Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 9, 2021

Incantations (2016), by Subhash Jaireth

Incantations is such a perfect accompaniment to a trip to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, I hope they have it on sale in their bookshop.  (If they do, Sue from Whispering Gums will be buying it.  We know from reading her blog that she gives books as thoughtfully chosen presents, and IMO it’s a safe bet that this one will be on her shopping list for some lucky person.)

Readers may remember one of my favourite books from last year was by the same author: Spinoza’s Overcoat, Travels with Writers and poets by Subhash Jaireth… well, Incantations is a book in a similar vein.  It’s a series of short meditations on artworks, most of which are portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, each one accompanied by a full copy reproduction of the work in question.  Many of them are portraits of writers, so of course I liked those ones best.

But lest you think I am too utterly predictable, I’m going to start with the first portrait, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (2009) by Guy Maestri.  Take a look at it here. Subhash titles his thoughts about this portrait ‘Melancholy, and it begins like this:

Melancholy.  It is all about the eyes.  Their absence, in fact.  The face hides them, unwilling to reveal them.  This reluctance makes their presence even more immediate; more urgent.  I am drawn to them; look for them.  But they are hidden, enclosed underneath the canopy of ridges, donning the thin eyebrows.  The eyes concealed in cave-like sockets.

Painted with thin washes of oil and glazed patiently, the portrait emits light, which is muted and borrowed from the light falling on it. (p.3)

These words encourage to reader to look carefully at the portrait, to linger over the way light illuminates it.  To consider the way melancholy drips off the painted linen like drops of dense dark honey. 

As I read my way through the book I began to think about the ways portraitists convey the identity of the sitter, and came back to this portrait.  The head-and-neck portrait fills the whole space and there is nothing to indicate that Gurrumul had one of the most beautiful voices ever recorded.  I like this artist’s confidence that we know this without needing to be told. And I like the colour palette, which like Evert Ploeg‘s portrait of Deborah Mailman (1999) signifies the relationship that Indigenous people have with the land.  The piece about the Mailman portrait is aptly called ‘Luminous’ and I like the way Subhash’s powerful words draw attention to symbols we might otherwise miss:

The hessian canvas comes from bales of wool.  It shows signs of wear and tear.  Its rough surface is stained and holed but some letters and numbers stencilled on it have survived.  They sit together with other letters and words painted by the artist.  DM is one of them, as is the word CLASS, inverted and pushed behind Mailman’s right arm.  Not far from her right shoulder, just above the six figure number, is a tiny map of Australia, stencilled in black.  It is so small that it can be easily missed, but when the eyes start looking at the numbers, it shows itself immediately.  ‘Made in Australia’ it says, and as soon as these words are uttered, history pours out of the painting.  (p.8)

Skipping ahead to the portraits of authors, I am spellbound by the one of Stella Bowen whose autobiography I read last year.  Amanda Curtin had lent me her copy which had reproductions of Bowen’s paintings including self-portraits, but I hadn’t seen the one reproduced in Incantations.  Self-portraits are fascinating because they aren’t really about capturing a likeness:

It’s a self-portrait after all, painted to examine the shape of her being.  Therefore, to capture the likeness wasn’t her main concern.  She wanted to go beyond it; to penetrate the veil of her appearance.  She wanted to find out what others saw when they looked at her, and if possible, affect their look: to make them see what she herself saw.  (p.30)

Once again, the portrait doesn’t allude to the sitter’s profession.  But nor does it interfere with what we know.  Which is why I was so surprised by Jeffrey Smart’s portrait of David Malouf (1980). It’s bizarre: Malouf is in overalls, working at a gas station.  But I’m not happy either with Robert Hannaford’s portrait of Robert Dessaix (1998), and Subhash is discontented too.  Hannaford hasn’t captured the cheeky naughtiness that characterises Dessaix, who Subhash tells us is a master trickster who knows how to have fun at the expense of his or his interlocutor’s literariness.  The portrait doesn’t capture the author’s love of books and travel, and there’s an irrelevant pot of glue on the table next to him.  So not all of the artworks are ones that Subhash finds successful.  But they are all works that he wants to respond to, with carefully chosen words that encourage the reader to look closely and to respond as well.

My favourite of them all is Jenny Sages’ portrait of Irina Baranova (Handing the baton) (2007).  Her career in ballet is cleverly alluded to: she faces the viewer, and her shoulders are covered in everyday wear, but she is in conversation with a much younger ballerina.  We do not see that face, but we know she is a ballerina because we can see the fine straps of her bodice.  Subhash meditates on what he thinks she might be saying, but I’m more entranced by her eyes, her dignity and her authority.

It’s from Subhash’s ‘incantations’ that I have learned to look more closely at these portraits to enjoy them in my own way.

Highly recommended.

Author: Subhash Jaireth
Title: Incantations
Publisher: Recent Work Press, 2016
Cover images are details from artworks in the book.
ISBN: 9780994456557, pbk, 113 pages

Available from the NLA Library Bookshop


  1. Haha, Lisa. I’ll have to get this. I LOVE the National Portrait Gallery, and know well most of the portraits you mention here.

    Jeffrey Smart’s is bizarre, but I remember seeing Malouf talk about it. He was a very good friend of Smart’s. Check out this article where he discusses it and some others … I love the sense of humour in it. So bizarre as you say.


    • Yes, Subhash makes reference to that, but as with all of the artworks, he leaves the way clear for us to respond in our own way. It has the effect of encountering the work as he interprets it, an intimate glimpse of his own response rendered into words, but also encouraging us to look at the work carefully for ourselves and come up with our own thoughts. Which is as it should be, IMO, because after a while, the artist’s intentions or the sitter’s reaction becomes irrelevant. People who know nothing of that will judge the work on its own terms.
      With this one, it provokes an unruly thought for me. Famous people have dozens of portraits done, and perhaps it doesn’t matter so much if there’s one or another that doesn’t please the sitter. It might just be that the artist hasn’t captured the likeness, or it might be that it’s revealed something in the sitter that he/she doesn’t like, or want to be known, or may not even have recognised in him/herself.
      But if you have only one portrait done, for whatever reason, it matters more. More than likely, that is the one by which the sitter will be known. Think of those awful photos of Henry Handel Richardson, for example, and then see her portrait
      Judging by the images used on bookcovers, I suspect that people feel the photos are more truthful, but for me, it’s the painting that tells me who she is.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. BTW It might be good to say, Available from the NLA Bookshop?


  3. Sounds marvellous – I wish we had such a book to go with our galleries!


  4. Thank you, this is exactly why I love the blogging world.

    Last year I read A Month in Siena which is Matar’s time studying deeply some of his favourite Sienese artists. I was left wanting more. This sounds like it could be it.

    A Month in Siena | Hisham Matar #NonFiction


    • It makes me wish I had a friend like that, someone I could go to the galleries with, who without being pushy about it, would share their thoughts in the same way.

      Liked by 2 people

    • We nearly named our Airedale Terrier Siena because I loved Sienese artists so, but then I realised that she was not an Italian dog but a Yorkshire one, so Brontë it was!!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. […] Incantations, by Subhash Jaireth […]


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