The plague of art prizes in Australia
I am unfamiliar with any other country in the world where art prizes are so numerous and play such a public role in the art scene as in Australia. Is there any other country where there is a portrait prize that stops a nation?
In Britain, the Turner Prize with a purse of £40,000, has been hyped to the rafters, but apart from a bit of ridicule from the tabloids, it is only big news or the subject of derision in art circles.
On my count, there are somewhere about 548 art prizes in Australia, although the listing on the website seems to include a couple that are somewhat moribund and a few that have been suspended, but still over 500 art prizes must be a bit of an overkill.
Obviously not all art prizes have been created equal and a win in the Archibald will bring more money and clout for the artist than the Hahndorf Academy Adelaide Hills Art Prize, but Australia’s appetite for art prizes appears insatiable.
Despite the plethora of art prizes, as a phenomenon in Australian art it has been inadequately studied with the only, almost-comprehensive study of which I am aware, by Dr Thea Exley in 2000, titled Patronage by proxy: art competitions in Australia during the twentieth century.
Otherwise there is no shortage of references to art prizes, annual catalogues devoted to the prizes or individual publications devoted to the history of specific prizes such as the Archibald, Blake or the Dobell.
What makes for a successful art prize competition? A generous purse may make it more attractive, but it is not a deal clincher.
The Archibald has a winner’s purse of $100,000, while the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize is $150,000, but winning the latter hardly rates a mention, a blip on an artist’s c.v., while the Archibald remains a career highlight and in many instances has launched or relaunched an artist’s career.
The calibre of the judges also seems to make little impact, for the Archibald it is the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, many of whom are there, quite appropriately, because they are people of influence or have particularly deep pockets, rather than any knowledge of art.
The Moran Prize, particularly in recent years, has had highly qualified judges, but still it remains the neglected portrait prize. Controversy is great for the profile of an art prize, but someone really has to care about it in the first place for decisions to be controversial, otherwise it becomes a parochial in-house skirmish.
Negative criticism is a must for art prizes to flourish, but this has really very little impact – the crowds still come and the art critics are ignored.
This year’s Archibald, with its 43 finalists, is as disappointing and a non-event as most of the Archibald shows of the previous few years.
The winning entry, Mitch Cairns’ portrait of his partner Agatha Gothe-Snape, is an eye-catching, highly decorative pastiche of a Matisse-inspired formula. It is neither particularly interesting nor particularly adventurous, but Cairns, a local Sydney artist in his early 30s, has become a regular in the Archibald and had earlier secured the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship. It is a clever, decorative painting that will be viewed as sufficiently progressive to keep the critics at bay, yet sufficiently safely anchored in early modernism not to antagonise the establishment.
In this year’s selection, Tony Albert is one of the few conceptually adventurous portraits, while Nicholas Harding, Marcus Wills and Noel Thurgate have painted three of the most accomplished portraits.
Madeleine Winch, Prudence Flint and Kate Beynon, are all artists who have their own peculiar and idiosyncratic visual language and have in each instance slightly extended their lexicon.
A newcomer to the art prize circuit is the Hadley’s Art Prize in Hobart, which commenced in July 2017 and, as far as I am concerned, has been flying under the radar despite its exceptionally generous prize purse of $100,000. It has a somewhat clunky theme: ‘History and place: For the best portrayal of the Australian landscape which acknowledges the past’.
Named after the vintage Hadley’s Hotel in Hobart, the prize is yet to receive traction in the art world and although the 41 finalists produce a credible field, it is not of the calibre that would reflect the value of the prize. The winner is Peter Mungkuri from South Australia with his Ngura Wiru, which is a good, sprawling ink drawing of his home country. For me, the main highlights of this prize include Karen Casey’s golden glowing image of the land as history and memory in Mapping Time, a superb Ray Arnold etching diptych, Elsewhere world/Prospect and refuge II, Susanna Castledon’s Rottnest Sunrise with its striking play of coloured gesso on paper, Sue Lovegrove’s … and all hands danced together and a typically quirky Guan Wei, Reflection 5, where personal histories combine with general histories and observations.
Down the road in Hobart, at the Colville Gallery in Salamanca Place, is the Lloyd Rees Art Prize with a much more modest purse of $20,000, but which arguably has attracted a stronger field than the Hadley Prize. This year the winning entry is a lovely small glowing oil painting by Philip Wolfhagen, Transitory Light. With at least half a dozen art prizes in Tasmania, the island is well served with these sporting fixtures of the art world.
With such a crowded field of hundreds of art prizes and competitions in Australia and with the appetite for them not diminishing, I cannot but wonder why they should remain so popular with patrons, artists and the public.
The last two categories are easiest to explain – artists are desperate for money and recognition, while the public are drawn to a game where they can argue with the judges’ pronouncements and generally own the whole art process.
The more perplexing is the role of the patron. Certainly, in the 1960s and 1970s when the whole art prize phenomenon exploded in its popularity, patrons quite often struck a profitable deal through the art prizes with acquisitive awards with modest purses – the organisers would capitalise on the publicity and would pocket the work for what was often a bargain basement price.
Today, frequently the prizes are substantial and, even if they are acquisitive, as in the case of the Hadley Prize, their value easily eclipses the price of the work. With such a proliferation of landscape art prizes, publicity is limited.
Outside the art community, who would know about the Fleurieu Art Prize for Landscape worth $65,000, the Glover Prize for landscape painting in Hobart of $50,000, the Wynne Prize for landscape of $50,000 or the Tattersalls Landscape Art Prize worth $30,000 with its successful touring exhibition?
Is it possible that there could be smarter and more effective ways for patrons to channel patronage into the arts than to constantly organise art prizes?
Art and Revolution
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was one of the most momentous events of the 20th century. It reshaped almost every aspect of our lives – politically, socially and culturally – and now, exactly a hundred years later, we can pause and examine its heritage.
In Europe, the Royal Academy held its blockbuster exhibition Revolution: Russian art 1917-1932, the British Library its Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths show, Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin mounted its major 1917: Revolution: Russia and Europe exhibition and there is a plethora of exhibitions around the world including The Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibition A Revolutionary Impulse: The rise of the Russian avant-garde in New York.
In Australia cultural celebrations of the Russian revolution are more muted with an exhibition of Russian revolutionary graphics opening at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra in late August, drawing on its internationally significant holdings of Russian avant-garde art, and a big exhibition Call of the avant-garde: Constructivism and Australian art at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne.
