Stage 1: Portraiture and social context.

April 25, 2011

Why did I come to consider the social context of my portraiture practice to be important? Important enough to construct a paper around it? I recognise that even to start in the first person is contrary to the traditional practice of thesis writing. However, due to the nature of the content this paper will delve into I found it appropriate – even necessary – to do so.

My explorations into this subject began with a realisation of some social groups being exulted over others in Australian portraiture. What I mean is that there has been and continues to be a tradition of painted portraits of celebrated Australians – usually those who are respected for something, considered accomplished or are well known. The Archibald immediately springs to mind. In its policy it requires the sitter to be ‘distinguished in the areas of art, letters, science or politics’. Throughout its controversial history this prize has attracted submissions depicting people whose social roles have been considered ‘distinguished’. However, do the rules of this sole prize mean that other portraiture-supporting institutions in Australia also elevate certain social roles over others? It is true that the Doug Moran Prize for Portraiture, held by the NSW State Library, does not seem to, since the entry form states that the sitter does ‘not need to be in any way well known’, rather preferring that they have a close personal connection to the artist. The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra also celebrates portraiture in its various forms, holding a variety of portraiture exhibitions and competitions (such as the national youth self-portrait prize) where the faces of people from the daily experience of many Australians can be seen. However, while this is the case, for its permanent collection it does seek to primarily acquire portraits of notable Australians – where each subject is ‘either important in his or her field of endeavour or a known and named person whose life sets them apart as an individual of long-term public interest’ (the NPG collection policy, cited in: Beer, 2009, 160). But does this tendency to focus on particular individuals over others extend beyond such well-established institutions as the Archibald and the NPG? When looking at other portrait prizes, the Shirley Hannan Prize for Portraiture is not concerned with any social status of the sitter as the focus is on capturing likeness. However, the recently created Perth Black Swan Prize for Portraiture does require some social elevation on the part of the sitter: they must be ‘well known’ or ‘well respected’ in their field, and if they are not well known then the artist must justify why they respect them. Such variation in the entry requirements of these prizes seems to indicate different views on what the purpose of supporting portraiture is. Namely, whether it is to publicly remember the achievements of some individuals or to document contemporary society. However despite this the reoccurrence of the ‘well known’ or ‘distinguished’ criteria across at least three Australian institutions is worth noting. Does it suggest that, in line with the older history of portraiture there are still categories of people who are considered more worthy as the subject of a portrait than others?

The subjects of portraiture have historically been rulers, people with exulted social roles or people who could afford to commission an artist. However, after the 1848 revolution in France, the realists (such as Courbet and Millet) could exult the rural poor as high subject matter since it was socially acceptable to do so (Nochlin, 1971, 112). Nochlin notes that this was a significant development as, ‘by painting peasants au sérieux, without any idealisation, on the scale and with the earnestness and seriousness formerly reserved for history painting, they were making an assertion of value that at once assumed contemporary relevance, in the context of mid-century social history’ (1971, 113). Taking a step back from such assertions of social value, the French Impressionists following them painted family and friends as subjects of their light observations and parts of middle-class life. However the development of describing an individual’s likeness in a cheaper, more affordable form came with the advent of photography in the 19th century. While in the 20th century this led to the proliferation of images and photographic portraits of all types of people from contrasting social backgrounds, this investigation shall purposely focus on what intersects with the painted or drawn portrait.

In colonial Australia (from the 1830s) lithographic portraits that documented groups of people became popular. Some were concerned with presenting the ‘typical’ in the society, while others sought to be more comprehensive in documenting an entire community, such as an aboriginal tribe. Such groupings are revealing of colonialist perspectives and values with regard to different people groups and social roles. From the groups we see decisions as to whether settlers should be separated from aborigines, whether women and children were of equal interest as men, or whether they should be included at all (Bonyhady, 2000, 1). Bonyhady notes that while women would generally be presented as much as men in Aboriginal groupings, in sequences featuring colonists they were scarce (ibid, 2).

Nowadays in middle-class Australia, living in the environment of post-feminism, a policy of multiculturalism and official repentance over the stolen Aboriginal generations, many people may take social equality for granted. If someone has access to good education there is the assumption that if they work hard enough they can become whatever they want. They can become great. They can become a politician or someone famous and have their portrait commissioned in honour of their illustrious career. Yet what about someone who went to the same school, left at year 10, studied building at TAFE, twenty years later they damaged their back, were unable to work and so became homeless? Are they as a person less valuable than the class mate who became a politician?

The reasons why I am concerned with this question of portraiture and human value are due to my own convictions of where human worth is found as well as awareness of homelessness and different perspectives on it. For the last three years I have lived in an inner-city suburb, Surry Hills, where the socio-economic contrast is very great. From my own conversations, it seems many homeless people feel they are not cared about by the wider society and are looked down upon. However, as a Christian I am convinced that human worth is not to be found in what we have done or accomplished in life but in the very fact that each one of us has been made in the image of God. 

While my honours project flows out of this personal conviction, another important element to consider is my prior artistic engagement with people groups in my suburb. During my third year at COFA I undertook a project where I painted thirteen portraits of people who go to a free Sunday breakfast run by my church. At the end of the semester an exhibition was held in order to sell the paintings and raise funds for the breakfast. Most of the portraits were sold, funds were raised, but more importantly the project gave a sense of self-worth to the participants – some more notably than others. Being the subject of a painting said they existed, they had value, they were more than just faces on the street, as many homeless people may seem to passer-bys. One individual in particular was especially touched to be painted and over the semester a friendship developed between us. She has a real heart for the plight of the homeless and is involved in many Christian and social groups in and around the areas of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst – despite being over seventy and fluctuating in and out of homelessness herself. I considered submitting her portrait for the Archibald but it seemed apparent that she did not fit into the category of ‘distinguished’ according to their criteria. This I found concerning since it upholds a system that values people who may be well known, successful, distinguished in their field but lends to the exclusion of a whole range of others who may have done very well with what they have but in perhaps more mundane areas. In taking the NPG’s mandate and the Black Swan prize also into account, what do such criteria say about who we value as a society? It was from this situation that my desire emerged to investigate further into the culture supporting portraiture in Australia.


My honours project consists of making the portraits of a range of people who live in a geographically defined area, my suburb Surry Hills, and who come from across the diverse socio-economic of this area. I intend to present them together, each as equally valuable elements that contribute to what the area is.



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