HOW THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY IN CANBERRA IS BRINGING PORTRAITURE INTO THE MODERN ERA!
Portraits are boring right? Wrong! This museum will really surprise you.
On a recent trip to Canberra, our first stop of the day was the National Portrait Gallery, and if I’m being honest, I really wasn’t expecting much. When it comes to portraiture, I’m just not really that interested. Still, I decided that we should go because we had a tour of Parliament House booked at 2 PM, and since the gallery is situated in the parliament area of Canberra, it meant that it would be really easy to find. As we approached the gallery, my fears of exposing the family to a few hours of boredom quickly vanished upon seeing the modern building made from various-sized concrete slabs, which had been pieced together almost like a three-dimensional puzzle. There was also a randomly shaped, squiggly orange sculpture out the front, which Aria was instantly fascinated by. Before looking around, we decided to have lunch at the gallery café, as we were starving! Plus, if the crowd of business executive-type people all sitting around eating their lunch was anything to go by, it looked like a pretty popular eatery.
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Even though we were hungry, we didn’t order an abundance of food. I had a disappointingly small quesadilla, which still tasted great, and my latte confirmed they make a good cup of coffee. Zac and Aria ordered cheese and tomato toasted sandwiches and cakes for dessert. Aria had a tiny mouthful of a rather pretty-looking pink pavlova before getting distracted by the birds outside. Rather than seeing it go to waste, Aria’s mummy (whoever that is!) decided to break a large chunk off at the bottom and wolf it down in a very slick and smooth style operation! She didn’t even notice. Although lunch was delicious, the portions were quite small, so I almost cried when we somehow ended up with a bill for over $65.00!! We were on a tight budget, so that pretty much wiped out most of our spare cash for the rest of the day!
Now with our tummies full, we were finally ready to see some portraits. As it was a Monday afternoon, we practically had the gallery all to ourselves – just the way I like it. No annoying photobombers! The first gallery we explored was to the right of the reception, and it really surprised me with its real mixture of different portrait styles. There were your typical old–fashioned–looking paintings, where the model had been sat there all day so they looked super bored, but there were also some really cool modern paintings and photos as well. I can say that portrait painting has well and truly been brought into the modern era, and I liked what I saw. Some were so impressive that they’ve stuck with me ever since. One such example would be a collection of paintings called ‘The Studies (b, c, d) for the Portrait of Helen Garner,’ 2003 by Jen Sages. These pieces were made using both oil paints and charcoal to make the images more striking.
Its sister piece hangs nearby and is a fabulous portrait done by the same artist called ‘True Stories – Helen Garner,’ 2003. Helen is a writer. She is slouching in a chair, and it looks as though she has just looked up from a book and is glancing at Jen with little interest. It’s the total opposite of what you would expect to see from a subject, but like I said, these are modern portraits, so expect to be surprised! It looks as though the artist has tried to show the complex character that many authors seem to have.
Continuing to the next room, I came across a set of brightly coloured and just downright fun-looking portraits of Neil Armfield, 2010 by Adam Cullen. It’s so cute how one of the images features Neil’s dog, who is giving a cheeky smile, while Neil is next to him casually chilling out on a chair. I also love how the artist has continued with this relaxed vibe by allowing the paint to run in several areas. Despite how much I loved this collection, it still came in second to my favourite piece, a portrait by Evert Ploeg created in 2016, entitled ‘Equation of a Life – A Portrait of Professor Derek Denton.’ It portrays the subject in a selfie-like pose while writing diagrams and equations on the camera’s screen. The thing that really attracted me to this painting was how it had been created to look like a photograph, just another fine example of how portraiture has been dragged into the 21st century.
Continuing on, I came across a fantastic collection of photos and paintings of well-known members from various Aboriginal communities. One that really spoke to me was of a man who sat cross-legged dressed entirely in white. He appears to be surrounded by various objects such as animals, spears, flowers, and other hunting instruments. The items are drawn in such a way that it looks as if they are swirling around the man in the painting, almost like he’s inside his own dream. I love this idea, and it seemed very relevant due to the importance of ‘Dreamtime’ in Aboriginal culture. Upon closer inspection, I learned the image is of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, painted in 2002 by artist Tim Johnston. Clifford was a pioneer of the contemporary Aboriginal Art Movement and had a wealth of knowledge about the Dreaming trails in and around Tjoritja (the MacDonnell Ranges). He portrays his expertise in a series of map paintings he created of his ancestral lands. One method I love used in aboriginal artwork is the dotting method, which has been subtly used in the background, and Tim had to be granted permission to use this distinctive technique.
Be sure to check out any temporary exhibitions while you’re here too. They’re usually a great addition to your visit. There was a Pub Rock exhibition on during my trip, and being a fan of rock music, I found it very enjoyable. I really enjoyed looking at photos of the artists performing small intimate gigs or relaxing backstage after a show, which is often a side that we fans don’t get to see. All the usual suspects made an appearance, from ACDC to INXS. There’s a great image of Jimmy Barnes, showing him playing at the well-known Coogee Bay Hotel in Sydney (Highly recommended spot if you’re in the area!). There’s also an awesome shot of Angry Anderson, an Australian rock singer-songwriter, which, when you look closely, appears overlaid with dots, giving it an Aboriginal vibe. It’s really cool. If this exhibit has ended by the time you visit, I’m sure another great display will be there instead.
I also spotted an interesting painting of Hugo Weaving from 2011 by Nicholas Harding. Did anyone else just immediately think of his character Agent Smith from The Matrix, and his slow, drawly voice? ‘Mr. Andersoooonnn…?’ Anyway, Hugo is painted casually dressed while sitting on a couch. It’s another fantastic example of a more modern portrait.
As I was leaving, I realised that I needed to take some selfies while admiring the art I would blog about later. #Vain, right? But it had to be done! I’m often travelling alone, so I’ve become accustomed to always carrying my trusty tripod and Bluetooth remote. Poor Zac certainly wouldn’t be helping with the photos. At this point, he was too busy running around after Aria, who couldn’t contain her excitement from looking at all the brightly coloured paintings and had gone a bit stir crazy. So, I went ahead and began setting up my tripod. The next thing I know, this security guard came rushing in, looking all flustered. I don’t know what he thought I was doing, but I may as well have been setting up a block of dynamite for all the commotion it caused! Apparently, tripods aren’t allowed! So, what’s a girl to do when she can’t take photos of herself? Get the security guard to take them instead, of course – lol! At least I knew he wasn’t going to run off with my camera! At the end of the day, he’s only doing his job (and mine! Tee-hee!). Lesson learned, Lindsay, get permission next time!
King Edward Terrace, Parkes ACT 2600 | www.portrait.gov.au
Thanks for reading my post today on the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. I highly recommend visiting here, as I wasn’t expecting an awful lot, and it turned out to be way more interesting than I thought it could ever be! I loved how modern and relaxed some of the paintings were, compared to the standard stiff-upper-lip by poses we are used to seeing. Are you planning on visiting Canberra in the future? Will you be adding the National Portrait Gallery to your Australian Bucket List? Let me know in the comments section below.
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