National Portrait Gallery launches Australian Love Stories online exhibition

Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown, 2006 (printed 2020) by Peter Brew-Bevan. Picture: Supplied

Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown, 2006 (printed 2020) by Peter Brew-Bevan. Picture: Supplied

Looking for love online is a common concept for 21st-century dating. But looking for love online is something new to virtual gallery offerings.

The National Portrait Gallery launches its online exhibition Australian Love Stories on Saturday after the physical exhibition had to be postponed until March next year. But, as director of collections and exhibitions Sandra Bruce says, Australian Love Stories online is set to be more than just an online gallery featuring works from the physical show.

As virtual exhibitions are not a new idea - even before COVID-19 - the portrait gallery found itself wanting to extend the way online content can engage with an audience. The result is similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s and 90s, where viewers can choose which portraits and love stories they see and in what order.

Visitors to the exhibition will create their own narrative thread, discovering the common themes along the way. When visitors reach the end of their online adventure, they will receive their Love Stories Profile based on the portraits they explored. It's this open-ended, unknown aspect of the online experience that aims to entice repeat visitation, offering participants the prospect of a fresh or unexpected experience each time they dive in.

"What we're trying to capture is this understanding and acknowledgement of the fact that love pervades our lives in so many different ways," Bruce says.

"The romantic love stories are fantastic and there are plenty of them in this exhibition. But it's more than that and we're giving people an opportunity to explore what that means."

Australian Love Stories, potentially more than any other exhibition before it, is going through an evolution rather than being a static collection of images. The online version was born out of the original idea that was set to open earlier this year, and the eventual launch of the physical exhibition will have been influenced by its initial public life online.

"There'll be some really lovely jumping-off points from the online exhibition into the physical exhibition to maybe tease out some of the stories a little bit more," Bruce says.

"I think that's the beauty of what the digital worlds can give us. Being online gives you scope to really add layers to the programming that we do, and to make sure that we don't become too static."

While the concept of Australian Love Stories - and its international equivalent from London's National Portrait Gallery that set to open earlier this year - was conceived long before COVID-19 meant we were separated from loved ones. Yet there has never been a more appropriate time for an exhibition on love.

Plus, who doesn't love a good love story? Hollywood has made billions of dollars off of giving insights into the intimacies of people's lives, whether it's romantic or familial love, or love between friends. And it's those insights that the Australian Love Stories exhibition is also trying to display.

"Portraiture is really interesting because ... at face value, you really do think that you're just looking at an individual who's been caught in a moment and it's generally around celebrating them as a person," Bruce says.

"So for us to bring portraits of people together and connect them through their relationships around different versions or different types of love, it just brings more layering and understanding of who these individual people are.

"What we're hoping to bring to our audiences is a little bit of that feel good. There's drama, there's a tiny little bit of tragedy, but it's really about reminding people about the connections that we all feel, even if we can't be in the same space at the same time."

In the mirror: Self portrait with Joy Hester, 1939, by Albert Tucker. Picture: Supplied

In the mirror: Self portrait with Joy Hester, 1939, by Albert Tucker. Picture: Supplied

So what are these connections? The portrait gallery intentionally sought out love stories of all types. Lust, devotion, family, passion and community are all captured through a suite of stories illustrated by artworks brought together by the National Portrait Gallery's curators.

It's hard to hear the phrase love stories without thinking of the most obvious type - a fairy tale. And the 2006 portrait of Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown, captured by Peter Brew-Bevan is a modern-day example of this.

The photo was taken more than two decades after they met on the set of The Thorn Birds - a mini-series based on the Australian literary classic, which was, interestingly, filmed in California.

"What happened on screen was happening off it - that's why our love scenes were so believable," Ward told the UK's Daily Express before the pair's subsequent wedding in 1983 - one year after they met.

It's not unusual for on-set love stories to blossom, but how many of them actually last? While onscreen Brown played Luke who married Ward's character Meggie for questionable reasons, the couple's real-life relationship only mirrored fiction superficially.

Almost four decades later, the couple is still married and have three children. What's more, they have often worked together, most recently on Palm Beach - which was written and directed by Ward, produced and starred Brown.

"It does speak to exactly what a successful love story can be on a number of different levels. It doesn't have to just be about the romance, it can be about synergies between other aspects of your personality and how two individuals can come together," Bruce says.

