Death and taxing critics
Araluen village, near Braidwood. Photo: Marina Neil
The big silvery redgum in the paddock beyond the garden, where with the white-faced cows are, is acting as a reflector and is driving the light against the window. But the room's resisting the light. The room, this other room, her old bedroom down here at lower Araluen, is staying in a kind of low suffused state of semi-darkness. Vertical blocks of deep purple and umber, the earth shadows, which contain their own resistant densities. Resisting the streaming light that's crashing against the side of the house and shaking the window, which is throwing it back. As if the air outside is filled with millions of fragments of exploded glass. The light hissing dangerously across the garden and the paddocks, and that faint dry shrieking all the time, which never stops, so that you cease to hear it and feel the irritation of the nerves, an abrasion of the senses, pervasive and deep and incurable, or, inexplicably, you are soothed by it. It becomes a quality of the silence. And the old woman bent over tapping at the ground, tap, tap, tap, encompassed by the storm of light and noise that's raging all around her, probing for something in the earth with her iron implement. Engrossed.
It's a picture of a woman sitting on a bed looking out of a window. That's what the portrait is. It's only the second time I've done a portrait of someone in their bedroom. A bedroom portrait. The other one was Dr Henry Guston on his deathbed. Henry, as I called it, created a controversy with the Archibald committee. They couldn't decide whether a corpse was a proper subject for portraiture. But as there was nothing in the rules disqualifying cadavers they were forced to hang it. It didn't win, of course. They accused me of trying to gain some notoriety with Henry. Which I didn't need, as I'd already sold the Tan Family and everyone was trying to get something off me by then. I was painting money.
My portrait of Henry wasn't like Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson. I mean, I didn't begin it expecting to do a corpse. He was my friend. One of my very few friends. I've never had more than one or two friends in my entire life. I've never had the problem of too many friends. I know people who have that problem. They're always apologising for not seeing them. But Henry was one friend I did have. I loved him. He and I fell into friendship years ago, when I first came to live in Canberra with my wife. He was at the CSIRO. It was like falling in love. I wanted to talk to everyone about him. It was recognition. It was believing.
Author Alex Miller. Photo: Edwina Hollick
Henry was one of the nicest people I'd ever met. We didn't care what the other one did or how the other one lived. He wasn't like me. Henry knew how to live as well as how to work. Which I think is a rare gift. It was something I envied him. It was something I didn't know how to do. It's not something you learn. He had lots of friends. That was another gift, the gift of friendship. Henry was a gifted man. I was just one of his many friends. Which was fine.
He knew how to make you feel OK about that kind of thing. Anyway, he was fit and well and happy when I started working on his portrait. Then he died without warning. His death was completely unexpected. It was a great shock to me - to everyone. His wife and children were struck a terrible blow. Henry's death left me without a friend. I resented his death. I went around to his place in a fiercely resentful state of mind and stood by his bed, looking at his dead face, talking to him, telling him what I thought of him, gathering from his features certain information I couldn't resist and could never have found any other way. I had my little sketchbook and I made a few notes. I was careful to do it while there was no one else in the room. People get upset about these things. Those notes turned out to be the basis of the portrait.
No one liked the picture. None of Henry's other friends. And his wife wouldn't look at it.
We've never spoken to each other since. She's not like Henry. Henry would have understood.
And if he hadn't understood, he would have forgiven me. They said it wasn't Henry. That it was too cold. Too grim and too austere. He'd never been like that, they said. Never. What did I think I was trying to do? Was this some kind of iconoclasm? If I'd thought of Henry like that, why hadn't I had the courage to say so while he was alive? And so on. I defended myself.
I said, ''That's how I saw him at the end.'' They said I must be losing my touch, that I was falling away. But it was Henry who'd fallen away, not me. I never sold it. No one wanted it.
It's hanging in my bedroom. I'm considering showing it to Jessica. But maybe it's too soon for that yet. She might take fright. She might wonder what I'm up to. I don't know what I'm up to. I'm guessing.
He's not lying in bed. He's sitting up. He's slipping sideways. He's falling away. Falling through the gauze curtains that were there to keep the mosquitoes off him. The likeness of a dead man. That's what confused them. The likeness. I should have provided them with a set of notes. I should have explained myself. I shouldn't have left things in that unexplained state.
But that's what I do. It confuses people. They think I'm trying to be smart. They take offence.
Who does he think he is, they want to know. It puts them off. But I don't have an explanation for them. I'd have to make one up. I'd have to invent something soothing. It wouldn't do any good. They'd argue back at me. An explanation from me would be an invitation to them to negotiate a new picture out of me. I'd never hear the end of it. Can't you make him a bit warmer looking? I mean, Henry, for Christ's sake! You remember our Henry, don't you? An explanation wouldn't help. So I say nothing and they take my silence for arrogance.
■ Extract from The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words, an anthology of writers from the Canberra region, edited by Irma Gold, published by Halstead Press.
Available from bookstores and the publisher.