Everyone views art in their own unique way. In art galleries you often see people stop and admire an artwork that has touched them in some way, whilst others walk by unaffected. How do we explain that "special something" that attracts our eye? If you sit on a bench inside the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, it is interesting to watch this phenomenon in action. This absorbing gallery holds up to 500 of Australia's most prized portraits of people who have shaped our nation in a significant way. As visitors walk around the gallery, some congregate in front of some of the major artworks, whereas others will stop and enjoy a portrait of a lesser known person, or artist. What makes one catch our eye more than others?
The focus of the National Portrait Gallery is the person featured in the portrait, not necessarily the artist themselves - however it is interesting to read the panels and see who painted each one. The painters of some of the portraits include iconic Australian artists in history such as Tom Roberts, William Dobell and Sidney Nolan, as well as contemporary artists who have made a mark in the art world today. These are some of the most popular or well known, as well as some of my own personal favourites. Walk around and discover your own favourites and see which ones touch you, or make you stop and say "wow". The following are just a taste of what you will discover.
Deborah Mailman (1999), by Evert Ploeg (born 1963), Oil on Jute
There are nine exhibition rooms to walk through in the National Portrait Gallery. Most have permanent exhibitions, with three of them set aside for temporary exhibitions. See here for a map of the galleries. One of the main areas that you first walk into is the Contemporary Gallery, where leading contemporary artists display portraits of people who are making a mark on Australia's society today. This is where you can find the portrait of Australian actress Deborah Mailman, by artist Evert Ploeg. This portrait of the actress sitting on wool bales, won the "Peoples Choice Award" for the Archibald Prize in 1999.
Another striking portrait in this area is of Australian musician Nick Cave by artist Howard Arkley. This colourful airbrushed portrait was one of the last paintings Arkley created before he died later in the same year. Both of these portraits capture the person's likeness in two completely different ways, however both command attention on their space on the wall.
Nick Cave (1999), by Howard Arkley (1951-1999). Synthetic polymer on canvas.
Walk through to other nearby galleries and admire more portraits of Australians who have made an impact in modern times, many of whom you will recognise from various fields. Two portraits which are particularly large, bold and popular are found in the Fairfax Gallery at one end of the building. Firstly, Portrait of Her Royal Highness Princess Mary of Denmark by artist Jiawei Shen depicts her life in Copenhagen in the palace, however in the background is the Sydney Opera House - combining both her past and present cultures. The colour, detail and poise shown in the painting is impressive from wherever you stand in the room.
Her Royal Highness Princess Mary of Denmark (2005) by artist Jiawei Shen (born 1948).
Also in the same gallery is a portrait of musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (2009) by artist Guy Maestri. The artist admired the talented musician after watching him play in the band 'Yothu Yindi ' and arranged a short sitting to start this portraiture. It won the Archibald Prize in 2009 and remains a strong force in the gallery, with its dark tones and grand scale.
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (2009) by artist Guy Maestri (born 1974). Oil on linen.
At the other end of the National Portrait Gallery are the historical galleries with portraits of prominent people who tell a visual story of our nations past. Explorers, early settlers, artists, musicians, inventors, war time figures, sports achievers and people who have made significant breakthroughs in medicine, are just some of the portraits you see as you walk between each gallery.
The frames alone are works of art, with some capturing the light just enough to make you want to walk closer for a better look. In particular, a portrait by artist Tom Roberts of his wife titled Mrs Tom Roberts, is particularly unique. Elizabeth Sarah Roberts was an artist in her own right and became well known for her intricate hand carved picture frames, which were sought after by prominent artists. One of her own frames surrounds her portrait, so viewers can stop and admire both.
Mrs Tom Roberts (1910) by artist Tom Roberts (1856 - 1931). Oil on canvas.
If you would like to know more about the portraits in the gallery, see here for a full list of the ones they own - or click on "On Display" for what is exhibited in the gallery today. If you would like to join a tour, the National Portrait Gallery has a half hour Collection Highlights Tours (free) as well as a one hour conversation around an artwork called Portrait Encounter, which costs $5 and includes tea or coffee. There are also musical events, school holiday programs and events held throughout the year, see here for more details. Also if you still have energy to burn, why not walk across the road to the National Gallery of Australia for an even larger art experience.
If you love portraiture and appreciate a variety of styles however, the National Portrait Gallery alone could take you some time to wander. Stay and join a tour or book into an art conversation and perhaps learn more about a portrait that you may have just walked by, to get a better understanding of its meaning. Who knows, next time you visit, it may just catch your eye.