What is a portrait anyway? Does it have to be a face? Surely not. A portrait of a writer might be a pen, of a teacher a blackboard, of a carpenter a hammer. If it’s anything a portrait has to be a version of someone, a piece of them made art. It shouldn’t even have to be a painting or a photograph. So, from a national portrait gallery we might expect a lot of versions of us, our lives, our faces and our ways. How are we seen by ourselves and by others? Is it the same as how we want to be seen? Or it could just be lots of pictures of people. The latter is pretty much what we get from the National Portrait Gallery.

Faces stare. Some of them, by a trick of the light, move as you move. Others really do move, across TV screens. But most are flat. Some are brilliant. Some are intriguing. Some are uplifting. Some are uninteresting. But most are one mode, one format, one genre. Most are painted faces. Two dimensional planes of painted or coloured heads and faces. The portraits here don’t speak or engage. They don’t ask questions. They hang in space like slain livestock on meat hooks. One after the other. If this collection is a portrait of us, we’re a pretty boring lot. And many of us are dead.

But, maybe its being a bit narky, picking up on the NPGA for not having a more expansive view of portraiture, about what it doesn’t have. Let’s look at what it does have. Well, portraits. There’s about 400 paintings on show from a selection of around 3000. There’s two plaster busts of the last two Tasmanian aboriginals Truganini and Woureddy, considered to be the first portraits of indigenous Australians. There’s a Paul Kelly special show. There’s a great Harold Thornton of Bob Brown, for me the highlight of the space. There’s also some old faces, stuffy historic heads of old politicians and administrators no-one’s ever heard of, carrying colonial weight like a dark and dusty veil. Too many.

If we agree to look at the material and not at the deficiencies of portraiture genre, what can be said. For starters it’s fair to acknowledge that this form of official portraiture has a political history. Portraits started to be made – painted usually – on the basis of commissions from wealthy and/or powerful individuals. The foundation is essentially to bolster elites and, in one sense, to give the rank and file punters something to aspire to, but also something to be intimidated by.

Given the NPGA has a policy to include as subjects only those who are significant in their field, this tradition seems to have been continued here, nominally in the national interest, drawing from the public purse. Admiration yes, but bullying too and the cultivation of its visitors to see those Australians deemed appropriate to admire. There are indigenous faces, it’s true, political “outsiders” like Bob Brown and suburban heroes like Paul Kelly too. But, they are there now they have won a safe place in the zeitgeist of Australian culture, on the other side of the separate rebellions they represented and even motivated.

Moreover, what we get here is a representation of these figures, not a full picture. A portrait is not a biography of course; it can’t be. But, the distance between a single portrait and a cartoonist caricature is easily crossed and, in the context of the NPGA, we tend to get such outlines of individuals we are allowed to revere in ways that emphasises their safe and approved public persona, in concept if not in practice. The hand of the state is hard to ignore.

That’s not to say this is not a noble space, nor is it to say it gives an entirely wrong message. As a snapshot, it is fine and it’s an easy and entertaining hour or so there. But, given the narrow view of the genre and given the deference given to high profile subjects, it’s hard not to be struck by the opportunities lost, ignored and denied.

The loss is emphasised by the working brief of the NPGA. According to a statement on its website, the intention of the gallery is “to increase the understanding and appreciation of the Australian people – their identity, history, culture, creativity and diversity – through portraiture.” It would seem that understanding and appreciation is to be strained through the gauze of the government’s national view and to reflect a safe and sanitised identity. Portraits of those who currently challenge those visions, say a Philip Nitschke or a Julian Assange or a whistleblower like Alan Kessing are unlikely to be here, or, at least, I didn’t see them.

Where rebellion is at the NPGA, it’s in the form of portraiture, within the narrow confines of the genre standards. Modernist and post-modernist images, perhaps a nod here and there to Expressionism or more abstract styles, serious b/w prints and even a song as part of the Paul Kelly exhibit. Artistically challenging and occasionally compelling. But the political narrative is staid and nestled snugly in the tight corner of the state mindset.

TAXPAYER SLUG $11.8 Million (2013-14 Budget)

The author visited the National Portrait Gallery of Australia as a guest of A.C.T Tourism