Of course, not every love story has a happy ending, and sometimes a photograph can be a window into how a relationship once was.

In the mirror: Self portrait with Joy Hester was taken by Albert Tucker of himself and his wife in 1939.

"These days we might stand in the bathroom and take a photo of ourselves. That's almost what Joy and Albert we're doing 80 years ago, so it's really quite extraordinary," Bruce says.

Tucker and Hester were part of the Heide Circle, an epicentre for assorted creatives on the outskirts of Melbourne during the 1930s and 40s. Established by arts patrons John and Sunday Reed, the collective included others such as artist Sidney Nolan, and writers Max Harris and Michael Keon, all of whom were invited to come and stay at the residence and work on their crafts.

Kath & Kim by John Tsiavis, courtesy of the artist. Picture: Supplied

Kath & Kim by John Tsiavis, courtesy of the artist. Picture: Supplied

"One thing about the Heide group was that there was some intrigue going on in that circle. There were splits and one ex-partner would get together with another one from the group. So the Heide Circle was a little bit soap opera in that sense," Bruce says.

"That certainly influenced what their relationships were like with each other, and so having such a tight-knit group, it may have been inevitable that there were love triangles, love squares, all sorts of things going on."

Only three years after the photo was taken, Hester moved away to start a relationship with artist Gray Smith, while Tucker moved abroad. After Tucker and Hester moved away, the Reeds took over as parents of their son Sweeney, and by the 1950s, the Heide Circle was no more.

"Everybody assumes that a selfie is very transitory and just that one moment in time, and so even though this is a photograph from 80 years ago it is still just capturing a moment . The lives that those two people in love were living before that photograph was taken were ultimately very different to the lives they were living afterwards," Bruce says.

Love stories are not always romantic ones.

Take Jane Turner and Gina Riley, for example. When the pair first met at age 17 at a community theatre group, the pair's friendship got off to a rocky start.

"You don't necessarily like the people that you work with," Bruce says.

"In Gina and Jane's case, it was absolutely true. They did rub each other the wrong way when they first met. But by virtue of being forced together to do their jobs, to do what they loved, which was acting, something really wonderful grew out of that."

Obviously the most notable are the characters of Kath Day-Knight and Kim Craig - the hornbags from Fountain Lakes who brought us phrases such as "Look at moi".

To think that phrase - which has become a part of the Australian vernacular - may not have existed if it hadn't been for Turner and Riley creating a friendship. Not to mention that the iconic characters in the 2011 photo taken by John Tsiavis would be unrecognisable.

Tommy Woodcock and Reckless, 1977 (printed 2010) by Bruce Postle. Picture: Supplied

Tommy Woodcock and Reckless, 1977 (printed 2010) by Bruce Postle. Picture: Supplied

Which is why the pair's inclusion in Australian Love Stories is not only because of their friendship - and their onscreen familial relationship as mother and daughter - but also the love story between Australia and Kath and Kim.

"I'm yet to come across anyone who says: 'Kath and Kim - I can't stand them'," Bruce says.

"There is something about them in all of their over-the-top behaviour that speaks to all of us, because there's something really genuine about those characters and that honesty and genuine element is important in any good love story and it doesn't matter what kind of love it is."

In fact, there is an authenticity about all of the portrait subjects. Potentially none more genuine than the look between Tommy Woodcock and Reckless.

Woodcock rose to fame as the strapper for the legendary Phar Lap, but it's the photo taken in 1977 by Bruce Postle with another of his racehorses, Reckless, that made the Australian Love Stories online exhibition.

"Tommy used to spend quite a bit of time, obviously, in the stables with his horses and in this instance, it was actually the photographer's idea that Tommy lay down in the stable with Reckless," Bruce says.

"Reckless looked him in the eye and then put his head on Tommy's chest and it's an absolutely adorable photograph and I think anybody who has an affinity with animals of any kind will just look at this photograph and it will absolutely resonate with them. That bond between humans and animals, it's absolutely beautiful.

"Clearly, it's a different type of love. And it's different from loving your family and friends as well because there's that unconditional element that you get with animals that everybody is intrinsically aware of. And so that's something that really speaks in this particular work."

The Australian Love Stories online exhibition will be at portrait.gov.au from August 15.

This story Public displays of affection: Gallery launches Australian Love Stories online first appeared on The Canberra Times.