Walking through the small exhibition space of the National Portrait Gallery’s Husbands & Wives is like walking across the colourful scrapbook page of an anachronistic socialite settled inAustralia in the 1800s. The exhibition’s design compliments and frames the works within it. They are set off against patterned mahogany inspired by the original velvet casing of the daguerreotypes: it extends through the velveteen lining of the display cases to the very walls of the space. This enforces synchronicity and sameness, grouping together what is a great and interesting variety of work to tell a story about the time in which it was created.
Husbands & Wives is an exhibition of nineteenth century family portraiture which explores depictions of spouses. The exhibition is made up of a variety of media drawn from Australian collections. It combines painting and drawing, but focuses on photography and its emergence as a popular format for personal portraiture.
Despite focusing on images of married couples, Husbands & Wives does not seek to explore the reality of marriage at the time, nor does it examine this genre as an artistic theme. Rather, it provides an opportunity for visitors to examine rare photographic portraits that are not often displayed. These are presented in historical context, amidst an industry of contemporary personal portraiture. The exhibition examines the emergence of photography and its effect on portraiture in nineteenth century Australia. This effect was liberalising: bringing portraiture to a wider range of people. Photography presented another choice to a society whose only options had been arduously long and restrictively expensive painted portraits or a variety of less-influential smaller media (like miniatures, silhouettes and sketches). Photographs were small, but comparatively quick and portable. A photograph could capture what was considered a far truer likeness of its sitter than any other form of portraiture. On top of this, photographs were so affordable that classes of society who had never considered portraiture now embraced it.
The format of Husbands & Wives is interesting because much of the thesis behind it is not explained within the exhibition. The minimal text within the show is restricted to simple descriptions of artistic technique and biographical information about the artists and their sitters. The visitor is left to wander the space and contemplate the relationship between the works for themselves—they are given the choice to consider deeper meaning, or to simply appreciate the works aesthetically. That said, the wealth of research behind the exhibition is available in a variety of supporting ephemera with which visitors may choose to inform their viewing.
Husbands & Wives is an enchanting window into a time when, as curator Joanna Gilmore describes, ‘photography was a more permanent process’. It presents portraiture at a time when capturing a person’s image was a special and delicate process.
Husbands & Wives is on at the National Portrait Gallery until July 11.
When you consider the vast spectrum of arts and creative enterprises, from cinema, theatre, music, visual art and writing, to journalism, photography, dance or even cooking, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to deduce that theatre is the only medium which has thus far not succumbed to vicious homogenisation and commodification. Whether it be due to its defining ‘live’ nature, or perhaps even its supporters’ spirited defence of theatre culture from reality television producers, it seems that theatre has, unlike most other art forms, protected itself from being raped of the very imagination and emotion from which its beauty derives, primed for marketing to the lowest common denominator and prepared for ready consumption in whichever prime-time slot or tabloid rag proves most convenient.
However, that’s not to say that theatre has not, to some degree, adapted itself, in order to be accessible to the shortened attention spans that our convenience-seeking society has inevitably produced. Short+Sweet, Australia’s very own (and also the world’s largest) short play festival, has shown, in its nine-year history, that plays do not need to be 120 minutes long to draw out inspiration, emotion and feeling from their audiences. And this year, six of the best entries from recent years of the festival will tour as SHORTER+SWEETER, showing audiences the incredible brilliance that theatre can produce in only 10 minutes.
“The best thing about short plays, is that it forces writers, actors and directors to be disciplined and not be indulgent and waste time,” says Alex Broun, the current Artistic Director of Short+Sweet. “In Short+Sweet, writers must value every word, directors every moment, and actors every breath.”
First conceived by Mark Cleary of the Newtown Theatre in Sydney, the Short+Sweet festival receives more than 1500 entries from all around the world each year, the only condition of entry being that the play must be less than 10 minutes in running time. Over 100 of these are then chosen to be produced for that year’s season. While the festival provides a new form of theatre in itself, it also provides a platform for less experienced writers, actors and directors to display their work, and to provide an environment where these less experienced artists can learn from, and be supported by those who are more established.
Shorter+Sweeter will showcase six of the most popular plays from recent years of the festival, including Broun’s very own 10,000 Cigarettes, David Sharpe’s Mandragora, Richard Graham’s Trough, Jane Miller’s Perfect Stillness, Cerise de Gelder’s Hi, it’s me, I’m on the train, Jonathon Gavin’s Sleepless Night, and Gregory Hardigan’s 49 stories about Brian Mackenzie, each of which, Broun assures me, has the ability to move you as much as any traditional length play. “It’s tough to choose a favourite,” says Broun of Shorter+Sweeter’s productions, “but for sheer originality I’d have to say 49 stories about Brian Mackenzie, which is unlike anything I have ever seen.” Quite a resounding judgment, for someone who has seen literally thousands of ten minute plays in his lifetime. “It is as moving, profound and deeply human as any full-length play and communicated with such simplicity and beauty.”
Like more traditional-length plays as well, Short+Sweet entries cover most conceivable topics. “There are certainly themes that re-occur from year to year – heaven and hell, satires on Shakespeare, homages to Waiting for Godot. And there are sometimes current trends – we had a lot of anti-Howard plays for a while, a lot of refugee plays after the Tampa incident, and every year we get plays about indigenous issues. The great thing about the festival is that we can be so topical,” says Broun.
But what of character development? Atmosphere? Tension? Empathy with the characters? Immersion of the audience into the world of the play? Don’t these things take more than 10 minutes to truly construct?
