The enigmatic Mr Unsworth
Despite being born in Melbourne, Ken Unsworth is virtually unknown in his native city.
In the early 1960s, when Unsworth was in his early thirties, he moved to Sydney and stayed there to build an outstanding career. He represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1978, the following year he was awarded a Keating (the lucrative Australian Creative Fellowship) and in 1998 he was the subject of a major survey show at the AGNSW. Nevertheless, he has never attained the widespread popularity of a Whiteley, Boyd or Nolan – the name is not an iconic brand – even if some of his works, such as the suspended river stones or his own body suspended between beams have become inscribed into our collective memories.
One reason for Unsworth’s lack of popular recognition is that he is not a template artist, but one whose oeuvre is characterised by a rampant diversity. In every new exhibition you have a double take – is this really Ken Unsworth? What is he doing now? Best known as a sculptor, installation artist and performance artist, the graphic element has been central to his practice. He can be characterised as the inventor of the creative absurd – a situation into which the viewer is placed and challenged.
In 2007, when commenting on his art practice, Unsworth observed, “[...] my role … is providing a situation where I might be able sort of to stimulate a response that’s utterly personal and even though it’s not unique to that person because it’s universal, we all fundamentally have the same fears and ambitions and desires, we are not unique in that sense. But the way in which we experience that, interpret it, and the way in which it shapes us is something that is different.”
The piano, from a very early age, has been an obsession in his life and developed into a key motif in his art. As a child, he was an amateur self-taught pianist. In 1955 he met and, subsequently married, Elisabeth, a concert pianist, who directed him away from the course of a failed musician to that of a successful visual artist. Elisabeth became his muse and inspiration through to her death in 2008. Joseph Beuys’s remarkable pieces with felt-covered pianos have been some of the most influential works on Unsworth’s development as an artist.
Unsworth’s pianomania has permeated virtually every facet of his work and has found expression in every medium from tiny sketches and drawings to monumental installations where the piano has been pulled apart, cast into the air and even encountered the circular blade of a saw.
Recently the National Gallery of Victoria has assembled a significant survey exhibition of Unsworth’s monumental pieces under the title, Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly. The curator of this exhibition, David Hurlston, Head of Australian art at the National Gallery of Victoria, has selected Unsworth’s sculptural installations from the 1960s through to work made specially for this exhibition.
The work is displayed in the large foyer spaces on all three levels of the gallery at Federation Square, so although in part the exhibition is fragmented, it also means that each installed sculpture has its own discrete space and autonomy. From the huge and somewhat oppressive Alphaville, where visitors are invited to negotiate nearly five-metre-high buildings while encountering an interactive display with a cacophony of recorded urban sounds, to the solitary Mind games, where two skeletons are involved in a game resembling a contemplation of life.
Pianos naturally feature widely in this exhibition, whether it be the huge installed In concert with a piano and circular saw within an enclosure or the Tattooed piano with a mechanical component and the sacrificial participant. Life-size casts are pecked by a bird; others gather to contemplate the futility of being.
There is a danger in over-interpreting Unsworth’s art or trying to arrive at a literary reading for something that has always been intended as an open-ended thought adventure. Of course, there is much in his art that is autobiographical – a comment on his stage in life, the tragic death of his stepson John, the loss of Elisabeth or his interaction with his cats. These are all elements in the making of the work, the artist’s personal journey, but not the meaning of the work, which is universal, appealing to everyman and laced with humour and philosophical musings.
I am drawn to a statement Unsworth made in 1999. “The artist, and I am thinking about the true artist, by which I think I mean, one whose imprint with the passage of time, is as clear and relevant as it ever was, accommodates insight, wit, magic, humanity, humour, invention and the use of invention in novel, clarifying and unsettling ways consistent with and responsive to the illnesses, the issues and the imperatives of the times. The artist is both shaped by, and shapes the cultural and political landscape that we inhabit.”
In this, we probably have the most succinct statement of Unsworth’s philosophy of art making and suggested guide to us on how to approach his art.
Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly is on display 14 September 2018 – 17 February 2019 at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square.
Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions
Brett Whiteley is a household name known by most Australians who have even the most cursory interest in the arts, while George Baldessin is known only to those knowledgeable about Australian art.
The two artists were born about a month apart in 1939 – Whiteley on Sydney’s north shore, Baldessin in a small town in the north of Italy – yet they were to have a profound impact on the course of Australian art.
Baldessin and Whiteley both enjoyed meteoric success in the 1960s and 1970s, in their respective cities of Sydney and Melbourne, and both died tragically early – Baldessin in an alcohol-fuelled single vehicle accident at the age of 39, Whiteley from a self-administered drug overdose aged 53.
Apart from biographical parallels, in their work, the two artists tackled many similar concerns and, through their art, complemented one another.
If European art of the first half of the 20th century can to some extent be viewed as a dialectic between Picasso and Matisse, aspects of Australian art of the 1960s and 1970s can to some extent be read through the parallel visions in the art of Baldessin and Whiteley.
At a time when there was a fashion for abstraction, Baldessin and Whiteley were staunchly figurative; they rejected the prevailing cool minimalist aesthetic in favour of a deeply felt expressionism and through their art they engaged with society and its problems.