Constructivism was the art movement of the Bolshevik revolution, whose ideology reflected that of the fledgling socialist state, and whose forms swept into every aspect of cultural production including typography, book design, poster art, architecture, furniture, ceramics, textiles, theatre stage sets, cinematography, music, poetry as well as painting, sculpture and printmaking. For example, when the new Soviet state exhibited at the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris in 1925 the Soviet Pavilion was designed by the constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov, while for the interior Aleksandr Rodchenko designed a constructivist workers’ club.
Constructivism was at the service of the revolution and the Soviet state, so that El Lissitzky’s famous lithographic poster, Drive the red wedge into the whites, 1920, commissioned by the Political Department of the Western Front, in many ways sums up the essence and principles of constructivism. If we examine this civil war image – the graphic elements are simple and geometric in character. The black and white trapezoidal areas are obliquely separated. A sharp aggressive red triangle – symbolic of the red army, literally deflowers the broken white circle (the tsarist army) – the simple sans serif lettering, obliquely placed in relation to the total geometry of the poster – reads "with the red wedge, destroy the whites" i.e. the Bolshevik army drives the red wedge into the ranks of the whites (also in Russian there is an alliterative quality in the words).
Although economically the young Soviet state was a basket case with sanctions and economic blockade imposed by the surrounding imperialist powers, culturally it was a superpower and constructivism was a subversive export designed to spread the Communist revolution to the rest of the world.
Soviet constructivist artists and their fellow travellers infiltrated the revolutionary Bauhaus in Germany and before long Kurt Schwitters and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy converted to Constructivism mainly through contact with El Lissitzky. Moholy-Nagy wrote in 1922 in his article ‘Constructivism and the Proletariat’:
"Everyone is equal before the machine. I can use it, so can you ... There is no tradition in technology, no class consciousness. Everybody can be both the machine's master and its slave. This is the root of Socialism ... This is our century: technology, machine, Socialism ... The art of our time has to be functional, precise, all-inclusive. It is the art of Constructivism ... In Constructivism form and content are one ... Constructivism ... is not confined to the picture frame and pedestal. It expands into industry and architecture, into objects and relationships. Constructivism is the Socialism of vision."
Constructivism and its socialist ideology were inseparable and every constructivist, to the woman – as many prominent Constructivist artists were women, including Lubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova, Olga Rozanova and Alexandra Ekster – felt that they were part of a global revolution.
One difficulty with an exhibition such as the Call of the avant-garde is that most of the Australians were quick to copy the outside forms of Constructivism, but not the ideological content. The great Soviet poet and Constructivist artist and designer Vladimir Mayakovsky was to term such endeavours as “carrot coffee”, a reference to those who captured the outside form, but failed to understand the essence.
The Heide exhibition includes a small handful of Russian works, the Rodchenko painting and photograph on loan from the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the El Lissitzky Proun lithographs from the Art Gallery of Western Australia are the most remarkable of these.
There are also a few superb pieces by Erich Buchholz, a German artist who spent most of his life denying that he was a Constructivist, but came closest to them in spirit and ideology. The rest of the show consists largely of Australian and British artists, of a much later generation, who responded to some of the forms and ideas of Constructivism.
Sally Smart made her own complex and multifaceted ‘Constructivist puppets’ that engage on a number of planes with ideas of Russian feminists, while Justene Williams recreates costumes for Victory over the sun (1913), the Russian Futurist opera written in a transrational language that celebrated the emergence of a number of Constructivist elements.
Ralph Balson, Frank and Margel Hinder, George Johnson and John Nixon in their art, in different ways, celebrate Constructivist forms. The exhibition curators, Sue Cramer and Lesley Harding, adopt a broad-brush definition of Constructivism, so that Inge King, Victor Pasmore, Anthony Caro, Gunter Christmann, Emily Floyd, Meredith Turnbull, Max Dupain, Olive Cotton, Melinda Harper and Raafat Ishak all somehow fit under the Constructivist banner.
Vladimir Lenin and his enlightened Commissar for Education and Culture Anatoly Lunacharsky may not have personally liked or understood Constructivism, but were happy to tolerate artistic diversity. Some of the subsequent Soviet leaders were incapable of accepting anything other than academic realism. Constructivism never died in the Soviet Union, seeking refuge in typography, filmmaking, photomontage and poster art, but it did take root in the West and ultimately permeated many aspects of art and design.
Visiting art galleries and museums: some untimely thoughts
Amongst museums in Australia, and frankly around the world, attendance numbers are seen as a barometer to success.
Leaving aside the Palace Museum in Beijing, which boasted in 2016 an attendance of 16 million visitors, of the major art museums, the Louvre in Paris attracted 7,300,300 visitors, the British Museum a mere 6,820,000 visitors, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York 6,700,000 visitors. The French and British museums saw last year as one of disastrous decline, blaming it mainly on the threat of terrorism, yet in reality all of these museums remained intolerably crowded.
The visiting experience of these museums is like getting a cheap seat at the theatre, strategically positioned behind a column, where you can only partially see the stage and hear only a muffled sound. As a private confession, I avoid visiting these three museums unless I can get in outside opening hours or am attending a special function.
In Australia, the problem is still in its infancy with only one museum in the top 25 visited museums in the world, namely the National Gallery of Victoria, which is in the twenty-third spot with 2.3 million visitors in 2014/15. However, spread between two adjacent venues of St Kilda Road and Federation Square, it remains comfortably crowded except during their blockbuster shows, such as Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei and Vincent van Gogh and the Seasons.
After Melbourne, statistically, there is daylight with the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art and the Art Gallery of New South Wales coming in with about a million fewer visitors.
A question arises as to what you want from an art gallery experience. Should it be a quiet, contemplative encounter with art objects, some reserved, others interactive, or should it be more like visiting a fashionable shopping complex with a mixture of glitter, shopping and dining opportunities and the engagement with strong aesthetic experiences. It is difficult, although not impossible, to combine the two.
Most of the major art galleries and museums in Australia exhibit only a fraction of their collection and there is pressure to expand to exhibit more of their holdings, to have bigger facilities to host major ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, and to increase their market share of the lucrative cultural tourism industry.
Both the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra have advanced proposals for major expansions for their respective buildings and are seeking funding, but it is the Art Gallery of New South Wales that has attracted greatest attention.
