The Portia Geach Memorial Award

October 29, 2011
Sophie Cape, Master and Commander. Mixed media on canvas, 208 x 286cm.
Sophie Cape, Master and Commander. Mixed media on canvas, 208 x 286cm.

One of the small paradoxes of colonial Australian art is the question as to why there were so few notable female artists at a time when women art students continually outnumbered their male counterparts. Looking at photos of the graduating classes of the National Gallery of Victoria School in the late 1800s, there is always a better-than-even representation of women, including Ms. Portia Geach (1873-1959), class of 1896.

Students at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, 1895

There are lots of reasons for this discrepancy, not the least being that even the best-trained female artists were often treated as hobbyists, and were unable to find buyers for anything vaguely adventurous. In those days the Australian market was so limited that even artists such as Tom Roberts and Emanuel Philips Fox had to paint children’s portraits just to make ends meet.

In the days before labour saving devices, the aspirations of many women were derailed by the sheer drudgery of housework or child-raising. Almost every woman who pursued an artistic career was childless, unmarried, or both. This also applied to Portia Geach, who lived an independent life in the Astor Flats in Macquarie Street, contributing works to local art exhibitions and campaigning for women’s rights.

When she died, her sister, Florence Kate, set up the Portia Geach Memorial Award for a portrait by a woman artist. The competition was launched in 1965, and is still going strong. Now in its 47th year, the Award has partially outlived its relevance, because nowadays no major Australian art prize might be accused of discriminating against women. It has become a comfortable side-event to competitions such as the Archibald, and the lucrative Moran Portrait Prize.

Nevertheless, the Portia Geach, now worth $18,000, is still eagerly anticipated by many artists who rarely get the chance to exhibit their work in the other prizes. It also has its share of controversy, and this year is no exception.

The 2011 winner is 31-year-old Kate Stevens, for Indian Dream, a portrait of Willy Bernadoff, who is described as an “animator, video and street artist.” The judges called this “a bold and audacious portrait”, but its photographic origins are so obvious I’m at a loss to find anything particularly radical in this image. It is like thousands of other pictures on Facebook or some other social media site, where people post their travel pictures and diaries. The only difference is that this is a painted version. It is sharply detailed in the foreground and blurry in the background, just like a photograph. The composition resembles a common way of taking a snapshot.

While it’s pleasing to see a young artist take out the prize, there will be many left wondering how such an ordinary painting could seem so “audacious” to the judges.

Kate Stevens, Indian Dream

It is, at best, a lacklustre field this year, but there are a few highlights. Foremost is Michelle Dawson’s small portrait of artist, René Bolten, staring at a sparrow with the kind of intensity that Chairman Mao might have practiced when he had these birds exterminated in 1958. This work, which was highly commended by the panel, is a superior piece of painting, and quirky enough to stand out from the crowd.

To prove it’s no fluke, Dawson has another impressive painting in the show, a self-portrait called The Visitation, in which she sits face-to-face with a hyena. I won’t speculate on the symbolism, but there’s no denying the skill with which this artist paints flesh, fur and fabric.

Although I’m sure they didn’t collude in advance, Dawson’s works are perfectly matched by Joanna Braithwaite’s self-portrait, Happy Hour. In this picture the artist has to roll her eyes upward and to the right to stare at the enormous kookaburra with a gold watch around its neck, which has perched on her head. I’m not acquainted with the bird, but the self-portrait is an excellent likeness, and as fastidious as anything Braithwaite has produced in ages. Was it all too weird for the judges? Did they back away from all these ambiguous interactions with sparrows, hyenas and kookaburras? It would have been better to embrace the absurd rather than retreat into the humdrum.

Joanna Braithwaite, Happy Hour

Joanna Braithwaite, Happy Hour

Had they been looking for something truly “bold and audacious” they might have considered Sophie Cape’s Master and Commander, a large expressionist portrait painted in the same vigorous style as the abstractions in the artist’s debut show at Tim Olsen’s earlier this year. The subject is Admiral Paul Watson, of Greenpeace, an uncompromising subject for an uncompromising painting. This is the most ambitious work in the show in terms of scale, and is executed with a freedom that makes many other offerings seem uptight and timid. Cape talks about establishing a dialogue between a person’s “internal and external landscape”, which may sound like a mixed metaphor, but it does convey an impression of a work that treats its subject as a force of nature.

Sophie’s mum, Anne Cape, has a touch of expressionism in a good, though fairly conventional portrait of her daughter. She avoids the intense close-up and the animal antics, settling for a three-quarter-length likeness. It may be too late for Anne to start painting on the scale to which her daughter has gravitated as if it were the only possible outlet for her excess energy.

Deborah Angus, Glen Boss

Deborah Angus, Glen Boss

From here I’m less willing to single out individual artists, although Deborah Angus’s small, square portrait of jockey, Glen Boss, is painted with an engaging, no-nonsense directness, and Ellie Bunt’s self-portrait is another unusual work by an artist with a strong leaning towards abstraction. Bunt is a frequent contributor to art competitions who almost always produces something of interest. She’s a living reminder that there are good artists to be found outside the usual gallery circuit.

Another likeable, no-frills entry is Isabel Gomez’s portrait of her artist husband, John Morris, and the family dog. She manages to capture a sense of the sitter’s personality – the strong but sensitive type! – with a flurry of staccato brushstrokes.

Occasionally the stories behind the paintings add a little spice. In this regard, nothing tops Bridget Doolan’s self-portrait, in which she tells us she is wearing the red boots in which she used to dance the Can Can at the Moulin Rouge. No, I’m not making this up.

Meanwhile, Kathrin Longhurst has painted herself as a heroic pioneer of socialism, after researching a family background in East Germany. Kate Beynon paints herself as Frida Kahlo, Laura Courtney inserts her own face into a portrait by Van Eyck. Yvonne East goes back to basics, painting herself squatting naked in a bare room, in front of three apples.

As you can tell, there is no shortage of fantasy in this year’s competition. It shows the lengths to which artists will go to be noticed. It is no surprise that so many works are self-portraits, as almost every Australian portrait prize is dominated by such images. It may denote an unwillingness to take on the more difficult subject of some public figure – the “man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters or the Sciences” as stipulated in the original Geach bequest. It may indicate the increasing difficulty of getting anyone to sit for a portrait “painted from life”. This year’s winner was most probably painted from virtual life.

There is also a confessional side to self-portraiture, from Bridget Doolan’s Can Can boots, to Wendy Arnold’s examination of her own bipolar personality, to Gaye Chapman’s worries about glaucoma. The self-portrait is the artist’s answer to the personal memoir, which is one of the growth areas of world literature. There was a time when only the great and the good wrote their memoirs, now everyone is doing it. Women may be more prone to the confessional portrait or memoir than men, although it’s dangerous to generalise along gender lines.

It would be too glib to argue that the never-ending vogue for self-portraiture is merely narcissistic. It could just as easily be said that when one lives in interesting times it’s natural to turn to those subjects that provide a measure of certainty.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 29, 2011

The Portia Geach Memorial Award, S.H.Ervin Gallery, until 6 November