Arts Opinion

Rinehart portrait stirs debate over art censorship

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The portrait of Rinehart resides with others in the National Gallery of Australia (Screenshot via YouTube)

A portrait of mining magnate Gina Rinehart has erupted in controversy after the subject ordered its removal. Rosemary Sorensen argues that the world needs art to heal right now.

CENSORSHIP CALLS have inspired this writer to see Archibald Prize-winning Vincent Namatjira's Australia in Colour exhibition.

In isolation, the broad-brush portrait of influential Australian Gina Rinehart is striking. In context, alongside Adam Goodes, Slim Dusty and Ned Kelly, it’s way more enigmatic.

As the artist said in a statement released by the Gallery:

‘Why has this Aboriginal bloke painted these powerful people? What is he trying to say?’

It grinds on — the violence, the hypocrisy, the failures of will and the ignorance. How do those who want it to stop, who try to add their voices and actions to the dissent in the hope of change, keep going?

Everywhere you look, people are gathering. On the streets and university campuses, in front of huge trees in old-growth forests, outside politicians’ offices, marching with flags aloft, shouting into megaphones, banging drums. Does it make any difference? Is it worth the time and energy? Does it make you feel any better to know you’re not alone?

In a book called Hope in the Dark, published in 2007 (which now seems a more tranquil and optimistic time), Californian Rebecca Solnit wrote:

... History is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent.

 

Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary.

British writer Robert Macfarlane quotes Solnit in his magnificent Landmarks, published in 2015 (also, therefore, a book belonging to the time before Russia invaded Ukraine and Israel commenced their definitive assault on the people of Palestine).

Macfarlane believes that words are not merely useful but creative, in the sense that words call forth ideas and meanings. At a time when cynical and ruthless politicians and their ilk are hammering down the lid on words to shut down dissent, these are writers whose books bring solace and, perhaps, hope. It might appear very dark right now, but hope, writes Macfarlane, ‘is a longing for change, experienced in necessary ignorance of when that change will come or what form it will take’.

For practical purposes, it’s simple to long for change to regimes and the strategies of violence that are inflicted on others. But I think this is not the hope Solnit and Macfarlane are talking about. Their hope is what makes art and literature resonate with such intensity: it’s awful to imagine our world without them.

For me, that’s what is implied by Theodor Adorno’s much-discussed notion that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz: how can we have hope when we know what human beings are capable of? And without hope, what’s the role of art and literature beyond diversionary entertainment?

With that in mind, we turn to Vincent Namatjira, whose arresting Australia in Colour exhibition is on at the National Gallery of Australia despite requests from those cultural gatekeepers at Swimming Queensland and their patroness Gina Rinehart that one painting – a portrait of her – be taken down.

This being an opportunity to either laugh at or publicly support one of those people whose wealth gives her enormous influence on what kind of country we live in, the painting is seen by some as a caricature and unflattering. That’s surely underestimating the artwork.

Antoinette Lattouf, who shot to fame (of sorts) when the ABC made a total mess of terminating her short-term on-air contract by denying that they’d been responding to Zionist demands, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald in tepid support of Rinehart, that her own Archibald-entry portrait by Dean Brown made her look ‘forlorn’ and ‘witch-like’.

Lattouf wrote:

‘At first, I chuckled at the double-chinned depiction of Rinehart in the caricature-style portrait. But then I recognised the self-consciousness and difficulty women in the public eye have, women whose appearances are picked apart at the same unforgiving rate as their words and actions.’

This is silly from Lattouf, who also confesses that, flattered by being asked, she told her portrait artist to ‘make sure I look cute’.

She makes matters worse by lining up a couple of examples of other “famous people”, such as Winston Churchill and Gertrude Stein (one of Picasso’s best works, surely), who hated their portraits — comparisons that might have been included to give us a sense of how it can be difficult for the subject of a painting to accept the artist’s portrayal but can sound vainglorious.  

She’s right about the self-consciousness and difficulty of women “in the public eye”, but that’s not what’s happening in either portrait. In the case of her own portrait by Dean Brown, a quick look at his work would surely have given her a sense of what to expect.

Ditto Gina. In that case, the only mitigating circumstance for the complaints is that Rinehart wasn’t asked, so there is an issue about whether it’s fair to depict someone whose consent is not first sought.

That’s why Namatjira asks us to think about the lineup of people in his Australia in Colour painting. Every single one of them is famous. Every single one of them says something about Australia — although for some of them, it’s not immediately obvious what is being said. Angus of AC/DC? Jimi Hendrix? There’s a thesis right there, I reckon — Borrowed Sounds: Popular Music in Australia.

But in neither portrait – just to stick with Lattouf’s point for a moment – is there a “picking apart” of women according to their looks.

For Lattouf, while it’s probably not a successful work, it recalls those expressionist paintings that are dark and dramatic, not at all like a public relations photo, more like a characterisation (not caricature) of what happened to her. I think it shows a personal and private, possibly interior, image of someone who has been very much a public figure in a very unpleasant story.

For Rinehart, the eyes, rather than the oft-mentioned many chins, strike me as important. Namatjira paints everyone with slabs of colour, angular brush strokes and flat colours. Adam Goodes, depicted in the panel adjacent to Rinehart, sticks out his bright blue tongue, which is both realistic – it’s an image from that memorable AFL game when he retaliated against the abuse he’d been receiving and his tongue was, if memory serves, stained by an energy drink – and fabulous in the sense that this was a moment that entered history — a fable that captures a moral truth.

Most, but not all, the people depicted in this work look towards the viewer. But Gina, she confronts us. She stares us down. She tells us what she thinks of us — and certainly what she thinks of the man doing the painting. In photographs, Rinehart’s eyes are narrowed as she smiles for a camera. It’s difficult to know what colour they are. Namatjira makes them piercing blue.

If a good portrait is dense and alive with understanding and meaning, this is a good portrait.

Since the story broke that the gallery was under pressure to remove this artwork, social media has entertained us with images dropping Namatjira’s Rinehart into famous paintings. Just waiting to hear from the swimmers if this kind of humour is okay.

Rosemary Sorensen was a newspaper, books and arts journalist based in Melbourne, then Brisbane, before moving to regional Victoria, where she founded the Bendigo Writers Festival, which she directed for 13 years.

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