“The reality is that life has sped up, audiences are smarter, more sophisticated and can absorb information at a much quicker rate.” claims Broun. “They don’t need all the set up – you can just jump straight to the knockout punch,” he says. “So much theatre tries to pretend that cinema, television, MTV, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were never invented. In our fast-paced, time-poor modern world I really believe ten minute theatre is the answer.” Timely advice indeed, especially for those who sat through over two hours of John Bell’s King Lear on the weekend, when they could easily have been at home catching up on the latest season of The Big Bang Theory or out shotting cock-sucking cowboys at Tongue and Groove.
However, even when the topic of Tropfest is raised – the cinema equivalent to Short+Sweet, Broun admits – Broun successfully defends the festival from any suggestion that critics may see Short+Sweet as a simplification, or dumbing-down of theatre.
“Tropfest seems a little mired in the gag or twist flick, whereas we’ve found in Short+Sweet that ten minute plays can also be complex, dark, profound, even moving. It’s about making the less obvious choices, taking a risk, pushing the boundaries of the form – I think that’s something Tropfest could take a look at!” But ultimately, Broun concludes, Short+Sweet is a microcosm of theatre as a whole, and the incorruptible power and beauty inherent within it.
“It has re-affirmed my unwavering belief in the power of theatre,” says Broun. “The powers of actors on stage – with only characters, words and a story – to transcend life, and capture it, in one, poetic moment.”
Chances are you’ve already seen Rafe Morris performing, whether solo, or back in the day as the vocalist for ska-rock band Dahahoo. Now he’s bringing a new musical experience to Canberra, as Rafe and the Well-Dressed prepare to perform at Tuggeranong Arts Centre.
“It all came about when Dominic Mico [from Tuggeranong Arts Centre] approached me earlier this year about doing a show. He’d discovered me at the Fringe festival and heard I was back,” Morris says.
“He and Tuggeranong Arts Centre really understand the importance of supporting local emerging artists.”
The show is perhaps best described as cabaret, although Morris reckons it’s hard to define in a single genre. The first step was to find a band, and he approached local musicians he admired, but hadn’t worked with before.
The Well-Dressed are Bec Taylor on piano, Zach Raffan on trumpet, Nicola Menser Hearn on bass clarinet, Catherine Keely on double bass and Nick Peddle on drums.
Working with a new band has also shaped the music and Morris says he’s constantly blown away by what comes out of rehearsals.
“It’s called A Show To Make You Smile, so there will be laughs, but there’s also a more serious side to my music that people haven’t heard before. There are some Dixieland songs, some straight pop, ballads and rock… it’s diverse,” he says.
“If I’ve got a strong idea of how I want something to sound, I communicate with the musicians, and if I don’t know what I want I leave it with them and they come up with gold. They are gold—and way better musicians than I am!”
The six musicians will be joined by actors, dancers and other performance artists, under the direction of Canberra’s grand master of absurdity, Hadley, who recently triumphed at the National Folk Festival with his Majestic Fringe big top.
“Silliness is Hadley’s domain, and no doubt he’ll deliver,” Morris promises.
Most, if not all, songs are originals, mostly written overseas in the last two years. Morris says the songs aren’t about his travels, but about his experience away from Canberra.
“The songs are more about me and how I was feeling about where I was, although the Czech Republic trams feature, and car rides in England. So a lot of it’s about journeys and moving from one place to another.”
CatchA Show To Make You Smile at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre from 8 pm on 27–29 May.
Is there anything more iconic in the world of Australian art than the solid black box of Ned Kelly’s helmet? I am sitting in the National Gallery of Australia with Deborah Hart, Senior Curator of Australian Painting and Sculpture. We’re in the new Nolan Gallery, soaking up the rich visual treats resulting from one of Australia’s most legendary artists painting one of Australia’s most fascinating legends. When Sidney Nolan painted his first Kelly series he could never have foreseen that his retelling of this tough-as-nails tale of hero and anti-hero, would go on to take pride of place in the NGA.
“He was obviously obsessed,” laughs Hart, of the twenty six paintings in the series. “Nolan identified with Ned Kelly. He had absconded from the army during the Second World War, and lay low for a while, even using a different name. So he shared the same idea of other self, and an anti-authoritarian streak.”
The now famous artworks had humble beginnings. They were painted in the late 1940s on the kitchen table at Heide, an artist’s sanctuary and the home of art world champions John and Sunday Reed, Nolan’s great friends and mentors.
Around this time artists were becoming interested in ways of telling local stories and history, not much of which had been done in the settler society. There wasn’t the plethora of movies and books about the Ned Kelly legend that there are now, so it was a story that Nolan researched for himself, travelling through Kelly country to get a sense of the landscape where these infamous events unfolded.
In 1977 Sunday Reed gifted the paintings, which had been left at Heide, to the NGA, on the condition that the series should always be shown together. “She believed they would be fitting in the National collection,” explains Hart.
For decades the series has been exhibited upstairs in the Australian Art Galleries, but current Director Rod Radford decided that paintings of such iconic status deserved to be far more accessible. He imagined a dedicated gallery space that would show the series to its best advantage, and encourage an active engagement with Australian art. In late 2009 his vision became a reality, with the unveiling of the purpose built Nolan Gallery.
In their new home – an elegant, oval shaped room – the paintings are revitalised and unified. The most iconic image – Kelly on horseback – is front and centre, with the expert lighting and design creating an immersive and meditative space.
As Hart and I watch an excitable school group make a circuit around the Nolan Gallery it is easy to see the magic Ned Kelly and Sidney Nolan weave over the visiting public. Just as the Kelly legend continues to resonate with Australians, influencing Australian art and culture, the Nolan Kelly series will continue to capture our imaginations.
Get amongst Nolan’s Kelly series at the National Gallery of Australia – entry is completely free and the gallery is open seven days.