist, model and portrait, through the defining acts of scrutiny, gaze and feeling. The relationships explored involve what is seen, what is felt and what we expect; there is an inherent paradox as the mind reveals the body it inhabits.”12
The immediacy of drawing for Helen Sturgess can be compared to the Surrealists’ “automatic writing”, a visual stream of consciousness that enables her to tap into the subconscious. Her meticulous drawing Of Two Minds (2013), reveals an essentially conceptual portrait, where an Italian-style mask, designed to afford anonymity, represents the Self, divided into two sections: plant shapes and mysterious unknowable forms on one side; and a child’s world of fairytale illusion-toys, make-believe journeys, games and memories on the other. Although her works are rooted in perceptual drawing and self-portraiture, Sturgess’ work does not portray a likeness or outward appearance. “A fascination with memory extends to the ways we reinforce and retain positive memories and associations, as well as how we avoid confronting the unpleasant. In investigating the nature of thought and memory, I am trying to make tangible some of the most fleeting or repressed, from the subversive and repugnant to the sacred or heroic. Consequently, my interest in portraiture is more in the nature of psychological profiling, exploring facets of the human psyche and experience. My endeavour is to find ways to better understand and convey what it is to be human.”13
The art of Irene Barberis, Anita Taylor and Helen Sturgess, all of whom are living in Australia at the present, presents a diverse comment on contemporary life, having absorbed a wide range of influences from their respective upbringings and education in Australia and the UK. Their work is the product of historic perceptions, autobiography and the questioning of women’s role in cultural manifestations in the 21st century.
1. Francis Bacon: Five Decades, AGNSW, Sydney, 17 November-24 February 2013.
2. See: Janet McKenzie, Arthur Boyd: Art and Life, Thames and Hudson, London, 2000.
3. Peter Fuller and John Bellany, Raab Galerie, Berlin, 1990. In Modern Painters: A Memorial Exhibition for Peter Fuller. Manchester City Art Galleries, 1991, p.6
4. Janet McKenzie, “John Bellany: Portrait as Narrative”, John Bellany and Thomas Gainsborough: 14 June – 20 September 2008, Gainsborough’s House Society, Sudbury, 2008.
5. See: William Feaver et al, Lucian Freud Drawings, BlainSouthern, London, 2012.
6. William Feaver, “In the Studio”, London Review of Books, Vol. 31, No.20, 22 October 2009, p.32.
7. Joanna Woodall, (ed.) Portraiture: Facing the Subject, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1997, p.7.
8. Kelly Gellatly, “Citizen in the Making: The Art of Gordon Bennett”, Gordon Bennett, National Gallery of Victoria, 2007.
9. Caroline Turner, “Dadang Christanto: The Head as the Site of Memory”, Thresholds of Tolerance, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra, 2007.
10. Janet McKenzie, Drawing in Australia: Contemporary Images and Ideas, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1986.
12. Anita Taylor interviewed by Paul Furlong, London, 2008.
13. Paul Thomas and Anita Taylor, Foundation Course Drawing, Cassell/Octopus, London, 2003, p.126.
14. Helen Sturgess, “Artist’s Statement”, February 2013.