Skip to main content

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.

The art of Inner Worlds

Lecture, 7 May 2011

Dr Christopher Chapman NPG Curator of Inner Worlds explains the development of an exhibition that spans from Surrealism to contemporary art.

Dr Christopher Chapman: Thinking particularly this week about mental states, intense mental states, about the subconscious mind, and I’ve been thinking and reflecting on my own mental state because this week saw the realisation of an exhibition that we had been working on here at the gallery for about two and a half years. On Thursday the exhibition was launched with a number of events.

Now it was interesting for me during the week, as the exhibition curator, to see the exhibition come together and fall into place, and I can talk a little bit about that perhaps a bit later, the logistics of that; and on Wednesday evening the exhibition was installed, the labels were all put on the walls, the lighting was beautifully composed by Nick Williams, who’s our a exhibition designer, and I was feeling very happy, very calm, not really very nervous. I’d noticed a little bit earlier in the week I’d had a few sleepless nights waking up a couple of hours earlier than usual but I wasn’t worried. It was just, I knew, because I try to reflect on my state of mind whenever I remember to, I knew that it was just that energy, the cycles were just oscillating at a little bit higher frequency than normal.

On Thursday, which was the official launch day of the exhibition, we had a media preview at 11am and I was present and I spoke to members of the media and also Professor David Chalmers, who is a subject of one of the portraits, was here, and then I had a lunch with Angela Catterns, the broadcaster who launched the exhibition, in the evening, and then at 2 o’clock I think some of you here joined me for a circle of friends preview of the exhibition, and then I had a chance to go upstairs and very reluctantly check my emails that I’d been avoiding all week with the excuse that I’m down working in the exhibitions this week, I won’t be responding to your emails; and then the evening was upon us where our Chair Tim Fairfax, Chair of the National Portrait Gallery Board, our Director Louise Doyle, and Angela Catterns spoke very eloquently to launch the exhibition and we had around 400 guests here on Thursday evening including a great number of family members of some of the psychologists who were honoured in the exhibition. So it was a very wonderful evening for all concerned, and then yesterday, Friday, I had a meeting so I came into work and by lunchtime I was starting to feel the motor running down so I thought yesterday, okay, lunch, home and a little rest in preparation for today. But still, I found this morning that I was awake at about 6 o’clock or a bit earlier so to take advantage of that energy which is still at a fairly high level, which I’m sure you’ve already noticed. I thought I’d come into work and spend a few hours productively dealing with some of my email correspondence.

So I’ve had a very active morning, I’m looking forward very much to sharing with you now my thoughts about the exhibition and I’m also looking forward to the end of this week when I’m sure, by Friday, I’ll be ready to take the day off and have a rest.

Now this exhibition, for me, finds its origin in some research I was doing back in 1992, 1993. At that time I was working as a junior curator at the National Gallery of Australia and we had received a group of works on paper, I was working in the Australian drawings section at the gallery, we’d received a group of works on paper that had been donated to us by a woman called Giselle Ballou, the wife of Peter Ballou, who for many years was the editor of Art in Australia magazine, probably the preeminent journal of Australian art, having been published at least since the 1920s if not before; and it was my job as junior curator to catalogue those drawings, and what was interesting to me about them was that their subject matter related very strongly to ideas influenced by the European art movement of surrealism. Now the drawings that we were given at the National Gallery next door were by artists such as James Gleeson, who is considered Australia’s foremost surrealist painter, there were some drawings by an artist called Jeffrey Graham who was little known at that time but who has since been given more attention, and based on those works I began to look closely at some Australian paintings, many of which had been in storage at the gallery and hadn’t been exhibited since they were acquired, made in the ‘30s and ‘40s that were an Australian interpretation to ideas about surrealism.

Now surrealism is an art movement that originated in Europe, in fact just after World War I in the late teens and earlier 20’s, the artists were very interested in challenging convention. They were interested in trying to explore raw and primal states of being. They were interested in the new ideas to do with psychology, psychoanalysis that had emerged in the 1880s and 1890s. Australian artists working in the ‘30s had very little exposure to the modern art of European, and in 1939 there was an exhibition that travelled to Australia that had some works by Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and others, and it was a fantastic opportunity for young artists here to see those works that they were so excited by. Albert Tucker was one of those artists.