The two artists possessed different artistic personalities and pursued different stylistic conventions, but as you walk through this exhibition you constantly encounter striking similarities.
They both ask:
What does it mean to be human?
What are some of the life forces that unite us with other living beings?
How do our surroundings determine our lives?
Most significantly, both Baldessin and Whiteley believed that art really mattered and that its role was to reflect, to challenge and to better society. The universality of their quest has meant that their art is as fresh and vital for us today as it was when it was made many decades ago.
Although in their lifetime, art critics, including Elwyn Lynn in Sydney and Patrick McCaughey and Alan McCulloch in Melbourne, had drawn parallels between Baldessin and Whiteley, it has taken forty years since Baldessin’s death for these parallels to be put to the test in an exhibition.
The exhibition consists of 129 artworks, some quite small and delicate, others huge, such as Whiteley’s American Dream which stretches 22 metres and is shown in a specially constructed amphitheatre to be seen precisely as the artist intended.
Also included is Baldessin’s virtually unknown monumental aluminium relief and his breathtaking fourteen-metre-long, 25 panel frieze Occasional images from a city chamber – one of the great works in 20th century Australian graphic art.
In the exhibition, there is a mixture of the iconic pieces and works that have never been previously exhibited publicly.
As the curator of this exhibition, I have opted for minimal textual intervention. I have sought to present the visual evidence drawn from each artist’s best work and arranged it in a thematic and conceptual manner to allow for parallels to be drawn by viewers.
We have an excellent cross-section of Whiteley’s brilliant early tonal paintings and Baldessin’s wonderful early tonal intaglio prints. Whiteley’s breathtaking gambles with three-dimensional space are juxtaposed with Baldessin’s revolution in arranging sculptural masses and his reinvention of the art of printmaking.
Throughout the exhibition, in the grouping of works, I have sought to bring out parallels, for example, the question of the divided self, explored in Baldessin’s strange morphing of the personalities of the Mary Magdalene and the working girls on the Rue Saint Denis in a series of stunning monumental drawings and Whiteley’s unforgettable two sides of John Reginald Christie, as the ex-soldier and ex-postie who drank at the local pub and the deranged psychopath who murdered eight women in the neighbourhood and raped their bodies.
Baldessin and Whiteley were two of the greatest draughtsmen to emerge in Australian art of the 1960s and 1970s. Whiteley is the master of the sensuous line, the gestural flourish – a line that could convey the moment of ecstasy. Baldessin’s line is awkward, edgy and wondrously expressive – a line that brings to mind both Goya and Rembrandt. Throughout this exhibition we can trace the graphic element in the work of both artists – through sculptures, paintings, prints and drawings.
The evidence is presented for you to contemplate and to come to your own conclusions.
Visually, this is an exhibition with a huge ‘wow’ factor. But after the initial impact, some of the philosophical profundity and the spiritual power emerges.
Now that decades have passed since the death of the two artists, I feel that the time has arrived to move the focus away from their colourful but ultimately tragic biographies and to look exclusively at their achievement as artists.
Both Baldessin and Whiteley have given so much to Australian art and it is timely for us to celebrate this.
Ars longa, vita brevis – which may be rendered into English as “Life is short, but art is eternal”
Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions
National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square, Melbourne
31 Aug. 2018 – 28 Jan. 2019
The Archibald 2018 – What’s in a name?
A commonly held misapprehension is that the Archibald Prize is primarily an art exhibition, one which sets out to show the best of Australian portraiture.
Art critics, like well-trained Pavlovian dogs, invariably rise to the bait, denounce the exhibition as the worst Archibald ever and compete for clever derogatory rejoinders targeted at the selected finalists. While the crowds, like herds of happy lemmings, flood into the gallery despite the hefty admission charges.
It is a win-win situation, the gallery makes a healthy profit on a low-cost show plus (what has now become) a huge dividend on ‘renting out’ the Archibald finalists to regional art galleries. This year they will be going to Geelong, Tamworth, Orange and Lismore, each gallery expecting to double their annual attendance figures compared with non-Archibald years.
The public generally love it, as they gaze on the faces of the rich, famous or the simply obnoxious, knowing that there is no arcane profundity accessible only to the cognoscenti and that their opinion is as valid as anyone else’s.
Instead of thinking of the Archibald as an art event, it is more accurate to describe it as a sociological phenomenon – something to be studied and observed, rather than judged and criticised. When you pause to think about it, the mechanics of the Archibald border on high farce.
Many hundreds of hopefuls pay their $50 application fee in the hope to win the $100,000 prize. They then arrange the delivery of their paintings to be viewed for selection by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (an appointed body of citizens known for their deep pockets but not for their art expertise).
The selected few become finalists; the discarded many pay for the unsuccessful entries to be returned. Finally, the same Trustees (presently eleven members, only two of whom are artists) select the winner – an announcement that stops a nation.
The process is identical for the accompanying Wynne Prize for landscape painting or figurative sculpture, while the third in the trifecta of art prizes, the Sulman (for subject, genre or mural painting), is judged by an artist. In 2018, the judge for the Sulman Prize was Angela Tiatia, a New Zealand-Australian artist of Samoan heritage.
What’s in it for the winner of the Archibald Prize?
