Trinity College grounds

Don't miss out: Nicholas Harding’s 'Be Brutal' exhibition in its final weeks

Our exhibition by Archibald Prize winner and one of Australia’s leading contemporary portraiture artists, Nicholas Harding, is in its final weeks at Trinity College. This is an exhibition you don't want to miss.

Rex Irwin_Nicholas Harding exhibition_Trinity College
Rex Irwin poses in front of his portrait by Nicholas Harding, currently displayed in Trinity College's Burke Gallery.


Humanity, portrayed through 25 individual stories using a mix of media, is on display for just a few more weeks in Trinity College’s Burke Gallery as part of the Be Brutal: Nicholas Harding Portraits exhibition.

Nicholas Harding cemented his place as one of Australia’s eminent portrait artists after winning an Archibald Prize for his work in 2001, in addition to being named as a finalist for the coveted award 17 times – 13 of these consecutively. 

One of the pieces that put Harding on the finalist list was his 2017 portrait of much-loved Australian artist John Olsen. In ‘Study for John Olsen’, Harding captured the artist at a critical time. Olsen’s wife had just passed away and he was preparing for a major retrospective of his work. Despite the complex timing, Olsen agreed to sit for Harding in his studio to have a portrait painted, instructing Harding to ‘be brutal’. Liberated by this encouragement, Harding produced a powerful depiction of Olsen. It evokes a boldness and honesty that is all but synonymous with Harding’s work, which is now revered as some of the finest portraiture in the country.

Following an Australia Council residency in Paris in 2013, Harding commenced an ongoing series, painting relatively quick portraits in gouache on at first a single sheet, then two, three and four sheets of heavy paper. Appreciating how telling his subjects’ feet were, Harding began extending his paper ‘canvas’ with an additional sheet in order to include the gestural, sometimes quirky, poses of their feet.

Brett Ballard, art specialist for Sotheby’s Australia, features in one of the portraits. When reviewing one of Harding’s exhibitions in 2005, Ballard observed that, 'We cannot think of Nicholas Harding without thinking of paint. Luscious, buttery paint. What Harding does with paint is important, but of equal importance is what he paints. Harding is after all a painter of subjects.'

Harding’s work can at times be ‘buttery’ with paint, but whether working in oils or watercolour and gouache, his work always demonstrates a freshness and immediacy with his subjects, be they figurative or landscape.

The late Edmund Capon, former director of the Art Gallery of NSW also features as part of the Be Brutal exhibition. In late 2014, Harding invited Capon to sit for a gouache portrait, and the resulting work was submitted to the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize the following year, where it placed as a finalist. Capon had judged the prize earlier in 2014 and was struck by Harding’s portrait of actor Richard Roxburgh – a work that was energetic, robust and ‘full of the gusto of paint, which allows for lots of expression and lots of indiscretions’. 

Some of the portraits reveal aspects of the subjects’ personal stories. Harding’s portrait of Australian photographer Cameron Bloom includes the family’s pet magpie ‘Penguin', who came into their lives at a critical time. On a family holiday to Thailand in 2006, a balcony railing gave way resulting in Cam’s wife, Sam, falling and becoming a paraplegic. Caring for Penguin became part of the family’s challenging new journey, and the bird was hence treated as a key subject in Bloom’s portrait. 

Harding’s own experience with suffering is depicted in ‘Treatment, day 49 (sorbolene soak)’, spurred by the artist’s cancer treatment in 2017. 

‘I kept a visual journal [during treatment] and, when I was able, I drew what was happening during the process. After 35 sessions of radiation and seven doses of chemotherapy, my treatment finished on day 49. On my last day of treatment, I took a selfie on my iPhone during one of these regular sorbolene soaks and later did a drawing from it, which I used for this self-portrait,’ says Harding. The artist made a full recovery.

A portrait of actor Keith Robinson follows a similar theme. In 2006, Robinson’s career came to a sudden halt when he was diagnosed with the rare autoimmune condition, Guillain-Barre syndrome. Within weeks, Robinson could no longer walk and has been wheelchair-bound ever since. Despite his disability, Robinson returned to the stage a decade later to play the clown Feste in Twelfth Night. Harding wanted to capture Robinson’s enduring spirit, and the resulting gouache portrait study has led to Harding returning to paint Robinson in oil paints, a work that is currently a semi-finalist in the 2019 Doug Moran Portrait Prize.

One of the larger pieces in the Be Brutal exhibition is ‘Rex at Maroubra’, an oil painting of prominent Sydney art gallery owner Rex Irwin (shown in the image above). Here, Harding depicts Irwin enjoying the sun in his bathers at Maroubra Beach, along Sydney’s south coast. The rich visual texture of the rocks and landscape behind the subject contrast the simplicity of Harding’s watercolour and gouache portraits. Collectively, the work’s showcase Harding’s mastery of multiple mediums, and ability to capture both portraits and landscapes.

Trinity College’s Rusden Curator Dr Ben Thomas, says 'This exhibition provides a fantastic opportunity for visitors to appreciate rarely seen works from the private collection of one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists. Coinciding with the Archibald Prize being shown currently at Tarrawarra Museum of Art, it provides Melburnians with the chance to further engage with contemporary portraiture.'

Be Brutal: Nicholas Harding Portraits can be seen at the Burke Gallery, Trinity College, the University of Melbourne, until 19 December 2019. The gallery is open to the public from 10am to 4pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Free Entry. 


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