So here was I, in 1992, 1993, thinking about the influence of surrealism on Australian art, and the National Gallery of Australia, where this painting is kept and they have loaned it to us for the exhibition, have in their collection a number of works by Albert Tucker and I found them very intriguing, very affecting; and this is a painting he made in 1942 called ‘The Possessed’, but it’s the result of a number of experiences and influences, particularly in the years leading up to 1942; and we’ll return to this painting a little bit later in the talk this afternoon. So when I started working here at the National Portrait Gallery in early 2008 I remembered this work of Albert Tucker’s and I thought it would be interesting to consider it within the framework of the history of portrait making in Australia, thinking about it as a portrait of a state of mind, and Albert Tucker was very interested in ideas to do with the unconscious and he published a lot of writing about psychological ideas in the ‘40s, and we’ll get to that as well, so starting here at the Portrait Gallery I thought it would be really interesting to look at this work of Tucker’s in the context of portraiture, connect that quite strongly to his interest in psychology, and I developed that into an exhibition proposal that was supported by the Director and the Board, and it was given a spot in the program and here we are with this very interesting experience.

What I’ll do now is I’ll describe the shape of the exhibition for you. And these works by Albert Tucker, of which this painting form a part, physically in the exhibition they’re the central part of the exhibition. They’re the core of the exhibition from which other elements move out in two directions. So the exhibition doesn’t begin with this painting, it begins with an introduction to the concept of psychology and its influence on individuals here in Australia.

Now this is a photograph of a handsome young doctor named Sigmund Freud who was born in Austria and this was taken in the 1890s when he had been working for about ten or 15 years, but his works were starting to be published, translated into English, papers were being delivered. One of his major books had become more widely available. Now we can understand psychology as the study of the relationship between behaviour and mental processes. Psychology is the relationship between mind, how ever we wish to define that and there are different ways to define our mind, whether it is simply a brain, whether it is an unconscious form, energy, and our behaviour; and psychology has its origins in the philosophies of antiquity, not only in our Western cultures of Greece but are very powerfully in the cultures of India and China also. It’s been a fundamental question of human kind to try and understand that connection. It’s a connection that is also strongly based in the idea of consciousness. How is it that we are able to reflect upon our experience of not only being physically in the world, our feeling of our feet on the ground, of our bodies in the chair, but we can also reflect upon the fact that we are thinking, we are perceiving, that we are feeling; and that’s a capacity that we as human beings have in a very unique way and it’s strongly connected to ideas of the mind and in a very broad sense, questions that psychology has sought to explore throughout its history.

Freud had worked with a number of other doctors and thinkers but he was able to articulate a unique idea which was that as we go through our life we accumulate experiences and the results of those experiences aggregate within us, and they get repressed, and so there might become a time later in our life when certain behaviours and actions that we undertake that may be extreme or maybe unhelpful in some way, are the result of those accumulated experiences. Freud proposed that through the careful uncovering of those repressed experiences and feelings and emotions that a form of therapy could be entered into that could be useful to assist the mental health of the patients that he was dealing with; and that’s the basis of psychoanalysis or analysis, or as it was called in its day, talking theory; through communicating between patient and doctor to uncover these repressed desires, feelings that would then aid a more healthful outward behaviour.

Now the image of Freud that’s perhaps more familiar to us is this kind of iconic, now quite clichéd idea of what the psychoanalysis, you know, looks like. Perhaps with the beard, perhaps with his pipe or his cigar, his spectacles, and there he is even with, you know, a famed couch with its oriental rugs. So Freud’s ideas were very influential in the Western world throughout Europe, throughout the UK, throughout the US, and they also filtered down to Australia and were seen as being quite useful by what we might term the pioneers of psychology in Australia working around the time of World War I, the 1915, 16, 17, 18 period. And this portrait, which is the first portrait that we encounter in the exhibition is a delightful affectionate informal sketch of a doctor, John William Springthorpe, affectionately known as Springy and you can see that the artist has used the iconic, the kind of symbol of a little kangaroo there instead of the letters for the words Spring.

