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.
By now, many people would have heard that Len French died on Tuesday 10 January 2017. He was 88, had been in poor health for a number of years and was out of the public eye.
A number of years ago, I published a monograph on the artist and we had known each other for about thirty years. When Len read the first draft of my book, he was mildly horrified and laconically noted that “you should title it the rise and fall of Leonard French”. Quite a bit of editing was done and the final section appeared in a much-abridged form. It became one of my books with which I was least pleased.
The problem that I had set myself in the book was to examine the mechanisms in the Australian art world that by 1968 had constructed French into Australia’s most popular artist and then, within a few years, largely demolished his standing. In fact, when I was researching the book in the 1990s, people would frequently remark that they thought that he was no longer making art, had retired to a vineyard, or simply had died. The artist remained active until late in life, but had left the limelight.
Leonard French was born on October 8, 1928 into a working-class family in Brunswick in Melbourne and grew up in poverty in the biting years of the Great Depression. His school he described to me as resembling a charnel house or concentration camp.
While training to be a sign writer, he was increasingly drawn to art. By the time he was nineteen, he had been commissioned to paint a couple of very large church murals and at twenty-one he had his first solo exhibition, which was received well by critics and collectors.
In 1949, he travelled abroad for the first time and to his earlier love of the Mexican revolutionary muralists. In London at The Abbey Art Centre he met the Scottish painter Alan Davie, and the Irish painter Gerard Dillon, two prominent artists who had an impact on his work. The artist with whom he may be best compared, and the one he admired most, was Fernand Léger who also came from the working class and was a left-wing radical who made art for the masses.
Any attempt to place Len French within his Australian context opens up a host of contradictions. Born of working class stock, he always felt himself an outsider within the circle of art school graduates.
He came to art from a background as an apprentice to the sign-writing trade and his limited exposure to art schools confirmed in his mind that art schools were largely irrelevant to the training of a real artist. At his first solo exhibition in 1949, the twenty-one-year-old artist defiantly declared “All painters don't come out of art schools. I don't see any value in art schools — an utter waste of time!”
His techniques and materials of art production point back to his training in sign-writing with his built up, well-crafted enamel surfaces with professionally applied areas of gold leaf, his painted murals and the vast coloured glass works – none of this has a debt to an arts school training.
French may well be the only Australian painter who could declare that he has not touched a tube of paint in the last half century - he mixed all his paints himself from powder pigments, and his workshop resembled more a carefully arranged factory designed for the production of art, than a traditional artist's studio.
Len French was also a remarkably well read and cultivated person (with a very refined wine palette), but one who was totally self-made and self-taught. State school was something which he survived until he was thirteen and then, with a passion characteristic of the self-educated, he sought out knowledge that would help him in his personal quest.
As a trade apprentice, he became a regular at the Swanston Family Hotel, which was the hub of Melbourne's left wing intelligentsia – this was his alternative university education, where Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Albert Camus and Dostoevsky were passionately consumed and discussed, not to pass exams and attain grades, but because they held a possible key to the understanding of life.
Gerard Dillon initiated French into James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and directed him towards a journey to early medieval Celtic Ireland, rather than chasing the avant-garde in Paris. Subsequently, he developed a passion for Latin American literature and for non-European arts, particularly New Guinean artefacts, pre-Columbian art and black African art.
Although Leonard French's art training and education were unconventional, even if extensive, his art production and activities as an artist, particularly in the sixties, placed him in the centre and arguably at the top of the Australian art world.
The year he turned forty, in 1968, the Sydney Morning Herald ran the headline The year of Leonard French. That year in Melbourne, amidst a blaze of national and international publicity, the new building of the National Gallery of Victoria opened as part of the multi-million-dollar Victorian Arts Centre and Leonard French's colossal coloured glass ceiling became the featured image and was catapulted into prominence as a newly created national icon.
Publicly he became the most prominent and the best-known artist in the Australian art scene with his work acquired by most Australian public art galleries and by key international collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
It was also in that year, that Len French’s monumental coloured glass windows for the National Library of Australia, in Canberra, which had been installed the previous year, opened to the public.
His art was handled by the most successful art dealer on the commercial Australian art scene, Rudy Komon in Sydney, in whose stable French was the leading star and its most influential talent scout.
Leonard French had already spent a year in America at Yale University on a Harkness scholarship, and in 1969 collected an OBE and was appointed to the Council of the newly established Australian National Gallery in Canberra. His portrait had made the cover of such leading magazines as the Bulletin and his name became synonymous with success in the art world.
