Great Britain 1891 – Australia 1974

  • travelled in the Asia-Pacific region from 1928
  • based in Australia from 1943

Portrait of the artist 1962 Place made: Bribie Island, Morton Bay, Queensland, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, synthetic polymer paint and gouache on cardboard mounted on composition board

Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Dimensions: 92.4 h x 70.9 w cm framed (overall) 971 h x 758 w x 35 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1976
Accession No: NGA 76.6
  • To me, painting is a personal thing. It gives me the same kind of satisfaction that religion, I imagine, gives to some people.[1]

    Portrait of the artist was painted when Ian Fairweather was living in isolation in a makeshift hut on Bribie Island north of Brisbane. He had settled there in 1953 after years of travel and encounters with different cultures, particularly in Asia. His peripatetic life provided rich inspiration for his subsequent hermetic existence. Over time he had become a scholar of comparative religions as well as of Chinese literature, language and calligraphy. While Fairweather’s linear approach is distinct from Chinese calligraphy, he understood from this discipline that art could be about process and interconnections; it could be ideographic and a performative act.[2]

    In Portrait of the artist the surface is built up layer upon layer, dark over light and light over dark: the pink and white of the face and neck like a window in the dark surround. Over the pale ground Fairweather’s dark emphatic line repeatedly circles the shape of the eyes as if to emphasise looking, while verticals and diagonals define his nose and scrubby beard.[3] The portrait appears honed by time, simultaneously expressive, fugitive and emblematic, a mirror to the nomad and the recluse. In 1962 one visitor recognised Fairweather from the ‘far-looking expression of the blue eyes, in their cavernous sockets’ and found that he had ‘the physically durable look of a man who has never pampered himself.’[4]

    When he completed Portrait of the artist, Fairweather was 71 years old. He was at the peak of his powers, having recently painted great works such as Monastery 1960 (NGA). His portrait is a touchstone on his journey as an artist; part of a bigger whole. It resembles the faces of the three wise men in another painting he had on the go in the studio, Epiphany 1962 (QAG).[5] Fairweather would not consciously have suggested this parallel. He understood the principles of renunciation and sublimation of the ego—the process of losing the self in order to find the self. In Portrait of the artist, his face is embedded in the painterly surface, at one with it in an almost alchemical way. Art was after all the substance of his life. It was his deepest reason for being, informing his heart and mind, his breath and energy—the ch’i—guiding, focusing and propelling him through the labyrinth of existence.

    Deborah Hart

    [1] J Hetherington, ‘Ian Fairweather: gentle nomad who lives a lonely life’, The Age, 9 June 1962, p 17.

    [2] P Ryckmans, ‘An amateur artist’, in Fairweather, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1994, pp 15–23.

    [3] The weighty presence and dense black lines recall the art of Georges Rouault (1871–1958).

    [4] J Hetherington, The Age, 9 June 1962, as above.

    [5] Ian Fairweather often worked on several paintings simultaneously pinned around the walls of his hut. See also Murray Bail, Fairweather, Murdoch Books, Millers Point, revised edn, 2009.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010