August 2016

John Brack's portraiture

National Portrait Gallery

Subtle subversion

John Brack said that portraits involve three people: the painter, the sitter and the viewer:

"In fact the sitter in the portrait takes – mysteriously it might be – an active part in the painting of the picture."

Brack was fascinated by the contradictions of modern life.

Notice the strain in the posture of this woman using a public telephone.

...and her confinement, exacerbated by the horizontal and vertical lines of the booth.

In his figurative work, as well as capturing the particularities of a person...

... Brack managed to invoke aspects of the human condition.

For this self portrait, Brack was influenced by Georges Seurat. The tone and form give it a timeless quality.

Its softness, achieved through masterful use of conté crayon, contrasts with the crisp figures in Brack’s painted portraits. But the composition and expression is undeniably Brack.

Consider the self that Brack projects here: in profile; face turned to a three-quarter view; left eye cautiously gazing out. His expression is guarded and disarming.

The shadows and textures also seem to shield his inner self from our gaze.

Here Brack presents his close friend, art dealer Thomas ‘Tam’ Purves.

It's a challenging work. The colours are stark, and Purves' pose awkward.

Though Purves was an art dealer, no artworks are visible.

The foreground stationery simply points to his role as a busy professional.

Lost in thought, and behind his desk, Purves distances himself from the viewer.

The mood here echoes the sallow conformity of Brack’s Collins St, 5pm, painted two years prior.

For Brack, drawing was an essential part of the painting process:

"Drawing controls the idea, guides the subsequent composition and heightens the intensity."

These two sketches preceded the extraordinary painted portrait, John Perceval and his angels, 1962

Commissioned to paint art dealer and collector Kym Bonython, Brack presents a similarly distant figure with an ochre palette.

With all excess detail stripped away, the sitter’s pose articulates his larger-than-life character.

Hands clasped together in front of his exaggerated torso, Bonython appears on the verge of a business deal, or at least ready for a serious chat.

His gaze meets the viewer head on, not without tension. It's as though the subject is taking pains to look genial, but hints of self-doubt lurk beneath.

The large, empty background and the strange tilts and proportions reinforce the tension.

All is not quite as it seems.

Bonython always wore a speedway cap, which Brack initially excluded from the painting.

He was more concerned with revealing Bonython’s inner life than the world of appearances.

As the video reveals, after the painting was complete Bonython repeatedly asked Brack to paint his cap in. The additional canvas was Brack's solution.

Here Brack presents Barry Humphries in his persona of Dame Edna Everage.

And here is the vivid painting that resulted.

Humphries later said of Brack:

"He was different and no one knew what to say about his work. Many critics of the time saw it as caricature but he made a deep impression on me because his shrewd pictorial observations had an affinity with my own theatrical portrayals of Melbourne life."

Given Brack's reputation for creating unflattering, revealing portraits, Joan Croll was brave in agreeing to sit for Brack.

(Anne Purves actually set fire to Brack’s portrait of her.)

Croll was, however, happy with the result:

"When I look at my portrait I see somebody who likes fashion... and I see me. And it is me. I’m a bossy lady and I look like a bossy lady."

Notice how the tilted picture plane positions the figure at once distant from the viewer and above us.

Brack deployed this composition device in a number of portraits from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, including those of his friend, artist Fred Williams, and his mentor, art historian and curator Professor Ursula Hoff.

Although in the final phase of his career he turned to abstract painting, Brack remains best known for his figurative works and portraits that – like this one – draw our attention to the irony and performance of human behaviour.

National Portrait Gallery, Australia
Credits: Story

This exhibit was written by Grace Blakely-Carroll and edited and produced by Catherine Styles. Thanks to Art Gallery of New South Wales for allowing us to include their works.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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