Reasons for his meteoric rise to stardom in the Australian art world are several. The work itself was impressive and readily won popular acclaim. Its use of emblematic shapes with immaculate, decorative and glittering surfaces and luminous planes of coloured glass appealed to a broad cross-section of the population, as well as to many members of the art community.
His semi-abstract imagery with the iconic starkness of recurring emblematic symbols attracted the support of the Melbourne figurative humanists and also won the respect of the Sydney based abstract artists.
Churchmen, including the influential Reverend Michael Scott, hailed him as a significant religious painter and he was twice awarded the Blake Prize for Religious Art. While French never claimed any Christian affiliations, the deeply spiritual quality of his work and its preoccupation with eternal themes of human suffering and deliverance won the support of Christians of many denominations.
Beyond its intrinsic qualities, the work also appeared as a valued commodity on the Australian art scene around which art critics, museum curators, art dealers and academics built their careers. While the artist may not have directly participated in art politics — and in the case of Leonard French whose output was prodigious, he may have been too busy making the work to have the time to worry about its positioning in the art world, at least on a very basic level — battles did rage around his work which, to some extent, determined its public acceptance.
Ironically in 1968, at the moment of his greatest popularity, there was also a clear expression of the changing tide of fashion among some of the major power brokers on the Australian arts scene. His move to rural Heathcote maybe interpreted as a conscious move away from the centre of art politics to preserve his integrity as an artist.
Len French has been something of an enigma on the Australian art scene. Endowed with exceptional energy and a personality which attracted friends and controversy he, to some extent, created his own legend, one which has received radically differing interpretations over the last half-century.
He was an unconventional artist, not only in his style, iconography and medium, but also in the manner in which he straddled the usual art forms. Apart from easel painting, which has largely dominated the art historical constructs of Australian art since the period of white settlement, French was also a significant printmaker, muralist and coloured glass artist. All of these factors have contributed to his unusual standing as an artist in Australia.
Despite the support of Ken Myer and Nugget Coombs, French appeared increasingly side-lined and spent the final forty years of his life away from the limelight and centre of the Australian art world. With the passing of Leonard French, Australia has lost one of its most distinguished, original and unusual artists.
2016 in review
Is it only me, or has 2016 indeed been a particularly difficult and bleak year full of shocks and body blows? It was the year when ‘post-truth’ was deemed by the Oxford dictionaries as their ‘word of the year’, when Donald Trump was elected as president of the United States of America, when Brexit became a word as Britain prepares to leave the European Union and the Turnbull government was returned to office, albeit with the narrowest of margins.
It was a year when racism and xenophobia came to be seen as mainstream; anti-Semitism, Russophobia and Islamophobia have become the accepted small change of gutter politics, and the act of crossing from one country to another to escape persecution was deemed a crime to be punished by banishment for life.
On a personal level, the black angels of death have hovered over my life with the death of my beautiful friend and brother, Vladimir, followed by the loss of friends and luminaries in the art world, including Dorothy Herel, Warwick Reeder, Paul Cox, Robert Foster, Inge King, Colin Holden, Jenie Thomas and Leonard Cohen.
It has been a year when arts in general and the visual arts in particular have suffered crippling cuts perpetrated by the Turnbull-Abbott government. The raid on the budget of the Australia Council by George Brandis, when he was arts minister, has largely remained in place under his successor Minister Mitch Fifield. The discretionary funding for small grants and innovative programs of Oz Co has been largely wiped out and as a direct result many thousands of artists have lost their meagre subsidies and have had to stop making art.
The arts are bleeding in Australia with poorer than average sales in commercial art galleries, and the dumping of art this year on the secondary market due to ill-considered federal government legislation on retirement collections has impacted negatively on the value of many artists’ work.
In the meantime, the same federal government has taken a razor to our major national cultural institutions and slashed the budgets of the National Gallery of Australia, National Library of Australia and other institutions charged with preserving our cultural heritage. It is only now, at the end of the year, that the full extent of the savagery is being felt, as staff are offered their voluntary redundancies, others are losing their jobs and crucial appointments are not being filled.
The nationally significantly research tool used by most people working in the humanities in Australia, Trove, is under serious threat, while other institutions are revising opening hours, schedule of exhibitions and are axing services. Only the Australian War Memorial, with former Liberal Party minister Brendon Nelson at its helm, seems immune to the cuts.