Sydney’s proposal is to build an extension to its existing building, which would be called Sydney Modern, and which would roughly double its floor space. The proposal has been met with considerable vitriol directed as much at the proposal as at its main instigator, Dr Michael Brand, the director of the gallery.
Brand, a Canberra boy who trained at the Australian National University and then at Harvard University, came to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2012, after a stellar career in Australia and the United States, which included the directorship of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He succeeded the long-serving Edmund Capon, the flamboyant director who over his 33 years in the job transformed a sleepy provincial institution into a thriving major art institution.
It was always going to be a hard act to follow by the media-shy Michael Brand in the footsteps of the self-confessed media junkie Edmund Capon. Brand is a scholar-curator with a brilliant eye and Australian audiences still remember the outstanding exhibitions he curated as the inaugural head of Asian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, including The Age of Angkor: treasures from the National Museum of Cambodia (1992) and the sublime Vision of Kings: art and experience in India (1995).
In Sydney, Brand inherited a poisoned chalice where the gallery had lost most of its long-serving curatorial staff, largely under the stewardship of Anne Flanagan, the gallery’s deputy director. There was also pressure to expand the building that saw the birth of the Sydney Modern dream, which would be completed in time for the gallery’s 150th anniversary in 2021.
There were a couple of ideological objections to the project and others that were simply born out of personal malice to the new director. The first objection was to the concept of an extension as opposed to a second venue, possibly somewhere in western Sydney.
As a personal view, I feel that Sydney needs a one-stop-shop for visual culture; it lacks the depth of collection to parallel the Tate in London, where both Tate Britain and Tate Modern can stage absolutely brilliant exhibitions simultaneously. In the same breath, I would argue strongly for the building of filial branches in Parramatta and Liverpool to show parts of the gallery’s collection.
The second objection is to the site and the proposed building. Some see it as a land grab in the contested territory of The Domain and the building itself as not in harmony with the existing neo-classical mausoleum-like structure.
These are valid objections, but it is difficult to suggest an alternative adjacent site and there will always be objections to architecture that seeks to transform that which we cherish, particularly a shrine to high culture.
The pyramid at the Louvre was a costly controversy that in retrospect became a much-copied masterpiece. The architectural team Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA for Sydney Modern is highly credentialed and the light-filled ambience of the proposed interior and exterior spaces will create bold and engaging spaces.
The criticism of Michael Brand’s managerial style that has been summed up in the recently published little polemical volume Culture Heist: Art versus money by Judith White, the former director of the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales, is not something on which I am competent to comment.
Usually there are several sides to arguments of this nature and we certainly have here one side forcibly presented with no shortage of personal vitriol. However, the hope that funding for the project will never be found has evaporated.
The NSW government in its June 2017 state budget pledged $244 million dollars to the project leaving the gallery to find the remaining $100 million, of which the gallery has already identified $70 million, which includes a commitment of $20 million from the Susan and Isaac Wakil Foundation.
I have little doubt that the extensions will be built and that the crowds will come, but hopefully something of the quiet sanctity of the gallery, and the collegiality of its staff and enthusiasm of its volunteers will be preserved into the future.
Brett Whiteley – the film
The caption on the poster for this film reads: “If there’s no meaning to life, then you might as well make it extraordinary. Whiteley in the iconic artist’s own words.”
Brett Whiteley (1939-1992) was certainly the most public and media-celebrated Australian artist of the 20th century. Following in the footsteps of an authoritative biography on the artist by Ashleigh Wilson in 2016 comes this new feature-length film. While it is advertised as being in the artist’s own words, the director James Bogle skilfully blends rare documentary footage with actors playing the role of Whiteley as a child (Jack Barns), as a youth (Campbell Greenock) and as an adult (Andy Blaikie).
The film is presented as the great love story between Brett and Wendy (the latter played by Wendy herself for recent footage and by Jessica White for earlier evocations). The story is set against the background of a spectacular and turbulent artistic career that starts in provincial Sydney, comes to an early culmination in London, where the Tate buys a major painting from the 21-year-old artist, the glitter of New York in the 1960s, where the Whiteley family lives in the penthouse of the Chelsea Hotel, and the subsequent Sydney years where reference to alcohol and drug use adds to the artist’s notoriety and popular cult-like status.
Wendy was not only Brett’s lover and wife, but also his muse and the most significant model in his oeuvre from the mid-sixties through to the 1980s. Her early training at art school provided her with a degree of visual literacy, so that she was not simply the artist’s passive companion, but a knowledgeable collaborator who could share his passions in his journeys through art, his excitement and ultimately his vices.
The film sits midway between a documentary and an imaginative re-evocation of the artist’s life and work. Whiteley was more opinionated, than articulate. He was constantly in the public eye giving countless interviews and making sense of the world from his own very idiosyncratic perspective. Art was his real language of expression and here he found a creative freedom in his graphics, huge sprawling paintings, sculptures and installations.
The single most important achievement of the film is the exposure it provides to Whiteley’s art, including actuality footage of the artist at work and explaining his creations, but most significantly images of the artworks themselves. The device constantly adopted throughout the film of zooming in on the detail in the work and pausing at length on lush passages of paint or the fluid sensuous line that only hints at form, is effective and at times spectacular.
Whiteley is an artist whose colourful biography frequently obscures the seriousness and consistency of his work. He may have produced much painting that was poor and uneven and possibly designed to feed his and Wendy’s drug addiction. These paintings were aimed at art collectors who collected with their ears rather than their eyes and on hearing the magic name of Whiteley opened their wallets like obedient Pavlovian dogs. At his best, Whiteley was brilliant and a major achievement of the film is that it focuses on Whiteley at his best. A viewing of it reminds us that that there is substance in Whiteley’s art and that at times it was terrific.
A film of this nature does invariably raise the question whether Whiteley was a completely autobiographic artist. One could argue that Vincent van Gogh, for example, was an obsessively autobiographic artist, where his correspondence with his brother Theo has provided us with a vital clue as to how to interpret his paintings, both in terms of their imagery as well as their emotional and spiritual content. I think that this is equally true in the case of Whiteley.
When in Italy or the South of France, London, New York, Fiji and Sydney, the surrounding environment to some extent determined not only what he painted, but also how he painted. In London, it may have been the swinging sixties, but when he came to paint the Bathroom series or the Christie series, it reflected not only the physicality of London, but also the impact of Francis Bacon and the exposure to the art of Pierre Bonnard.
