Friday, 08 July 2022

Opening of ‘Archie 100’ and ‘Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits’ exhibitions

It is Rod’s and my great pleasure to be with you this evening to launch the dual exhibitions: ‘Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize’ and ‘Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits’.

Portraiture has captured my imagination since my late teens, when I spent a year on a student exchange in the Netherlands. There I had the opportunity to discover Rembrandt van Rijn’s wonderful portraits and self-portraits in the Rembrandt House Museum and Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam.

Vincent van Gogh’s work, from a very different era, hung in the light-filled Kroller Muller museum, within bike riding distance of where I lived.

Later, as a diplomat in London, I was a regular weekend visitor, with Rod and our then young children to the National Portrait Gallery just off Trafalgar Square.

So, naturally, we were drawn, as a family, last month to the National Portrait Gallery London’s fabulous "Shakespeare to Winehouse” exhibition at Australia’s own National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

After spending an enjoyable hour communing with some mostly very well-known subjects and admiring the skill of the artists in conveying so much more than their likeness, we were heading for the café when I suddenly saw one of my predecessors as Governor.

There, on the wall of the permanent collection was Marjorie Jackson-Nelson, or at least Avril Thomas’ strikingly colourful portrait of her.

And that brings me neatly to the Archibald Prize, again a drawcard for family visits whenever we have been in Sydney at the right time.

Over years of weaving my way through the crush and hubbub of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ hugely popular annual showing where visitors have jostled over a century to get close to people they know on the walls, I have come to appreciate the multifaceted and powerful nature of portraiture.

It can honour someone and preserve their memory, offering gravitas, dignity and inspiration to future generations.

It can offer insight into the subject’s internal life, their thinking and their emotional landscape, while also providing space for the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

Importantly, portraiture sheds light on people and on times.

In the past century, the Archibald Prize has captured thousands of distinguished Australians.

Collectively, these portraits tell a story of our nation and its artistic practice.

Organised thematically, Archie 100 gives us the opportunity in what I hope will be a crush and hubbub in the Art Gallery of South Australia to ask important questions about the inclusion and depiction of women, Indigenous people and minority groups.

Archie 100 includes works by South Australian-raised Nora Heysen, who in 1938 became the first woman to win the Archibald, and Vincent Namatjira, the first Aboriginal artist to win the prize in 2020, who resides in the APY Lands.

Through Archie 100, we can see Australia’s path unfold as a more diverse and vibrant country, on a path of reconciliation.

I commend the Art Gallery for pairing it with an exhibition of Robert Wilson’s Moving Portraits, providing a fascinating juxtaposition of portraiture with not only the Archie 100 exhibition, but a selection of works from the gallery’s own collection.

I am new to Wilson’s work, and eagerly look forward to seeing his video portraits up close.

This is the first time these video portraits have been seen in Australia, featuring some of the most recognisable faces of our times.

I congratulate the Art Gallery on bringing the Robert Wilson and Archie 100 exhibitions to South Australia. Both are compelling in their own right and I am confident the whole – the experience and the conversations the exhibitions generate – will be much more than the simple sum of the two parts.

I am confident, too, that many young visitors to the gallery will experience their own “Rembrandt van Rijn” moment and older visitors like myself will be reminded of why portraiture means so much to us.

I thank the galleries and individuals who have loaned works for their generosity, the Board and staff of the Art Gallery of SA for their dedicated work, as well as the gallery’s committed supporters.

It is now my great pleasure to declare the two exhibitions officially open!

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