There is of course the money: $100,000 for the Archibald, with half as much for the Wynne, and the Sulman weighing in at $40,000. It is not Australia’s richest portrait prize, the Doug Moran boasts of a prize purse of $150,000. Others, include the newly announced Darling Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra with a purse of $75,000 and the Portia Geach Memorial Award scoring a purse of $30,000 and restricted to women artists.
The artist lives not by bread alone, the huge boost through publicity is generally worth more than the monetary gain. One could say that one Archibald is worth at least three Doug Morans.
That said, can anyone remember who won the 2017 Archibald?
The correct answer is Mitch Cairns, who has hardly become a household name. I suspect that this year’s winner, Yvette Coppersmith, may also sink without a trace and her homage to George Lambert only serves to highlight the talent of Lambert as Cairns fades into insignificance in the company of Henri Matisse.
Looking back at the winners of the Archibald from the past ten years, the ones that still shine, or at least twinkle, in the Australian art galaxy – Del Kathryn Barton, Ben Quilty, Tim Storrier and Louise Hearman – all had established reputations before they received their boost from the Archibald. Most of the other winners were not transformed into stars by their fifteen minutes of Archibald fame.
This year’s Archibald is about as poor in quality as the shows over the past few years, where gimmicks, technical incompetence masquerading as innovation and dull academic dross, easily outnumber moving transcriptions of the human face in all of its magnificent manifestations.
The handful of paintings that left an impression on me and, that I can still recall a month later, include works by Nicholas Harding, Graeme Drendel, Euan Macleod, Vincent Namatjira, Salvatore Zofrea and the quirky triple study by Prudence Flint.
However, as I have said, this is not an exhibition about art and it is wrong for me to condemn some of the exhibitors for simply painting pastiches of other artists’ work or lacking the necessary skills in perspective, anatomy, colour theory or the simple application of paint – or the ability to think outside of slogans and simple one-liners.
Like the Melbourne Cup, the Archibald will continue year after year as long as there is money to be made from it and the crowds keep on rolling up.
MoMA at NGV
Over the past few years, the National Gallery of Victoria seems to have broken all records. Its Triennial exhibition attracted 1,231,742 visitors, while the announcement of NGV Contemporary structure, with $150 million already pledged in the state government budget and a completion date of 2025, makes the much debated Sydney Modern at the Art Gallery of New South Wales appear like a sideshow. Now the new exhibition from New York’s Museum of Modern Art is about to set a new record.
The 15th Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art, is the gallery’s biggest, grandest and, almost guaranteed to be, most popular event in this series.
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Joseph Roulin 1889, oil on canvas 64.4 x 55.2 cm The Museum of Modern Art, New York Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Rosenberg, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Mr. and Mrs. Armand P. Bartos, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, Mr. and Mrs. Werner E. Josten, and Loula D. Lasker Bequest (all by exchange), 1989 Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018
It is an exhibition where not only all of the big names are present – Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Lyubov’ Popova, Piet Mondrian, Salvador Dalí, Frida Kahlo, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Cindy Sherman – but they are represented by some of their best-known signature pieces.
Arranged in eight roughly chronological-thematic sections, at least the first five can be negotiated without bothering with the labels as these are some of the most iconic works that are known to most people with an interest in the visual arts.
MoMA in New York, which turns ninety next year, has established a position of dominance in its construct of Modernism in the western art world, so that many people in Australia view modern art through the MoMA historical prism.
This was largely a creation of Alfred Hamilton Barr Jr. (1902-1981), the inaugural director of the museum. Barr was appointed director in 1929, dumped in 1943, but allowed to stay on in an advisory capacity until 1967. Barr developed a holistic view of visual culture, where industrial design, architecture, photography, film and advertising combined with the traditional fine arts of painting, sculpture and graphics.
Barr’s vision involved the establishment of six different curatorial departments at MoMA: Painting and Sculpture, Drawings, Prints and Illustrated Books, Film, Photography, and Architecture and Design. This was innovative at the time, but subsequently it has become the dead hand of history with Media and Performance Art more recently slipped into the curatorial mix.
MoMA is constantly involved in the process of reinventing itself, but guided by Barr’s vision. Also, MoMA exercises a certain hegemony in many international museum art circles and whereas the founders of modernism have been enshrined in an art historical tradition, the choice of some of the more contemporary practitioners, as reflected in the final room of this exhibition, seems more arbitrary and questionable. Nevertheless, the authority of MoMA gives this selection a voice of authority so that artists included in their exhibitions seamlessly slip into the canon.
In some ways Barr and MoMA developed a determinist model for modern art with flow charts and somewhat simplistic ideas of cause and effect. Barr championed the ‘old masters’ of modern art – Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Léger – but was reluctant to embrace the New York School and Abstract Expressionism.
MoMA commenced purchasing Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell and Hofmann only in the post-war period and not a single Mark Rothko was acquired on Barr’s watch. This notwithstanding, Barr’s name is uttered with holy reverence at MoMA, something that was most apparent at the exhibition’s launch in Melbourne.
Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA since 1995, acknowledges the founding father with respect but has aggressively steered the museum in more contemporary directions. It is due to the expansionist policies of Lowry that a window of opportunity has slit open and some of the museum’s permanent exhibits have come to Melbourne. I was surprised to learn from him that some of the items were secured for loan through the direct intervention of Victoria’s art-loving premier, Daniel Andrews.