This year has also been the year when Australian art schools have increasingly felt like a threatened species. Personally, I think that the rot set in when art schools were forced into mergers with universities and, unless they were big enough, rich enough and autonomous enough to maintain a strong independent identity, they became schools within universities and subject to cuts and rules that make little sense to an art school.
The poorly thought through plan to merge the Sydney art schools into a single unhappy family died a quick death, but the stink remains. The future of the Sydney College of the Arts is in doubt, the College of Fine Arts at the University of NSW has changed its name, signalling a change in purpose and orientation with a silly acronym, UNSWCOFAD, in place of the well established brand name COFA.
The National Art School, Sydney’s oldest and most respected art school, is also facing an uncertain economic future. Even the ANU School of Art is rebranding and putting design into its name. Sorry the acronyn ANU SAD is the kiss of death. In the real world, rebranding automatically means a loss of market share and firms that are forced to rebrand dedicate huge budgets to sell their new identity.
So, should one reach for a rusty razor and slit one’s wrists when reviewing the past twelve months in the visual arts in Australia?
The answer is a categorical no and the reason for that is the calibre of the art created by Australian artists in 2016 has been outstanding. Also, exhibitions staged by public and commercial art galleries and museums have generally been memorable, professionally presented and of a high aesthetic and intellectual level.
Despite the deliberate financial cuts and the bleak conditions created by our politicians, there is resilience amongst Australian artists and the need to create art is a necessity and not a decision taken on sound fiscal grounds.
Images from Vivid in Sydney in 2016, and the exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto, 2014-15 with Cate Blanchett playing all of the roles.
Our heritage under threat
Many years ago, I was working in Cappadocia in central Anatolia in Turkey on the early Christian and medieval Byzantine subterranean churches. Cappadocia is a site of enormous cultural and historical significance that not only carries the traces of several civilisations – Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman – it is also a place of great and unusual scenic beauty.
Cappadocia lies at the heart of Byzantine monasticism. It is the legendary birthplace of numerous saints including St George; the place of martyrdom of St Longinus, the centurion who stood at the foot of Christ's cross; the birth place of some of the finest theologians of the Christian church, including St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Gregory of Nyssa; and the birth place of St Basil, the Father of Eastern monasticism and the author of one of the main liturgies of the Church.
Within about 120 square kilometres lie the remains of about one thousand Byzantine churches, monasteries and secular buildings hewn out of the soft volcanic rock.
One of the biggest threats to Byzantine Cappadocia was from vandalism, where local children would throw rocks at the painted images; their parents converted the churches into pigeon houses to collect the bird droppings as fertiliser for their crops, while others used them for cold storage for perishables, especially citrus crops.
The major problem was that the locals saw the Byzantine churches as remains from an alien and even hostile culture, and I saw my role and that of my colleagues as to teach people that it was also their culture and their heritage. The locals did come on board and the place received World Heritage Listing and now this once-impoverished community sits on a goldmine of cultural tourism. The sites are zealously protected by the locals, and governments at all levels are involved in their conservation.
Earlier this year I travelled for the first time to the Burrup Peninsula, which is part of the Dampier Archipelago that lies about 1200 kilometres north of Perth and reaches out into the Indian Ocean off West Australia’s Pilbara coast. The Burrup Peninsula (known in the local language as Murujuga – meaning ‘hip-bone sticking up’) contains the world’s richest collection of petroglyphs (images incised into stone).
Archaeologists estimate about one million petroglyphs in the area and most of these date from about 40,000 BP through to 5,000 BP, although there are some from more recent times. In other words, they predate ancient Egyptian art by thousands of years and are older than most of the rock art of Europe.
It is a place of great spiritual significance and beauty. It is certainly one of the most important centres for Australian art in the world and a key centre for rock art internationally.
Sadly, not only is the Burrup Peninsula not on the World Heritage Register, but it is being vandalised by the Western Australian State Liberal Party government with Premier Colin Barnett at its head by allowing industry into this pristine environment. It is, however, on the National Trust of Australia Endangered Places Register and we have competing estimates on the number of petroglyphs already destroyed and the number currently under threat.
On the Burrup Peninsula two tragic circumstances have converged. One is that it is the site of extensive industrialisation – both a huge gas plant and now an expanding fertiliser plant run by the international company Yara Pilbara – with acid rain falling on the ancient art.
The second is that the site is regarded as of significance for Aboriginal culture. Of course it is but, much more than this, it is an immense cultural treasure house for all Australians. The short-sighted short-term gain from mineral exploitation comes at the expense of permanent long-term destruction of an asset that will bring billions of dollars in future cultural tourism.