Springthorpe was very highly regarded by his colleagues. He was quite a bit older than his fellow servicemen at the time, as it would have been. He was very vocal in his thoughts.

Soldiers were coming back from the front having served in battles abroad, coming back to Australia with injuries of various types and Springthorpe was one of many doctors working in different army military hospitals and in fact some of the doctors that he worked with worked for a time in field hospitals in the Middle East, not just in Australia, and he thought that the treatment and the services that were being provided to these young men who were returning from the battlefield, wasn’t enough to help them recover from what they had experienced.

Now he encountered some of Freud’s theories in papers that were delivered at a number of conferences, and he didn’t take on board Freud’s theories wholesale. He was very sensible in that he was interested in what could be relevant to a local situation in terms of the so called talking therapy, and he was a great advocate for using analysis and psychological therapy as an aid to serve and assist the reparation of these soldiers. He wrote some very important articles in the Australian medical journals at the time. So Springthorpe represents where our story, the arrival of the development of psychology in Australia, begins, and I’m not going to refer to all, each of the ten psychologists who are represented in the exhibition, I just want to refer to a few in this instance and it’s not because they’re more important than the others, it’s just really to skip us through the exhibition if you like.

So Springthorpe and his colleagues Roy Coupland Winn and Paul Greig Dane were the first wave, if you like, and a little bit later. With the arrival of World War II in Europe and the need for many people to leave Europe for fear of persecution or worse, Springthorpe, Winn, Dane and other colleagues of theirs lobbied certain administrators in the government to support the emigration to Australia of a number of eminent European psychologists, and the same thing happened at about this time as well. Now they had a number of people in mind that they wanted the government to sponsor, assist their emigration to Australia and provide citizenship for them. They were unsuccessful in bringing more than one person and that person was Clara Lazar Geroe, and she came to Australia in 1940 with her family, and Clara Geroe is Australia’s first child psychiatrist, and Australia’s first training analyst.

Now the difference between those two terms is relevant. A psychiatrist is a person who has undergone medical training and used psychological methodologies in therapy from a medical point of view, an analysis, a psychoanalysis, doesn’t have to have had that medical background but has to be accredited by an official psychoanalytic organisation and have been accredited by a training analysis. So Clara Geroe was brought to Australia to work with the Melbourne Institute for Psychoanalysis which was established in 1941, and she was the first training analysis with that institute. Now it happens that she had her portrait painted by the artist Judy Cassab who is a very significant portraitist in Australia art, also a person who immigrated to Australia from European, and this starts to make the first connection between psychology and portraiture.

It’s interesting and perhaps inevitable that psychologists are interested in creativity as it relates to the inner world of ourselves, and it’s interesting that they should share some relationships and mix in circles, in artistic circles, and Judy Cassab, as it happens is the author of three portraits in the exhibition, and that’s not simply because she wasn’t, she certainly wasn’t the only portrait painter in Australia in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

But she was one who was able to capture in her work a very vital sense of bold characterisation and in fact her portraits are defined by that boldness. This isn’t a stuffy, formal portrait of an academic. It’s a portrait that I think conveys some of the powerful presence that Dr Geroe had.

Now one of Dr Geroe’s… Someone who underwent analysis with Dr Geroe out of interest to explore and learn about analysis was young Janet Plant, and this is a photograph of her at the time of her graduation from her History Honours degree at Melbourne University and she then went back and did further studies. She was very interested in how psychology might assist progressive ideas about education; how psychology and its relationship to creativity might foster some new models of creative learning for children in schools, and with her husband Clive Nield who met her at a conference focused on the connections between education and psychology, she and Clive Nield travelled through Europe and particularly to the UK where there were some fine examples in the 1930s of progressive schools, particularly a school called Summer Hill under the leadership of A S Neill. Now Clive and Janet returned to Australia full of enthusiasm and in fact they established what is regarded as the first experimental progressive school in Australia, which they called ‘Koornong’, on the banks of the Yarra in the bush at Warrandyte outside of Melbourne; and ‘Koornong was launched in 1939 with a man named Danila Vassilieff as the foundation art teacher, and this is a portrait that Vassilieff made of Janet Nield dressed in his Cossack uniform, his family were, on the men’s side of the family, engaged in the Don Cossack army in Russia, and it captures something of the vibrancy, the readiness to experiment, the vitality of their work at the time. Vassilieff was also very good at doing hard work, physical work, and in fact he spent many weeks clearing the land helping to build the school buildings and eventually on the other side of the river building for himself out of local stone a home and studio.

