Portraits for the ages

This week my newsfeed has featured painted portraits

There was King Charles in red with jokes about him being a Slayer fan ('Reign in Blood'), as well as Vincent Namatjira's painting of Gina Rinehart and her request for it to be removed from exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.

It seems remarkable since we live in an age when nearly everyone is a photographer and AI is making ridiculous strides toward producing images of every whim within a few keystrokes.

Yet it shows how artists continue to matter and can still shock audiences — or maybe it's all confected outrage?

So I thought I'd add my five cents (rounded up due to inflation and the lack of two cent pieces).

You see it's because I've been reading Manning Clark's book A Historian's Apprenticeship at the behest of my mother.

Manning had a strong influence on Australian history at a time when national identity was being shaped and the fact they tried to make him a character in a musical is really wild.

Some of his observations about the country reflect a different time, like the line "civilisation did not begin in Australia until the last quarter of the eighteenth century" was one he clarified later in life.

The Apprenticeship book captures his reflections and influences.

Mum's copy has an inscription from Manning's wife Dymphna, who lived long enough to be recognised for her remarkable contributions to his career.

I remember the last time I saw her she was glowing in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, where they had screened a documentary about her and she was surrounded by friends such as my mum.

(There's a story Mum likes to share about how much I resented going to their house and so I called them "Meatball and Dingbat," which she repeated to them in front of me!)

In Manning's book, which was published after his death, the famous Australian historian discusses how he wrote the volumes of books about our country.

One of the most surprising details is the amount of time he spent looking at portraits and sculptures showing the figures from early Australia.

Manning sought out these artworks and would scrutinise them to see if his impressions of their characters resonated with their representations.

After he'd read the letters written by famous folk, as well as the diaries and stuff noted by their contemporaries, I guess he'd have to visit the painting in person since it was decades before the internet started to give us all this sort of luxurious omniscience.

It seems sorta bizarre that Manning Clark would look at such hagiographic material that was surely produced long after the deaths of the historic figures.

At one point he mentions a visit to an arcade in Adelaide to look at sculptures of Charles Sturt and John McDouall Stuart.

This shows an enduring role that a visual representation can occupy and gives me a new appreciation for the importance of art in our society. 

It always seemed like such a quaint tradition that they would paint official portraits of historic figures, yet now I see how much they are looking to the future.