As you enter the exhibition in Melbourne, you encounter four major paintings: Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Joseph Roulin 1889,
Paul Gauguin’s The Moon and the Earth 1893, Paul Cézanne’s Still life with apples 1895–98 and Georges Seurat’s Evening, Honfleur 1886. These four artists, I understand, were also included in Barr’s inaugural exhibition at MoMA.
As the show continues, it opens up as a tour de force exhibition, where Dalí’s most famous painting, The persistence of memory 1931, stops any viewer in their tracks, reminding them how tiny and compressed was the artist’s idea on the shape of time.
Juxtaposed with these icons of modernist painting are an aluminium Outboard propeller c.1925 manufactured by the Aluminum (sic) Company of America, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a steel ring of the Self-aligning ball bearing 1907 by the Swedish engineer Sven Wingquist, and a Railroad car spring 1920s made by the American Steel & Wire Co., Worcester, Massachusetts.
This rich fabric of connections between everyday architecture and design, which punctuates common life, and rarefied objects deemed as fine arts, is the theme that runs throughout the exhibition.
Chronologically it runs from the 1880s through to the present, spread amongst its eight sections: Arcadia and Metropolis, The machinery of the Modern World, A new Unity, Inner and outer worlds, Art as Action, Things as they are, Immense encyclopaedia and Flight Patterns.
While there are over 200 items on display, occupying the entire ground floor of the National Gallery of Victoria, and the exhibition boasts an international perspective, it is essentially a northern hemisphere construct of modern and contemporary art. The only Australian artist involved, as far as I could determine, is Martin Sharp and his design for a Cream record cover derived from Robert Whitaker’s photographs.
This is a landmark exhibition – rich, dazzling and profoundly visually exciting – that also plants a dissenting seed in my mind as to what a construct of modern and contemporary art would look like from the antipodes.
Exhibition ephemera in Australian art
The fastest growing and most ill-disciplined part of my art library is something that I euphemistically term Australian ‘exhibition ephemera’. This includes invites to exhibitions, exhibition media releases, price lists and an increasing number of glossy exhibition catalogues of ever-growing proportions.
The National Gallery of Victoria’s The Field Revisited exhibition in 2018, with the facsimile republication of the original The Field catalogue of 1968, reminded me how unconventional the show was in 1968.
The whole presentation of the exhibition on aluminium sheeting, perhaps not so successfully captured in the resuscitation, (whereas in 1968 the works seemed to leap out off the wall, in 2018 they seem to float on a rippling sea of silver), was unprecedented in Australian art. The lavish catalogue, funded largely with American money, also set a new benchmark for public gallery catalogues in this country.
In the only serious study, that I am aware of, focussing on exhibition catalogues published by public institutions in this country, an excellent thesis by Dr Jim Berryman, The Field catalogue is taken as a starting point in Australia of the transformation of the catalogue from the humble documentation of an exhibition to an autonomous scholarly publication or a flashy piece of merchandising.
Today, the National Gallery of Victoria is the largest (by number of titles) art publisher in the Southern Hemisphere and catalogues published by most of the state, national and regional galleries have become weighty and voluminous publications.
Public galleries and museums may feel the need to produce substantial publications and, not infrequently, these are the most authoritative collections of recent scholarship on the subject extant. The same cannot be said of the majority of publications coming from the commercial sector.
Sadly, the need to produce a catalogue, with many commercial ventures, has become a process of legitimation, so that a gallery or an artist feels that they require a published catalogue to justify their exhibition.
The perceived wisdom is that the bigger and glossier the publication, the more important is their exhibition.
Several years ago, I embarked on an impossible project, reasoning that the more impossible the project, the more necessary it was to attempt it. The project was to write an account of contemporary art practice in Australia and part of the methodology was to acquaint myself with as much of the art activity in this country as possible and weave this into a lengthy narrative.
In my archive, exhibition ephemera has been growing roughly at the rate of one metre of shelf space per month. In my storage method, I had isolated about 600 artists or art collectives who are of particular interest to me and who receive their own folder or archival box for storage of their ephemera plus an electronic folder, while the rest are filed alphabetically. This in turn is cross-referenced with books and other publications.
The avalanche of glossy catalogues devoted to very minor and completely forgettable art practitioners in the past couple of years has become a serious storage problem.
Comparing notes with friends and colleagues working professionally in the arts, I have to report that most of them, despite the archiving instincts of our species, confess to systematically placing virtually all of the commercial catalogues arriving in the mail into the paper recycling bins.
I think that it is only the National Gallery in Canberra that still attempts to run the ‘grey box’ ephemera archive for all of Australian art, originally established by the far-sighted inaugural director, James Mollison.
In the private sector, the maverick art book and ephemera collector Ray Coffey has set up an Australian Art Ephemera Library, which was publicly launched by Kevin Rudd earlier this year. Coffey stores his archive in adjoining houses in Brisbane that he has acquired for this purpose and he systematically scans and digitises his holdings.
I must confess that I am an object person who loves paper and despite spending two-thirds of my life in front of the computer, I have an overwhelming preference for a tactile book, rather than the lifeless screen of any of the mechanical reading contraptions.
