Painting power: femininity and the status quo

Anastasia Radievska on painting female politicians

The very first thing that confronts a visitor to this year’s Archibald exhibition is the steady, level gaze of Susan Kiefel, Australia’s current Chief Justice. Seated in front a bookshelf, she has a commanding, stately presence. In the next room, hangs seemingly the same picture: the woman in dressed in blue, the direct gaze, the brown background of shelves, even the same black heels and watch – only this time, the subject is NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

The visual similarity between the two paintings may be a coincidence, but it’s striking nonetheless. Two of the most powerful women in the government and judiciary, symbols of female empowerment, represented in an almost identical way. What, if anything, does this say about how we understand what it means to be a woman in power?

The two women are placed firmly in the public sphere from which they would have been barred a mere 150 years ago. They assert their visual and aesthetic belonging in the upper echelons – gazing directly at the viewer, they are active in their positioning, rejecting the passivity that defined women’s representation through much of art history. While Yvonne East, the creator of the Kiefel painting, explicitly highlights her goal of representing the combination of ‘femininity and order’ that characterises women in power, Matthew Lynn’s painting of Berejiklian aims to ‘suggest the unknowable and enigmatic’.

Both, however, produce an image of a certain restrained femininity, one which is careful to restrict traditionally female-coded symbols to the margins. Kiefel’s ‘love of stylish shoes’, as professed by East, and Berejiklian’s understated jewellery may underscore their femininity, but they remain light accents within the image. At the centre is the authority of the two women – an authority established through a visual affinity with traditional representations of powerful men, called to mind by the office setting, professional dress, realist sensibility and centred subject positioning.

In favouring a toned-down, male-adjacent composition, the paintings join a long tradition of avoiding the ‘feminine’ in representations of women in power. In 1945, a commissioned painting of Enid Lyons, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, was rejected by a Parliament committee on the grounds that Lyons looked like ‘a cherub bursting through a cloud’. A painting of the first woman elected to the Senate, Dorothy Tangney, was simultaneously rejected due to giving Tangney a ‘neck like a swan’. The portrait of Lyons showed her in a luscious coat, a flower pinned to its front, her face fixed in a lipsticked smile, while Tangney’s long neck and enhanced features seemed to eschew the realist tradition in favour of modernism. Two male painters were hired to create replacement paintings, which share the striking resemblance of this year’s Archibald finalists.

In both, the women are depicted against a swirling brown background, wearing toned-down black dresses and minimal jewellery, perhaps reflecting post-war frugality. Lyons’ exuberance in the original is replaced by a commanding neutral gaze, while Tangney looks to the side instead of directly at the viewer. Their ‘loud’ femininity removed, these portraits sit comfortably with the rest of the Parliamentary Gallery, the two women visually ‘belonging’ with their male colleagues.

The concept of ‘femininity’ is, of course, highly contested. If we live in a society where meanings are structured by the patriarchy, then the symbols of femininity itself are tainted with implications of passivity and subservience. If, as Simone de Beauvoir argued, we are not born women but rather become them, why not re-shape depictions of female power into something less loudly feminine, something neutral and undefined by patriarchal influence, as the portraits above attempt to do? The problem, however, is that neutrality is itself elusive – in a society structured by historically male government, a ‘neutral’ depiction of a politician is one coloured by the long history of the male status quo.

The second route, pursued by third wave feminism, is re-claiming ‘loud’ femininity as a source of power. In the 1990s, official portraits of women in government began to make feminine symbols more overt – the 1999 painting of ACT Senator Margaret Reid and a 2012 painting of Quentin Bryce display the women with bright lipstick, wearing yellow, flowers positioned prominently behind them. Here, the vexed question emerges again. Do these depictions reinforce the traditional symbolism of flowers and femininity – women and their work as linked so inextricably the natural world that their production is a ‘natural resource’ or ‘labour of love’ rather than something created through professionalism and reason? Or do they take back the symbol and imbue it with the symbolism of the flowers themselves, as in the Bryce portrait where the king proteas behind her may be said to represent strength of character, and her association with the monarchy?

The answers to these questions are elusive. They reflect a prominent debate – can we take back the patriarchally-determined meaning of ‘feminine’ symbols and make them a new source of strength? When Margaret Reid is positioned next to a vase of flowers that hold no apparent symbolism, does the portrait reproduce ‘naturalised’ conceptions of the woman or does it reclaim them, giving them a new strength next to her evident power and direct, confronting gaze?

One approach to escaping the dichotomy is eschewing traditional depictions altogether, leaving behind the symbolism of both male power and ‘loud’ femininity. The portrait of Nalini Joshi that hangs in McLaurin Hall is an example – in a room of pompous white men, the Professor is positioned in an informal pose, sitting cross-legged against a blackboard, both absorbed in her work and in direct communication with the viewer. The National Gallery’s portrait of our first female Chief Justice, Mary Gaudron, similarly locates the subject within her labour, featuring a screen-printed wording from section 75(v) of the Australian Constitution over the seemingly mid-sentence Gaudron, whose face and pointed finger fill the frame.

These portraits (painted by female artists), distance themselves from the visual language of traditional depictions of power. Notably, many male government ministers and academics have been represented in this abstract way – in this year’s Archibald, the portrait NSW Minister Don Harwin is a combination of abstraction and realism, his face a kaleidoscope of colour. But such depictions remain comparatively rare for powerful women, who more often inhibit the restrained, ‘neutral’ mould of Kiefel and Berejiklian, or the feminized one of Bryce and Reid.

Although we have come a long way from the explicit rejection of overt femininity, portraits of powerful women remain largely homogenized. Inextricably tied to the symbolism of both femininity and masculinity, they are saddled with the weight of historical representations of power and its lack. There may be some equality to this – after all, powerful men have been depicted in homogenous ways for centuries. What the portraits of Gaudron and Joshi indicate, however, is an alternative. Their quiet promise is that rather than proving our belonging to the status quo, we can choose to redefine it.

This article appeared in the autonomous wom*n’s edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.