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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.

Splendid, many-splendoured

by Sandra Bruce, 6 July 2021

Wesley Enoch and David McAllister
Wesley Enoch and David McAllister, 2020 Peter Brew-Bevan. © Peter Brew-Bevan

‘“Love” is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.’
Plato (as Aristophanes)

Around 380 bce, the Greek philosopher Plato explored the virtues of love in his work Symposium, with a variety of noted speakers contesting the subject. The playwright Aristophanes delivers a speech, proposing that every person is only one half of an original whole, split apart by the gods and fated to long for the other part of themselves. Aristophanes goes on to say: ‘And so, when a person meets the half that is [their] very own, … then something wonderful happens: … a sense of belonging’. While Plato’s focus may be on romantic love between two people, the concept of ‘our desire to be complete’ is just as applicable when considering the love felt within communities, families and friends.

And so it is in the National Portrait Gallery’s 2021 autumn-winter exhibition Australian Love Stories, with portraits brought together to explore real-life vignettes that survey love’s diverse forms, from the 1800s through to today. An exploration of the Gallery’s collection subjects produced a wealth of relationships, and these were supplemented by inviting more ‘nearest and dearests’ from lenders and other collections. The result is an exuberant montage that more that scratches the surface of the notion of ‘love in all its guises’.

The hearty medley emphasises, too, that a portrait need not be a static, staid representation; at any moment it has the potential to be a window through which we discover elements of people’s lives, and common (or not so common) experiences. Connections can be formed between the artist, the subject and the viewer, by exploring aspects of their history, or lived experience. Wherever such connections can be created, portraits have the capacity to preserve these moments of love – whether infused with passion, loss, inspiration, community, friendship, or family – becoming chronicles and keepsakes.

1 The baby drinking, 1955. 2 Second daughter, 1954. Both John Brack. National Gallery of Australia. © Helen Brack.

Family members, for example, may be captured in special places and times, in scenes that fix immediate relations and the inter-generational in perpetuity. The work will be imbued with feelings that speak to the warmth and intimacy of their relationships, even when these portraits may well be the result of convenience, where sitters are near and ready subjects for the brush, pen or camera. They are pieces born from the love of their creator, such as those by John Brack of his ‘ruffian’ daughters. Such portraits might illustrate, retell, and sometimes create, a family’s history. There may be joy, affection and devotion, but perhaps also chaos, mischief, discord, and instability – all the various qualities found in family.

1 First daughter, 1954 John Brack. National Gallery of Victoria. © Helen Brack. 2 The girls at school, 1959 John Brack. National Gallery of Australia, Bequest of Mrs Elizabeth Summons MBE 2015. © Helen Brack.

An affordable (and therefore quite popular) form of portraiture in the nineteenth century was silhouettes, with artists offering a suite of ‘scenes’ from which a selection could be made. This drawing room interior by Samuel Metford was commissioned in 1846 by the MacKenzie family when they were living in Lancashire, North West England. It features husband Francis and wife Maria with their six children, and Maria’s mother Mrs Edwards. Following Francis’ death in 1851, Maria made the decision to emigrate to New South Wales with her five surviving children. The family’s endearing example of the silhouette portrait, depicting the MacKenzies happily ensconced at home, travelled with them, and was kept in the family for over 160 years. It was bequeathed to the National Portrait Gallery in 2007 by Maria’s great-granddaughter Nancy.

Exploring families who became hubs within their artistic communities, the exhibition looks at collectives that were fertile ground for creative progress in Australia, including the Boyds and the Burstalls; the Blackmans; and the Heide cohort. Another family who has undeniably had an impact on the cultural community of Australia, not least its cosmopolitan evolution, was led by Holocaust survivors Georges and Mirka Mora. The young couple left Paris and immigrated to Melbourne in 1951. They brought with them their enthusiastic, bohemian, European perspective on life, underpinned by a passionate recognition of the importance of creativity – especially through the arts and food – in building a healthy, happy living and working environment, and community. With their establishment of cafes, restaurants, and ultimately galleries, the Moras introduced a new cultural sensibility to their adopted city, giving Melburnians – particularly artists and art lovers – places to go, to socialise and to belong.

1 Portrait of Georges Mora, 1956 Charles Blackman OBE. © Charles Blackman/Copyright Agency, 2022. 2 Mirka - 9 Collins Street, c. 1966 (printed 2015) Lazar Krum.

