Australian Arts

Mystery portrait

18 July 2020

9:00 AM

18 July 2020

9:00 AM

Shortly after moving to Manhattan in the noughties I was strolling through the West Village when I came across a sumptuously upholstered sofa half-blocking the sidewalk. It wasn’t stained or damaged, so it seemed to me the most likely explanation for its presence on that manicured kerb was that, having paid a lot of money for it, its hedge-fund managing owner had decided it didn’t quite match the decor of his or her immaculately restored brownstone, and had simply donated it to the street, knowing that someone less fortunate would be grateful to find it there. As I stood pondering the magnanimity of this gesture, a passer-by disabused me of my notion. ‘Bed bugs,’ he muttered without breaking stride or making eye contact, ‘welcome to New York.’

I was reminded of this when I came home last week to find, lying on the nature strip in front of my building in Kirribilli, the large oil painting reproduced above. Even by the light of my iPhone I could tell it was quite old, and while I’m no Robert Hughes it also struck me as being rather well executed. So having determined that the ancient frame was not riddled with bore-holes, I carried it up to my unit and propped it on a bookcase, from where its subject now watches me – or rather gazes contemptuously past my right shoulder – as I write. ‘This bloke has no idea who I am,’ he seems to be thinking, ‘he doesn’t even know who painted me.’ But in the last few days I have tried to find answers to these questions. Placing the clothes in the opening decades of the last century, for example, I’ve trawled through the corresponding online Archibald Prize archives, hoping to identify the artist by finding something painted in the same style. There is, in fact, a signature in the lower left corner, but it is lazy and indecipherable, suggesting the artist was sufficiently well-established not to need to advertise his or her name too obviously. A graduate of the highly respected Julian Ashton school, perhaps? But I leave it to better qualified Speccie readers to nail the painting’s provenance. What interests me more is why its owner should have decided to dispose of it. In normal circumstances, a formal portrait of a private individual would only come into your possession if you belonged to the subject’s family. It is the kind of portrait which, after gracing the hall or dining room of the family seat during the subject’s lifetime would then be handed down. You certainly wouldn’t dump it on a street corner like a broken toaster.

But of course, these are not normal circumstances. These are the strangest of strange times in which all over the planet respectable people do things which only a few years ago would have been considered to be in violent breach of social convention if not legal statute. Things which often involve the destruction and disposal of artworks which memorialise individuals who were venerated by these same respectable peoples’ parents and grandparents. So perhaps I should reappraise my painting with one finger on the populist pulse. Acknowledge, for example, that it is a picture of a middle-aged white man. And that it was painted at a time when middle-aged white men enjoyed a monopoly of wealth and power in Australia. And that while the wealth and power this particular middle-aged white man enjoyed would not have been accessible to people who didn’t have penises or white skin, its accrual may well have involved the subjugation of the former and dispossession of the latter. And let’s acknowledge also that even if he himself was not personally guilty of such behaviour, he was born into a society which conferred astonishing privilege on his whiteness and maleness. All of which, of course, could also be said about Theodore Roosevelt, whose statue was taken down two weeks ago, and not by outraged BLM protestors but city contractors, and with the unanimous approval of the museum’s board of trustees, which includes the 26th president’s 77-year-old great-great-grandson. If my guy had achieved for ordinary Australians a tenth of what the Roosevelt presidency delivered to ordinary Americans, we would all certainly recognise his portrait. But that might not be enough to stop one of his great-great-grandchildren, perhaps shamed into it by woke friends, making it another craven propitiation to the irascible, implacable gods of cancel culture.

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