In New York, Whiteley responded both to the excitement and violence of the place in his American Dream (1968-69), a masterwork that drained him of his energy to the point of physical and spiritual exhaustion. While he grappled with American Pop Art and such political artists as Leon Golub, he was also responding to the reports of daily violence in the Vietnam War and the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
This film to some extent attempts to bring together cause and effect in Whiteley’s art, lucid and incisive in places such as when discussing his life in New York, less satisfactory in its treatment of Whiteley in Sydney at Lavender Bay. Here we are introduced to the physicality of the place, but little is said of the surrounding artistic milieu. Although the mentorship of Lloyd Rees is discussed at some length, other artists surrounding Whiteley, including Martin Sharp, are passed over in silence. Whiteley was the most sociable of artists and a larger-than-life figure in the Sydney art scene.
James Bogle’s Whiteley is a seductively attractive film that offers us an unusual insight into the life and art of the creative and troubled maverick in Australian art who held our attention for over three decades. With time, we will forget about the drugs and the lifestyle and will come to focus on Whiteley’s art and its lasting legacy.
Whiteley: Directed by James Bogle
A Northern Pictures Production distributed by Transmission Films
The Schoolgirls of Charles Blackman
Charles Blackman first came to prominence in the early 1950s when he exhibited his schoolgirl series of paintings and drawings in Melbourne. Although subsequently his Alice in Wonderland series gave him national acclaim, the schoolgirls remained an ongoing source of inspiration and, for the first time, a good cross-section of these paintings and drawings has been assembled at the Heide Museum of Modern Art.
The paintings have aged, perhaps not particularly gracefully, and in their style, conception and execution appear very much of their time. While all art may be a witness of its epoch, Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly pictures of 1946-47 are to some extent ageless and today have a contemporary freshness and immediacy of the here and now.
The Blackmans belong to the 1950s. The mixture of enamel with oils or tempera on cardboard or masonite is of its time, as is the middle ground on which figurative expressionism, surrealism and traditional representational art meet and combine in an uneasy association. The long-cast shadows, huge eyes, simplified palette and the sense of patterning have a multitude of parallels in preceding European painting, especially Odilon Redon and Marc Chagall, the work of the American Ben Shahn, as well as the Australians Danila Vassilieff, Bob Dickerson, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Leonard French, Jon Molvig, Joy Hester and John Brack.
The Sydney-born Blackman, by the time he was twenty, moved up to Brisbane where he met his future wife Barbara née Patterson with whom he moved and settled in Melbourne in 1951. Speaking of his schoolgirl series, in retrospect, to the poet Thomas Shapcott, Blackman observed “I just started drawing my schoolgirl pictures; they just came out. That was it. It takes a long time to get to the door; once you pass through the veil or once you pass through the surface of the idea then it all comes pouring out. The schoolgirl pictures had a lot to do with fear, I think. A lot to do with my isolation as a person and my quite paranoid fears of loneliness and stuff like that; and indeed you could almost say why I painted them.”
Apart from this cathartic quality, while already working on the series, Blackman was introduced to the wonderful verse of John Shaw Neilson by Sunday Reed, that seemed to give him permission to project his own feelings for loneliness and alienation into his subject. In fact, he quoted Neilson’s Schoolgirls hastening, as the epigraph for his exhibition:
Fear it has faded and the night.
The bells all peal the hour of nine.
Schoolgirls hastening through the light
Touch the unknowable divine
It has been well-documented that Blackman was aware at the time of the abduction and murder of children, as well as of the murder of a student friend of his wife, and a menacing and sinister note permeates many of the works. There is a quality of a haunting presence, where the schoolgirls seem trapped within a disturbing claustrophobic space – the encounter of innocence with a world in which danger and an oppressive feeling of unease lurk. However, for all of this sense of imminent menace, Blackman’s schoolgirls exist within an age of political innocence.
Today, the idea of a male artist making a major series of paintings about schoolgirls, or about any sort of children, sits uncomfortably with the public. It may have been the unenlightened stupidity of politicians that gave oxygen to the shameful Bill Henson episode, but there was enough public suspicion and vitriol to permit the issue to run in the public arena.
I remember once asking John Brack why there were so many images of schoolgirls in his art and that of his contemporaries in the 1950s and, instead of some profound existential answer, he simply sighed and pointed out to me that at the time he had four young daughters and many of his peers also had children and, coincidently, most of them had a predominance of daughters.
Blackman may not have been portraying his own children; his first daughter Christabel was not born until 1959 and his first son Auguste in 1957, and may have projected his own fears and anxieties onto schoolgirls as a convenient visual metaphor, but public perception has swung so markedly that it leaves little room in serious art making for a Chagall or Blackman painting adolescent girls. Back in the 1950s Blackman was more under attack for his style and technique, than for his imagery.
As I moved around the exhibition what I admired the most was Blackman’s ‘awkwardness’ in draughtsmanship, the images may have flowed out once the floodgates of the imagination opened, but the drawings have the quality of constant toughness.
About the paintings, the artist noted his “great struggle with the paint” and one can see evidence of constant experimentation, grittiness of the surfaces and a fecundity of invention. I think of them as some of the best paintings that he ever made, at a time before his style became mannered and the sugar content in the imagery increased.
While it is possible in Blackman’s Schoolgirl series to detect a myriad of sources and influences, which one would anticipate in the work of an artist aged in his early twenties, they are some of the most memorable and original works to appear in Australian art in the early 1950s.
Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls
Heide Museum of Modern Art
4 March – 18 June 2017
This blog is being published in conjunction with The Conversation
Institutions exhibiting contemporary Australian art
When the National Gallery of Victoria presented its Melbourne Now exhibition, late in 2013, it was greeted with a mixed critical reaction. Personally, I was very supportive as I love going to a high calibre exhibition in a major art institution where more than half of the 450+ participants are unfamiliar to me.
It was dazzling and with a huge ‘wow’ factor even if, in retrospect, it may have appeared somewhat rushed with many major artists excluded and some of the more marginal ones given too much emphasis.
What was exciting was the broad-brush approach and the preparedness for a leading Australian art institution to put on its walls and gallery spaces new, emerging and established local artists and designers.
Later in 2017 the Melbourne gallery will present its inaugural NGV Triennial which will bring together 78 artists from 32 countries, but with only nine artists from Australia.
The Adelaide Biennial kicked off in 1990 and, apart from the Art Gallery of South Australia, by 2016 it had spread to the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art at UniSA, JamFactory, Carrick Hill and the Santos Museum of Economic Botany in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.
