4 July 2023

How Gough made his mark on the national canvas: see for yourself in Canberra

| Sally Hopman
Gough Whitlam and John Faulkner

Larger than life: former Labor Senator and chair of the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney, John Faulkner, at the launch of the exhibition at the National Archives of Australia. Photo: Sally Hopman.

When Gough Whitlam left the political stage in 1979, he was presented with a gift never before seen in Australian politics – and never likely to be repeated in the future.

It was a folio of 16 works by many of the country’s greatest creative souls, presented to the former prime minister as a token of their thanks for his championing of a creative Australia.

The folio, inscribed from the Dedicated to the Dedicated, features the work of artists such as John Olsen, Brett Whiteley, Lloyd Rees, John Coburn and Arthur Boyd and was presented to Gough and Margaret Whitlam in 1979. It also includes words and drawings by many of our top writers and cartoonists, from Patrick White to Bruce Petty.

But the inscription on the folio says it all: To Gough and Margaret Whitlam “for the marks they have made on the Australian canvas”.

abstract painting

John Olsen’s ink on paper work, complete with his dedication to Gough Whitlam, is one of the highlights of the folio. Photo: File.

Whitlam had represented the electorate of Werriwa for 25 years, served as Labor leader for 10 years and as prime minister for almost three years. The folio was compiled by the Arts Action collective, a grassroots group of activists who supported Whitlam and his cultural policy.

Chair of the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney, former Senator John Faulkner, said the folio was “a first” in Australian politics.

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“Nothing like this has ever happened before in Australian politics,” Mr Faulkner, a friend of the former Prime Minister, said.

“Nothing like this has ever been given to an Australian politician and I suspect nothing like this will ever be given again in the future.

“What these artists were doing was thanking Gough Whitlam for his contribution in promoting artists and art in Australia’s democracy.”

Director-General of the National Archives Simon Froude said it was a privilege to host such an exhibition on loan from the Whitlam Institute – especially as it was the first time the folio itself had been to Canberra.


Writer Patrick White’s letter to Gough Whitlam is featured in the folio on show now at the National Archives. Photo: File.

“We really enjoy collaborating with other institutions to bring exhibitions like this to Canberra,” Mr Froude said. “And this one in particular, I think, will resonate with a lot of people whether they love art or politics or just the history and culture of Australia.”

He described the Whitlam era as a watershed moment for the arts in Australia – a period of time where Australia matured as a country, particularly from a cultural perspective.

black and white cartoon

Cartoonist Bruce Petty’s tribute to Gough Whitlam had everyone “crying all the way to the Medibank”. Photo: File.

“I think the way that Whitlam in that era is held in such high esteem, particularly in the arts and cultural community, really demonstrates the change that occurred at that time.”

Mr Froude said the exhibition would be on show for the next four months, with curators turning the pages of the folio every month so visitors could see the different pages of paintings.

Dedicated to the Dedicated: Whitlam, the Arts and Democracy, is a touring exhibition of the Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University.

It is on at the National Archives of Australia, Canberra, until 29 October. Open daily. Entry is free.

Original Article published by Sally Hopman on Riotact.

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