Painting by murder-accused will not be removed from National Portrait Gallery

Posted September 11, 2017 16:04:01

The National Portrait Gallery will not remove a portrait on permanent display by an artist now accused of murder, its director has said.

Angus Trumble told ABC Radio Canberra that nothing would be done while the matter was before the courts, but said that it was rare for public controversy to affect the gallery’s decision-making.

Archibald prize finalist and Canberra-based artist Melissa Beowulf was one of three people charged with the murder of her mother-in-law in August.

Her 2001 portrait of war heroine Nancy Wake is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.

But Mr Trumble said even if an artist was convicted of a crime, the gallery may not remove their works from display.

“The problem for us is one of placing the line between current passions and issues of the day, and the more measured verdict of history,” Mr Trumble said.

“It is simply about what makes a series of stories illustrative of the national life.”

The director said in his four-year tenure, he had only ever taken down a picture due to public controversy once.

That work was a photographic portrait of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, which was temporarily taken down the morning after the execution of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

“I took the view and I made a judgement that public sentiment was so strong, and we had actually received a threat against the work of art, and in the interest of the safety of my staff and of our visitors, I took the view that it was necessary to take it down,” Mr Trumble said.

‘No decision necessary’ on Rolf Harris paintings

The National Portrait Gallery also has in its collection a number of portraits of and by convicted sex offender Rolf Harris.

But Mr Trumble said the gallery never had to make a decision about those, because those works were already out of display when Harris was charged.

“In that case … it seems to us appropriate for his works and his image to remain off display for the time being,” he said.

“There will be a time I think when Rolf Harris has something to say about the character of fame and of celebrity in the second half of the 20th century, but that time is not now.”

Mr Trumble said the crucial issue was finding the line “that separates the detached verdict of history from current passion”.

“It would have been inconceivable for a portrait of Ned Kelly to enter an Australian public art museum even 30 years after his execution,” he said.

“Today … he’s the same man, but he now forms part of the extremely important and contested, still contested story of the Irish in Australia.”

Melissa Beowulf, Bjorn Beowulf and Thorsten Beowulf plan to fight the charges over the alleged murder of 81-year-old Katherine Panin.

They are expected to appear again in December.

Topics: library-museum-and-gallery, courts-and-trials, canberra-2600, act