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Face the music

by Christine Clark, 1 September 2005

Drawn from the Gallery's collection, the exhibition Drawn from Music explores the remarkable talents and achievements of Australian musicians, composers, conductors and celebrities associated with the music industry.

Robert, Lindy, Grant, 1981 by Jenny Watson
Robert, Lindy, Grant, 1981 by Jenny Watson

Australia has become recognised for the range and talent of its musicians, composers, conductors and celebrities in general associated with the music industry. The National Portrait Gallery's current exhibition, Face the Music, provides insights into some of these key individuals and groups who have impacted on Australian music over the past four decades.

Drawn from the Gallery's permanent collection, the exhibition explores the remarkable talents and achievements of these people and their significant contributions on the local and the international music scenes.

Diverse in its outlook. Face the Music includes a range of subjects from the renowned opera diva Dame Joan Sutherland, Johnny O'Keefe, Australia's first rock 'n' roll star of the late 1950s, alto saxophonist Bernie McGann, who is widely regarded as one of the most creative Australian jazz musicians, to songwriter and cabaret performer Peter Allen. More contemporary subjects include Mandaway Yunupingu, lead singer of celebrated Indigenous band Yothu Yindi, and singers Christine Anu and Natalie Imbruglia.

The breath of musical styles, adopted by Australian individuals and collectives is manifest throughout the exhibition. Country music stars including Slim Dusty, Troy Casser-Daly and Kasey Chambers are captured in the photographs of John Elliott, Australia's best-known composer Peter Sculthorpe is depicted through Eric Smith's painting and eminent jazz musician Don Burrows is illustrated playing his clarinet in a painting by Barry Walsh. Both Sculthorpe and Burrows have been declared living treasures of Australia. Highlights from Australia's rock history are also captured including the 1970s band Sherbert, seen here posed naked for POL magazine in a photograph by Lewis Mortey, as well as long time TV series Countdown presenter and prominent music critic Ian 'Molry' Meldrum with headgear, naturally, in a recent photograph by Robin Sellick.

Many Australians remain largely unaware of the international achievements of some of Australia's soloists and bands, with a number of musicians receiving far greater distinction outside their country of birth. Both the Go-Betweens and The Triffids achieved critical acclaim and an overwhelming following in Europe, particularly the United Kingdom, during the early and mid 1980s. While other individuals, including the late Michael Hutchence from INXS and Nick Cave, have gained prominence with both international and Australian audiences. Another feature of rock history seldom publicised is the fad that many of Australia's leading musicians of the 1970s and 1980s gained international recognition without the backing of major recording companies. "Die Triffids, Go-Betweens, Midnight Oil and Paul Kelly all recorded through independent labels whilst at the height of their careers.

Face the Music presents a number of the National Portrait Gallery's major commissions and recent acquisitions within this thematic context. Commissioned paintings include Howard Arkley's distinctive psychedelic and incandescent portrait of Nick Cave and eX de Medici's group portrait of the band Midnight Oil, Nothing's as precious as a hole in the ground 2001. Depicted in front of the Ranger uranium mine, the artist's portrait metaphorically references Midnight Oil's position on specific social and ecological issues. Also included is the recent acquisition of the painting by ion Campbell of singer songwriter Paul Kelly. Larger than life, this painting reflects Kelly's direct and frank approach to songwriting and performing.

Through Face the Music we gain greater insight into the significant contributions of our notable composers, conductors, commentators and classical, country and western, jazz, rock, popular and alternative musicians.