This is especially true of publications on art where, if well designed, the ‘voice’ of the images combines with the qualities of the paper and the weight of the type to create a holistic experience.
Reading something online is more than adequate if the only purpose is information, that is, if you are reading only for content. The physical publication is necessary if you wish to experience the subject that you are reading about.
In exhibition ephemera publications, we have reached something of a watershed moment. The mass of hardcopy publications has become unsustainable – economically, environmentally and conceptually.
If a decade ago, such publications were linked with a ‘wow’ moment and people paused in their steps to examine them and stored them on coffee tables and bookshelves, today they frequently attract little more than a passing glance before they graduate to the recycling bin.
I would argue that electronic invites and e-catalogues today have a longer life expectancy than physical publications and are more likely to be stored digitally than their physical counterparts.
As we are now transitioning away from commercial art galleries staging solo exhibitions as the primary mechanism for marketing art in Australia, perhaps the time has arrived to more completely embrace digital technologies for the promotion of art and artists.
Perhaps printed catalogues, especially in the private sector, should be increasingly reserved for publications that are in themselves conceived as works of art and not simply vehicles for disseminating commercial content about art and artists.
National Gallery of Australia – Quo Vadis
On November 10 2014, Dr Gerard Vaughan AM took up the post of Director of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. In 2012 he had stepped down as the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, a post that he had occupied since 1999, and, prior to this, he had a string of outstanding appointments in Britain. In Canberra, he followed in the footsteps of the four previous directors, James Mollison AO, Betty Churcher AO, Brian Kennedy and Ron Radford AM.
Mollison, Churcher and Kennedy each served as director for seven years, Radford broke the mould with ten years at the helm and Vaughan, in what was always going to be a short-term appointment, stayed for three-and-a-half years.
In 2017, Vaughan foreshadowed that he would be retiring in 2018 and, true to his word, he announced that he would be leaving on July 1 and Nick Mitzevich will take up the reins as Canberra’s sixth director on July 2, 2018. Mitzevich has been a strikingly successful director at the Art Gallery of South Australia, where he has had tenure since 2010, and prior to that was director of the Newcastle Art Gallery and subsequently at the University of Queensland Art Museum in Brisbane.
The National Gallery of Australia has been the poisoned chalice of Australian art.
Thanks to the visionary policies of its inaugural director, James Mollison, and the nurturing creative environment of the government of Gough Whitlam, the National Gallery established superlative collections in numerous areas, unmatched by anything else in Australia. These included heritage in-depth collections in Australian art, including 20th century and contemporary painting, printmaking, photography, Indigenous art and the applied arts; spectacular focus collections, such as Russian Ballets Russes and Russian avant-garde art, American modern and contemporary printmaking as well as dazzling holdings in American and European post-war painting and sculpture.
Sadly, from the outset, the National Gallery was beholden to its political masters and the problem with Canberra is that there are too many politicians seeking the limelight and too few people seriously committed to the arts.
Prime Ministers Whitlam and Paul Keating loved the arts and artists loved them back. Prime Minister John Howard was afraid of the arts and saw artists as the natural enemy of his brand of conservative politics, unless it was in the realm of portraiture or art that glorified the military. Under his long and bleak administration, the National Portrait Gallery and the Australian War Memorial flourished, while the rest of the arts community in Canberra largely marked time, despite the relatively robust economic growth that occurred nationally thanks to the mining boom.
The Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard governments, despite their expressed sympathy for artists, were too busy with other things, including infighting, to do much for the arts, while the Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull administrations took the knife to the national arts organisations in Canberra.
Prime Minister Turnbull is perhaps the biggest disappointment as many in the arts community were hoping for the winds of change after the savagery of the Abbott budget. At least, Lucy Turnbull, it was thought, would breathe a note of enlightenment – but alas the so-called federal productivity dividend cuts continued and crippled the national heritage institutions, including the National Gallery.
Despite a supportive local Labor ACT government, the financial link to the federal government is the albatross of dependency that hangs around the National Gallery’s neck and this is something unlikely to change any time soon.
Nick Mitzevich, who will turn forty-eight in May 2018, I think faces three main challenges as he assumes the reins at the National Gallery in Canberra. The first is to restore the streams of funding to the Gallery. These have been severely cut, especially under the Abbott and Turnbull governments, and one would hope that during his honeymoon period he could employ his diplomacy and charisma in advocating for a national role for the gallery and persuade, or shame, the federal government into rethinking its short-sighted slash and burn policy.
The arts community is huge, it is national and it votes, something that may not be lost on a government facing re-election or annihilation in the next twelve months.
The second challenge is to make better use of the dysfunctional exhibition spaces at the National Gallery. An enormous achievement of Gerard Vaughan was to rearrange the display of the gallery’s collection and the international collection has never looked better.
The Australian art display is still a work in progress and the idea of constantly revolving displays on the ground floor is not fully viable without a much larger curatorial team. The greatest strength of this gallery is its permanent collection and many more exhibitions accompanied by well-researched publications are required.
The third challenge is the need to reform the art culture in Canberra. There is one national art collection, which is distributed amongst several venues – the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive, the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives.
For years, they have been like little medieval fiefdoms jealously protecting their autonomous territories. With changes in staff in several institutions, there is now an opportunity to attempt a more unified approach.