More tightly curated than Melbourne Now and national rather than regional in its orientation, the focus has been on the more established names, rather than the emerging and potentially surprising revelations.
Highlights in 2016 included Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Pepai Jangala Carroll, Louise Haselton, Loongkoonan, Danie Mellor, Nell, Ramesh Mario-Nithiyendran, Gareth Sansom, Robyn Stacey, Garry Stewart and the Australian Dance Theatre, Tiger Yaltangki and Michael Zavros.
The appointment of Erica Green (Director of the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art) as curator of the 2018 Adelaide Biennial means it will be in a safe pair of hands with another strong crowd-pleasing selection.
Australian art has always been the Achilles’ heel of the Sydney Biennale since its inauguration in 1973. Its primary function was to bring Australian artists and art audiences up to date with the latest developments in international art (such a 1950s notion!) and include Australian artists that would usually make the international selection look good.
Despite the generosity of its main sponsors, the Sydney Biennale has always been poorly funded and appeared as the poor cousin of the big biennials and triennials abroad and decisively shabby compared with big art fairs such as the Frieze circuit and the Art Basel circuit.
The Australian Perspecta commenced as a biannual exhibition in 1981, held in alternate years to the Biennale, and designed as a showcase for contemporary Australian art practice.
When the Australian Perspecta moved out of its home at the Art Gallery of New South Wales to take on other venues in Sydney, following in the footsteps of the Biennale, it seemed to lose focus and definition and quietly folded in 1999. Since then Sydney has had no regular exhibition dealing exclusively with contemporary art practice, at least until now.
The National: New Australian Art opened across Sydney in April 2017 at three venues – the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Carriageworks. The name is silly, as I pointed out in my review for the Fairfax media, a cross between a political party and the antiquated idea of a national school of art, but it is accompanied with a sensible catalogue and an excellent website.
It is a collaborative exhibition, which is equally funded by the three venues, with funding committed for six years, in other words for two more biennials. It is national, with artists selected from every state and territory, and the selection was made by five curators from these institutions, namely, Anneke Jaspers and Wayne Tunicliffe from the Art Gallery, Lisa Havilah and Nina Mial from the Carriageworks and Blair French from the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Apparently, these curators established a checklist of about 200 names, which was whittled down to the 48 artists included in the exhibition. For the next biannual there will be a new set of curators.
Unlike Adelaide, there are no ‘golden oldies’ in the mix but, unlike Melbourne Now, there are no real surprises. They are all artists known around the traps with an average age in the forties. The geographic spread also dilutes any real focus and, to betray a personal prejudice, I feel that the state galleries should in shows of this nature first and foremost represent artists from their region and leave the national picture to the national institutions in Canberra. This said, there is much in the selection of artists to recommend the exhibition.
Going by institution, at the Art Gallery in the foyer are powerful and confronting large-scale paintings by the late Gordon Bennett interrogating the use of Aboriginal patterns in decorative arts for white people proposed by Margaret Preston.
Emily Floyd’s Kesh alphabet, for all of its imposing polychrome monumentality, is really quite a funny piece about a female orgasm as expressed in the fictitious feminist language of Kesh.
Downstairs is Yhonnie Scarce’s amazing installation Death Zephyr, where a vast array of hand-blown glass elongated long yams, bush bananas and bush plums, relating to this artist’s Kokatha and Nukunu heritage with her land adjoining the prohibited zone of the test site at Maralinga. The whole thing hovers like a menacing dark, toxic cloud.
Megan Cope, a Quandamooka Nation artist, in her Re Formation part 3, (Dubbagullee) builds a large mound of cement-cast oyster shells layered with black sand and copper slag. Indigenous shell monuments made of oyster shells were destroyed by colonial settlers and were frequently burnt for lime to make cement. It is one of those pieces where the attractive bewildering intricacy of detail conceals a dark force, a sense of longing for that which is now lost.
One could observe that each venue carries the traces of its own DNA, the sense of tradition and collection at the Art Gallery, for example Bennett references Preston in his paintings; at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the sense of design, installation and the conceptual, for example Gary Carsley, Marco Fusinato and Peter Maloney; while at the Carriageworks, the idea of performance, industrial scale and Indigenous heritage, such as the flags and banners of Archie Moore and the brilliant performances by the veteran Kimberley artist, Alan Griffiths.
At the Carriageworks, I was captivated by the work of the Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens. I was familiar with her fabric work, but the Fight Club series is striking and unexpected. The series consists of eight metal rubbish bin lids, painted black, on which are inscribed in white lettering powerful blank verse as a continuous clockwise script. The lids appear like modern urban shields highlighting the culture of violence in Australian society.
The Museum of Contemporary Art has a number of memorable pieces including Julia Gough’s The gathering, a powerful and evocative video installation about loss in her native Tasmania and Matthew Bradley’s wacky homespun installation, like a handmade junk heap.
Ronnie van Hout, a New Zealander based in Melbourne, creates a complex room-size installation on the principle of “when in doubt, put it in”. Highly self-referential in many of its aspects, the piece negotiates a space where gothic horror meets the uncanny and the surreal. It is powerful, disturbing, eerie and quite unsettling, even in small doses.
For me, the brickbat award goes to Khadim Ali’s Arrival of demons mural in the entrance staircase of the museum. The only redeeming feature is the knowledge that it will be replaced in twelve months and, in the meantime, it will attract countless selfies for those who are drawn to pretty glam horror.
Khadim Ali’s piece is an acquisitive site-specific installation, however many of the other exhibits are non-acquisitive commissions made for this exhibition.
The National is a serious attempt made to revive the Australian Perspecta model and highlights the critical need for dedicated exhibitions of contemporary Australian art practice, which lack the constraints of commercial art galleries and art fairs and the hidden irrelevance of many of the small art spaces. Although it is largely dedicated to ‘biennale-style art’ it is a step in the direction of making local Australian visual culture accessible to the local population. The fact that major art institutions can collaborate on a single show must be a good thing for the future health of Australian art.
Concerning the Spiritual in Australian Art
The Blake Prize for Religious Art has been the focal point for religious and spiritual art in Australia since 1951 and a shudder spread through the Australian art community when rumours appeared in 2014 that a new chief sponsor could not be found and that the prize would implode concluding with the 2015 Blake Prize exhibition.
