I’ve become reconciled to this blog as being the soft option, when we need to turn away. In Neil Finn’s deathless lyric: “in the paper today / tales of war and of waste / but you turn right over to the T.V. page.” Culture Mulcher, the TV page of Crikey blogs. (Albeit with an unreliable and elitist agenda.) So once more I have for your infotainment a gelatinously soft, whisper-light, harsh-free post.

As the Archibald Portrait Prize season is upon us — I’m leaving the Comedy Festival to Laugh Track — it seemed apposite to recycle a talk I gave a few weeks ago on making a portrait of Patrick White for ABRAustralian Book Review (context in footnote). But as it’s being transposed to the blog I’ve added pomo-style annotations (it was already an illustrated talk). The plain black text is pretty much the talk as I gave it, minus some contextual detail and ad hoccery. The olive italics tell what crossed my mind at the time I performed the words. And the bracketed plum coloured text are my reflections on the preceding text/thoughts.

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Well, I said this was going to be soft; but I didn’t say it’d be straightforward:

How to Make a Portrait (of Patrick White)
or, reflections on likeness, art and an apres garde understanding of Progress.

(Note: this talk was given in a building across a park from the MCG.)

Good evening.

First I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the members of the Melbourne Cricket Club.

Are they laughing? Phew, yes. (When addressing a PC bunch, riff on PC pieties. Mmm.)

I’m inclined to the school that thinks artists should shut up, and let others do the talking, but I’ve been given three minutes in which to tell you how to make a portrait of Patrick White — (at this point I hold up and wind a kitchen timer and drop it in my pocket). It’s not so bad, really … I’ve heard that Dylan Thomas, during a poetry reading, sometimes paused for three minutes.

Okay, kitchen timer did good. (I had practised performing this little talk; it’s an obvious way of gentling the nerves. When I told my ancient father-in-law that I had rehearsed it he said dismissively, Why?! Why not be natural? … I refrained from pointing out that the actors on the Sopranos he finds so enthralling have had not a little bit of experience, direction and rehearsal to produce their naturalism.)

Now I don’t know about you but I find it much more useful and fun to draw from life rather than photographs. When you draw a face from a photo, you’re really just making … a portrait of a photo. To draw a person in front of you is to see the source of that photo — of countless possible photos. Someone swivelling from profile to look directly at you — that 90 degree changes everything.

A photograph — we’re talking of documentary photos, snapshots — is a micro-shaving of time and space, a recording of something that will never happen again. But making a portrait with hand and eye is the opposite — you’re collecting and editing many moments, many angles and views. Even if your models sit still like an apple, which Cezanne instructed — their expressions and postures will change as you watch — all these stray bits of being alive, you’re also absorbing and noting.

As you are all readers — imagine a writer describing a photo of someone. Then imagine what they would write if the same person was in front of them. The difference is radical.

So how do you make a portrait from a photograph?

To answer the long way round … for me, portraits need to do at least two things — the first is that it’s recognisable as the subject. If this seems perfectly obvious, it’s an expectation that is no longer standard. Anyone who saw the self-portrait show at Fed Square earlier this year will have seen many contemporary pictures which show no evidence of anyone resembling the artist, or even a human figure.

The great British expressionist painter — an expressionist! — Frank Auerbach, says bluntly that “There’s no substitute for likeness.”

Here is Auerbach’s self-portrait (left). And this is a portrait of Deborah Ratcliff (right). Some of you may be thinking otherwise but I assure you that it is a likeness of Ms Ratcliff. I know this because she used to work in the Gallery shop — you could see truth of Auerbach’s version.

A friend of mine who is a very good artist says that she never can get a likeness. I’ve been in many life drawing sessions in some very competent groups, and it’s a true thing, some folk can render a face you can recognise, and it just eludes the rest. It’s some kind of knack — or if you’re musical, maybe it’s like being able to play music by ear.

(Analogies: can a mostly bookish person understand pictorial issues through a literary analogy; a musical person through one about music? Does that kind of analogy tell us anything more than: “Trust me, I’m an expert”?)

