Private life, public face—how a portrait is made

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Alongside collecting finished portraits of Australians, Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery also amasses material related to the back-stories of how subject and artist come together to make a work. Curator Penny Grist has long been fascinated by this material, and has made it rich subject matter for the exhibition Before hand: The private life of the portrait. “Everyone loves a back-story and a glimpse into behind-the-scenes,” she says. The exhibition ranges from working drawings, studies and sketches to interviews and other recordings, presented across themes dealing with storytelling, time, immersion, concept and energy.

One galvanising item was Peter Brew-Bevan’s sketchbook, developed during a commissioned portrait he made of dancer and ballet director David McAllister. “I would describe it as one of our recently collected treasures,” Grist says. “Peter trained as a painter so he brings that physical drawing and sketching to the book. There is this absolutely beautiful deconstruction of what ends up being a complicated but very beautiful portrait of McAllister in this pensive moment, amid a total chaos of kinetic energy.”

Grist says the collaboration between sitter and artist is unique to the genre. “One of the important things to realise is that making a portrait involves an incredibly private but highly public moment,” she says. “You have this immediate tension that is about successfully revealing of yourself—but it is also for public display.”

Another example is Narelle Autio’s portrait of track cyclist Anna Meares. “It involves this lovely revelation that both of them were desperately hoping the other one didn’t want to include a bike and Lycra in the portrait,” Grist says. “They ended up with this beautiful collaboration, with Meares in a luminous frock in a landscape revealing both her toughness and femininity.”

Before hand: The private life of a portrait
National Portrait Gallery
10 October 2020—21 March

This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Andrew Stephens