As so often in the past, rumours of the demise of the Blake Prize have been greatly exaggerated and what actually happened, is that after the regular show in 2015, the 64th Blake Prize in 2016 moved to the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in Liverpool. It has now been rebadged as a biennial event and the non-acquisitive major prize has risen from $25,000 to $35,000, with the emerging artist’s prize also growing from $4,000 to $5,000.
Casula has been announced as the new permanent home for the prize. The orientation of the 64th Blake Prize has remained largely unchanged and the stated intention on their website is that the Casula Powerhouse
“will maintain the guiding principles of The Blake Prize in continuing to engage contemporary artists, both national and international, in conversations concerning faith, spirituality, religion, hope, humanity, social justice, belief and non-belief. The Blake Prize is an aesthetic means of exploring the wider experience of spirituality and all this may entail with the visionary imagining of contemporary artists … All the Blake Prize’s (sic) are strictly non-sectarian. The entries are not restricted to works related to any faith or any artistic style, but any work entered must have a recognisable religious or spiritual integrity.”
The Casula administrators assure me that the next Blake Prize will take place in 2018, but the dates are yet to be confirmed and will be posted on their website.
The history of the Blake Prize has been well documented by Rosemary Crumlin in her book, The Blake Book: Art, Religion and Spirituality in Australia, and the checklist of winners of the Blake, with a few recent exceptions, reads like a who’s who of Australia post-WWII art, including, Justin O’Brien, Stanislaus Rapotec, Leonard French, Asher Bilu, Gillian Mann, Hilarie Mais, Roger Kemp, John Coburn, George Gittoes, Euan Macleod and Leonard Brown.
However, one should note that women artist winners in the Blake are an endangered species and there is a very limited Indigenous voice. It would also be difficult to argue that the Blake Prize has seized the national imagination and in fact the struggle for sponsorship and a proper venue has been a perennial struggle as long as I have known the prize.
Many artists are eager for exposure and recognition, especially in these difficult economic circumstances, exacerbated by Senator Brandis’ gutting of the Australia Council, a move that is now being repaired with the abolition of the silly Catalyst federal government slush fund. But the damage has been done and cannot be easily undone. Nevertheless, artists are frequently reluctant to enter something with the word “religion” in the title.
What is in a name?
Earlier in March 2017 in Canberra the Stations of the Cross exhibition was held in the chapel at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. It is an exhibition of sixteen artists responding to the various imagined moments in Christ’s life on his final day as he walked along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem up to Mount Calvary.
Stations of the Cross is an invitational show where the strong band of artists included the standout performers Euan Macleod, John Pratt, Ella Whateley, Julie Dowling and Reg Mombassa. Although thematically anchored in Christian theology of a particularly Western European persuasion, the exhibition is not restricted dogmatically to a limited circle of true believers.
The Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture has in recent years invested in professional lighting to make its exhibition space more professional (although there is still some way to go). There is a desire to somehow advance this centre as a national centre for religious art in Australia, but again there exists the stumbling block of nomenclature.
The term “religious art” may appear restrictive – institutional religions do not include many variants and subtleties. To call it a national centre for “spiritual art” may seem to open the door to a stampede of hobby horses, space cadets and new ageist sects. One would like to include all artists who are interested in giving expression to the religious and the spiritual – Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their cosmographies.
One suggestion is “theistic art” – this would of course cover not only monotheism, but also polytheism and deism – and it would leave out atheists and agnostics. Perhaps a simpler solution would be to call it a national centre of sacred art?
There is power in words and one purpose of this blog is to start a discussion, so all feedback is greatly appreciated. Almost like a product disclosure statement, I should confess that I was one of the judges for the Blake Prize in 2010 and did open the Stations of the Cross exhibition in March 2017 in Canberra, which would suggest that I am committed to, or at least interested in, the general area of spirituality in art.
Also as feedback from me, since this Grishin’s Art Blog series got off the ground in November 2016, the website receives over 10,000 reads each week, something that was completely beyond my expectations. Thank you.
Sex, Censorship and Social Media
One of the more inglorious episodes in the short life of the Rudd government was the so-called Bill Henson affair in 2007, where a knee-jerk response saw one of Australia’s leading artists accused of making images which were branded anything from pornographic to being sexually exploitative of underage adolescents.
Although it was not primarily a federal issue, few politicians could resist the temptation of getting their snouts on the screen and none of them covered themselves with glory. Of course, a judicial review dismissed the case and Henson’s photographs were reinstated to gallery walls.
Apologies to Henson for the insults and damage to his reputation were, however, thin on the ground. It demonstrated, once again, the ignorance of our politicians, the general low level of public cultural awareness and abuse of talkback radio. It was, nevertheless, a case of localised provincialism that was sparked into life on a slow news day.
A couple of days ago I was invited to speak or, more accurately, to speak and to chair an informal discussion panel, at the Mossgreen Auction house in Melbourne on the occasion of a preview of the Lowenstein Collection of Modern and Contemporary Australian Art.
I have known the Lowensteins for many decades and have authored a book on their collection, and this panel was a chance to discuss how the various works, by some of Australia’s most famous artists, had entered their collection and to hear the Lowensteins' ideas on collecting Australian art.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by a well-meaning old acquaintance with the question, “Are you going to talk about the pornographic work?’ Upstairs, the CEO of Mossgreen, Paul Sumner, related to me a tale stranger than fiction.
Mossgreen, like most auction houses and commercial art galleries, communicate with their potential clients through Facebook. Their modus operandi is to feature on Facebook the cover of their auction catalogue, which is usually one of the more spectacular items in the sale, and then, a few days before the auction, ‘boost’ the image on Facebook, as a paid advertisement.
As Facebook business explains, “boosted posts appear higher in News Feed and on Instagram, so there's a better chance your audience will see them.”
A sensuous Charles Blackman oil painting of medium easel dimensions (72.5 x 96.5 cm) graces the cover of the Lowenstein catalogue; it is undated and is simply titled on the verso by the artist as ‘Women lovers’. A Manet-like cat on white sheets is depicted in the foreground, accompanied with a floating still life consisting of fruit, while on the bed behind the cat are two sleeping naked young girls.
Possibly not one of Blackman’s greatest paintings, it hung in the Lowensteins’ bedroom for over thirty years and now they felt it was time for a change. The auction house estimate for the painting is $45-55,000 (AUD).
The mood of the painting is of sensuous tranquillity rather than sexual eroticism, which was also the feature of some of Blackman’s work. The women are generic Blackman types, which he employed from the early 1950s, rather than specific models, and the painting, one of Blackman’s images of innocence and love, may date from the early 1980s.