Sadly, while our culture is being destroyed, the Turnbull Federal Coalition government is too concerned with appeasing its friends in the West to stand up and protect Australian art. The evidence that Australia’s ancient culture has been destroyed in a wholesale manner and that this is an ongoing tragedy is irrefutable, although there can be an argument over the degree and rate of destruction.
It is very sad that Australia, in some ways, rates below Turkey when it comes to protecting our national heritage and Australian federal and state governments lack the backbone to rise and make a stand for the national good.
I feel that there is a moral obligation on all Australians to value our heritage and it also certainly makes a lot of economic sense as in the long term there is much more money in cultural tourism than in digging up dirt. We have already lost much. How much more will we need to lose before we will stand up to government and big business and say enough is enough?
Give Peace a Chance
Is the Peace Movement still relevant for our contemporary, post-truth, social media driven society? William Kelly is an artist who has devoted his life to giving peace a chance and working in socially engaged art.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Bill Kelly remembers that he once called a park bench his home and found employment as a steel worker, taxi driver and welder. He was also awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and for a while served as the Dean of the Victorian College of the Arts. He now works from a studio in rural Victoria and makes art that has received widespread recognition.
Kelly is soft-spoken and quick to describe himself as the luckiest artist alive, in a quiet, but consistent manner has devoted his life and art to the peace movement and is widely considered as the moral conscience of Australian art. He is a gifted, and at times brilliant, natural draughtsman, who frequently weaves his compositions together like a tapestry allowing the accumulated power of the images to develop a singular strong and dominant voice.
Between August 2014 and December 2016 Bill Kelly has been a recipient of a Creative Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria with the initial idea of developing an artists book dealing with socially activist art in Australia, but the idea morphed in form, scale and theme. The intimacy of the artists book was swapped for the most public of art forms, the banner, and a private whisper became a public declaration.
Banners have always been a public art and in many instances have been associated with peoples’ movements, whether this be May Day demonstrations or the Banners of Pride created by trade unions over the ages.
The State Library of Victoria has its iconic domed reading room that I consider as one of the most beautiful spaces in the world and one in which I have spent many years of my life. Bill Kelly’s idea was to create a grand Peace Banner, in the form of a twelve-metre-long print, that would be suspended from the dome in the public reading room.
Technically this is one of the largest fine art prints made in Australia, possibly only rivalled by the thirty-five-metre long screenprint made at Megalo in Canberra to commemorate its thirty-five year history .
Bill Kelly’s work, titled Peace or War: The Big Picture, has as its basic compositional unit a street scene where elements from Giorgio de Chirico, Balthus and Georges Seurat – three of the artists who have changed the way we see the world – contributing iconic elements to the design. This composition is then repeated several times on the banner stressing how society by employing different technologies constantly sets out to destroy the same social fabric.
The street remains the same as do the human victims, what changes are the technologies employed to kill people, from primitive means to American stealth bombers. At the bottom of the banner is a dense block of handwritten names of the ‘foundation’ consisting of the names of those who thought that social norms should be challenged and needed to be changed. Amongst the more than a hundred names are included Marcel Duchamp, Noel Counihan, Lin Onus and Salman Rushdie .
The fundamental question posed in this banner is why should society regard war as a norm and peace as an interlude and not consider peace a basic human right. Bill Kelly poses the big question on a grand scale and he is one of the few artists who has the skills, imagination and the ability to pull this off to create something which possesses a solemn beauty, a monumental presence and punches a strong message. While a philosophy prevails among some artists that artists should not in their work make overt political statements and that this belongs more to the realm of politicians and social commentators, Kelly looks to the tradition of Goya, Picasso and Rivera and sees the role of the artist to engage with society and be both the visual chronicler of their time as well as the conscience of their society.
In a world that sometimes appears to be hurtling along a path of self-destruction and within a milieu of art making that has lost itself in pattern-making and self-centred esoteric theory, Bill Kelly’s art brings together two democratic art mediums, that of printmaking and the banner, to produce a powerful work that shouts its message to give peace a chance. This is a celebration of the values of the State Library of Victoria to be free, democratic and secular and a strong affirmation that art has the power to alter society and to join the ranks of those who are fighting the good fight. It is critical for us to remember that despite all obstacles, peace must win as the alternative is too frightening to even contemplate.
William Kelly’s banner in the Dome Reading Room of the State Library of Victoria, Peace and War: The Big Picture, will remain on display until Sunday December 11, 2016
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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