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Recognition

Percy Leason's Aboriginal Portraits

Daily from Friday 12 November 1999 until Sunday 13 February 2000

Originally conceived as an anthropological record, Percy Leason’s powerful 1934 portraits of Victorian Aboriginal people are today considered to be a highlight of 20th century Australian portraiture. Australia’s National Portrait Gallery proudly presents this remarkable exhibition of works not seen by the public in 65 years.

William Johnson (1873—1948) by Percy Leason
William Johnson (1873—1948) by Percy Leason

During the two inter-war decades of the twentieth century theories were in abundance - theories of life, of science, of anthropology and of art. Max Meldrum’s scientific theory of seeing and painting had many adherents and, while Meldrum’s theory produced a great deal of doctrinaire painting, it also provided a framework for many fine works of art. Percy Leason was a thorough-going Meldrumite and he, too, believed in the possibility of an objective mode of painting. This led to his most important series of paintings - the group of Aboriginal portraits presented in this exhibition.

The circumstances under which Leason’s paintings were made have changed. They were painted, after all, as part of the celebrations surrounding the European colonisation of Victoria. We now know far more about the cost of that colonisation for Victoria’s indigenous people than Leason’s audience in 1934 were prepared to acknowledge. Yet the objectivity of these paintings - the way in which the artist sought truth in the faces of his subjects - has allowed them to transcend their original context in time and to speak directly to a present generation.

What is being recognised in this exhibition Recognition? Firstly, the lives of the people in the paintings and secondly, continuity - the descendants of these portrait sitters and their various communities in Victoria. Thirdly, the exhibition recognises a body of very fine paintings which deserve to be better understood as a significant part of Australia’s portrait heritage. Finally, I hope the exhibition recognises another aspect of Australia’s history which has recently been dramatically brought to our attention by the revelations of the lives of the stolen generation.

The National Portrait Gallery is committed to widening a public understanding of Australia’s history through the lives of individual people. We are proud to be able to bring to light this body of portraits and we are grateful to all those who have worked with us; the descendants of the portrait subjects and their communities, the State Library of Victoria and the Koorie Heritage Trust, exhibition curator Michael Galimany, Sandra Smith and contributors to the catalogue Doris Paton and Sylvia Kleinert.

Andrew Sayers
Director

9 portraits

1Robert Johnson (1893—1940). 2Mrs Clara Hunt (1872—1948). 3Clive Hood (1908—1991)

. 4Robert Kinnear (1851—1935). All by Percy Leason.

Related information

Gallery two entrance
Gallery two entrance
Gallery two entrance
Gallery two entrance

Collection display galleries

Current exhibition

Open every day

The collection display includes a wide selection of portraits that tell extraordinary stories of encounter, exploration, independence, individuality and achievement in Australia. Visitors to the Gallery can follow the development of portraiture from oil painting to digital media.

Betty Burstall, 1945 Arthur Boyd
Betty Burstall, 1945 Arthur Boyd
Betty Burstall, 1945 Arthur Boyd
Betty Burstall, 1945 Arthur Boyd

Arthur Boyd Portraits

Previous exhibition, 1999

This is the first in a series of National Portrait Gallery exhibitions to survey the portraits painted by artists who are not thought of, primarily, as portrait painters

William Dobell, 1942 Max Dupain
William Dobell, 1942 Max Dupain
William Dobell, 1942 Max Dupain
William Dobell, 1942 Max Dupain

A Tribute to William Dobell

Previous exhibition, 1999

Adapted from A Tribute to William Dobell an exhibition presented by the Australian National University's Drill Hall Gallery in association with the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation, The National Gallery of Australia, and the Australian War Memorial. Dobell is of course, celebrated for his achievements in portraiture, winning the Archibald prize (1943, 1948 and 1959), the Wynne Prize (1948), and representing Australia at the 1954 Venice Biennale. Curator Mary Eagle concludes her essay in the catalogue of the exhibition thus, "Overall I see a dissonance in Dobell’s art and life

John Farnham, 1996 Polly Borland
John Farnham, 1996 Polly Borland
John Farnham, 1996 Polly Borland
John Farnham, 1996 Polly Borland

Glossy - Faces Magazines Now

Previous exhibition, 1999

Magazines are the portrait galleries of the 90s... Glossy is about magazines. The exhibition presents the work of eight photographers, Australian by birth or long-term residency, who are producing portraits for publication in magazines around the world.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the land upon which the NPG stands.