It was business as usual with the Lowenstein auction until Mossgreen decided to boost the image on 28 February (in time for the 7 March auction) and were stunned by the decision of Facebook:
“This advert wasn’t boosted because it violates ad guidelines by advertising adult products or services including toys, videos or sexualising enhancement products … this decision is final.”
Immediately, Michaela Boland broke the story in The Australian and within days it was on the BBC, The Guardian and news outlets from London to Kathmandu. Rarely has an Australian art auction received such blanket international publicity.
Within a few days it became apparent that Facebook had blundered – and blundered in a big way – making of itself an international laughing stock, while its rivals celebrated. By March 3, the decision which was final and irreversible, was reversed and a Facebook spokeswoman announced:
“We have reviewed the ad again and we have approved it.”
This incident is alarming for a number of reasons.
Unlike the Henson incident which, was the creation of some local parochial and poorly informed individuals with vested interests, the Blackman decision was made by an American for-profit corporation based in Menlo Park in California.
Facebook is an organisation that is not answerable to anyone, but, as circumstances suggest, as a publicly listed company, it is sensitive to criticism and Paul Sumner, sensing that he was on a publicity bonanza, has spoken to the international media branding the ethics of Facebook as “going back to the 1950s”.
On reflection, he made an even more serious accusation and noted in an interview:
“I thought this was Facebook censoring a painting of naked women but now I think it was a homophobic reaction.”
This indeed is a very worrying observation. Is Facebook asserting that some forms of human sexuality are ‘normal’, while others are deviant and should not be depicted or publicised?
Whatever their reasoning, they of course are very wide of the mark and an image of two girls asleep in one another’s arms can only with a huge stretch of the imagination be seen as a celebration of lesbian love. Thank heavens that Mossgreen are not auctioning something like Courbet’s Sleepers (1866)!
It is worrying when a foreign-owned social media outlet starts to dictate ethics to Australian audiences. While we can all smile at the misguided and shambolic behaviour of Facebook, and other art dealers may be envious of all of the free publicity generated, for many in the art community the actions of Facebook have set off alarm bells ringing.
For the Lowenstein Collection auction, of the 255 lots on offer, the Blackman painting is not my pick of the bunch; there are great pieces by Robert Jacks, Graeme Drendel, Freddie Timms, Ann Thomson, Paul Boston, Yvonne Audette, Geoffrey Barlett, Aida Tomescu, Kristin Headlam, Michael Taylor and George Baldessin, some with inexplicably low estimates.
In passing, one may note that Tom Lowenstein, who turned 80 last year, (and 80 is the new 60) is downsizing his collection as the business changes premises and, following the cull, like any addicted collector, he promises to keep on collecting to eliminate any vacated spaces on the walls.
Recognising one’s cultural heritage
Should good art be destroyed if it depicts bad politics?
Leonardo da Vinci’s single most significant commission was an equestrian sculpture for the Milanese despot, Duke of Milan Ludovico il Moro (Ludovico Maria Sforza), that of his father Francesco mounted on horseback. It was to be the largest equestrian sculpture in the world, but when the French captured Milan, Leonardo’s model was promptly destroyed. Ludovico’s other major commission from Leonardo was the Last Supper in Milan, which fared better until bombed by the Americans in WWII.
Another major category of art destruction comes with regime change. When the French Revolution brought to a close a despotic regime, the royal abbey of St Denis in Paris was desecrated, the façade sculptures smashed,and palaces ransacked. The remains are now cherished and the subject of major blockbuster exhibitions.
What about art from the more recent past? I remember being quite shocked when the German artist Jörg Immendorff said to me that Germany should establish a special museum of the art of the Third Reich. His argument was that historical amnesia was a poor policy and one must acknowledge the past, shine a light on it, and not hide it, as in dark places seeds of evil and falsehood breed. In retrospect there was much merit to his idea.
Over the past few years I have made it a habit of popping in on Russia on my way back to Australia from Europe or the States. The Russian art scene is one of the most interesting and vibrant in the world and about a dozen major museums of modern and contemporary art exist in Moscow alone.
The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Gorky Park is a fairly recent and spectacular addition. However the phenomenon that I have been particularly fascinated by is Russia’s treatment of the unpopular regimes of the past.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the autocratic tsars were overthrown, the palaces and the manor houses of the nobility ransacked and frequently destroyed and the symbols of the old regime reviled. Today, anything with tsarist insignia on it is worth serious money and the old palaces are lovingly restored and serve as major tourist magnets for Russian and foreign visitors.
The Gorki Leninskiye estate, on the outskirts of Moscow, was the official country residence of the Morozovs (best known for their fabulous art collection) and has been preserved in its original form through a peculiar quirk of circumstance. After the revolution, it became Lenin’s country dacha, after he was shot in an assassination attempt, and finding the place too grand to occupy, he ordered for the furniture to be covered up and nothing altered while he lived in humble surroundings in part of the estate. Following his death in 1924, it became holy ground, so that even Stalin did not dare to touch it.
So it remains today – the estate is preserved as the Morozovs left it, while in an outer building, some 800 metres away, are Lenin’s study and quarters transferred from the Kremlin and a goodly distance away, out of view of the manor house, is the rather grand Lenin museum - a relic from the 1980s and the final years of Soviet power.
After Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s personality cult in 1956, Stalin’s statues quietly vanished (except in his homeland in Georgia) and were never to reappear. Stalin was as much as possible airbrushed out of Soviet history as Hitler had vanished from German history after 1945.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the Soviet sculptures were toppled and Socialist Realist art became a term of abuse. Although this is all very understandable, it is an act of falsification and frankly one has to argue that some of the monumental Soviet Socialist Realist art was quite good, technically accomplished and was created by some of the best artists of the day. To pretend it simply did not exist or that everything that existed in the Soviet Union was simply bad, is an act of falsification.
It is a sign of a country’s maturity to come to grips with its past – not to hide it or disguise it, but to acknowledge its historic existence, criticise its excesses and weaknesses but to respect its achievements.
In this context I was delighted to see in the region of the new Tretyakov Gallery of Modern Art in central Moscow, the Muzeon Sculpture Park and Exhibition Space , which includes a display of Soviet monumental sculptures that have been brought down throughout Moscow following the fall of the Soviet Union.
This includes the monumental sculpture of Felix Dzerzhinskiy, the founder of the Soviet security services, a huge sculpture of the great writer Maxim Gorky, several statues of Lenin, a couple of Brezhnev statues and a series of monumental works celebrating the Soviet Union.
