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Response to John McDonald

This is my response to John McDonald’s article which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Oct 29-30, 2011. For the most part John’s blog is well-worth reading but I felt I had to respond to some of what John said in his article about the Portia Geach exhibition. The link to his article is here.

Hi John,

I read your piece about the Portia Geach Prize in the Herald this week with great interest.

I agree with your assessment of the overall show and of the winning work – an uninspiring selection to say the least. I was surprised when Kate Stevens was announced as the winner – and for pretty much the same reasons as you state in your article.

However, I do want to take you to task on a couple of other comments you make about the show, mainly to do with the motivations for, or assessments of female portraiture.

After the paragraph in which you list a number of artists who have painted themselves as other artists or as insertions into famous works you continue on to say in a disparaging way ‘there is no shortage of fantasy in this years competition. It shows the length to which some artists will go to be noticed’. I’m assuming you mean that because women have painted themselves ‘as’ something, you are able to dismiss it as fantasy. Why level such criticisms, albeit veiled ones, at women but not at male artists who do the same? Consider these from this year’s Archibald Prize: Rodney Pople’s The artist and family (after Caravaggio), or Jiawei Shen’s Self-portrait as Quong Tart’s contemporary (after John Thomson).  Neither of these artists were criticised for utilizing a long accepted device of reconfiguring a known work and pushing that work to make new meaning. It’s a device that stretches back to the very earliest days of fresco painting and a tradition that has been reinvented over and over to bring us some wonderful paintings and, I will add, ideas.

So why reduce the content and intent of the Portia Geach finalists to something superficial and vaguely condescending? Clear parallels could be made between the work Shen and of Benyon. Both artists are of Asian descent, both partially displaced in terms of culture and this features in both their vocabulary and as subject matter. Benyon consistently uses historical archetypes, such as the female warrior to comment on the place honour and other values in contemporary society. Grouping artists together and making simple proclamations about their work as a whole is not good scholarship nor giving credit where credit is due.

Women have had a long history of portraiture and self-portraiture and their contribution to the genre is at best, overlooked and at worst, put down with mutterings about childbirth and housework duties and by your (or maybe your sub-editor’s) tiresome and trivialising title of ‘Women’s work’.

In your closing paragraphs you state that the self-portrait is the artists answer to the personal memoir and continue on to say that women may be more prone to the confessional self-portrait than men. My point is not so much to challenge that assertion, as it may well be true (though we do see the male artist engaging in similar dialogues, the self-portrait by Robert Hannaford during his treatment of throat cancer springs to mind here), but more to ask what is it about the reflective self-portrait that bothers you? You seem to suggest it does not make for good art. Was Michelangelo with his flayed skin self-portrait as St Bartholomew not a self-confessional piece? Or David’s self-portrait painted as he sat rotting in a French prison believing he was destined to execution.

Self-portraiture is about much more than a narcissistic obsession with self – it’s about the ability of oneself to look beyond the self and see others and the world we inhabit with all its foibles. And to make comment on that; to touch others and to evoke and provoke and imagine. Surely that’s the main subject of most art, not just portraiture! It occurs to me that you have missed an opportunity to support and endorse the way women paint and think about themselves and their art.


Carole Best

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