D. and I skedaddled from the fag end of the homebirth protest and made a beeline for the warm bosom of the National Portrait Gallery. There was excellent coffee and nice staff (the woman behind the counter thanked me for protesting) and after a refuel, we hit the gallery with Esther refreshed from her nap and ready for ART. Well, for crawling on the floor and looking up into the faces of the portraits, anyway. A perfect gallery for a one year old, actually – all on one level, beautifully lit with indirect skylights so not too bright, and all those faces.
It’s a collection with a monastic edge – disciplined choices, runs of irony, nice groupings of texture and style. A few things stood out. An extraordinary dynamic portrait of botanist Joseph Banks, on loan. He looks as though he’s about to pick you as a specimen.The light-filled, scratchy surfaces of Jenny Sages’ work, particularly the unflattering, restless portrait of Helen Garner.
The haunted countenance of Elizabeth Jolley, staring out adrift, missing her glasses so hardly looking like herself. Painted when she was losing herself to dementia. I thought again of those words from Thomas’ Under Milkwood spoken by Rosie Probert, dead and fading from the world as her lover Captain Cat ages, reaches his own end.
Remember her. She is forgetting. The earth which filled her mouth Is vanishing from her. Remember me. I have forgotten you. I am going into the darkness of the darkness for ever. I have forgotten that I was ever born.
I came up short in front of Clifton Pugh’s looming portrait of Sir John Kerr. He’s tipped forward slightly, as if he wants you to believe he is important. I knew it, but took a while to place where from – on the wall at David Triaca’s Latin, an indelible fine dining experience from my childhood. I called my mother to confirm.
“Oh yes, it was there.” she said. “We had a chance to buy it when the restaurant closed. It wasn’t expensive.”
“You didn’t want it.”
I wouldn’t have wanted it at my place either. One of Australia’s historical losers. Lampooned as a drunken patsy in a morning suit. There was another painting at The Latin of Gough Whitlam in a green jungle, with a stage-light pallor. Not as good a painting but I bet someone bought that one.
And for fun, both I and the baby enjoyed the groovy video portrait of Cate Blanchett by David Rozetsky. I was petty enough to notice that her hands were appropriately aged for a woman nearing forty and conveniently ignored her alabaster skin and ability to lope like a leopard.
A great gallery and if you’re in Canberra don’t miss it.