The artistic community embraced the couple, their young family, and all that they offered. They had only been in Australia for a few years when the up-and-coming young artist Charles Blackman painted this moody, layered portrait of Georges, in 1956. Parisian-born photographer Lazar Krum was another who was drawn to the community shaped by the couple; he was only eighteen years old himself when he captured the eternally youthful Mirka ten years later, in her studio in the heart of Melbourne’s bohemian scene, the Grosvenor Chambers at the ‘Paris end’ of Collins Street. As Georges and Mirka’s three sons grew up immersed in this creative environment, it was perhaps inevitable that they would each pursue artistic careers themselves, with Philippe becoming a film director, William a gallerist, and Tiriel an actor.

Communities are created by those with common experiences, similar interests, and like minds; they are not just the result of shared geography. People seek out and find their place in the world, finding their friends and their communities, the crowd in which they feel most comfortable, most at home – the place in which they feel cherished.

Such was the case with Will and Garrett, suburban boys growing up on opposite sides of the country – Garrett on the Gold Coast, Will in Perth. Both were fish out of water in their everyday Aussie backyards. As Garrett explains, ‘[it was a] tough environment to grow up in if you were different and couldn’t disguise those differences’. The perpetually creative atmosphere of Melbourne drew them both, and it was there in 2006 – pursuing their lives and their art – that they met and fell in love. With each thrilled and fulfilled by the other, it wasn’t long before they started to collaborate, discovering that their inspirations and art practices had a boundless synergy. ‘Something happened when we decided to work together; it was kind of magic. It was like it just clicked’, says Will of his extraordinary and beautiful partnership with Garrett. The result is the cross-disciplinary phenomenon that is the Huxleys, with their artistic output simultaneously joyous, irreverent, hysterical, escapist, shocking, and of course, glamorous.

In their 2018 Postcards from the Edge series, the couple have reintroduced themselves to, and reengaged with, their quintessentially Australian origins – and in grand, ostentatious ‘Huxleys’ fashion (pun intended). Inserting themselves into the retro, vintage postcard environs of their home towns, the artists direct their homecomings on their own terms. Featured in the exhibition are these two particularly sweet examples, where the pair maintain a connection despite their distance, via a sequined, bedazzled umbilical cord that exits its frames to span the country. These self-proclaimed ‘gay terrorists’ continue to do precisely what makes them happy, and are content to ‘wait for the world to catch up’.

Relationships that have creativity at their heart can result in original, memorable and enduring artistic outputs: from the friendships of fashion and one-time business partners Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, to performing collaborators Jane Turner and Gina Riley; from husband-and-wife architects Harry and Penelope Seidler, to the long-term, long-distance relationship of two artistic directors, dancer David McAllister and playwright Wesley Enoch. In such collaborations, friendships, and romances, each individual finds an affinity with their counterpart – a mirror or sounding board for creativity – whether through exchange of ideas, collaboration, even acting as muse for one another.

1 Archie Roach, 1992 (printed 2010) Bill McAuley. © Bill McAuley. 2 Ruby Hunter, 1996 (printed 2012) Jacqueline Mitelman. © Jacqueline Mitelman.

Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach met on Archie’s first day in South Australia in 1973; he had flipped a coin on the Sturt Highway to decide whether he’d go west – to Adelaide, or east – to Melbourne. ‘I remember it clear as day. She had a blue dress on, white socks up to her knees … And big brown eyes – biggest eyes I’d ever seen.’ They were both of the Stolen Generations. He was a seventeen-year-old Gunditjmara and Bundjalung man with little knowledge of his family; she was sixteen, a Ngarrindjeri woman who knew her Country and invited Archie in, and encouraged him to explore his own. When Archie said that he didn't want to be a professional musician, Ruby said ‘It’s not all about you, Archie Roach! How many blackfellas you reckon get to record an album?’ With their lived experiences poignantly informing their work, each became successful musicians, with careers enmeshed in an enduring personal and creative partnership.

These striking, intimate black and white portraits by Jacqueline Mitelman and Bill McAuley rightfully speak of the two as individuals in their own right – independent artists who, by virtue of their creativity, passion, commitment, and love for one another formed one of Australian music history’s partnerships of the ages. In 2000 Ruby said ‘we both appreciate each other’s humour, strength, and love. And yep, life is not full of roses but I tell ya what, we stick it out me and Archie and we love it’. Devastated upon Ruby’s sudden passing in 2010, Archie drew on her strength to continue: ‘I could hear Ruby’s voice say “wake up to yourself” … so I did.’

