Since its colonisation in 1788, Australia has been trying to work out where it stands in relation to the world and to itself. Two centuries later, these questions have taken on a special pertinence. In the next two years Australians will celebrate the centenary of Federation in 1901, when the states united as the Commonwealth of Australia, vote on whether their country should become a republic, and make a Declaration of Reconciliation to the Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders, apologising for colonising their lands without consent.
The approaching anniversary, apology and referendum have provoked a famously laid-back population into some intense navel-gazing. Every day the newspapers devote their opinion pages to the subject of what Australia is and might be, with long discursive pieces on the rights of the indigenous peoples, the rewording of the constitution, and the pros and cons of becoming a republic. A poll last weekend suggested that 51 per cent of the population want to dump the monarchy. Yet a "yes" vote in November's referendum seems unlikely, because not all republicans will support the model put forward - for a president appointed by parliament and not elected directly by the people. And plenty of Aussies, while not ardent monarchists or Anglophiles, do not see anything so wrong with the present system and do not feel the presence of a foreign head of state prevents the flourishing of a national identity.
The self-scrutiny deepened earlier this month with the opening of Australia's National Portrait Gallery. Canberra's Old Parliament House, widely regarded as the heart and hearth of Australia's political history but superseded 10 years ago by a new, bigger, brasher Parliament House, has been reinvented as a permanent hall of fame for Australia's most memorable characters, from Governor Macquarie to Kylie Minogue. Founded a year ago, the gallery has 130 portraits and - with joint funding from the Federal Government and its patron-founders, Gordon and Marilyn Darling, the well-known Melbourne art collectors - the means to acquire and commission many more.
The idea of an Australian portrait gallery has been mooted, on and off, since the 1850s. "It's no accident the NPG has come about a time when there is quite a lot of discussion about Australian identity," says the gallery's director, a dynamic English-born 42-year-old called Andrew Sayers. "We're very aware of the things that have made up Australia, the lives and the stories. The whole debate - about reconciliation, the preamble to the constitution, the centenary of Federation - is about history. In that context the NPG suddenly seems like a really good and interesting idea."
This is the fourth national portrait gallery in the world, after London, Edinburgh and Washington. But the Australian NPG will not ape such earlier galleries: the subjects are not being held up as paragons to a humble public. "Our sense of public persona at the end of the 20th century has to be different from what the British felt in the 1850s," Sayers argues. With the debate about Australia's identity, the gallery represents "a questioning. And the NPG itself will be a little more questioning than its overseas counterparts".
The Australian NPG will hang not just the great and the good, but the great and the bad - even, in the case of Ned Kelly, the great and the hanged. Its collection focuses on the living as much as the dead, whereas the Washington NPG originally pursued a 10-year rule: you had to be dead for a decade before they let you in. In Canberra the criterion is simply that you be Australian "by birth or association", and have an interesting, publicly noticed life.
Refreshingly, there are few dusty "Eminent Victorians" - unless you mean eminent people who happen to come from Victoria, such as Germaine Greer. There are plenty of women, and a reasonable smattering of faces of indigenous origin, though not many of Asian extraction.
So who makes the grade? Captain Cook for starters, and a whole load of characters from the maverick Australian firmament. There is Bungaree, the 1830s native chief known as the "King of Sydney" because he would greet shiploads of colonials dressed in naval uniform but no shoes; the Aboriginal cricket team, photographed in 1866; Banjo Patterson, the poet; Max Dupain, the photographer; Sir Sidney Nolan, recognisable only by his artistic style in a self-portrait; the singers Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland, "La Stupenda"; Dawn Fraser, the Olympic swimmer; former prime minister Bob Hawke; Judy Davis; Patrick White; Geoffrey Rush; Michael Hutchence, and the athlete Cathy Freeman, Australia's great hope for the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
With just 130 paintings, photographs and busts, the selection of subjects is inevitably arbitrary (where are Errol Flynn, Rolf Harris, Clive James, Rupert Murdoch, Richie Benaud, Peter Weir, Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett?).
The initial line-up has also been determined by the standard of portraits available; the NPG is as much a gallery of art as of fame. "Artistic quality is of prime importance," Sayers says, though he wants to see all walks of life represented as soon as possible. Scientists, for example, do not often get painted, so he commissioned a picture of Sir Gustav Nossal, the scourge of polio.
Sayers is looking forward to spending A$200,000 (pounds 80,000) on 10 or 12 new commissions a year and wants to match subjects and artists. He gave the portrait of Nick Cave to Howard Arkley, a Melbourne artist better known for painting the red roofs of suburbia. The result, depicting the singer-novelist's singularly drawn features in trippy, airbrushed colours, perhaps argues with the hectically patterned parliamentary carpet - but nobody could argue that it does not look like Nick Cave.
One person gets in twice: Barry Humphries - first as himself, later as Dame Edna Everage. Dame Barry turned up for the opening, and had a look at his young self - an effete, bony figure with talon-like fingers rendered in a unrelenting palette of sludge green by his friend Clifton Pugh. "In 1958 I had just had a little success," he reminisced. "And Clifton painted my portrait in his style of the period. The likeness is good and the look of uncertainty and, indeed, anxiety in my face is well captured and imbued through the `toasting-fork' hands. I'd invented a character at that time whose hands resembled toasting forks."
Humphries seemed taken by the death mask of Ned Kelly and the bust of Sir Redmond Barry, the judge who condemned the outlaw and himself died two weeks later, juxtaposed either side of the gallery's main axis. "Kelly seems to have a slight smile on his face. It must have been put on by the mortician," he quipped. "Perhaps we should invite people to donate their death masks. There are several I'd quite like to see."
The willingness to place the notorious alongside the virtuous reflects Australia's irreverence for conventional heroes and differentiates the Australian NPG from its precursors. Alan Bond, the entrepreneur who won the America's Cup in 1983 and was named Australian of the Year in 1987, went bankrupt and was jailed for misusing corporate funds. "In the 1980s, Alan Bond was a spectacular success and now we have his self-portrait painted inside Karnet Prison Farm, Western Australia," says Sayers.
As well as being a celebration of the diversity of Australians, the NPG is a celebration of portraiture, a genre historically overshadowed in Australian art by landscape painting. "Portraiture is a special kind of art," says Sayers. "It allows us a very personal insight into someone's character."
National Portrait Gallery, Old Parliament House, Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia (00 61 2 6270 8288; open daily 9am-4pm, closed Christmas Day; www.portrait.gov.au. An exhibition of photographic portraits of famous Australians who now live in Britain, taken by Polly Borland, will go on show at the NPG in London later this yearReuse content