Juxtaposed with these are monuments to those who perished in the Gulags, including the imposing work by E.I. Chubarov titled a monument to the Victims of the Totalitarian Regime, 1980s, made of granite and metal. It is a sign of cultural, political and spiritual maturity when a country can acknowledge its past and be not afraid of the future.
The tradition of Russian art not only includes the great iconic heritage, the avant-garde, with masters like Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall, as well as contemporary conceptual artists including Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov, but also the Soviet period with monumental sculptors including Vera Mukhina and Sergei Merkurov who now have their own little corner in Russian art history.
Russophobia that has been a feature of recent American politics has had little impact on the Russian economy – the shops are full of produce, people are well dressed and teched up with the most modern gadgetry, but there is a growing mood of reflectiveness as Russia develops a more rounded and mature attitude to its cultural history and is gradually asserting its place as one of the major forces in contemporary art.
Contemporary art in Albania
In the 21st century, ‘nowhere’ no longer exists and with the Internet nowhere has become somewhere close to us. Surely travel blogs are obsolete (unless loaded with practical information for the would be traveller) and the great travelogues of someone like Gertrude Bell are a thing of the past.
I travelled to Albania in January 2017 with the express purpose to examine some of the painted medieval churches, report on their conservation, and look at the Byzantine icon heritage, something that had been denied to me forty years ago when I first contemplated such a journey as the regime of Enver Hoxha discouraged inquisitive eyes from abroad.
The tiny Balkan country has a shrinking population of under three million souls, but is swamped by a great stampede of some five million tourists annually, most of whom come in summer to enjoy the beaches. The rest of the time, parts of the country appear like a deserted film set.
It is the homeland of the absurd, where a national pastime is honking the car horn in self-created traffic jams. National pride in an ancient heritage is not readily reflected in care shown for the physical remains of this heritage with ancient Greek, Roman and medieval sites full of rubble, detritus and sometimes human and canine excrement.
As I travelled around Albania I was particularly frustrated by the lack of information on modern and contemporary Albanian art and what I managed to piece together is the subject of this blog. Following WWII, the Albanian communists came to power and remained in power until about 1991.
The regime initially embraced Soviet-style socialist realism, but subsequently came under Chinese influence and copied aspects of the Cultural Revolution, which became known as the Albanian Cultural and Ideological Revolution.
The art produced was fairly competent realist sculpture, paintings and graphics with a strong ideological bent. The examples that I have seen by Fatmir Haxhiu, Vangjush Mio, Spiro Kristo, Dhimitër Mborja, Sotir Capo, Petro Kokushta and Shaban Hysa are largely uninspiring, but in keeping with academic didactic models.
It is interesting how ideologies of despots and political excess need to be sanitised by time, so that the art of the despots of France of the 17th and 18th centuries is venerated, while that of Stalin in Russia and Hoxha in Albania is still supressed and reviled. Much of this Albanian socialist realist art has been uncritically destroyed by a country that is still in denial about its history.
Post-Hoxha art remains little known and somewhat problematic in the outside world. As far as I have been able to determine, contemporary art practice in Albania is focused on the capital, Tiranë. There is a scatter of framing shops that show tourist art in places like Durrës, Shkoder and Korçë, but in Tiranë there are five or six commercial art galleries that make an effort to show contemporary art, which is quite respectable in a city of about 400,000.
There are a number of well-known Albanian artists, but like most of the population of the country they are expatriates. These include Anri Sala, a video artist based in Paris, Vénera Kastrati who lives in Milan, the late Ibrahim Kodra who was also based in Milan, Agim Sulaj in Rimini in Italy, Sislej Xhafa and Helidon Gjergji, both of whom are based in New York.
Inside Albania the situation is more difficult to observe. One focal point is the Tirana International Contemporary Art Biennial, but it has been irregular and many artists have missed out. The next biennial is scheduled for later this year and will adopt, I am told, a broad Mediterranean focus.
A pioneering development has been the Mezuraj Muze, a private museum of contemporary Albanian art established by the businessman Eduart Mezuraj in 2006 and run by his two daughters. It is a museum with a fascinating collection of works of Albanian antiquity and of contemporary art.
Mezuraj is a man with a passion and while the collection contains work by quite a few artists, including Helidon Haliti, Kole Idromeno, Ismail Lulani, Fatmir Haxhiu, Gazmend Leka, Ilia Xhokaxhi, Pano Kondo, Nestor Jonuzi, Kol Gurashi, Simon Rrota, Moikom Zeqo and Vangjush Tusha, Mezuraj’s real passion is for the talented figurative expressionist Artur Muharremi (on whom he has published a lavish monograph) and the gestural painter Leonardo Voci, who to some extent could remind one of Wols. It is a well-organised professional space with sensitively presented work.
Also in the middle of Tiranë in a place of greater visibility is the Galeria Kalo established by the energetic and successful lawyer Përparim Kalo. He is a passionate art collector who boasts of a collection of over a thousand works, which he claims is the largest in Albania.
Kalo explains that he started to collect art laterally - across the board from Socialist Realist art through to contemporary; but subsequently he commenced to build his collection vertically - in depth for certain artists. Highlights in his collection include Ali Oseku, Adriana Pulesh, Arben Basha, Berina Kokona, Danish Jukniu, Edith Pulaj, Aleksander Filipi, Edi Rama, Gazmend Leka, Hasan Nallbani , Ilir Pojani, Idlir Koka, and Lumturi Blloshmi.
The Kalo gallery was established in 2014 and has staged a series of mainly thematic exhibitions in Albania and abroad, and has excellent links with Albanian cultural institutions and foreign missions, including that of Australia, operating out of Rome.
My impression of the contemporary Albanian art scene is cursory and very incomplete, but there are at least a dozen artists of merit in the country who should be better known within the broader art world.
Albania appears to lack a coherent mechanism for the marketing and promotion of its contemporary visual art scene. The state art institutions appear somewhat moribund, despite the efforts of the socialist prime minister, Edi Rama, who is a painter and sculptor of some standing, while the private art sector is fragmented.
From my perspective we need something like an Albanian Art Fair to give the scene focus, vitality and wider dissemination.
I am conscious that I am writing as a passionate, but passing visitor, one who had difficulty in getting a handle on what is happening in contemporary Albanian art. I hope that this blog may promote discussion and bring to the fore better-informed art observers.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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