And I mentioned Judy Casseb earlier who had made that very graceful and bold portrait of Clara Geroe, well Judy Casseb also painted Janet Nield in the early ‘70s. This time the manner is one that is entirely cosmopolitan, a woman very much of her times, progressive in her attire, in her fashion, in her hair cut. The colours of this portrait reflecting very much the vogue of the early ‘70s, and I don't know if some of you saw recently the two part series about the birth of Cleo magazine on the ABC a few weeks ago? To me this portrait hooks in very nicely to the key of that moment in Australia. Janet Nield trained with Clara Geroe, became an accredited analysis and had a practice in Sydney, a private practice that she maintained into the 1980s.

Now we start to get to some very close relationships between psychology and art making, and art making by some of Australia’s most extraordinary young men and women artists of the ‘30s and ‘40s. This is a photograph, we don’t know who took it, possibly a photographer called Athol Shmith, and it’s a photograph of Reginald Spencer Ellery who was a psychiatrist. He had in fact undertaken some very radical studies using malarial treatment drugs to treat body involuntary movement in psychiatric patients, and he was very successful in that and in fact became quite a high profile doctor because of those discoveries that he made with one of his colleagues. He was also very interested in the arts and literature and this photograph appears on the contributor’s page of the artistic journal ‘Angry Penguins’ magazine, which has a fairly legendary and mythic status in the history of Australian modern art.

The Angry Penguins is a term that’s now used to describe colloquially a group of artists who hung out together in a Bohemian atmosphere and included such luminaries as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Joy Hester, the afore mentioned Danila Vassilieff and Albert Tucker, and they were supported by the Melbourne Patrons of the Arts, John Reed who was a lawyer and his wife Sunday Reed who had a home outside of Melbourne that they named Heidi, a very lovely cottage, and that home is now part of a much more expansive art museum called the Heidi Museum of Modern Art; and the original cottage is still there with the original library, with the cottage garden, there is a second home that was built in the ‘60s and ‘70s which is also now a gallery, and there’s also a brand new gallery space; and Heidi Museum of Modern Art is also a place where many of the archives and artworks collections of those artists are held and they have been a very kind lender to the exhibition, particularly with a group of drawings by Joy Hester, and I’ll mention those presently. So Ellery was a part of this intellectual and artistic set of artists, musicians, poets, writers, interested in all things modern; and we’re talking the 1930s, and they were young. They were men and women aged in their twenties, or in the case of Joy Hester a little bit younger at the start.

Now Ellery was quite a prolific writer and this book of his, ‘Schizophrenia: the Cinderella of Psychiatry’ which had first been published in 1941 by the Australian Medical Publishing Company, was reprinted by John Reed’s imprint Reed & Harris just a few eyras later. John Reed with Max Harris, who had lived in Adelaide and Melbourne during his life, a very progressive, modern poet and writer, had a publishing company that published The Angry Penguins journal and a great many books of prose and poetry in the ‘30s and throughout the ‘40s; and so they republished this book of Ellery’s, which aimed to normalise and bring to a wider understanding the condition of schizophrenia in the light of more progressive treatments, and to de-stigmatise what had been an illness that many misunderstood. Now on the cover of the book is a kind of symbolic head and the caption says ‘Symbolic Sketch by a Young Female Schizophrenic Patient’, I think, and it’s drawn from a British medical paper published a little bit earlier. Now what’s interesting is that it’s a very modern looking drawing on the front of this book that had previously been published as a kind of medical treatise but now was being published by a publishing company who were wanting to reach a much broader, progressive thinking audience.

