Peter Wegner behind the canvases

It was 8.05am on a frosty June morning in Diamond Creek, outer Melbourne, when Peter Wegner took the call that capped his career. It was the caller’s second try.

As critics’ favourite for the Archibald Prize – Australia’s biggest portraiture award – Wegner felt his chance of winning was jinxed. Convinced that he wasn’t going to win, he was in bed drinking tea when he noticed a missed call from Sydney.

His phone rang again. It was the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

“As they delivered the good news, my wife Jenny burst into tears,” says Wegner, 67, seated in his home office before a feature wall of framed drawings and paintings, some of them his own. “I then had to take a pretty deep breath myself.”

Wegner’s winning portrait was of fellow artist Guy Warren, who’d snagged the Archibald himself in 1985. This year’s result felt especially loaded: Warren turned 100 in April. The now $100,000 prize is in its 100th year. But while entries included several other portraits of Warren (“If I’d known I really wouldn’t have entered mine”), his sitting for Wegner was for another project entirely.

“Guy is part of the ongoing Centenarian Series I began in 2013 with a drawing of my Aunty Rita, who was 104 at the time,” says Wegner, whose work is held in many auspicious collections and galleries, and who obtained a Master of Fine Arts from Monash University in 2007.

“As an exploration of ageing, I’ve drawn and painted about 90 people aged over 100 who are still living independent, meaningful lives.”

Peter Wegner
For Wegner, painting and drawing aren’t simply about capturing a likeness. Both force the viewer to “‘stop and enter its time’”.

As a young man

The youngest of three boys born to a homemaker mother and a father who worked for the State Electricity Commission (SEC), Wegner grew up on the Mornington Peninsula, drawing everything he could. Just why that was, he can’t say: “There’s no art at all in the DNA, absolutely none.”

I hid in landscapes for two decades,” he says with a smile. “I have a garage filled with them.

He pored over art books from the local library and, at 16, nicked a box of oil paints from his brother, a signwriter, and copied some early Cezannes.

He frequented galleries, noting the techniques of masters both European and Australian. A Lloyd Rees painting of the New South Wales landscape titled Omega pastoral (1950) stood out: “I loved the broad brushstrokes, and the fact Rees was a drawer too. Years later I went to the spot where he’d painted it.”

After participating in residencies and group exhibitions, Wegner came to higher education in his late twenties, already a father of one. A postgraduate diploma from Phillip Institute of Technology led to teaching positions at the University of Ballarat, La Trobe University and RMIT University. For a long time, he painted en plein air. “I hid in landscapes for two decades,” he says with a smile. “I have a garage filled with them.”

Portrait artist

It wasn’t until 1984, when he first drew fellow Phillip Institute student Graeme Doyle, that portraiture became a focus. “We met every week for 35 years,” Wegner says. “I have thousands of works of Graeme. I followed his life … and this work follows mine.”

Doyle was an artist and poet living with schizophrenia, who passed away in July 2021. A forthcoming exhibition detailing their association will include sketches of his body in the funeral home (as per Doyle’s wishes), and a painting of the chair he sat in week after week. Doyle’s presence is palpable through his absence.

Wegner's Chair Series

“A chair or couch has a familiarity and history with the person who sits on it. The stories they could tell,” says Wegner, whose Chair Series includes a rendition of Sigmund Freud’s famous couch, painted on a 2014 visit to London, and armchairs worn in and worn out.

Wegner researched the relationship between artist and sitter for his master’s thesis, penned between teaching at Monash’s Caulfield campus (two days a week for five years) and winning the 2006 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize (also $100,000) for a painting of Doyle titled Wounded poet 2006. (“Jenny cried then too!”)

“I guess I wanted to kickstart my work again,” he says of his return to study, during a period when Jenny was teaching art and his two daughters, Ari and Lydia, a cinematographer and artist/photographer, were teenagers. “My supervisor (Ken Smith) was a kindred spirit. It all fed into what I’m doing now.”

The human condition

For Wegner, painting and drawing aren’t simply about capturing a likeness. Both force the viewer to “‘stop and enter its time’” says Wegner, quoting English art critic and painter John Berger, and to examine the human condition in the process.

On the wall behind him, for example, is a Jack Epstein, who in 1941, aged 19, joined the siege of Tobruk in Libya – the inspiration for Wegner’s Rats of Tobruk series. “The spirit of these veterans is strong,” he says. “I wanted to get that across.”

Jack Epstein by Peter Wegner
Jack Epstein, who in 1941, aged 19, joined the siege of Tobruk in Libya.

All his portraits are painted and drawn from life: “It’s a bit like a time capsule, especially with the centenarians. I’m going in there for two and a half hours and they’re telling me about their life as I’m drawing them, and I’m making little notes on the bottom as we go along.

“I’m really interested in people, and in how people can live to 100. Purpose and meaning.” He flashes a smile. “That’s what it seems to come down to.”