Can you control your image? Gina Rinehart, King Charles and 'moral portraits'

21 May 2024
Looking beneath the surface of portraiture
From heroic Roman emperors to caricature and King Charles III, Professor Roger Benjamin from Art History discusses Vincent Namatjira's painting of Gina Rinehart and when or if a portrait's subject should have control over the artist's depiction.

“She’s no oil painting”.

Those were the unkind words of a colleague commenting on the subject of Vincent Namatjira’s acrylic painting, Gina. Every one of the prominent Australians and cultural heroes in Namatjira’s ensemble Australia in Colour (2021) is subject to his trademark distortions.

When the painter gets to work interpreting the press photographs that his main source, resemblance is always stretched. No one comes out unscathed: Tony Abbott looks just as scary as Angus Young from AC/DC; a grimacing Queen Elizabeth as grisly as a roaring Cathy Freeman. Indeed, in the 2023 volume on Namatjira there are no fewer than four paintings of Gina Rinehart – and they look like four different people.

Do we expect a portrait to be a moral physiognomy, the ancient pseudoscience that assumes the way someone has lived their life shapes their features and appearance?

Roman emperors were shown to be ideal types: the heroic portrait. Who knows what these men actually looked like? In the case of King Charles III, whose new portrait by Jonathon Yeo was unveiled this week, we can compare his likeness to the myriad photographic and filmic images.

Newspaper caricature, popular since the 1700s, works hard to point out imperfections, posit animal likenesses, and exaggerate specific facial features to satirise public figures.

Namatjira brushes with caricature even when depicting himself.

an art gallery wall with 14 paintings on it

Every one of the prominent Australians in Namatjira’s Australia in Colour is subject to his trademark distortions. Photo: Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Can you control your image?

I think Rinehart should be flattered to be one of Namatjira’s favourites. The wits in the twittersphere have in the past 24 hours shown several more of his Ginas, and it turns out there are also at least half a dozen colour portraits of her by other artists.

They range from Scottie Marsh’s mural on a Sydney wall of a matronly Rinehart giving the breast to infant Barnaby Joyce (with apologies to Raphael), to Xavier Ghazi’s demonic hard-hatted Gina giving Australians the finger – it’s in newspaper caricature mode, his entry in the Bald Archies competition for 2023.

Although Rinehart has reportedly called for Namatjira’s painting to be taken down, the initiative apparently comes from members of the Australian swimming team and their former coach (Rinehart is that sport’s major private sponsor).

I suspect their discomfort comes from reading Namatjira’s Gina as a moral portrait; that is, ugliness of appearance projects an ugly spirit (whereas for them she is the epitome of generosity).

It’s an interesting idea that the fresh-faced teenage daughter of Lang Hancock in old news photos has changed not just because times takes beauty away (as we all know), but because of the impact of things she inherited from her father: not just the extreme wealth and the jawline, but the conservative views, and the ways she has used her money and power.

Her control of vast tracts of (unceded) grazing land across western and central Australia give reason to reflect on what Western Aranda man Namatjira might think of her.

And yet what about commissions?

When can a sitter control their portrait image? Only when they commission the work. Art history has plenty of cases in which a sitter has rejected their portrait. Monet in the 1860s painted his brother Leon, who so disliked the canvas he locked it in an attic, from which it emerged 150 years later.

Portrait paintings have had to be altered, payment refused, or be paid for then destroyed. The commissioned portrait, it’s assumed, must flatter the sitter or at least offer a fair and non-judgemental likeness.

The British royal family has historically been very forgiving about portraits, and has the sophistication to know it is futile to protest a likeness. Doing so invokes the perverse “Streisand effect”, as we see happening with Namatjira’s Gina.

There are dozens of depictions of Elizabeth II and Charles III in Namatjira’s pantheon – including one of the late queen alongside Rinehart in Australia in Colour. Namatjira has a family link to Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who met Albert Namatjira (the painter’s great grandfather) on their 1954 tour of Australia.

But no one is asking for Queen Bess to be removed from the National Gallery of Australia.

Australian indigenous artist Vincent Namatjira in the desert standing next to his painting of footballer Adam Goodes

Namatjira with his Archibald Prize winning portrait of himself with footballer Adam Goodes. Supplied by Iwantja Arts, Art Gallery of NSW/AAP Image

As a mark of noblesse oblige, King Charles has accepted the newly unveiled commissioned portrait of himself by Jonathon Yeo. It is an absolute shocker, and he should have sent it back.

The King, de-aged by 20 years, looks pleasantly out at us from a floor-to-ceiling fog of strawberry- and cerise-coloured paint that covers his dress uniform. The joke, of course, is that the red colouration can be read as a reference to “tampongate”, the product of an infamous case of tabloid phone-hacking in 1993.

It’s a case of a portrait generating an unintended consequence – just as Namatjira surely did not expect to provoke international headlines today with his Gina, whom he’s been depicting for years.

an artist standing next to his painting of King Charles III with Charles looking on

Artist Jonathan Yeo and King Charles III at the unveiling of Yeo’s portrait of the King. Photo: Aaron Chown/Pool Photo via AP/AAP

Fittingly, wise heads have rejected calls for the gallery to remove the canvas, starting with director Nick Mitzevich’s measured statement, seconded by the National Association for the Visual Arts whose press release insists on freedom of expression.

Finally, late yesterday, Namatjira, resisting myriad calls for interviews, issued a statement in the pithy mode of his book texts. Let him have the last word:

I paint people who are wealthy, powerful, or significant – people who have had an influence on this country, and on me personally, whether directly or indirectly, whether for good or for bad. Some people might not like it, other people might find it funny, but I hope people look beneath the surface and see the serious side too.

Professor Roger Benjamin is Chair of Art History at the University of Sydney. His research fields include Matisse and the art of the Fauves; French Orientalist art and colonialism 1830-1930; historical Australian art, Indigenous Australian art; and modernist architecture in Canberra and the Snowy Mountains Scheme. This story was first published on The Conversation. Hero Photo: AAP.

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