Reg Ellery showed this drawing and other drawings as they had been reproduced in British medical papers to a young artist called Sidney Nolan and their simplicity, their primal and straight forward form, were for the young Sidney Nolan one of a number of influences on his own art. The follow up to Ellery’s book, in fact published within a year after Schizophrenia had been published, was this, The Psychiatric Aspects of Modern Warfare in which Ellery made an impassioned plea for the greater acceptance of psychology as a way to assist the social ills of what he called the psychoneurosis of war; and he asked the young Sidney Nolan if he could use one of Nolan’s portraits on the cover of the book. And this painting on the cover of the book was made by Nolan as he had been conscripted to serve at supply depots in army camps in Central Victoria in the Wimmera district and it’s a portrait of his commanding officer Captain Bilmby, but it’s not a heroic image of a soldier, it’s an image of his Captain as an unranked soldier with wide stricken eyes very clearly traumatised by what he has experienced.

And the symbol, the motif of the wide staring eyes to refer to a fraught and anxious state of mind is one that Sidney Nolan used again notably in this self-portrait painting made a little bit later, and it’s the first self-portrait we encounter in the exhibition and it connects to some others, and consider perhaps what Nolan was trying to convey by choosing to represent himself in this way, in attempting to capture his own self in a state of distress.

We saw Reginald Ellery’s photograph from Angry Penguins magazine, Albert Tucker who was a regular contributor to Angry Penguins wrote an article in the Angry Penguins broadsheet, which was an offshoot of the magazine, that he called ‘Exit Modernism’, and it was a criticism of the conservative views about art at the time, and it was also an opportunity for him to introduce some ideas that he had been extraordinarily fascinated by. He had been reading the work of the Austrian psychology Viktor Lowenfeld who was also interested in trying to access primal creative states and Lowenfeld was also interested in the role that creative art making could play for therapy, to assist in the therapy of patients who had experienced psychological trauma. Now Lowenfeld defined two types of visual artists. One type was what he termed the Visual type. For them, their art making was based on the desire to recreate what they could see, to make a realistic drawing, a realistic rendering of the external world. Conversely the so-called Haptic artist drew entirely from within and created imagery that was based on their own inner most feelings, on dream imagery, on visionary imagery that came from the inner self; and in Lowenfeld’s book there are many examples of both types of work. The ones that appealed to Albert Tucker were the work of the Haptic artists and Tucker was someone who was very interested in work by untrained artists, by child artists, by artists that at the time were called primitive artists, naive artists. We would now use the terminology of outsider art; and he was interested in work by people who experienced different mental states to those that were the social norm.

So for Tucker, he was very excited in these works and what they symbolised and they were one of a number of influences on his own work, and if you remember at the very start of the talk I mentioned the influence of European surrealism on some Australian artists’ work including Albert Tucker. This is another influence. The third influence was his direct experience of being called for service and posted at Wangaratta army camp, and later at Heidelberg military hospital; and this is one of the paintings in the exhibition. This is a self-portrait, that’s Bert Tucker’s face and he’s aged about 26, 27 when he’s making these paintings. He was called up for service in 1942. He was first posted to the Wangaratta army camp which was set up as a temporary camp in the show grounds in Melbourne, and the showground facilities were in animal pens and it was bitterly cold, it was winter time. Tucker has recalled many times how rats would scurry across you in the night. He absolutely hated it and as this image makes clear, he viewed that experience as one of isolation, it’s a very stark rendering of an experience that he found very uncomfortable, and the figure in the background sitting on his pack looks equally unhappy to be there.

Now Tucker got ill and he was able to make his way to the Heidelberg military hospital where he also found work.

