Vincent Namatjira's portraits of the rich and powerful
by Andrew Purvis
Malcolm Turnbull is not looking too good. His right eye has become unmoored, drifting down his face to bob oddly around the nostril area. The left eye lazily glances away, embarrassed perhaps. He smiles despite it all, showing off a mouthful of uneven baby teeth. Across the room, Julia Gillard isn’t faring much better: nostrils flared, she squints and grimaces for all she’s worth. In fact, none of Australia’s recent leaders are looking their best in Vincent Namatjira’s series of Prime Ministerial portraits.
Originally exhibited during the 2016 Tarrawarra Biennale and now on display at the Adelaide Town Hall, this series depicts Australia’s last seven Prime Ministers, from Bob Hawke to the aforementioned Turnbull – all the leaders who have held power during Namatjira’s lifetime. Painted with the artist’s trademark ramshackle joviality and charm, the likenesses are loose, but unmistakeable.
At the same time, across town, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Namatjira is a finalist in the inaugural Ramsay Art Prize. His entry is another series of seven portraits, this time of Australia’s richest people – including a dishevelled and somewhat stricken looking Harry Triguboff and a pugnacious, glowering Anthony Pratt.
Vincent Namatjira’s work is frequently discussed and contextualised in terms of his intriguing biography. As the grandson of the famed Australian water-colourist Albert Namatjira, much is made of the artistic lineage, while also pointing to the marked dissimilarity between Albert’s tranquil and refined landscapes and Vincent’s humorous portraits. The big heads and looming, intense faces that seemed to dominate the canvases of the Angry Penguins, like Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester and Albert Tucker, might prove to be a more useful point of reference, but this too seems to gloss over the political strategies involved in the younger Namatjira’s use of humour, exaggeration and distortion.
Namatjira has trained his eye on Australia’s ‘great and good’ – the leaders and wealthy citizens – but he has also slyly skewered the nation’s colonial history with paintings of the British royal family. In a delightful series, Captain James Cook is shown with his arm around Queen Elizabeth II and hosting Vincent Namatjira himself to a lavish dinner. Namatjira is a caricaturist, amplifying his subjects’ foibles and failings for comic affect. His paintings share a common DNA with the work of James Gillray and George Cruikshank, who, along with William Hogarth, were the preeminent political cartoonists and satirists of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.
To discuss Namatjira’s portraits in terms of caricature and satire might seem to diminish them, to make them seem slighter and less noteworthy than they actually are. The idea of a caricature, particularly a political one, carries with it connotations of journalistic topicality, perhaps implying disposability. More than this, to contextualise Namatjira’s work as caricature shifts the discussion into fraught and rather contentious territory: Australian art history has grappled with the ethics of satire and its validity as an art form in the past.
In 1943, William Dobell entered a portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith in the Archibald Prize. The painting, Portrait of an Artist (Joshua Smith), was in Dobell’s usual, modernist style and exaggerated Smith’s distinctive features, his broad forehead, hooded eyes, protuberant ears and prominent jaw. In a photo taken at the time of the portrait’s sitting, Smith appears to be possessed of a forceful, perhaps truculent personality; Dobell gave his sitter a more languid posture, with the figure’s long limbs seeming to elegantly fold up, like those of a refined praying mantis. Composed in warm ochre tones, the portrait balances radical distortion with what seems like thoughtful sensitivity.
Dobell’s painting was awarded the prize, to the consternation of both his rivals and, surprisingly, his formerly cooperative subject. Fellow Archibald entrants, Mary Edwards and Joseph Wolinski, launched a law suit against Dobell and the Art Gallery of New South Wales trustees, claiming that by awarding Portrait of an Artist, the named parties had conspired to contravene the terms of the prize as laid out in J.F. Archibald’s will – in that the work was a caricature, not a portrait and therefore ineligible for consideration. Edwards declared that “Grotesquerie has been awarded the prize" and "it is a Pearl Harbor attack on art".
What followed was a bizarre court case, in which the plaintiff’s counsel presented expert testimony from a medical doctor, who declared the figure depicted in Portrait of an Artist was a ‘biological absurdity,’ and resembled ‘the body of a man who had died in that position and had remained in that position for a period of some months and had dried up.’ Dobell was cross-examined and asked, in painstaking detail, if each physical feature was ‘objectively faithful.’
