From the painted miniatures of old to the photo on an iPhone lock screen, “the inextricability of love and portraiture”—as Joanna Gilmour, senior curator of the National Portrait Gallery, puts it—is a tale as old as time. “Though it’s typical to think of portraits as being representations of individuals,” Gilmour says, “every portrait has a relationship at its heart.”
As she points out, “the most powerful and enduring portraits” are often those that reveal an intense relationship between artist and subject. “These are the sort of portraits that can reveal what the artist is feeling, where the artist lets their guard down and exposes their innermost self.” Gilmour cites, for example, Richard Larter’s images of his wife, artist Pat Larter, as “vivid, joyous evidence of the love and creativity they inspired in each other over their 40-year partnership. Richard’s portraits of Pat are love writ large.”
Australian Love Stories reaches for love in its most expansive form. There’s the bond between parent and child; the intensity and trust of creative partnerships; the affection of deep friendship. There’s the acceptance and love of the LGBTQI+ community in William Yang’s photographs of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras; Vincent Namatjira’s love for Country and pride in his cultural heritage; Davida Allen’s erotic fantasy drawings of actor Sam Neill (who the artist knew only through Neill’s roles on 1980s television).
And there are romantic portraits, too. While some are of people we’d recognise—Nick and Susie Cave; Bob and Blanche Hawke; Joy Hester and Albert Tucker—there are many others, historical and contemporary, whose faces might be unfamiliar but whose stories are intimate, complex and fascinating.
The exhibition, Gilmour says, “has very much been shaped by what we’ve lived through over the last 12 months.” A year of socialising via video calls has certainly underlined both the importance of connection and the power of images, but ultimately this is a timeless phenomenon; at the heart of what makes us human.