Arts / Twenty portraits for twenty years

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Angus Trumble, Jessica Mauboy and David Rosetzsky
“IT’s a red letter day”, the retiring director of National Portrait Gallery, Angus Trumble, said today as he introduced press to the gallery’s newest exhibition, “20/20”.

The culmination of the gallery’s 20th anniversary year, the exhibition shows to the public for the first and only time, 20 major portraits newly commissioned to pay tribute outstanding Australian individuals in business, industry, silence, the arts, sport and other fields— twenty new portraits for twenty years.

It is plainly one of the national institution’s most ambitious projects.

“When it comes to commissioning new work, normally we have maybe two or three, or even four on the go,” Trumble said

But this collection, representing moments of unique “encounters in time and place” between artists and their subjects, was something special.

Mal Meninga, 2018, by Peter Hudson
“It’s a historic convergence, 20 times over,” he said.

The commissions had been privately funded, he said, praising NPG chair Helen Nugent and members of the National Gallery Portrait Gallery Foundation, which was set up during his time.

“And it’s not cost the taxpayers a cent,” he said before introducing three pairs of artist-photographers and their subjects – wood-chopping champion David Foster with Jacqui Stockdale, Rugby Union veteran Tony Shaw and photographer Sara Rhodes and popstar Jessica Mauboy with photographer David Rosetzsky.

Li Cunxin, 2017-18 by Jun Chen, oil on canvas, detail
Rosetzsky said that with Mauboy he had aimed to create an image that would convey her “depth of character, confidence and energy”, but by overlapping two images of her, he had also achieved  the sense of “a less tangible, more mysterious images of Jess”.

The exhibition is a far cry from the glamorous celebrity images which have occasionally graced the walls of the national institution, and in most cases the more serious characteristics of the subject are shown.

Painter Peter Hudson said that producing a portrait of a popular public figure like Mal Meninga was an enormous responsibility, but he had tried to convey the picture of “of a positive, forward-looking, successful man”.

Rear view, Peter Goldsworthy, 2018 by Deidre But-Husaim

Photographer John Tsiavis said he wanted his portrait of actress Jackie Weaver “to capture the power and force Jackie conjures when acting…as though captured in a moment performing Shakespeare or a Greek tragedy.”

Adelaide artist Louise Hearman described her subject, Australian Chamber Orchestra director and violinist, Richard Tognetti, as “a brilliant, frenetic being”.

Queensland painter Jun Chen said that his aim in painting Queensland Ballet company director Li Cunxin was to show him as “a lifelong dancer, self-assured”.

But portraiture, as the NPG has been quick to point out in the past, is not always about face.

Imants Tillers’ “larger than life” portrait of playwright Louis Nowra, he said, was aiming for “kind of mental picture rather than a physical one”. And Deidre But-Husaim, the portraitist for writer-doctor Peter Goldsworthy, has painted not his face but a rear view, saying: “I wanted to offer a glimpse of the inner, private world of Peter, alone with his imagination.”

 “20/20: Celebrating twenty years with twenty new portrait commissions,” at the National Portrait Gallery, open to the public October 20 – February 10.


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Helen Musa
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