1 Portrait of Mrs Tom Roberts, 1910 Tom Roberts. 2 Portrait of the artist's wife, c. 1902 Rupert Bunny. National Gallery of Victoria, Felton Bequest, 1946.

An artist may capture the feelings of their sitter, or, for that matter, feelings for their sitter. The visual representation of emotional states such as desire, lust, obsession, adoration or devotion can be depicted through facial expression, body language, symbolism and allegory. The subject wears their heart (or by extension, that of the artist) on their sleeve, courtesy of their creator. Where artists find inspiration in those they are closest to, and use them as subject matter, they – consciously or not – will reveal aspects of their personal relationships: familiarities, hints of intimacies that allow the viewer to consider and explore deeper connections found within creative camaraderie. In such works, like Rupert Bunny’s portrait of his wife Jeanne, and Tom Roberts’ portrait of his wife Lillie, we see the cherished way in which the artist observes and captures the object of their particular inspiration; the recognition and celebration of the heart of their artistic expression.

1 After Jack, 2012 Jenny Sages. © Jenny Sages. 2 My Jack, 2011 Jenny Sages. Private collection. © Jenny Sages. Photo © AGNSW.

Jenny Sages met her husband Jack in 1954 and it was love at first sight. Fast forward 25 years, and a trip through the outback convinced Jenny that it was time to dedicate herself to her art. For the next three decades, she continued to have Jack’s unwavering support; while she spent long hours in the studio, Jack made dinner. And he always made the stretcher frames for her paintings. The last canvas he made for Jenny was for the only portrait she ever painted of him – the intense, resonant, personal My Jack, a work where the subject’s gaze undeniably reaches out directly to the artist. He was ill, and passed away just three months later. The following year Jenny painted her self-portrait, After Jack, which won the 2012 Archibald Prize People’s Choice award. Explaining the work’s title, Jenny said simply ‘Anything else I would paint … seemed trivial to me’. For 55 years the two belonged to each other, and Jenny continued on in Jack’s absence: ‘The only way I survive this is because I have my work. I don’t want to let him down.’ As interested bystander, we are given a great gift, by virtue of the artist’s willingness to share through her creative expression. We are generously invited in, and allowed in some small way to share the experience of this poignant moment, this culmination of the love story of Jenny and her Jack.

Knowing these stories, taking small glimpses into the intimate facets of others’ lives offers the viewer a way to better know the subjects that they study, and by extension, explore the commonalities of our experiences in love. Links within links emerged between artworks – through the people and their stories – and the exhibition was born. Australian Love Stories looks at just some of the underlying and overarching themes of love, the moments that speak to and encourage connection, the undercurrents that resonate through artworks and viewers alike. As Plato wrote, ‘Love is born into every human being: it calls back the halves of our original nature together’.

Related information

Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown (detail), 2006 (printed 2020) © Peter Brew-Bevan
Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown (detail), 2006 (printed 2020) © Peter Brew-Bevan
Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown (detail), 2006 (printed 2020) © Peter Brew-Bevan
Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown (detail), 2006 (printed 2020) © Peter Brew-Bevan

Australian Love stories

Family, friends, fanatics and foes (and everything in between!)

Previous exhibition, 2021

Reconnect and reflect with our new major exhibition, Australian Love Stories (in real life!) as we explore love, affection and connection in all its guises.

Portait 65
Portait 65
Portait 65
Portait 65

Portrait 65, Autumn/Winter 2021

Magazine

Hugh Ramsay, the fashion of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, Peter Wegner's centenarian series, John and Elizabeth Gould's family connections, Karen Quinlan's top five portraits and more.

Portrait of Elizabeth Gould with a raptor, possibly a red-footed falcon (Falco vespertinus), painted in her lifetime Artist unknown
Portrait of Elizabeth Gould with a raptor, possibly a red-footed falcon (Falco vespertinus), painted in her lifetime Artist unknown
Portrait of Elizabeth Gould with a raptor, possibly a red-footed falcon (Falco vespertinus), painted in her lifetime Artist unknown
Portrait of Elizabeth Gould with a raptor, possibly a red-footed falcon (Falco vespertinus), painted in her lifetime Artist unknown

Birds of a feather

Magazine article by Annette Twyman

Charting a path from cockatiel to finch, Annette Twyman explores her family portraits and stories.

© National Portrait Gallery 2022
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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.

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