Family Portrait

Family Portrait, September 2021
Oil on canvas,
102cm x 76cm x 1.5cm
Not for sale

Quarantine. Good, I thought, plenty of time to tackle a family portrait. That wasn’t my first thought, but that is the one I have chosen to go with in this post. My first thought was probably more authentic, but less generous and community minded.
I google ‘family portrait’. There are many sites offering family portraits done by ‘real’ artists for sale. I am struck by the way that most of these portraits idealize the traditional family unit. It is the family, as someone who has commissioned the portrait, likely the parents, wants the family to be seen by others. Family propaganda. That’s what my family would think.
My daughter complained recently about the lack of democracy in our family, especially around important decisions like what’s for dinner. Zeb piped in, “it’s a dictatorship, not a democracy. We have to do what they say”. Oby adds, “If I was King, we would have hamburgers for dinner every night”. “That’s not a dictatorship”, I say, “That’s a monarchy, and we already treat you guys like princesses”. “We’ve never claimed that it’s a democracy,” replied Kim, “more like a benevolent dictatorship, where we do things for you for your own good”.
Back to the family portrait internet search. Everyone looks neat, tidy, and well dressed. These portraits resemble the formal family photo or sometimes are painted from a snapshot of a past celebration: a wedding, birthday party or graduation. The sitters often have a self-satisfied, but somehow soulless glow about them. The viewer for the painting is implied by how the sitters for the painting have decided they want to be represented. The artist is implied in the painting by the professional, but distant way in which the family is depicted. You are not going to pay good money for a painting you’ve commissioned that makes your family look mean spirited, dysfunctional, or depressed. These paintings do not feel authentic. A bit like my comment about my reaction to quarantine. A bit like Facebook and reality TV shows. There’s a long history of the family portrait as a mechanism for portraying social status, wealth and importance to future generations.
This is not one of those portraits. This portrait fits more in the tradition of Genre painting. Genre paintings are paintings of ordinary people doing ordinary things in their natural habitat. Family watching Netflix on the couch. Popular with the Flemish bourgeoisie in the 1800’s.
Kim commented that it wasn’t a family portrait because I am not in it. But I am in it, because like any image, my presence is implicit in what I’ve chosen to paint and how I have chosen to depict my family.
In the painting, from left to right, Kim is wearing his “at home” winter clothes which include the slippers which he has owned for longer than we’ve been together and a jumper my mother knitted for him years ago. He is sloth Kim, not chief economist Kim, resigned to another night on the couch in an endless run of nights on the couch. Behind Kim is the folly that we bought in Newtown when we lived in Sydney. It now fittingly contains the alcohol that we have accumulated but don’t drink such as many types of whisky, Chinese fire water and crème de menthe. The makings of a cocktail party if we were out of quarantine (or social, which we aren’t). In front of Kim is another sign that we are in quarantine, a tethered bicycle wheel. Also representative of my business which is currently following the covid fragments down the drain.
Next to Kim is Willow exhibiting her well honed breed characteristics of being an accompanying dog asleep on the couch. Great Danes were hunting/ guard dogs until German Nobles started bringing them into the castle to wear purple capes with matching gilded collars in the 1600’s. So, the Great Dane has had plenty of time to evolve in preparation for this moment in time.
Next to Willow is Zeb. Zeb likes to wear the green and gold Wallabies onesie that he got from the Green Shed to watch things like the Olympics. It is an ironic wearing of the green and gold in the same way that he was recently sporting an ironic mullet. I’ve depicted him looking at me with a wry smile on his face to indicate this. He was not pleased with this depiction of himself. He thought he looked like a Nong. Which he does.
Next to Zeb is Lucy Liu. Lucy Lui is learning to be true to her Great Dane nature, but honestly, right now she is more like the character Lucy Lui plays in “Why women kill”. Alluring, demanding and demented. So, this depiction of her asleep is a bit disingenuous, but she does, eventually, crash on the couch.
Next to Lucy is Eleanor, who looks out at me somewhat disdainfully as is her right as a teenage girl being looked at by her mother. She is more upright than the others indicating both her distain for her family and her anxiety about it. She’s a rebel, dressed in black (but actually more proper than the rest of us).
Behind Eleanor is the bookshelf. I like books and books give a room a warm aesthetic and make me feel comfortable. Books remind me of all the knowledge I don’t have, and the person that I still sometimes aspire to be. There are also some trophies and knickknacks to represent past moments in our collective family life. It’s all a bit cluttered.
On the far right is Oby, watching the TV and eating, which is what Oby does most. He is in the eating phase of teenagerhood. For example, for dinner last night he ate: 30 momos, 3 bowls of rice, a Cornetto and then had a bowl of Nutella porridge. A very hungry caterpillar.
There’s a warm yellow light tone reflecting around the room, reflecting to, I hope, a general ambience of love.
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