After likeness, the second thing is more complicated — how do you approach the portrait?  A traditional method is to place your subject in her milieu — a scholar in his library, a lady in furs and gold (only the rich could afford a portrait), Napoleon on a rearing horse, hair and cape whipped by lightning and thunder. More recently, since Cezanne, or at least Picasso and Matisse, we’ve narrowed the portrait down to heads and faces. We’ve projected a psychological aura over the face with no surrounding clues to tell you who the subjects might be, or what they do.

Anyway, I collected a dozen pictures of Patrick White taken from different angles from which I could triangulate a likeness.

(It is the burden of the representational artist to divine the figurative connections [connecting the dots] out of the apparent realism of reality. What I mean, of course, is that on close inspection apparent realism turns out to be an epic chaos for the observational artist [ie, artists who depict what is discernible before them]. A scientist might point to the schematics of nature: the five-petalled bloom; the thorns in their spiral ratio along the stem; the Mandelbrot pattern of a leaf’s serrated edge.

But if you look hard at the face — that most subtle and fugitive of geometrical arrangements — and try to make an objective, observational drawing, you may end up discovering abstraction, or else end up in a migraine of frustration. We have ideas/biases/preconceptions about what an ear, an eye socket, a whorl of hair looks like. We feel sure we know what a familiar face looks like, but try describing that face in a few different moods to an artist to reconstruct — a face can be like weather.

[When we don’t recognise a photo of someone we know, we think we’re at fault. But no, the photo is telling us how malleable likeness can be.] )

Then I had to think about how to present White. I already had a mode to follow, inspired by Japanese woodcuts. I mean that I want to achieve maximum impact and suggestiveness with the minimum of means — like an elegant karate chop.

(At this point the alarm goes off.) Oh, no! Well, should I stop now?

The audience breaks into a babble but I get the pollice verso so I carry on. In fact I knew I would run over, having timed the talk at nine minutes, but it’s edgily interesting to give the audience a vote. (Christopher Menz, who introduced me, said later that he’d like to give a timer to every speaker.)

I intended to reduce Patrick White to a black and white drama. I had no intention of competing with Louis Kahan or Brett Whiteley — here is Whiteley’s White (1980) and Louis Kahan’s Archibald winner from 1962.

As I sketched White I was thinking about his books — I’ve only read 4 or 5.  My idea of the great Australian novel is the first half of The Aunt’s Story, and my idea of a great memoir is Flaws in the Glass. But Patrick White does strike me as being of another time, maybe from the era of the nineteenth century novel. So … then … I had this image of him as a grand senator in the Republic of Letters, someone who belonged with past giants — rather than swimming with the small fry in our shallow pond.

Here is a selection of trial drawings from my sketchbook — the last image was developed into the final design. Curious to be flicking through the drawings — the final idea seems to materialise into being without any preliminary gestures.

The print is named after his tenth novel, A Fringe of Leaves. The fringe gave me licence — I could insert gum leaves, locating White in Australia. And I could insert a sprig of leaves into the frame across his temples … to suggest a quasi laurel wreath. (He was made a Nobel laureate three years before this book.)

The wreath also nods back to the famous portraits of Dante, whom the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz — Careful, get it right: Chess-wov Mee-woash — calls “the patron saint of all writers in exile.” And his books showed that White was always tugged by the siren of European civilisation, like his heroine Ellen Roxburgh in A Fringe of Leaves, so the laurel and eucalyptus both connect and as well as contrast.

Here is di Michelino’s Dante, and Botticelli’s. Gosh, the Botticelli Dante — the profile! (I was startled. I hadn’t realised until I showed Botticelli’s Dante to the audience how much the memory of that image had informed my composition. My White is a distant but direct descendant.)

By the way, the decorative leaf border also reminded me of the great Margaret Preston‘s designs — pointing back to classic Australian prints of the early 20th century. As you can see, the aesthetic here is a long way from cutting edge. It’s as cutting edge as an old bedroom slipper. But I will say this: in ten years when the most fashionable art becomes curious and even more obscure, these prints here will read exactly the same as they do today. They’re built to last.

