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In bloom

by Susi Muddiman, 6 March 2017

Quentin Bryce
Quentin Bryce, 2016 Michael Zavros. © Michael Zavros

I’ll begin with an unabashed confession: I am what can only be labelled a ‘groupie’ of both the subject of this stunning portrait, and its creator.

I was introduced to Quentin Bryce through her enthusiastic response in accepting the invitation to open the purpose-built Margaret Olley Art Centre at the Tweed Regional Gallery in March 2014, her last official engagement as Governor-General. Since then, Ms Bryce has returned to the Tweed and been very supportive of our programs.

As for Mr Zavros – I have been following his practice since the 1990s and am an ardent admirer of his work.

When I first heard of this portrait commission, I thought the National Portrait Gallery had made an inspired choice in selecting Michael Zavros for the honour of producing this portrait for the National Collection, creating a great pairing of subject and artist. Amongst other things, both subject and artist are passionate about their work; have an acute sense of responsibility, dignity and respect for those they work with; are resolute Queenslanders; and both share a mischievous sense of humour.
I was privileged to have a sneak peak of the work in the magnificent collection store of the Portrait Gallery prior to the official unveiling. Zavros has definitively captured
Ms Bryce’s presence with his exquisitely detailed painting. The first thing I was drawn to were her eyes. Ms Bryce’s striking, sparkling blue eyes are captivating and penetrating, yet also evoke her understanding and compassion, crucial qualities for her work.

The second element to catch my attention was the composition of the portrait. The subject and the complementary objects are expertly and perfectly placed, adding balance and symmetry to the work. Perhaps this could be viewed as a metaphor for the scales of justice that have been integral to Ms Bryce’s professional life. This is an organised portrait; it reflects the nature of Zavros' practice in that it is measured, structured and precise.

It also reflects his exploration of the still life genre, particularly through the use of flowers, selected vessels and negative space. I think there is so much required of an artist – to seamlessly arrange a few simple objects (although in Zavros' case they tend to be more extravagant ones), and render them flawlessly. It is the space between the objects that truly completes a still life – that delicate compositional and aesthetic balance that is integral to the perfection of the arrangement. Without moving the emphasis of the portrait away from its subject, the other elements of this painting have significance too, adding gravitas to the composition.

The choice of furniture is important, both compositionally and personally for the artist. The dark wood of the table, beautifully painted to a polished gloss, contrasts with the lighter palette of other key objects, and its inherent sturdiness lends solidity to its subject and the painting. Zavros informed me that the inclusion of the table was his choice, and it usually sits in his studio. He has used it a few times, and, as it once belonged to his parents, it has a personal connection for him. It is important to the work in compositional terms too – apart from offering a support for the hefty vase of flowers, it provides a necessary horizontal line that is dissected by the figure.

The striking king proteas are a purposeful and prominent element of the work. These flowers were used as the emblem for the 2014 Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland, chaired by Ms Bryce. Ornate and sculptural, they add a sense of drama and importance, and, although beautiful in form, they also convey a degree of boldness, a suggestion that they are no ordinary blooms. These king proteas could be interpreted as symbolic of the characteristics of Ms Bryce – her great strength of character, her unshirking authenticity, and the experience and wisdom she has brought to bear in making decisions throughout her career. Like the portrait's subject, these flowers are not to be trifled with; their appearance conveys consistency, dependability – they command our attention and respect. Although not native to Australia, their South African origins suggest a global significance, like the importance of the work Ms Bryce undertakes. Their regal name indicates their hierarchy in the protea family, an association befitting the nation's first female Governor-General.

My attention was also drawn to the fallen leaf on the polished table. At first I didn't notice it, as everything in the scene is so perfect. I like this allusion to the fact that everything can’t be perfect all the time, and the added inference concerning time and ageing. Zavros tells me that the leaf wasn't deliberately placed, but he decided to leave it in as a reference to time passing, and to accentuate the ideas around still life in the portrait.

During the five or so preparatory meetings between artist and sitter, Ms Bryce spoke of her garden. Zavros recalls her mentioning flowers several times. I also remember hearing Ms Bryce speak eloquently about flowers and gardens at the opening of an exhibition of William Robinson’s work, which she guest-curated, at Queensland University of Technology’s William Robinson Gallery, housed in stately Old Government House. These meetings were important to the artist; sometimes they were conversations and not formal portrait sittings. They offered Zavros an opportunity to make ‘little mental notes’ about his subject and her physical character. The meetings also gave him a chance to realise that Ms Bryce had complete faith in him, which any artist would appreciate. There was no real discussion about the direction of the portrait. This also reflects Ms Bryce’s respect for Zavros’ skills, and her bravery, even though there must have been at least some moments of doubt about the outcome.

It was during these informal meetings that Zavros noticed Ms Bryce’s jewellery. Clearly an admirer of design and quality craftsmanship, her choice of jewellery is quite bold, edgy and contemporary. Mirroring reality, the elegance, grace, poise and presence of the sitter and the striking flowers are juxtaposed with the edgy jewellery and the prickliness of the proteas, adding further layers and substance to the portrait.

As an interesting and amusing aside, Zavros, who has used blooms prolifically in his recent works, admitted to me that he did try using other flowers in the portrait. He said that unfortunately, other more decorative, pretty and delicate blooms tended to send the portrait into the realm of an advert for a funeral home. And that just wouldn't do at all!

Colour plays an integral role in the artist’s practice, and is also something we associate with Quentin Bryce.

She loves colour and can wear strong, bright shades with a dignified exuberance that reflects her full and colourful life. The stunning yellow suit in this portrait has significance for Zavros, as he remembers it from the day that Ms Bryce officially opened the Margaret Olley Art Centre. Zavros recalls how effortlessly she carried the strong colour as she spoke from a marquee before hundreds of assembled guests. Interestingly, yellow was one of Olley’s favourite shades too, a fact I have no doubt Ms Bryce would have been aware of through her friendship with the late artist, and knowledge of her work.

This portrait had much to achieve. There’s no doubt that the artist would have wished for his subject to be pleased with the finished product. And, as a commission, there’s also an element of the desire to satisfy the client, not only in depicting a likeness of the subject, but also in creating a work for the National Collection. These are daunting responsibilities in themselves. Perhaps, though, the greatest sense of obligation for the artist is to satisfy the public. A vital element in producing a successful portrait is to include viewers as participants in the end product – almost to instil a sense of pride in the work, especially when the subject is so admired by so many. It is human nature for people to form an opinion or idea concerning the type of person a public figure like Quentin Bryce might be. It is part of the remit of the portraitist to be aware of this voyeuristic curiosity and to satisfy it – to provide a view of sorts, into the subject’s world.  An artist has to present some clues, and weave a narrative thread through the picture to link them with the subject. Inevitably the audience may bring some of their own attitudes and experiences to their reading of the portrait, and ultimately this will influence their interpretation and opinion of the work. I find all this quite fitting, as Zavros’ practice is more about role play than portraiture, so individual interpretation plays a key role.

This work is a perfect union of portraiture and still life. The artist has imbued the painting with his inherent respect for both genres, very much in line with the regard he has for his sitter, and the responsibility of delivering all that a portrait of such an influential Australian demands. He has also remained true to his own practice.
The portrait presents fitting recognition of Quentin Bryce’s achievements and dedication to the Australian people, through her work, and I am sure it will earn a place in the hearts of visitors as one of the Collection’s most admired pieces.

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