Why not set a project for 2020 for a National Triennial of Australian Art, where each institution will curate exhibitions in areas of its strength, swapping and loaning works? We could see the best of contemporary Australian video, photography, film, painting, Indigenous art, printmaking, drawing and book arts, applied arts, fashion, design and so on. It would be a unique exhibition experience that only Canberra could mount and all of Australia will want to see.
This is achievable, it does not require a huge budget, it will generate revenue and will attract more funding. The changing of the guard at the National Gallery of Australia opens an exciting prospect for a major renewal in the national arts scene.
Australian colonial art – viewed from both sides
In a large inkjet print, the Brisbane-based photomedia artist of Bidjara heritage, Michael Cook, reimagines Australia, where Indigenous people make up ninety-six percent of the population and the non-Indigenous proportion stands at four percent.
This print belongs to his Majority Rule series and is simply titled Court. The scene is set outside the High Court in Canberra, where a crowd of suited Aboriginal figures walks towards us. To add to our feeling of strangeness and discomfort, it is an identical figure that is repeated more than twenty times in the crowd, but in different poses.
The simple inversion of the status quo effectively poses the question of how would you feel if you had to walk in the shoes of an Indigenous person in contemporary Australian society.
The question of racial perspective becomes particularly acute when presenting Australian colonial art, whereas for the discoverers, colonists and explorers, they were finding and occupying a new country bringing to it English law and civilisation, for the Indigenous people they faced invasion, occupation and genocide, their laws were violated, their lands trampled and their independence stripped from them by force.
The dominant narrative lay with the colonial victors, while the local inhabitants were not regarded as humans, they were not included in the census and the whole continent was regarded as ‘terra nullius’.
Traditionally colonial art was considered as the art of the colonists, while traditional Aboriginal art belonged in ethnographic museums. Daniel Thomas, as a curator of Australian art at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra (in 1992 renamed National Gallery of Australia), in the late 1970s advanced a more integrated hang for colonial art where paintings, sculptures and prints were joined by furniture and the decorative arts and occasionally an Aboriginal work was added to the display. Andrew Sayers carried out pioneering research on 19th century Aboriginal art giving a greater visibility and voice to the Aboriginal response to the European settlers.
The National Gallery of Victoria in a landmark exhibition, Colony 1770-1861/Frontier wars, has presented the most comprehensive re-assessment of colonial art ever attempted. It is vast, with over 800 exhibits, and sets out to tell the story of colonial Australian art both from the Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives.
Controversially, it has opted for two separate, but closely interrelated exhibitions. The one on the ground floor of its Federation Square building, Colony 1770-1861, examines the story from a colonial perspective from Captain Cook through to the 1860s.
In over 600 objects it is an over-whelming triumph where the best-known images of early colonial art from art galleries, museums, libraries and private collections throughout Australia have been brought together with rarely exhibited or never exhibited artefacts.
Tommy McRae, (Kwat Kwat/Wiradjuri) c. 1836–1901, Page from Sketchbook c. 1891, sketchbook: pen and blue ink, 26 pages, paper and cardboard cover, stitched binding 24.4 x 31.2 cm (image and sheet) 24.4 x 31.2 cm (page) 24.4 x 31.2 x 1.0 cm (closed) 24.4 x 62.4 x 0.5 cm (open) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The Indigenous response, Colony: Frontier Wars, up on the third floor of Federation Square, takes a broader chronological perspective from 1788 through to the present and adopts a narrower focus on Indigenous and some non-Indigenous responses to the European occupation.
The breathtaking collections of 19th century Aboriginal shields opens into a broader display of the work by ‘urban Aboriginal artists’ who offer a post-colonial critique of European occupation of Australia. Virtually all of the artists here are well-known and include the usual line-up of Julie Gough, Brook Andrew, Maree Clarke, Ricky Maynard, Marlene Gilson, Michael Cook, Gordon Bennett and Christian Thompson.
The treasured 19th century drawings by William Barak and Tommy McRae show Indigenous artists commenting on their heritage and observing the newcomers, while a number of non-Indigenous artists, including ST Gill, Arthur Boyd, Noel Counihan and the photographer JW Lindt with his photographs of Indigenous subjects are also included in this section.
The impressive 400-page book/catalogue that accompanies the exhibition in a clear and scholarly manner highlights the links between the two exhibitions, which are more difficult to follow in situ.
I have argued elsewhere that it is impossible to view Australian colonial art, by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, outside a certain dialectic where European artists responded to Aboriginal art and Indigenous artists embraced European materials, imagery and modes of visualisation. In some ways, this interaction would be more apparent if works could be shown side-by-side, rather than in separate exhibitions. Perhaps it is too early in the reconciliation process to adopt such a strategy.
William Temple (cabinetmaker), Patrick Riley (cabinetmaker), John Webster (cabinetmaker), Joseph Lycett (attributed to) (decorator), James Wallis (after), William Westall (after), Dixson collector’s chest, c. 1818–20, Australian Rose Mahogany (Dysoxylum fraserianum), Red Cedar (Toona ciliata), brass fittings, oil on cedar panels, natural history specimens, 56.0 x 71.3 x 46.5 cm (closed), Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales
One of the strengths of the exhibition lies in the sheer mass and high calibre of the materials exhibited. For example, there is a superb Collector’s chest by the cabinetmakers William Temple, Patrick Riley and John Webster, decorated possibly by Joseph Lycett and complete with its natural history specimens.
