Rodney Pople, “Family Portrait after Caravaggio,” 2010, oil and photographic medium on linen, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
This family portrait was Pople’s entry in Australia’s Archibald Prize, judged by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for 2011. Intentionally controversial, the painting addresses objections in 2010 to Pople’s work and in 2008 to Bill Henson’s photographs. ”It is perhaps pushing a few boundaries,” Pople said. ”I would hope so…” (1)
Borrowing from Caravaggio’s Judith beheading Holofernes (1598), the portrait depicts Pople being beheaded by his wife, Sydney art curator Felicity Fenner, as their two sons look on.
The narrative in Artist and family is deliberately ambiguous. The victim is an artist and his female assassin a curator of contemporary art. He seems horrified at his fate, yet his crime or misdemeanour is not possible to ascertain. In modelling for the painting the curator-assassin is a willing participant in its production. The children are also complicit in the slaughter, though their attention is elsewhere. Raised in a screen culture saturated with violent imagery, they are desensitised to the bloodshed afoot.
While Pople has chosen this particular painting by Caravaggio for its theatrical effect, the biblical references are not entirely coincidental. His work came under attack last year from church groups, with protests culminating in group-prayer vigils, including outside the artist and his family’s home. Primarily, however, the work continues a lineage in Pople’s previous depictions of himself, friends and family based on well-known paintings from art history.
The Caravaggio painting was also chosen for it technical approach. For Pople, Caravaggio’s use of image projection has resonance centuries later in his own incorporation of current photographic techniques in the painting process. (2)
Geesh, everyone has their pants on. No one is enjoying the scene. And we have seen Judith look much more slutty. The family dynamic is uncomfortable … but so is any decapitation.
They will look back on this one day and laugh.
(1) Kelsey Munro, Much ado about nothing, ARTcycle, April 19, 2011
(2) Art Gallery NSW, Art Prizes: The Archibald Prize 2011 – Rodney Pople