The scandal and subsequent court case were huge news, swelling visitor numbers to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and supplanting World War II in the newspaper headlines. Dobell was eventually exonerated, with the Honourable Justice Ernest Roper concurring with the trustees that the portrait, despite being ‘characterised by some startling exaggeration and distortion,’ nonetheless bore ‘a strong degree of likeness to the subject and is, I think, undoubtedly a pictorial representation of him.’ The speciousness of a strict demarcation between the scrupulous likeness of a portrait and the exaggerated depiction of a caricature was thus enshrined in Australian law and there was now legal precedent for the strategies and techniques of the caricaturist to be considered the legitimate tools of a portrait painter. The pejorative associations with the word ‘caricature’ linger on, thanks, no doubt, in part to the Dobell trial, but the extent to which these techniques reveal something of a subject’s interior life would seem to be significant.
I can’t attest to whether or not Vincent Namatjira’s portraits tell us anything true about the interior life of his subjects, but I think that is part of the point. Australia’s Prime Ministers, and its wealthiest citizens, are remote figures, unknowable to the vast majority of us. Namatjira’s portraits accentuate or invent frailties in order to humanise his subjects; Gina Rinehart and Tony Abbott may not be flattered by their depictions, but they seem warmer and more relatable as a result. In the same way that Dobell’s portrait offered an insight into Joshua Smith’s personality, Namatjira’s paintings allow us access to an imagined inner world of these distant and inaccessible figures.
To suggest that Namatjira’s paintings amplify the humanity of his subjects is to position them in stark contrast with yet another Australian artist whose caricatures have exposed them to the risk of prosecution: Bill Leak. A political cartoonist for The Australian newspaper - and serial Archibald prize entrant - Leak had a complaint lodged against one of his cartoons with the Human Rights Commission under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in 2016. The cartoon depicted a police officer holding an Aboriginal child by his shirt collar, presenting him to an Aboriginal man, shoeless and holding a can of beer. The police officer says: ‘You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility,’ to which the father replies, ‘Yeah righto what’s his name then.’
The implication that all Aboriginal fathers were feckless and disengaged to the point of being callously negligent was well in keeping with a great swathe of Leak’s oeuvre, which sought to depict Aboriginal people as criminally violent and brutish. Leaving aside the contentious issue of whether the 18C complaint was justified, or an infringement on Leak’s freedom of speech, it does not seem an overreach to describe these cartoons as cruel and sweeping in their cruelty. Notably, the harshest images of Aboriginal figures in Leak’s cartoons were not depictions of individuals, but were intended to be read as metonymic representations of an entire race of people; in this regard they are undoubtedly racist. They perform the opposite function of Dobell’s form of caricature, removing all sense of empathy or exploration of an interior life in favour of a flattened, polemical take on complex social issues.
Some might argue that it is the job of the political satirist to flatten and exaggerate; that complexity and nuance are often at odds with landing a strong punchline. I would argue that in an age defined by ever increasing demands for sensitivity and awareness, the burdens of the caricaturist have increased. Unlike Leak, they must wield their implements with greater precision. Twenty-first century political satire has already begun to move in this direction, with contemporary caricaturists taking advantage of the Internet and video editing software to skewer their targets.
Vic Berger, publishing to YouTube under the name Super Deluxe, has set his sights on the Trump administration, Republican presidential candidates and celebrities. He distorts existing news footage with filters and sound effects, to hone in on micro-expressions and verbal tics, slowing them down, repeating them, in order to render his subjects absurd. Although the focus has shifted from physiognomic parody to the amplification of behavioural quirks, I would argue that these videos are no less caricatures than the works of Gillray and Cruikshank. By focusing attention on actual recorded foibles, this form of satire seems to be even more precisely targeted and harder to dismiss.
Namatjira has created something similar in the video that accompanies the exhibition of his Prime Ministerial portraits. Here, his paintings have been animated in a Terry Gilliam-esque Monty Python style, with the Prime Minister’s mouths flapping open on carelessly hinged chins and their heads bobbing around. At one point, Abbott’s ear pops off the side of his head, unleashing a torrent of dot-painted forms. Previously recorded remarks by each leader, regarding Aboriginal art and affairs, have been inserted into the video for the paintings to mime along to. In fact, the most devastating moment in the entire exhibition comes when Kevin Rudd needily asks, ‘Have any of you seen the national apology, by the way? Have you watched it?’ The inclusion of such undoctored audio recordings makes these caricatures almost painfully piercing and incisive.
By including these audio samples, Namatjira also foregrounds his own Aboriginal identity and makes it a central aspect of these caricatures. When read in conjunction with the video, these paintings no longer purport to be faithful representations, but rather a specific view of Australia’s leaders and wealthiest citizens as seen through the eyes of an Aboriginal artist. Historically, caricature and satire have usually, though not exclusively, been instruments through which power can be critiqued by the less powerful. It is the inversion of this order that makes Leak’s cartoons sit so uncomfortably. And likewise, it is precisely this relationship between the artist and his subjects that confers so much power to Namatjira’s paintings.