Now when he was conscripted, on his form where the space was for occupation he had written artist, and while he was at Wangaratta his commanding officer said “you’re an artist, I’ve got a job for you”, and he was given the task of reproducing for some of the medico’s lectures illustrations from medical books that were very small, reproducing them on big poster sized papers for use in lectures to assist the work of doctors and nurses, and then when he went to Heidelberg military hospital he also was given work as a medical artist, this time in the plastic surgery unit where it was his job to make realistic drawings of soldiers who had returned from war with horrific injuries, particularly horrific facial injuries, and he recounts one occasion where a young man who he was sketching, the soldier’s nose had been sliced clean off and the young man was very embarrassed about the fact that he felt that he was unable to be better composed for Bert Tucker’s task to draw him. Now, his job while he was there was to make drawings of some of the patients with physical injuries, but what also greatly interested him was another injury that he was seeing and that was the psychological trauma that he witnessed in many soldiers that were returning from the battle fields; and they were suffering from a condition that at the time was described as shell shock. Tucker called them the bomb happys and he made a group of drawings, a number of which have been brought together for the exhibition and he called them his psycho-portraits; and they were produced for the artist’s own benefit.

Now this is one of them. They, they’re representational and they create a likeness of the individual for us, but Tucker also enters into a degree of artistic license. He brings the artists vision; he brings the poetry of the artist’s interpretation to what he’s seeing. And so we’re left with a very strong symbolic image of suffering as much as an image of an individual who’s suffered; and for Tucker that finds its apotheosis in this painting ‘The Possessed’ which was introduced to you at the start of the talk; and he distils a whole lot of elements that we’ve seen: the claustrophobic box like room of the army camp, the staring, stricken eye, and here the figure itself becomes a contorted form and as a whole that image is the very essence of inner anxiety.

This is a drawing made by Joy Hester, and in the mid 1930s she was a teenager, in fact at the age of 16 she was studying at the National Gallery school in Melbourne and she won a number of prizes for life drawing. A couple of years later she met Albert Tucker. Joy was around about the age of 19 and Bert introduced her to the circle of intellectuals that I mentioned before who gathered around the home of John and Sunday Reed at Heidi. So Joy met Sid Nolan, she met the psychiatrist Reg Ellery. She had a very intense and loving relationship with Albert Tucker and they had a son. Now she was someone who within the mutual support of that bohemian circle, within that space, an environment that we would now say as a safe space, she was able to find a great deal of freedom of expression and she worked in a very intuitive, open manner. She almost always worked on pieces of paper with ink or watercolour.

In fact there’s only one known painting of hers when she borrowed Bert Tucker’s art materials once, so her works were produced in a very free way, coming in a very flowing way; and many of the people who visited the house at Heidi recall how in the evenings in the library room and there was a fireplace, and this was preserved in the house.

In fact it’s very interesting, all of the books and the book cases are there behind a protective Perspex, but you can see what they were reading, what they were interested in and they’d gather around the fireplace after cooking and eating together and many visitors would say Joy would be seated on the floor on the rug at the fireplace just making drawings with her brush and ink on pieces of paper; and in fact she didn’t feel, didn’t give them much worth. In fact she, on many occasions, would then discard them at the end of the night and it was left to some of the other artists and the Reeds to retrieve them.

For this, this is one of the reasons why a lot of Joy Hester’s art isn’t seen that often. The objects themselves are very, very fragile. They’re very susceptible to damage from prolonged exposure to light. We have six drawings in the exhibition, five of them are from the Heidi Museum of Modern Art, one of them is from the National Gallery of Art next door and the exhibition is touring to Brisbane and Melbourne and only three of those drawings can go with it. The other three have to go back into storage at Heidi. They have a great deal of, I was going to use the word lightness and I mean they are light and they’re unencumbered by too much thought in the way she creates them and there’s an honesty about that. Now this is a work that she made around 1945 and I’ve included it in the exhibition because as you can see it picks up on the motif of the staring eyes and she would have been seeing around her the paintings that Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker were making and would have been influenced by what they were doing. It was also at this time that she saw newsreels at the cinema that depicted some of the many horrors of the Second World War, particularly what was happening in the concentration camps and she made some drawings that were a response to those horrors.