Panoramic views of the fledgling settlements are supplemented by a mass of drawings, prints, actual colonial costumes, examples of 19th century taxidermy and convict leg irons from Port Arthur.
Colonial photography shines as never before with photographs by George Goodman, possibly Australia’s first professional photographer, and a set of Douglas Kilburn’s daguerreotypes of Indigenous people in Victoria, the first photographic images of Indigenous peoples of Australia.
It is a dense exhibition that certainly requires more than a single visit and it is one that does to some extent rewrite our understanding of colonial art. Historically, I feel that this will be regarded as a watershed exhibition in defining how Australia and Australians view their past.
Colony Australia 1770-1861/Frontier Wars
National Gallery of Victoria, Federation Square, Melbourne
15 March – 15 July 2018
open daily 10am–5pm
Georgia – a country of contrasts
On the walls of a concrete underpass in central Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, I encountered a stark piece of local street art. The scene is set in a cemetery, where in the background stand the large edifices of the multinationals (predominantly American) that have set up offices in Georgia, while in the foreground are the local Georgian companies that have collapsed.
While many of the multinationals have operated in Georgia for decades, the deregulation in recent years has led to the spate of local closures. This piece of street art underlines a more profound demise of local Georgian companies throughout the country.
My primary reason for travelling to Georgia was to visit a number of early medieval monasteries that are scattered throughout the country. Georgia adopted Christianity in the early 4th century and the Orthodox Church of Georgia has an unbroken proud heritage that goes back to those times.
I have been always fascinated by the fact that Georgia was converted to Christianity by a woman, St Nino, who by c.327 had worked enough miracles for the pagan leaders of Iberia to see the light and to embrace the cross, a grapevine cross, which became her attribute. Her tomb remains at the Bodbe Monastery in Kakheti, eastern Georgia. Legend has her coming from Cappadocia, a relative of Saint George, which is most appropriate for a country called Georgia.
Historically, the tragedy of Georgia has been to some extent created through its geographic location. In its early history, it was at the mercy of the Roman-Persian wars, then it was conquered by the Muslims and later suffered Iranian and Ottoman occupations. By 1800 it was under the protection of the Russian Empire and with the Bolshevik revolution it embraced the Soviet Union and entered as a founding republic.
Georgia also gave birth to many of the Soviet leaders, for example Joseph Stalin (his Georgian name Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili) and Lavrentiy Beria (his Georgian name Lavrenti Pavles dze Beria), Stalin’s ruthless head of the NKVD.
Stalin remains a presence in Georgia with an extensive Stalin Museum in the city of his birth Gori, where in the courtyard is preserved the modest cottage in which Stalin was born, now encased in a huge marble-façade edifice, as well as the armoured railway carriage in which he travelled to various international gatherings. The museum is a top tourist attraction and a shrine for the ruler that is approached with reverence.
In post-Soviet times, Eduard Shevardnadze (Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1985 to 1991) returned to Georgia in 1992 and took control of the country. In turn he was overthrown by Mikheil Saakashvili, who became the President of Georgia in 2004, and who in turn fled the country in 2013 and is wanted by Georgia's new government on multiple criminal charges.
Saakashvili subsequently went to the Ukraine where, in May 2015, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed Saakashvili Governor of Odessa region. This also ended in tears with Saakashvili accused of corruption and of being funded by criminals – he took refuge in the U.S and most recently (February 2018) in Poland.
Georgia is a country that is bitterly divided, where extreme poverty coexists with exceptional wealth and I saw more beggars on the streets than in any other European country that I have visited. A piece of street art proclaims that being a beggar “is not my choice” and almost invariably next to it squats a beggar.
Most of the population of about 3.6 million speaks Russian; younger urban-based Georgians also sometimes speak English. While the official unemployment rate is 12.4%, the real figure appears to be much higher, while a good wage is considered about $400 a month, which few achieve.
Tourism is the great growth industry with about 3.5 million tourists visiting the country in 2017. The population is declining with more and more young Georgians seeking employment abroad, while many of the older Georgians to whom I spoke are of one mind that things were better when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union.
The museums and cultural institutions are underfunded and generally appear rundown. Political interference is rife, with the top floor of the National Museum taken over by the ministry of propaganda and misinformation.
The public art galleries have generally limited collections that are poorly displayed. In contrast, art within the churches and monasteries is of a very high order and the Georgian Church exhibits prosperity with extensive programs of conservation and the widespread building of new churches accompanied by an active revival in Georgian monasticism.
The 12th century Gelati monastery near Kutaisi, in the Imereti region of western Georgia, architecturally and in its interior decorations, is an internationally recognised treasure house of medieval art.
The rock-cut monastic complex of David Gareja, at the opposite end of Georgia, in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia near the border of Azerbaijan, was founded in the 6th century. It is a very sacred site of great beauty evoking the profound feeling that you are on sacred ground.
The convent of St Nino at Bodbe, originally built in the 9th century and containing the tomb of the saint, has a huge new church being built next door.
My checklist of about twenty-two significant medieval monastic and church sites in Georgia is far from complete and, despite being in territory a relatively small country, the mountainous terrain and the poor condition of many of the roads means access is difficult and the journeys are slow.
