Aligning Elusive Identity and the Photo-Realist Moment:
Brett Moffatt’s Paintings

Emma Landis ISA, MA, PhD (ABD)
Art historian

Brett Moffatt is a photographer and painter celebrated for his achievements as a portraitist. He is also a successful Photo-realist painter in his own right, with a deep reservoir of creativity flowing into fashion photography, stage design, and filmmaking. Though multi-talented, Moffatt is renewing his focus into mastering the art of Photo-realist painting. In doing so, he builds on a 30-year relationship with the movement and its tenets.

Moffatt uses sketches, photographs, and watercolours as part of his preparatory work and dedicates a significant amount of time to developing a concept and narrative well before he puts brush to canvas. “Great portraiture to me, not only finds a way to express the subject but transcends the appearance of a person. Without wishing to give away too much, the work alludes to deeper and more sophisticated layers of the subject’s character and life’s story,” explains Moffatt. This is also how Moffatt approaches the Photo-realist paintings he creates with a fictional person and story in mind. His visionary approach exists on the borders of Photo-realism.

In order to begin to understand Moffatt’s work, it is helpful to revisit the definition of Photo-realism. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Photo-realism…is an art movement that began in the 1960s [in America], taking photography as its inspiration. Photo-realist painters created highly illusionistic images that referred not to nature but to the reproduced image…and grew out of the Pop and Minimalism movements that preceded it. Like Pop artists, the Photo-realists were interested in breaking down hierarchies of appropriate subject matter by including everyday scenes of commercial life.”[1] Criticism for Photo-realism often stems from the misconception that the work is merely about reproducing an image, rendering it little more than documentation. If that were the movement’s true aim, photography may indeed be a more appropriate medium. For Moffatt, photography is primarily a tool when conceiving his paintings, but he also uses the photographic medium as a creative outlet on separate projects. Photo-realists like Moffatt, however, methodically compose their images with ingenuity that goes far beyond the technical skill associated with the movement.

Thematically, Moffatt is interested in challenging misogynistic clichés and reductionist stereotypes that demonize women who demonstrate strength of character. His approach involves an investigation of individual and social psychology within Hollywood in general, and film noir and its maligned femme fatale in particular. Moffatt adopts formal framing and styling techniques originating from film noir, and attempts to unravel lingering negativity associated with the femme fatale trope. He does this by painting women who are naturally self-assured and exude a commanding presence in any setting.

Girl in a yellow dress / 2019 / oil on linen / 152cm x 111cm

The term femme fatale arose out of the film noir Hollywood genre popularized during the 1940s.[2] During this wartime period, the American people were marred by insecurity over the apparent failing of the Western establishment that they so revered. Artists across disciplines began looking inward, more acutely aware of their inherent flaws. Jackson Pollock’s (1912-1956) abstract paintings are perhaps one of the best-known examples of such anxious self-reflection. This socio-psychological shift fuelled filmmakers, too, from whom the film noir genre emerged. Films from this genre infamously shared a moody atmosphere, a troubled or morally ambiguous male protagonist “filled with existential bitterness,”[3] and the notorious femme fatale. According to Merriam-Webster, a “femme fatale” is “a seductive woman who lures men into dangerous or compromising situations.”[4] Often these women are intelligent, quick-witted, beautiful, and are considered threatening to their male counterparts precisely because of these attributes, despite their potential for allyship.

In one of the most celebrated examples of film noir, Kiss Me Deadly (directed by Robert Aldrich, 1955), a private investigator becomes entangled in a mystery upon aiding an intriguing female hitchhiker who had escaped from a psychiatric hospital. The beautiful yet mentally unstable and dangerous woman is a trope that spans thousands of years. To see just how entrenched this sexist stereotype is in the contemporary Western imagination, one need only be reminded of the witch hunts precipitated by mass moral panic[5] (primarily in Europe and Colonial America from 1450-1750), and the normalization of institutionalizing controversial women into insane asylums during the Victorian period.

Moffatt acknowledges Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia (1571), Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1599) and Manet’s Olympia (1863) as influential sources for him both in terms of pushing the realist style forward and in the storytelling of strong female subjects. Although a superficial reading of these paintings may render the depicted women victims, or worse still, threats, another reading of them includes women in the midst of disturbing confrontations that demand boldness of them in order to survive. Moffatt’s painted portrayals of women attempts to convey the sense of confidence, will, and independence that he sees in these particular historical paintings.

Gaby Rodgers in Kiss Me Deadly, 1955
Titian | 1571 | Tarquin and Lucretia | Oil on canvas | 188.9cm × 145.1cm
Édouard Manet | 1863 | Olympia | Oil on canvas | 130.5cm × 190cm

Moffatt’s respect for contemporary Photo-realist painters spans the globe. Frenchman François Bard’s cinema-inspired work, American Damian Loeb’s noir series from 2015, and Australian’s own Diane Gall are the contemporary artists that most resonate with Moffatt. He appreciates each of their unique voices and styles within the realist genre, and how they bring depth and a critical edge to the Photo-realist movement.

Moffatt earned a Bachelor of Arts, Visual Arts (1992) from Queensland College of Art and a Master of Arts, Visual Arts (2006) from Monash University. He was thereafter selected for mentorship with celebrated Fashion Photographer Nick Knight. Moffatt was awarded the Ian Potter Cultural Trust Scholarship among 8 other awards that year alone, and was a finalist in the Brisbane Portrait Prize, the Olive Cotton Award, and the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship. His work has been the feature of seven solo exhibitions and included in over 20 group exhibitions locally and globally. He has also been involved in major corporate collaborations including work with Warner Brothers, SBS & ABC Television, and Foxtel. Moffat’s work is housed in public and private collections around the world, including collections in Asia, Australia, North America, the United Kingdom, and Europe.

[2] Some scholars believe the film noir genre never ended, rather it evolved and remains with us today. (Ballinger and Graydon, 2007.)
[3] Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, 1992, p. 6.
[5] Goode, Erich; Ben-Yehuda, Nachman (2010). Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Wiley. p. 195. 

Emma Landis is a PhD (ABD) in Art History & Visual Studies (University of Victoria), MA in Visual Studies (Western University), and BAH in Art History (Queen’s University).