“They’re built to last.” — what will they think?! (These last are fighting words, and self-serving. But even on further reflection I can’t resile from it. It is a deeply conservative project, to use linocut in this graphic way — like a reactionary revival of a medium that had its heyday 70 years ago, with its whiff of socialist idealism and nationalistic enthusiasm. [I’m guessing that historical reference will mean nothing to many people, but see the Noel Counihan linocut, right: The Miner, 1947.And here is Counihan as recorded by Bernard Smith: “The human face has always been an obsession with me and to this very day I am still intensely interested in the face, its shape, its mobility, the way internal feeling is registered.”]

Most of all, the linocut period sense of handmade localism; its concerns with the here and now of subject matter and its gesture towards populist accessibility. But it only begs the question: who is art — Art — for? In a polemic way one might ask: who is Politics for; or, “News”? Is it only for the engaged, or are we trying, as artists, also to actively — pro-actively — engage?

And if the subject matter — old style humanism: emotions; literary concerns; the aesthetic and moral perennials of beauty and truth — is less than “radical” or “cutting edge,” that being one desirable contemporary criterion, who is it then we are trying to impress? Or connect with? The echo chamber of the art industrial complex, or that charming possibility: the intelligent general public?)

One final thought — about the state of handmade portraiture. There’s lots of art without portraits in it, and a lot of portraits that don’t contain much art. But it’s obvious that the most intelligent and talented of our younger painters aren’t much interested in faces. Which is a pity — you can tell from the Archibald and Moran Portrait Prizes and the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra that people are fascinated by pictures of people.

And yes, many of the young and talented enter those competitions too — two of them won the major prizes last year (and this year too); but that doesn’t make it a theme in their work. The young painters referred to next in the show “Model pictures” are painting, literally, models of life —   from staged scenes made of playdough and cardboard cutouts. At their age they can get away with doing anything — right now, they are so jaded that the protean world around them cannot hold their gaze unmediated.

You can see a show, “Model pictures,” on now at the Ian Potter Museum at Melbourne Uni — demonstrating what the smart young crowd (and I mean that in a good way) would rather paint — it’s all about art world theories. I’ve wondered why this is. Perhaps David Hockney, that great portrait painter, has the answer: “To make good portraits,” says Hockney, “you have to be interested in people.”

Thank you.

(We live in unprecedented times; what is “New” becomes hackneyed in half a Biennale cycle. That apostle of the new in art, Ezra Pound, aphorised that “literature is news that remains news.” Apropos of that the late painter R B Kitaj remarked that paintings of men and women will always remain news. Auden more contentiously wrote: “All Cezanne’s apples I would give away / For one small Goya or a Daumier.” But Auden was having it several ways — Cezanne and Daumier and Goya are not mutually exclusive choices. They all understood this (to paraphrase Dr Johnson): When one is tired of the world, one is tired of life itself. Or, when one is tired of life, then the world is not enough. But let us end on a cheery note, with Louis Armstrong, in a wonderful world: “The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky / Are also on the faces of people going by.” A sunshine reason to look at faces — soak in that emotional vitamin D.)


Context, notes, soft sell etc.

The Patrick White print (linocut, paper size 38 x 28 cm) is part of a series of portraits I’m making as a fund-raiser for ABR as part of its fiftieth anniversary. All proceeds go to ABR to fund new writerly projects. It started with Paul Kelly (the singer, which I wrote about — too late, it’s sold out); then an etching of Dorothy Hewett (still available), and the current issue, Patrick White. Apart from folk with a taste for literary figures the prints have also been collected by the State Library of Victoria, the National Library in Canberra and CAL, the copyright agency representing writers and artists in Australia. The prints are very reasonably priced, beautifully printed on Arches paper (tahnks to our excellent printer) and proceeds go to a good cause. Visit the ABR site to order.

And, next issue I’m doing The Most Dangerous Man in the World — Julian Assange. I’m taking a cue from M. Python: “He’s not the Messiah. He’s just a very naughty boy.”

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