Georgia is a country of great scenic beauty with a long cultural heritage and ancient folk traditions, however, it also strikes one as a country in decline where some of the more recent political decisions appear as costly mistakes.
The Canberra Art Scene – national or provincial?
I don’t remember my first trip to Canberra, as it almost never happened. I just got my licence and drove from Melbourne to Canberra. My companion was an American, who with a Yankee drawl conveyed her first impression of Canberra as: “half the size of the New York State cemetery and twice as dead”. We picked up some fuel and kept on driving to Sydney.
By 1977 I had settled in Canberra and commenced teaching at the ANU, where I established the art history discipline, and started writing as the senior art critic for The Canberra Times. If in 1977 there were relatively few art spaces in Canberra: the Arts Council, the National Library, the Australian War Memorial plus a few itinerant organisations of artists, today all of the national heritage art collecting and displaying institutions are up and running.
These include the National Gallery of Australia, National Museum of Australia, National Portrait Gallery, National Film and Sound Archive, National Archives, Canberra Museum and Gallery, Craft ACT, Megalo Print Studio and Gallery, PhotoAccess, Canberra Glassworks, professional art galleries at the ANU and various publicly funded art spaces, both artist-run spaces, such as ANCA, M-16 and Canberra Contemporary Art Space, as well as municipal galleries in various Canberra regions, including Belconnen and Tuggeranong.
There are more publicly funded art spaces in the ACT, whose population is a tad over 400,000, than in any other city in Australia.
If in the 1980s I could have named ten thriving professional commercial art galleries in Canberra, today I can think of only two. Commercial art galleries, in general, may be a threatened species in Australia; in Canberra they are almost extinct.
In Canberra, a living artist is better off and, better provided for in the gallery system, if she is making museum/biennale-style art, rather than making art that people would buy to live with in their homes or offices.
Although the National Gallery of Victoria, without question, is Australia’s premier ‘old masters’ collection across the board, the Canberra galleries and museums contain virtually all of the nation’s major heritage collections. This includes most of Australian art – contemporary, 20th century, colonial and Indigenous – across most mediums – painting, sculpture, printmaking, works on paper, photography, film and the applied arts.
The depth of holdings in modern and contemporary international printmaking is breathtaking as well as internationally significant collections of modern international art, for example, the National Gallery’s stunning collection of modern American painting, Russian avant-garde art and South-East Asian textiles.
I have two general criticisms of the Canberra art gallery system. The first is the lack of a truly national perspective – most of our national institutions are part of the one national collection, regardless of whether a particular collection is housed at the National Gallery, the National Library or the National Museum. Of course, institutions borrow individual pieces for each other’s exhibitions, but there seems to be a lack of a holistic approach. For example, a single unified database or unified exhibiting policies.
In 2016, the National Portrait Gallery combined with the National Film and Sound Archive to stage their Starstruck exhibition dealing with different types of images of Australian actors from over the past century. Such collaborative exhibitions between Canberra institutions are comparatively rare – but this should not be the case.
Why not have a major exhibition dealing with contemporary Australian art practice across half-a-dozen Canberra museums and galleries? Or one dealing with Indigenous and First Peoples’ culture? Or a series of exhibitions exploring Australian photography spread across the National Gallery, the National Library, the Australian War Memorial, the National Archives and several other institutions? These, and many other such exhibitions, could only take place in Canberra and they would make for historically significant and exceptionally popular shows.
David Hockney, Caribbean tea time, 1987, from the 'Moving focus' series 1984-87, colour lithograph, screenprint, collage of Rives BFK surface-pigmented paper, stencil on eight sheets of TGl handmade paper, in a four-panel folding lacquered wood screen, hand-painted (verso), with four screenprinted plastic panels (recto), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund 2002 © David Hockney
My second criticism, or perhaps call it an observation, is that museums and galleries devote huge resources to staging and promoting ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, while art in their own holdings is less frequently shown and usually poorly promoted.
I remember many years ago when the National Gallery exhibited its Vollard suite, Picasso’s greatest work in etching, and the show passed with little fanfare. Edmund Capon saw the opportunity, borrowed the Vollard suite for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where he was the director, and made it into a great moneymaking blockbuster exhibition.
As I write, the National Gallery is staging its Hyper Real blockbuster exhibition, with some highlights plus plenty of sensationalist dross, but in the galleries upstairs are the far more significant, non-blockbuster exhibitions: Russian avant-garde art, David Hockney: Prints, Namatjira: Painting country and Arthur Streeton: The Art of War.
There are questions concerning marketing, the tourist dollar and novelty exhibitions, but perhaps core business of national cultural institutions should be exhibiting in a scholarly manner major strengths from the collection complemented with strategic loans. For this to happen, our national heritage institutions need to be funded appropriately, instead of the ill-considered so-called efficiency dividends cuts, which have crippled most of the national cultural institutions.
The art landscape in Canberra is changing with the directors of both the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery leaving their posts and with other changes foreshadowed, but as yet unannounced. The Canberra art scene has phenomenal potential that is yet to be fully realised. When it is, Canberra will not only be the political capital of Australia, but also the nation’s art capital.
The NGV Triennial:
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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