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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.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Home is where the art is

by Tedi Bills, 9 June 2020

The Dance - David McAllister, 2016 Peter Brew-Bevan
The Dance - David McAllister, 2016 Peter Brew-Bevan. © Peter Brew-Bevan

With galleries forced to shut their doors for months in response to the threat of COVID-19, and only now planning carefully staged and restricted reopenings, art lovers have been converging on digital spaces to connect with the artworks and institutions they love. Taking advantage of social media as a site for creative engagement, art institutions have used campaigns such as #BetweenArtandQuarantine, #MuseumFromHome and #MetTwinning to inspire audiences to dive into their archives in the hunt for the perfect portraits to replicate and share online.

This global social media phenomenon follows an internal staff tradition at Australia’s National Portrait Gallery. Over the past few years, Gallery staff have ended the year by challenging themselves and each other to pay tribute to their favourite works from the collection, sometimes going to extreme lengths, and always with touching results.

‘People get really, really into it’, laughs Andy Mullens, the Portrait Gallery’s Social Media Coordinator. ‘I look forward to it every year. I choose works that resonate with me, and the more technically challenging a portrait is, the more I’m drawn to it.’

One of Andy’s greatest triumphs is her tribute to Peter Brew-Bevan’s The Dance – David McAllister (2016), a tender and powerful ode to the iconic Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet. To create the work, Andy locked herself in a studio for hours, armed with a bodysuit and a blown-up image of Brew-Bevan’s work.

‘I studied that portrait so much – every detail, every little bit – zooming in and pulling back out. I spent a lot of time with Peter’s sketch books as well, which he generously provided to the Gallery. That kind of intense focus gave me a different relationship with the portrait. I used LED lights so I had soft lighting to get the slow movement, and had a timer on my phone linked to my camera. I’m not at all trained in ballet and I can’t go en pointe. I’d press the timer on my phone, run into the frame, fling up a leg and hope for the best!’

For Peter Brew-Bevan, Andy’s meticulous efforts served as an extension of the intense consideration with which he approached the portrait. ‘Before I start a new artwork, I do research on the subject matter’, he explains. ‘Through reading about David’s incredible career and passion that he has for movement and the artform of ballet, I knew I wanted to create something to capture the epic nature of his productions and choreography ... When I saw Andy’s tribute to this artwork, I felt deeply humbled. To know someone gave my work that much attention is quite moving. I wasn’t expecting it.’

Andy describes sharing her tribute to Peter’s work on social media during the COVID-19 lockdown as one of the most rewarding elements of the process. ‘You do these things mostly for the joy of it. Right now, people are sharing their creativity on social to stay connected during a disconcerting time; it all feels a little more earnest. To know that Peter’s seen and likes my tribute is beautiful. It warms my heart. No matter what kind of art you make, you inevitably take something very deep and intimate and make the private public. Vulnerability is always rewarded.’

1Tan Le, 2018 John Tsiavis. © John Tsiavis. 2Andy Mullens, 2018 Andy Mullens after John Tsiavis.

Dr Sharon Peoples, a Canberra-based artist and former Museum Studies and Museum Education lecturer at the Australian National University, believes the careful attention paid to artworks by those who recreate them – and the willingness of those people to make themselves vulnerable through the act of sharing – captures an intense longing for the works themselves during a period of social distancing. ‘For me, absence makes the heart grow fonder’, she reflects. ‘The lack of the actual object is what I’m personally missing the most. It’s important to remember that people have been taking time to use objects to recreate artworks, whether that’s through costuming, sets or props. The longing for the object manifests itself in the recreation of the object, using objects. It’s quite beautiful.’

Just as it reflects our longing for objects, replicating and sharing portraits on social media captures our longing for each other. Portrait Gallery Curator Penelope Grist suggests that our intense fascination with portraiture during lockdown is a direct result of our collective experience of the trauma of separation. ‘We’ve suddenly been denied contact with thousands of faces a day and the energy that comes from human interactions that we all completely took for granted. People are responding instinctively to the great strength of portraiture as a genre, which is its connection with people. Whether that comes through engaging with particular portraits or self-portraiture at home, or even just interacting around art – portraiture facilitates human connections.’

During this enforced separation, publicly sharing an affinity with specific portraits has also enabled people to seek solace in the universal elements of the human experience captured in art throughout history. Penelope suggests this represents a continuation of one of the recurring themes in portraiture – especially 21st century portraiture, where referencing historical artworks is a tool used by artists to connect viewers with history, and with each other.

Using painter Ross Watson’s portrait of Australian diver, playwright and queer icon Matthew Mitcham as an example, she explains how the artist drew from Sebastiano Ricci’s ceiling painting, The fall of Phaeton (1700), to present a celebration of the central figure that’s both a tale for the ages and firmly tongue-in-cheek.

‘Ross kind of builds this double narrative through his neoclassical allusions to Ricci’s ceiling painting. The two talk to each other in a fun and/or poignant way. You can have dual stories going that intersect over hundreds of years, because of that common factor of the human experience.

You can understand Mitcham’s biography – everything he’s gone through and all of his achievements – at the same time as being drawn into this bigger human narrative.’

1Seated nude girl, 2020 Anna Huensun after Jacob Collins. 2The Milkmaid, 2020 ojyoucindy after Johannes Vermeer.

When it comes to social media users’ re-creation of portraiture during COVID-19, Penelope is fascinated by the way people are bringing works of art into their world. ‘You can’t separate art – and particularly portraiture – from the time in which it’s made. The portraits created on social media speak both to the original works and to this moment in time. That’s the potential that portraiture holds – at its core it’s about the state of being human.’

Rather than existing as a temporal social media trend, the obsession with paying tribute to portraiture during COVID-19 has exposed a deep need to connect with humanity across continents, cultures and histories. If nothing else, this will towards creative empathy perhaps provides an element of hope as we look towards the future.

Tedi Bills is a Melbourne-based freelance arts and culture writer.

Related information

The Dance - David McAllister, 2016 Peter Brew-Bevan
The Dance - David McAllister, 2016 Peter Brew-Bevan
The Dance - David McAllister, 2016 Peter Brew-Bevan
The Dance - David McAllister, 2016 Peter Brew-Bevan

Private dancer

In conversation: virtual event

Fri 16 Oct
12:30pm

Assume ballet position one and join photographer Peter Brew Bevan – in conversation with Before hand exhibition curator, Penny Grist – as he provides insight into the private life of his portrait of dancer David McAllister.

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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.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.