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Of Kings and Men again

by Sam Bowker, 14 November 2011

Tracey Moffatt, 1995 by Greg Weight
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Tracey Moffatt, 1995 by Greg Weight

Extracted from my original reply:

“Fear not my critical commenters, those gentlemen are only guests in the NPG for a few months. Like well-dressed giants who dominate the couch and hog the television remote, they will be shown the door in time. But here’s another way of looking at it – you may not like it, but I reckon those old dead patriarchs are at their ideological finest in those giant gold frames. They are part of a great legacy from historic portraiture – puffed out chests and rhetorical exclamations, grand stances and dark varnish, self-styled elites thundering over the awe-struck (?) proletariat like a giant waterfall of institutional and historic dominion. No, this kind of portraiture is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but neither was colonialism. Or Federation, for that matter.

Curiously, overbearing they may seem, these portraits hide their weakness in plain sight. By emphasising cultural homogeniety and perpepuating the power of the patriarchy, they are now ripe for their own political inversion.

I don’t think these chaps are supposed to be innovative and stimulating as far as portraiture is concerned. They never were – not in 1900, and neither in 2011! This is a time capsule exhibition, a centenary in the true sense of the word.

These folks are on display because the NPG looks both ways as an institution. We acknowledge the past whilst anticipating the future. Have a look at the more future-oriented exhibitions, like Present Tense, Beyond the Self, Truth and Likeness, and the various contemporary portrait prizes. The main reason these shows don’t appear even more frequently is that portraiture, as a genre, has a long extant history, and we need to acknowledge our cultural inheritances to fully appreciate the new directions we are moving towards.

Here’s something that strikes me about Of Kings and Men – the discrepancy between then and now. Australia 100 years ago was almost a foreign country, loaded with ideas we don’t trust, populated by unfamiliar names and landscaped with places that don’t exist anymore. Those artists and subjects made those portraits to describe that point in time for us, their future citizens. The fact we may react suspiciously or negatively to their story, their self-aggrandisement, and their unified gender, would probably be a shock to them. By standing there, still and silent, they explain how we have changed since they were made.

There is a story about a small Japanese garden that was kept perfectly immaculate. Raked gravel, sculptural river stones, carefully clipped evergreen bonsai tree – all elements were kept in a precise stasis, so that nothing in that clean little courtyard ever changed. The seasons did not affect it, nor did the passing of decades. Whenever the owner of this garden stepped into that space, they used it to notice what had changed since they last stepped in. The only thing that could change was that person, so the garden became a kind of ‘mirror’ to observe the changing self.

Portraits don’t change, their viewers do.