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ON DISPLAY

Robert Dessaix
, 1998

by Robert Hannaford

oil on canvas (frame: 183.5 x 153.0 cm, support: 180.0 x 150.0 cm)

Robert Dessaix (b. 1944) is a Hobart-based writer, translator and literary commentator, the former presenter of Radio National's 'Books and Writing'. Born in Sydney, he joined the ABC as a broadcaster after studying and teaching Russian at the Australian National University and Moscow State University. Dessaix has written English translations of Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Russian and Estonian poetry, edited Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing: An Anthology, and is the author of A Mother's Disgrace (1994), Night Letters (1996) and Corfu (2001). Many of the short pieces, essays and journalism collected in (and so forth) (2000) were inspired by paintings. In Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev (2005), a mixture of biography, memoir and travel narrative, Dessaix returned to themes of Turgenev: the quest for faith, the literary critical treatise that he had written some twenty-five years earlier.

Robert Hannaford was political cartoonist for the Adelaide Advertiser for three years, and took up portrait painting full-time following encouragement from the veteran South Australian portraitist, Sir Ivor Hele. He has been a favourite in both the Archibald Prize and the Doug Moran Portrait Prize, which he won in 1990 with his painting Bill. Much in demand as an official portraitist, he painted the Historic Memorials Committee's official prime-ministerial portrait of Paul Keating.

Hannaford approached Dessaix about painting his portrait after having sketched him sleeping, while sitting next to him on a plane. In the first stages Dessaix was amazed to see himself in just 'a few strokes of black' that Hannaford had made; 'there were no eyes, there was no mouth, there were just a few sketch lines on white canvas, and it was me'. As the portrait progressed, the artist literally running to different vantage points in the room and back again to the canvas, holding mirrors at odd angles, coming in close to the author to stare silently at his features, Dessaix began to feel that at some level he was trying to maintain possession of something indefinable that Hannaford was 'trying to take hold of'. In the end, while he found the finished portrait beautiful as a work of art, he felt that Hannaford had rendered him 'more haggard' than he himself thought he looked, imbuing his face with 'a sort of sadness'. 'It reminds me a little bit of a face of someone on a receding ocean liner thinking "I might not see this - these people - again,"' he said.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of Robert Dessaix 2000
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Accession number: 2000.29