These days, Jude Rae lives in a Sydney apartment where she can’t have a dog. In Canberra, though, she had a little kelpie bitch called Tilly, who slipped alongside her as she moved between her house and studio, beside the frosty vegetable beds in the big back yard.
In every portrait, including self-portraits, the artist chooses between acknowledging there’s a portrait going on, and representing the subject as oblivious of the process. Sometimes artists paint themselves in the act of painting, sometimes not. Amongst self-portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, Fred Williams holds a brush, but Herbert Badham’s pulling on a glove and Nora Heysen’s only a head and shoulders. Like others in the paintbrush-in-hand group worldwide, Rae’s stance and gaze reprise Diego Velázquez’s in Las Meninas of 1656. The most exhaustive, stimulating and verbose account of that supreme riff on the act of representation is Chapter 1 of Michel Foucault’s old book The Order of Things. Jude knows it well.
Rae’s high reputation rests on her austere, cerebral still lifes of gas canisters, electric jugs and jars, which she groups and rearranges for paintings that catch their difficult curves and reflections. Her self-portrait’s likewise thoughtfully composed. She’s lined up works of art on her right, to cluster with the dog and the palette in the left half of the canvas. She’s put a mirror in the right half, otherwise empty but for the hard horizontals of the fluorescent tubes and the back of a big work that’s underway in the foreground. The portrait seems all yellow, brown, white, black and dark blue – but the palette and brush the figure’s holding comprise colours that invade their surroundings: the green, for example, seeps into the vertical window frame immediately above and below it.
The title of Self-portrait (the year my husband left) knells in its viewer’s head. Maybe the artist always worked by night, and her spouse tired of his solitude. Maybe she used to paint by day and follow a cosy night routine of dinner, television, reading in bed, until he left and now, sleepless, she works all hours. We imagine the subject’s hollowness; witness her self-scrutiny in spectacles and ascetic apparel, her grey head shorn. Even inside, she appears to be standing in the rain. We see a sombre picture of a spurned woman, a dog her companion and confessor, who holds her palette defensively, like a shield.
The year her husband left, Jude saw paintings by Velázquez and Cy Twombly’s Lepanto series in the Prado and the Tate, and her bruised spirit stirred. Trickles and runnels of paint in Twombly’s works conjure visions of things failing and falling; ribbons of rust on columns; blood running down a standing body; the liquidity of paint itself. While born from sadness, Jude’s fine drip-veiled portrait challenges anyone thinking it’s bold of her to allude to the masters. Remembering Foucault and Velazquez as we meet her level look, we abandon personal enquiries, turning to the puzzle of what she can see on the canvas in front of her. Does this self-portrait show her painting her own portrait, or that of someone else – who must have been standing just where we are? If she’s looking at us – well – what could be a greater mystery, to any of us, than what we look like to someone else? Suddenly, we see her flourishing her palette like a matador’s cape.
Tilly lives with Jude’s friends in Canberra now. Recently, Jude won another very big prize. Lately, the artist’s wondered if she should have called her painting Self portrait with Tilly.
Going around a gallery with a child, we point to a painting of a dog and brightly ask ‘What’s that?’ If they don’t say ‘A dog’, we tell them that’s what it is. We don’t say it’s a shape inscribed by an artist that’s popularly understood to signify a dog. That’d only serve to foster a smarty-pants.