Portraits in paint, ink and other visual media are a form of life writing. Many portraits, for me, are static, showing a public persona, dressed and posed in a manner the subject considers presentable. In contemporary portraiture, this formality has been disrupted by iconoclastic representations of ordinary people, as well as famous ones. I am not a student of art, and I don’t presume to know the finer points of portraiture. But, to quote a cliche, I know what I like.
I went to the Tweed River Gallery today to see the Archibald prize exhibition, which is here for a few weeks. The road approaching the gallery was lined with parked cars on either side, and with others, I plodded up the hill. As I arrived in the gallery, a guided tour was about to start, so I went to have a coffee to let them get started. For my first viewing, I prefer to have my own conversation with the paintings.
The one that stood out for me was the prizewinner, Ben Quilty’s portrait of Margaret Olley. I sat and looked at it for many minutes, stood up close to read the story with it, went away and returned several times. It has a freshness and immediacy that captures centre stage, and the face arrests you with its naked and poignant features.
What this digital image does not show is the remarkable way in which the paint is applied to give the white, flat canvas life and features. The face itself is unpainted white canvas, daubed with thick blotches and stripes of colour. The effect is one of a clown’s face without its mask, showing all the sadness and pain that underlies the innocent and whimsical persona. The shadows under the eyes, the downward curve of the mouth, the luminous and vulnerable eyes, the arched eyebrows — all bring me very close to this wonderful spirit. She said to Quilty: “I’m like an old tree dying and setting forth flowers as fast as it can, while it still can.” Her face is a flower, framed by the rich earthy colours of the hat, given depth by the grey, mauve and blue shadows it casts. Her vest repeats, in brighter tones, the terracotta and clay of the hat, and her spotted blouse is softened by the olive green and beiges of the scarf. The colour spectrum is quintessentially Australian, reflecting the rugged landscape and the bleaching effect of the light. Olley’s face is a landscape of the self, the questing spirit of the artist who was in love with life and the Australian landscape, flora and fauna.
Well done, Ben Quilty, for shining a light on this remarkable spirit.