Peter Wegner’s Centenarians

In 2021 Australian artist Peter Wegner won Australia’s prestigious portrait painting prize, the Archibald, with his painting of the Australian artist Guy Warren, who also happened to be a centenarian. That year also happened to be the prize’s centenary. Coincidence? Who knows! Regardless, the portrait was in fact part of a Centenarians project which Wegner has been working on since 2013.

As it so happens, on our drive down to Melbourne a few days ago we stopped, as we often do, at the lovely Benalla Art Gallery. It has a great cafe overlooking the Broken River (a tributary of the Goulburn); it has three exhibition spaces offering varied programs; and its little gift shop is also excellent. On this visit, the smallest space, the Simpson Gallery, was occupied by an exhibition titled Peter Wegner: The Centenarians. This exhibition comprises pencil and beeswax sketches of 20 centenarians made by Wegner between 2015 and 2019. (Given some of the subjects we saw were born in 2021, this means that “centenarians” includes those nearly 100 as well as those who were actually 100 when they were drawn).

The exhibition notes quote Wegner on the process and his aims:

Each drawing was completed from life in an afternoon or morning with little alteration to that first impression, they are moments captured within a time allowed.

The exploration of ageing and how well we age is central to this project. Maintaining human dignity and independent living are important issues as we age, alongside the question of what it means to have a productive and meaningful life. One’s good fortune in life was acknowledged by nearly all of my sitters—sometimes bewilderment about having reached such an age was expressed.

I loved them, partly for the art work which seemed to capture their subjects beautifully (though of course, I don’t know them), but also for the centenarians’ little commentaries which Wegner incorporated into the sketches.

Boz Parsons (b. 1918, sketched 2018)

Most of these commentaries reflected on how they’d lived to an old age – and here’s the probably-not-surprising thing, there was no consensus. For example, some never drank, some had a glass of wine with a meal, while one had beer before dinner and wine with dinner. A couple mentioned genes, though not many. A few mentioned work and/or attitude, like not worrying. As Boz Parsons said, “there is no secret to living a long life”!

So, for example, when sketched in 2019, Jack Bullen (born 1921) had two glasses of wine every night, and still had his driver’s licence but didn’t have many “close friends” because “they didn’t see the distance”. Sylvia Draeger (also born 1921) reckoned “the secret to a long life – take one day at a time”. Married twice, she says “I’m not looking for another husband”. Maisie Roadley, another born in 1921, says “I never worry. Hard work and a glass of wine every night”.

Erwin Fabian (b. 1915, sketched 2017)

But my favourite is Mim Edgar (born 1914, sketched 2018) who said “I don’ feel very old. When I’m sitting down I feel 16. When I then stand up I feel 100”. Haha, know the feeling!

Gallery Director, Eric Nash, introduces the exhibition in its catalogue. He comments that the portraits have both a “stillness, and a sense of energy and vitality”. He’s right. The life is there in the expressions, while the poses have a lovely stillness.

Nash also suggests that the portraits have lasting value for two reasons. One is that they preserve “the sitters’ accumulated knowledge and insights”. He notes that the artist has ensured this by dipping the drawings in beeswax “to protect the pencil markings”. This also gives the work an effective sepia tone. The other reason, Nash says, is that the works

could inform how we as a society support our older residents to continue enjoying enriching lives. Wegner has particularly sought sitters who “are still living lives with my mobility, curiosity and purpose … the exploration of ageing and how will we age is central to this project”.

Colin being congratulated on his 100th by two grandchildren.

To conclude, I thought I would include a photograph of my own centenarian, my Dad, who was born in 1920 and died in 2021. I’m not sure what he would have said to living a long life. He did have a whisky every night until his mid-90s; he was an optimist; and he valued good friends and family. He was alert until the end. Vale, again, dad.

Peter Wegner: The Centenarians
Benalla Art Gallery
1 July -28 August 2022

Note: For copyright reasons, I have not included images of complete portraits here, but you can see Wegner’s winning painted portrait of Guy Warren at Wikipedia.

24 thoughts on “Peter Wegner’s Centenarians

  1. I first visited the Benalla Art Gallery in the early 1970s – a friend was then the Director – Audray Banfield – later in 1980 she went on to become Director of the Murray Art Museum Albury – the Albury Regional Art Gallery – over many years. One of her protegées – I think I can call her – Bridget Guthrie – went on to become Art Gallery Director of the Tamworth Regional Art Gallery. I saw Peter Wegner’s winning Archibald entry referred to above – and will to-morrow be visiting this year’s Archibald, Sulman, etc exhibition at the AGNSW. As for centenarians – bravo to them all – and their secrets to longevity being various and/or admitting to none at all. Luck?

  2. I’ve been to Benalla dozens of times for lunch en route to somewhere else, but I’ve never checked out their art gallery. I will next time, thank you!

  3. Years ago, a different Hume Highway town, I broke down in the main street outside an art gallery, over a weekend. The gallery owner was distraught. I went off to the pub to watch the football. I feel more sorry for him now.

    I’m not sure art needs a purpose, ‘informing society’s treatment of the elderly’ (You might need a nurse with a camera in an old people’s home for that).

    Did you feel you could see commonalities with your dad in the drawings?

    • Poor gallery owner, Bill! But, what could you do.

      I don’t think art NEEDS a purpose – I do fundamentally see art as being about an artist’s expression of something inside them – but I like it when it does have one. (By artist, I mean of course, all creators.)

      They certainly made me think of Dad … and I saw loose commonalities, but each was so different that the commonalities were only loose rather than universal. I think probably the main one seemed to be a sense of resilience even though each of them might be resilient in slightly different ways. I think it’s an impressive thing to get to that age and to still be going despite all the things they’ve seen and experienced.. You don’t get to that age without some scars.

        • That’s exactly what I remember Len’s Mum feeling. She reached 90 and went into a bit of a funk until I realised that was behind it. She’d focused so much on reaching 90 that she then lost her goal or purpose in life. I’ve learnt one of my many aging lessons from that.

  4. What an interesting exhibition and thank you for sharing it. I love that there is no common consensus among the
    artists on why they reached the 100 mark. I like the feeling of humility in the statement, “if you are lucky to be keen….”

  5. Yes, aging is a strange thing. I’m grateful that I still feel/think/perceive more or less as I did when younger. However, I certainly don’t look it. A lovely and happy photo of your Dad celebrating his centenary, thanks WG.

    • Thanks Treble Clef. Yes, me too … though I’d add that I probably don’t move quite as well as I did when I was younger! But, I can still move which is the important thing.

  6. I just took a look at Wegner’s portrait of Guy Warren via your Wikipedia link and it’s stunning. There’s a real feeling of humanity and compassion in it. Many thanks for the including link.

    On a general point, it’s so lovely to be able to go back to art galleries again after various lockdowns during the pandemic – probably one the things I missed the most during that time.

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