Consider all the dictators, the murders, and the rapists who have been celebrated with bronze statues and portraits. Considering these commemorations, think of the artists who made them and the institutions that acquired them. What happens when Achilles tries to sue for defamation, and exposes himself as a narcissistic killer, a war criminal who murdered civilians?
There are currently three portraits of Roberts-Smith in Australian national collections, a large portrait in fatigues, a small portrait in dress uniform and a half-naked portrait. These were acquired when he was Australia’s most decorated war hero before being exposed as a war criminal and abuser of women. The topless photo by 2017 Julian Kingma is in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. The two other portraits are in the Australian War Museum are by Michael Zavros.
I haven’t seen many works by Zavros; I remember seeing some at Sophie Gannon, a painting of a centaur in a tuxedo. Zavros’s art focuses photo-realistic paintings depicting male vanity. Among the things that Roberts-Smith’s defamation case makes clear is that he is as vain as he is violent.
What will the National Portrait Gallery and the Australian War Museum do with these portraits? They can still be viewed on the institutions’ websites (I don’t know if they are still on exhibition). Will they end up in a crate stored in a climate-controlled storage facility? Never to be exhibited again. An ongoing cost with no possible return. An albatross hanging around the neck of the institution, condemned, like the ancient mariner, to carry this ill-made decision with them.
What happens to the artists? Consider Edwar Hydo who once painted portraits of Saddam Hussain and is now painting Australian prime ministers. He is still painting the powerful but isn’t getting paid as well. And now there is Michael Zavros; perhaps now, after knowing more about Ben Roberts-Smith, Zavros might want to amend his artist statement about the portrait.
For about Ben Roberts-Smith VC (2014, oil on canvas, 30 x 42 cm, Zavros says: “I like the idea that we see him momentarily isolated, at one with himself, potentially in a moment of reflection. Less the brave war hero, rather a man, singled out and celebrated. It is an honour that sits well on him at the same time that it sits heavily.”
And about, Pistol grip [Ben Roberts-Smith VC] 2014, oil on canvas, 160 x 220 cm: “He went to this whole other mode. He was suddenly this other creature and I immediately saw all these other things. It showed me what he is capable of … it was just there in this flash.” What Roberts-Smith is capable of the murder of civilians and war crimes.