Robert Hannaford retrospective

Robert Hannaford watches me as I walk down the stairs towards his retrospective at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

The artist is in larger-than-life video – at first I think it’s a photograph, he is so still. He is remarkably unselfconscious in meeting my gaze. But Hannaford, South Australia’s pre-eminent living painter and three-times people’s choice winner of the Archibald Prize, has had a lifetime of painting himself to get over himself.

How do we come to get a picture of ourselves?

Hannaford’s way is to draw himself. Many paintings in the retrospective are himself, revealed.

He seems to think he’s a bit of all right. He’s a posturing country boy full of bravado and irresistible charms but he’s also vulnerable, all too human.

These are no selfies – not the ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘with whom’ spawned by the smartphone camera. They are the ‘who’.

The retrospective is of his figurative art only (when will we see the landscapes and still lifes?) – paintings, drawings, sketches and (not enough) sculptures. The banners at the front of the gallery, the video greeting and the publicity stills would lead us to belive that the entire exhibition is self-portrait gone mad.

But it is far more than Hannaford by Hannaford. Most of the paintings are of others: his wives, his children, his grandchildren, his father one hour after death, the famous, and an old man in a shabby coat with dog.

“I never set out to be a portrait painter. I just want to understand what’s around me through form and light.” (Robert Hannaford quote on the gallery wall)

The sketchbook drawings reveal that intent: hands, legs, arms, mouths, hands clasped in different arrangements, feet, whole bodies, facial expressions. Who would have thought that pencil could be such a versatile instrument: sharp, blurry; hard, soft; feathered, precise.

Early sketches take, and deserve, as much prominence as later paintings. At age 18 he had mastered the sophistication of a limited palette: he uses charcoal with white chalk highlights to arresting effect.

And, on a central plinth, a bronze sculpture of ‘Jack’ bowling with the vitality and movement of the real boy.

Painter Scott Hartshorne, who has had the “athletic experience” of drawing with Hannaford, admires Hannaford’s obsession with actualising what is in front of him. “I realised this when I saw [in a previous exhibition] a sketch of a transistor radio by a teenage Hannaford,” Hartshorne said.

“I drew a lot at that age but would never have drawn anything so mundane. I doodled and imagined.

“Hannaford drew to draw and practise drawing. From a very early age he observed and drew the everyday with an objective eye.”

Hartshorne said that Hannaford knows how to draw a likeness, how to map a face.

“He is rigorous about making the first marks – mapping where the hairline is, where the eyes are, where the opening of the mouth is. Lesser artists like me spend time on ‘getting’ the interesting bits of the hair, the eye, the mouth themselves.”

Videos in the exhibition show how Hannaford places the easel next to his subject and goes back to his exact marked point, looks at the face and painting side-by-side, then runs back to the easel to make the next mark.

No wonder his 71-year-old body remains taut and lithe, still good enough to paint.

The retrospective at the Art Gallery of South Australia, North Terrace Adelaide, continues until 9 October 2016.

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