A portrait of Campbell Newman depicting the former Queensland premier in a construction safety vest and helmet, which is now adorning state parliament, has drawn mixed reactions.
The painting by Newman’s friend and former political rival David Hinchliffe was unveiled in a ceremony closed to the media in Brisbane on Thursday night.
The artist said it was an obvious nod to Newman’s defining characteristic, a penchant for action that meant he was “much happier out in the field on a construction site than he was sitting behind a desk in parliament”.
But he said the “extraordinary” and Shakespearean arc of Newman’s political career – from “king of city hall” in Brisbane, to leader of a state government with the biggest majority in western democracy, to then crash to defeat in a single term – had yet to be properly explained.
Hinchliffe, a former Labor councillor in Brisbane who worked closely with Newman while he was a highly popular lord mayor, said he “did not recognise” him for most of his deeply divisive reign as premier.
“He was a modern urban Liberal and, in Brisbane, Campbell could be Campbell,” he told Guardian Australia.
“But when he was conscripted by the LNP, which is heavily National party-dominated, very country-centric, and with the rise of some crazy types within the LNP who are hugely wedded to a very fundamentalist Christian and rightwing perspective, things changed.”
Hinchliffe said the notion of his subject in a “hi-vis vest and helmet” was his, and when he asked the former army engineer to bring some along for the sitting, Newman “liked the idea”.
“He said, ‘Where do you want me to sit?’ I said, ‘Campbell, you have not been made to sit still in your life. I think I’m reconciled to the fact that you’re going to be standing and moving around.’ And he did.
“Then there was one particular moment where, in his hi-vis vest, he was looking out the window and I said, ‘That’s it, stop. You’re looking at your next project.’ That was it: he was itching to get on to the next job, it was always the way he was.
“If I’d thought more about it, I would have had him almost half walking out of the frame – that was Campbell, the man constantly in motion.”
The portrait, to hang alongside those of Newman’s predecessors, including Anna Bligh and Joh Bjelke-Petersen, drew mixed reactions on Twitter.
Some saw shades of heroic realism in the Soviet vein.
One political foe conceded the portrait had a spellbinding quality.
Others saw expressionism.
Others referred to a more recent popular portrait horror.
The Greens senator for Tasmania, Nick McKim, perhaps unfamiliar with Newman’s long-held preference for blue shirts, made a dig at him “pretending to be a blue-collar worker”.
Others noted that the vest bore the Brisbane city council logo.
The federal Labor MP Graham Perrett said this may be “an insider joke from the artist”.
Hinchliffe said Newman’s frustration in state politics included the “diffuse” nature of power at the state level, as well as his lack of authority over more conservative forces in the LNP, despite leading the party to a “phenomenal” 87-to-seven seat victory over Labor in 2012.
“He was the king of city hall, no ifs, buts or maybes, whereas in parliament he had to bend a lot more to the right of the party,” Hinchliffe said.
“An example: he supports marriage equality and one of the first things they did was abandon the previous government’s very watered-down civil partnerships laws. I thought, where the hell is that coming from?
“No one’s really looked at how this bloke, who was so incredibly popular that they would draft him from down the road at city hall for them to have a chance and he gives them this phenomenal victory ... how could someone then lose this?
“The arc of his trajectory is just extraordinary. It needs to be explained.”