Nestled alongside Lake Burley Griffin in its stunning, purpose-built home, Australia’s National Portrait Gallery is the youngest of our national cultural institutions, with its dedicated building opened by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in December 2008. A realisation of the ceaseless efforts of Melbourne philanthropists L Gordon Darling AC CMG and Marilyn Darling AC, who began the push for its creation as early as 1988, the Gallery’s award-winning halls now house a collection approaching 2500 works, bearing the official mission ‘ … to increase the understanding and appreciation of the Australian people – their identity, history, culture, creativity and diversity – through portraiture.’
And what can a visitor expect to find? Well, a bit of institutional history brings context to the delights on offer. Inaugural NPG director Andrew Sayers, appointed in 1998 when the Portrait Gallery was first established (in three rooms at Old Parliament House), once noted it presents a national story that reads like ‘a tapestry, not a tombstone’. It is this concept of an Australian yarn with multiple threads that underpinned Gordon and Marilyn Darling’s nascent vision a decade earlier. They conceived the model, developing an exhibition that would ‘show people in various parts of the country a sample of what a National Portrait Gallery would do for Australia’. Featuring 116 portraits of sitters from fields including politics, exploration, the arts, science, business and sport, the exhibition Uncommon Australians: Towards an Australian Portrait Gallery opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in May 1992, and then toured the country. It introduced visitors not just to the concept of a national portrait gallery, but also to the unique interpretive approach such an institution might take – an interplay of art, word and biography, to create an enriching and accessible narrative of the country’s history, culture and people.
In March 1999, the National Portrait Gallery’s first exhibition as an independent institution, The possibilities of portraiture, opened in the expanded gallery spaces at Old Parliament House. At the same time, the Gallery unveiled its founding acquisitions – including Clifton Pugh’s Barry Humphries (1958), the first of many artworks to be gifted by the Gallery’s founding patrons; Tracey Moffatt’s wisecracking photograph of actor David Gulpilil, The movie star (1985); and Howard Arkley’s lurid and striking portrait of musician Nick Cave, one of the first two works commissioned by the Gallery and now one of the icons of the collection.
And now, in 2016, the Gallery’s collection continues to grow, expanding from those purposeful foundations with a dedicated home to match, designed by Sydney architectural firm Johnson Pilton Walker. Accordingly, the Gallery’s collection and temporary exhibitions are housed in carefully proportioned rooms, inviting a personal engagement with the artworks. The portraits encompass the great, the good and the famous alongside the humble, the flawed and the obscure. Powerful contemporary works – such as Guy Maestri’s Archibald-winning Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (2009), Adam Chang’s Charles Teo (2012), or Brook Andrew’s stunning (2009) unique screenprint of academic Marcia Langton – might be found alongside those in a more traditional idiom, among them the immensely popular paintings of actor Deborah Mailman (by Evert Ploeg), scientist Frank Fenner (by Jude Rae), Indigenous leader Lowitja O’Donoghue (by Robert Hannaford) and Portrait of HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark by Jiawei Shen. There is the beguiling Lola Montez; Cadel Evans, stark in technicolour; and Captain Cook and William Bligh, striking powerful poses. There are portraits in new media, such as Warwick Thornton’s 2013 portrait of musician Paul Kelly, and the 2008 video depiction, by David Rosetzky, of actor Cate Blanchett. There is Bill Henson’s dramatic photographic triptych, Simone Young (2002); Petrina Hicks’ arresting 2008 image of world champion surfer, Layne Beachley; and eX de Medici’s 2001 watercolour on vellum portrait of rock band Midnight Oil.
Through gift, purchase and commission, and particularly with the support of many donors and benefactors, the collection has multiplied almost a hundredfold from the twenty-eight artworks acquired during the Gallery’s first year as an independent institution. It creates a means for people to connect with the lives of others: the people we variously revere, revile or desire; those we are most inspired, moved, perplexed or intrigued by; those who best illuminate historical experience and circumstance; and all of the other past or present-day companions whose lives might cause us to reflect on or understand our own. Come and see which face most moves you!
To read more about the National Portrait Gallery and upcoming exhibitions please visit the website here.