Badge from MWF websiteThe launch of the Melbourne Writers Festival should have involved Simon Callow, and Dickens, and the Age Book of The Year, but for me it was all about Vicks steam inhalations, antibiotics, my couch and Gourmet Farmer. On Friday the story was much the same, and so my MWF didn’t get started until yesterday morning. Bright and early, I battled my flu-brain and made it in time for David Marr’s lecture about Patrick White’s face.

The specificity of this lecture is what got me there. I only have a fleeting knowledge of David Marr (now someone I’ll be trying to see again), and have never read any Patrick White (oh, put down your pitchforks!), but I found the idea of the lecture intriguing. Can a face hold a person’s story? What can we tell from a picture?

“Reading” visual material is something I’m deeply interested in. My partner is a photographer, and I am working on a memoir which draws on old photographs as a means of creating and understanding stories. In attempting to read old photos of myself, of my family; trying to read photos I don’t recall being taken, this process has made me really consider what it means to read a photograph. Going into Marr’s lecture I wondered – can a person’s story be written on their face in a way that can be directly read? Is it just about having the keys to unlock its secrets?

Marr looked at photography and paintings of White throughout his life in chronological order, starting with a picture of “Paddy White”, very young, and very endearingly dressed as the Mad Hatter. Moving forward through White’s life, Marr spoke about White’s obsession with having himself visually documented. White wanted to demystify his face, to make sense out of it. He wanted to see what it held, and to see what meaning creative people (artists, painters, photographers) could draw from it. Even to Patrick White, his face was a mystery.

Some stories show themselves clearly on White’s face. Certainly, stress could be seen around war-time. It can be seen when White was affected by medications, and when his teeth were pulled for dentures. What is less readable is the stuff that makes White’s story truly interesting and worth hearing – the stories around the photographs. This is where Marr’s expert knowledge comes into play. Marr knows that the reason White looks so outrageously pissed off in one picture is because he found the photographer attractive. That he disliked another for being “too German” (particularly his hands, apparently). That copies of many White portraits were seemingly cursed, being punched, chopped up, stolen, lost, or otherwise removed. So maybe photos can’t just be read. Perhaps the whole process is far too dependent on the kind of knowledge that experts like David Marr have about the subject of the photographs.

Marr spoke of White’s “London Face”, the mask of pretension that White would use in photographs – in White’s most enjoyable portraits (and those that White felt most accurately showed his inner being), that “London Face” is nowhere to be seen, and we are confronted mostly by White’s incredible eyes. Eyes that Louis Kahan (whose portrait of White won the Archibald Prize in 1963 – pictured left) called “the eyes of a seer”. Sure, all great writers seem to really see, but White’s eyes seem to almost speak back, telling some of the stories they hold.

One idea that interests me in reading a photograph is Roland Barthes’ idea of ‘punctum’: that thing that could be inconsequential, but which snags the eye and keeps drawing you back. That exists in White’s portraits – it’s often his eyes, but it also often manages to be another part of his face. And perhaps this is the key to artists’ life-long love affair with White’s face, and White’s own continual pursuit of finding the meaning in this thing that faced him in the mirror every day.


At 4pm today (Sunday, 26th August), a session called “Remembering Patrick White” will continue this discussion of the life behind this face. David Marr is part of the panel, and he’s a brilliant speaker.