In 1947 at the age of 27 Albert Tucker, her very close companion, he travelled to Japan on an art assignment and Joy was left in Melbourne; and she felt his absence very keenly. She had a young son, she was still very much supported by the Reeds and spent a lot of time at their house but she was very close to Bert Tucker. He was a mentor to her, he was a companion, he was a partner, in some ways he was a father figure to her. He was off travelling, she was left alone, as I said that hit her very powerfully and she met an artist called Grey-Smith and had a relationship with him. Now also at the beginning of that year Joy Hester was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma which is a cancer of the lymphatic cells and with Grey-Smith she went to Sydney where she underwent radiation treatment which was the treatment of the day. She wrote a great number of letters to Sunday Reed, John Reed’s wife, and in one of them she recalls the machinery, being in the hospital room with the machinery and she describes it as being something like a Nazi apparatus hovering and clanging above her; and during that summer of ’47, ’48 she made a group of drawings that she called her Faces series and they’re quite unlike her other work which can be quite lyrical. In the Faces series, and this is one of those, she reduces the face, she pares it right back to a set of eyes in the suggestion of a head, the suggestion of a form. There are no other facial features or barely any others. The sense of being is distilled into, again, this very powerful sense of intense inner feeling.

So that’s where the second part of the exhibition rests and there is one third and final part of the exhibition, which brings us to the present moment; and what I was interested in doing was trying to think about who were the key artists of our own recent time given the significance and influence of the artists whose work we’ve just seen, for whom an investigation of the subconscious mind of ideas of psychology, of intense mental states has been an absolute driving force in their work, and three of those artists are represented in the exhibition. One of them is Dale Frank and there are two self-portrait paintings of his. This is one. He was a young man when he made these in 1983; in fact he was aged about 23. He was born right at the end of 1959 and he was very interested in trying to convey an immersive mental state and this painting and its companion are really very large. In this painting he has imagined himself in the mental state of a World War I soldier and the title tells us that he’s imagining himself in the frame of mind of a soldier involved in trench warfare, and the title of the painting alludes to the poisonous gases that were used in warfare and in World War I there were a number of different poisonous gases that had different effects. The awful disfiguring effects of mustard gas, the delayed affect of Phosgene gas whose effects didn’t show up for some days, and the frightening yellow-green cloud that announced the arrival of chlorine gas. So for Dale Frank he is trying to convey something of that imaginary state of mind, which is one that produces a self that is quivering in a state of severe fright and convulsion.

And this is a detail from what is a larger photographic artwork by an artist called Anne Ferran and it’s from a series that she made in 1999, also as a young artist. It was, I think, her second exhibition at the time and she worked with a model and she recreated some historical photographs; and the historical photographs were taken at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris in the 1880s where a number of doctors, notably Doctor Charcot, were interested in documenting the signs and the postures of mental states such as hysteria, extreme mania and he produced what became for a long time a catalogue of the postures and poses that were said to represent these mental states. Now Anne Ferran recreated a number of these in these photographs and what she is interested in asking us is to consider the power relations between a photographer and her subject in a situation such as this where there is a very unequal power relation, a patient and a photographer, and what are the ethics around taking these kinds of photographs.

So you can see that some of these contemporary works draw upon some of the earlier ideas and connect with other broader concerns; and again this is a detail from a much larger work, it’s a work composed of 12 large sheets of paper produced through copper etching created by an artist called Mike Parr who since 1982 has produced over 1,000 self-portrait works, and this is a self-portrait and that is the focus of his art practice and he is interested in making image after image after image after image that through that repetition and that process will try and capture something primary and raw and unencumbered by social niceties through his work; and these etchings, I mean making an etching is generally considered to be a very delicate operation if you’re working with your etching plate and your etching tools. Mike Parr, he’s really attacked the plate and dug into the plate and there’s a great deal of gesture in what he’s doing and a great expression of physical action and outpouring of emotion in the creation of these works, and when you have a look at them and I’d encourage you to look at these closely, the texture of them is very raw and that’s analogous to the feeling that he’s wanting us to somehow pick up on.

Now there’s one more painting in the exhibition and it’s this portrait, and we’re seeing just the central details of the portrait, it’s a full head, and for me it’s where the exhibition finishes but it’s also where something else begins. The National Portrait Gallery has an ongoing program of commission new portraits, we’re very interested in bringing together a unique sitter with an artist for whom we believe will be a very exciting outcome and I’m sure many of you are familiar with a number of our contemporary commissions which are often quite exciting in the way that they represent their subjects. David Chalmers is someone I’ve been interested in having a commission portrait made of for the gallery. I encountered his work in the mid 1990s out of my own personal interest of reflecting on states of mind and at the time David Chalmers, who is an Australian man, was heading up a very important university centre in the US as part of the Department for Consciousness studies.

