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Bigger Picture: Nicholas Harding

Weekend Australian 11 November 2017

Christopher Allen

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Once, it seemed almost a mirable that art could capture the appearance of a man or woman, allowing them to live on in effigy for centuries after their disappearance...

..If painting of this abject quality leaves the viewer feeling rather despondent, the small survey of the portraits by Nicholas Harding at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra has exactly the opposite effect: it fills us with an infectious enthusiasm for drawing and painting, and convinces us that it is, after all, worthwhile to be interested in people and the mysterious question of how to engage with them and to discover something of their inner life through and in the study of their external features.

The exhibition includes some fine paintings, several of which are in the NPG collection. The portrait of Hugo Weaving is a strong and striking likeness, as are others of Peter Weiss and Robert Drewe, his head bobbing in a convincingly watery green swell. Also notable and economical in their use of gauche, instead of Harding's more familiar oil, with his characteristic impasto, are seated portraits of Anna Volska with her dog and the artist's mother-in-law, with flowers from her garden strewn at her feet.

But it is really the drawings that make the exhibition particularly vital, especially in a time when so many who claim to be portraitists can do little more than trace over a photograph, and sometimes not even that. The first drawings that greet us are a detailed study of David Marr and a quicker but elegant and vivid likeness of Megan Washington. These sheets remind us that being able to draw a sitter directly from life is the foundational skill of portraiture. Without that ability, anything else is pointless if not fraudulent.

But inside there are even more surprises, including two studies for the painted portrait of Weaving at one end, and the other several drawings in sketchbooks of Harding's wife Lynne and son Sam, travelling or asleep after long international flights. We can see that the true artist is inexhaustibly curious about the world, about people, about the human form and the relation of inner and outer life, appearance and consciousness.

A small display case is devoted to 10 drawings done in felt-tip pen on airline sickbags - three-quarter rear views, that tantalisingly limited perspective that we have on people sitting on a plane in the row ahead of us. One young man is sleeping, a young woman looks at her smartphone; others are awake, reading or presumably watching the screen on the back of the seat in front of them.

The ability to capture the appearance, but also the character, of casually glimpsed figures with such economy of line is clearly part of the daily practice that nourishes Harding's serious work as a portraitist. I have seen him at work and have been drawn by him, so I know from first-hand experience how quickly and confidently he is able to seize on the defining forms of a sitter's features.

But perhaps the greatest challenge of all is revealed in a large folio open at a vivid sketch of Geoffrey Rush. For years Harding has been attending theatre rehearsals and drawing the actors as they perform. The difficulty of capturing likeness and feeling in constantly moving subjects is daunting, but it reminds us that the features even of the most disciplined sitter are never entirely still, never frozen as they are in a snapshot.


Review of Nicolas Harding: 28 Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. Until November 26.

About the exhibition:

Nicholas Harding: 28 portraits is a small exhibition encompassing the variety in the portraits of this intelligent, industrious artist. The works differ in mediums, from the pure, thin line around the quick likeness of Geoffrey Rush to the staggeringly thick paint on the monumental self portrait; and in mood, from the meek figure of the artist’s mother-in-law Edie Watkins to the commanding one of Peter Weiss, looking like a tired old monarch about to start up with a roar. The portrait of Weiss glows in peony-pink, amaranth and crimson oils; that of John Bell is all black, white and grey. The covert, hasty sketches of unknown air travellers are distinct from the direct and careful drawings of famous men and women. In his cluttered portrait with its watery interior light, John Feitelson is small; in his clean, hot and stark portrait, its setting the open ocean, Robert Drewe looms large. Drewe’s expression is pitiably guarded; he looks like a ferocious man at a loss. By contrast, William Cowan’s smartly suited, his black shoes gleam, and sitting on a modernist chair against a blank wall in the artist’s Sydney studio he emanates zest and likeability... more

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