An exhibition to cure your social distancing blues

Following a year of COVID isolation, an engaging exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery showcases intimacy, love and connection.
An exhibition to cure your social distancing blues Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown (detail), 2006 (printed 2020) Image by Peter Brew-Bevan.

Tess Maunder

Thursday 13 May, 2021

So, what has it meant to you, to express feelings of love for others during this global pandemic? Everyone has their own COVID-19 story. For some it resulted in minor changes to routine; and for others it entailed significant lifestyle changes, economic shifts and long-term separation from loved ones.

A new exhibition grabs all the ‘big feels’ by the hand – love, joy, respect, loss, despair, compassion. From the enduring to the forbidden, romantic to platonic, Australian Love Stories weaves these stories into a layered constellation and emotive landscape for audiences.

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Drawing on the collection of the National Portrait Gallery alongside works loaned from personal collections, the exhibition showcases a rich reminder of timeless human rituals surrounding the many varied experiences with love in all its multiplicities.

‘After a tumultuous year where being together with loved ones was not always possible, we are excited to present an exhibition that celebrates togetherness, connection and love – romantic love as well as the importance of family and community,’ said Karen Quinlan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery.

With this context in mind, the Australian Love Stories exhibition marks a welcome moment to embrace literally and figuratively those around you, jump in the car and head to the exhibition for your soulful art fix.

Wesley Enoch and David McAllister, 2020 by Peter Brew-Bevan.

The exhibition demonstrates its power through conveying what language alone cannot. Through over 200 works, mainly from the gallery's own collection paired with impressive loans from public and private collections. Some of the highlights include works by The Huxleys, Vincent Namatjira, Davida Allen, Jenny Sages, George Lambert and William Yang; and portraits of duos such as Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, and the stunning commissioned portrait of David McAllister and Wesley Enoch.

The exhibition includes everything from massive oil paintings to miniatures and keepsakes, including a selection of convict love tokens on loan from the National Museum of Australia – demonstrating that the idea of social distancing has preceded 2020.

Of course, romantic love is explored but so too are the many potentialities of love: the love within families and communities and between friends and creative collaborators. Exhibition co-curator, Joanna Gilmour said, ‘This exhibition expands upon our digital version of Australian Love Stories delivered during lockdown; and it is exciting to finally place these real-life portraits in front of physical audiences.’

While you're at the National Portrait Gallery be sure to visit a concurrently running show by Canberra based glass artist Harriet Schwarzrock’s new exhibition: spaces between movement and stillness. Schwarzrock’s luscious, emotive and moving glassworks here pair perfectly with the expressive undertones of Australian Love Stories and provide the ideal immersive experience to deepen engagement. 

The English language is limited and the word love itself can only cover so much ground; Australian Love Stories express to audiences what sometimes cannot be said in words alone.

Australian Love Stories at the National Portrait Gallery continues until Sunday 1 August 2021.

About the author

Tess Maunder is a writer, editor and curator with a decade of experience in Australia and overseas. She is author of the volume Absolute Humidity published by the Office for Culture and Design and is currently Managing Editor of TAKE on Art and is Deputy Chair of Melbourne’s Art Library.