From the Archives, 1993: A Keating who couldn’t say ‘scumbag’

First published in The Age on March 10, 1993

A Keating who couldn’t say ‘scumbag’

Paul Keating looks almost saintly in his bronze bust that will be installed at Ballarat this week to join the busts of the 23 other men who have been Prime Minister of Australia. Nobody could imagine those lips saying “scumbag”.

Peter Nicholson studies his Paul Keating sculpture.Credit:John Lamb

Nor could the eyes show fury. The eyes, in fact, look beyond you, as if fixed on something — a vision? — in the distance. They are calm. Here is Paul Keating showing signs of introspection. He gives a hint that he is vulnerable.

The bust, one-and-a-quarter times life-size, was being cleaned up yesterday after coming out of a furnace at Artworks in Bronze Pty Ltd in St Kilda. It will get to Ballarat in time to be mounted on a pedestal and firmly anchored against vandals before Saturday’s election.

The sculptor is Peter Nicholson, who is also an ‘Age’ cartoonist and was the maker of the satirical TV series ‘Rubbery Figures’, which often lampooned Mr Keating when he was Treasurer. It is hard to find more than a trace of ‘Rubbery Figures’ in the bust: only the trademark kink in the nose, perhaps.

This is in contrast to Peter Nicholson’s sculpture of Bob Hawke, whose bust will now confront Mr Keating’s across the prime ministers’ path at the Ballarat Botanic Gardens. A lot of ‘Rubbery Figures’ eccentricity went into Mr Hawke’s face.

Mr Keating sat for his bust only once, for about half an hour. He had apparently intended to come back, but the election intervened. Peter Nicholson got him to sit in a revolving chair and go slowly around a full 360 degrees. Then he changed the lighting and had Mr Keating do it again. Every possible angle was captured on video.

Peter Nicholson said: “I tried to make something that showed the power of a public man as well as something of a private one, a bit thoughtful.”

Mr Keating’s public power is expressed partly by the way the bust is projected slightly forward as if here was the upper part of a figure in action, a posture we have seen a thousand times during question time on television.

The private man is expressed by a calm and thoughtful face, by a thinker’s brow and by the eyes looking beyond the viewer. As the eyes weather in Ballarat, they will go darker. They may even show more introspection than they do already.

Peter Nicholson says the thought of sculpting John Hewson has crossed his mind. “It would be a hard one.”

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