David is 44 years old, he was born in Sydney. He excelled in mathematics as a student at Adelaide University but while he was there he became more and more interested in how our brain works, how our perception works, how we interpret and respond to the world around us; and he started to become interested in philosophical ideas, he started to become interested in ideas of neuroscience that were a round at the time, ideas about artificial intelligence, was it possible to create a sense of consciousness theoretically or independently; and he was invited by a Professor called Douglas Hofstadter to come and study with Doug as a graduate student in the US and so David Chalmers went to the US and he wrote his PHD about consciousness and it was published as a book in 2004 called ‘Towards a Fundamental Theory of Consciousness’ and it remains the first and last word on the problems of consciousness for us at the moment, which is not only how is consciousness possible and I alluded a little bit to one way of thinking about consciousness, our self awareness of our physical self and of our thoughts in that reflective way is one definition of what consciousness is; not only how is it possible in a physical evolutionary mechanical sense, David’s also interested in why it occurs and he’s also interested in is it possible to recreate the conditions that make consciousness happen. Is there, like the science of physics, a set of fundamental laws that lead to a state of consciousness, can you replicate them in an artificial or theoretical framework?

So I had a few artists in mind, and as with all of our commissions we actually consider a whole lot of different possibilities and different outcomes, and decided that the Melbourne painter Nick Mourtzakis, who came from Greece as a young boy, would offer a very challenging and accessible and appropriate response to the characterisation of David Chalmers. When I introduced Nick to David and I drove Nick out to David’s house, he lives up on the ridge about Queanbeyan in a big kind of ‘70s family home surrounded by beautiful eucalypt trees, perfect for thinking, and the three of us sat around David’s table and David made some coffee and we just talked about ideas and shared ideas about perception, about the things that David was interested in.

Nick was talking about his background, the influences on his art. He had recently returned to the town of Chalcis in Greece where he was born and he had gone to the local museum and made sketches of some of the marble figures, quite rawly described objects while he was there.

And we were just talking about things that were interesting to us, or actually I was doing a lot of the listening, but it was so extraordinary because in the house there was a kitchen with a kind of big sunroom and a glassed in paved area with a table, and lovely and casual and it looks out to all of these trees, you know around the house on the side of the hillside and I could just, hearing the two of them speak and thinking about how Nick was seeing things as an artist, trying to see things objectively but trying to remain in a state that was very open and responsive to what was around him; David talking about how we translate what we see and how we project out our thoughts onto what we see and I was looking around up through the glass and looking at the eucalypt trees flickering in the sun, it was quite a wonderful experience.

Now Nick spent two days working with David, not one after the other, he spent a day with David on that weekend and then came back some months later making a number of sketches, and he sat with his sketch paper sheets about so-big very close to David, about this close, just sketching, looking at him like this, for hours on end; and David recalls that as being a very intense time but also a very calming one because you just had to just be empty as possible and Nick said to me that he felt the defining characteristic of David’s personality, his character, was that he was very ethereal and so he has said as an artist in this portrait he’s tried to capture something that is not physical in a concrete sense, it’s not material in the way that these solid objects are around us, but that speaks to us in a sense of space, of openness, a sense of fluidity and perhaps most pointedly of the openness and the freedom of the mind.

So I’ll leave it there and thank you so much for your attention today and please enjoy the exhibition. Thank you.

Yeah, that’s right thanks. That comment was about the way that the sciences and the cultures of psychology have changed in quite a short space of time actually, that’s right; and this portrait of David for me sits with quite a happy degree of symmetry to the very first portrait in the exhibition where Springthorpe was wanting to know what was the latest thinking for these problems to do with the mind, to solve a certain problem that he had; and Chalmers’ work is asking that exact same question for us now, what is at stake and what are the imperatives for the science and the culture and the philosophy of mind as we speed further and further into the 21st Century.

© National Portrait Gallery 2024
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
ABN: 54 74 277 1196

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 past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency