Terracotta Warriors & Cai Guo-Qiang: A contemporary perspective on ancient history
Since they were first uncovered in 1974, the thousands of Terracotta Warriors guarding the afterlife of Qin Shi Huang (259-210BC), the first Qin Emperor of China, have been on the move advancing the political, cultural and artistic policies of the Peoples’ Republic of China.
The mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang in Lintong County, outside Xi’an in Shaanxi province, China, about thirty-five metres underground, is a very popular tourist site and presently attracts about 30,000 visitors a day. In all, it is estimated that there are about 8,000 warriors, 130 chariots, 520 horses, 150 cavalry horses and other pits containing non-military figures, including court officials, acrobats, performers, bureaucrats and musicians. Only a fraction of this huge figurine group has been fully excavated.
Despite the romantic theory that each figure is unique and individualised, there were a number of casts – for example, ten basic face types – and many of these were manipulated slightly while the clay was still wet. The figures were assembled from a limited number of stock parts to create the impression of a huge differentiated army.
The figures are hieratic – a general tallest at 196cm, others a bit smaller – and vary in uniform and hairstyle in accordance with rank. There was also a variety of poses. Originally the figures were polychrome – pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white and lilac – and they held real weapons. On exposure to air, the colours quickly faded and the weapons powdered away leaving only fragments. Excavations are paused until conservation techniques can be refined to preserve the original appearance of the work.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang was a cruel despot obsessed with power, the burning of books and megalomania, with an estimated 700,000 workers labouring on his tomb. Nevertheless, he introduced many legal, monetary and language reforms and commenced the building of the Great Wall.
On his death many of the labourers, concubines and the emperor’s inner circle were incarcerated and perished in the tyrant’s tomb to seal the secret of its location. His dynasty was short-lived and his successors of the Han Dynasty turned their backs on many of his excesses, but retained a number of the key reforms.
The first time these archaeological artefacts toured overseas was in 1982 and it was to the National Gallery of Victoria and then onto the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Subsequently they have marched all around the world, in many places attracting record crowds only to be rivalled by the archaeological exhibit of King Tutankhamun from Ancient Egypt. They were also shown again in Australia at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2011.
The Chinese state carefully controls the exposure of the terracotta warriors abroad, with each venue allowed only ten figures – the British Museum in 2007 was the exception with twelve figures. The National Gallery of Victoria has selected eight warriors in a variety of poses, plus two beautifully articulated horses.
The genius of the Melbourne display lies not in terracotta warriors, shown in their mirror cases, nor even the 160 archaeological objects drawn from museums across the Shaanxi province (that in many instances are more interesting than the restored terracotta figures), but the juxtapositioning of the ancient art with the contemporary vision of Cai Guo-Qiang.
Cai, born 1957 and since 1995 largely based in New York, in many ways presents a lyrical, contemplative and humanist alternative to the brutalist art of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The emperor sought to dominate the environment through a show of power and force: Cai reapproaches the environment surrounding the tomb – the soil, the flowers, trees and the fauna – that ultimately seem to dominate even the emperor’s wish for immortality.
The leitmotif throughout Cai’s commentary on the ancient art is the starling – a bird found in the region of the tomb. Cai has created a great swarm of ten thousand suspended blackened porcelain starlings that appear from a distance almost like a traditional Chinese ink landscape painting. It is something like the souls of the perished entombed under the ground.
Cai observes, “The ever-changing formation of 10,000 porcelain birds seems to embody the lingering spirits of the underground army, or perhaps the haunting shadow of China’s imperial past. But in this age of globalisation, aren’t they also forming a mirage, an exoticised imagination of the cultural other?”
Peonies and cypress trees, which grow in the area, are celebrated in porcelain constructions as well as in vast gunpowder drawings. Whereas the imperial art was ridged and disciplined, gunpowder drawings on silk and paper invariably involve the element of chance and unpredictability. Forms emerge darkly, recognisable, but as if seen from a great distance.
Through the use of materials associated with China – porcelain, silk, paper and gunpowder – Cai reverts to tradition to make an unexpected commentary on antiquity that is ever-present and reasserting its power.
This is a complex, powerful and absorbing exhibition, where through the unexpected intervention of a contemporary artist, ancient forms are given a new life and a new meaning.
Melbourne Winter Masterpieces: Terracotta Warriors & Cai Guo-Qiang,
National Gallery of Victoria, International, 24 May-13 October 2019
Gibbs Farm – the destination sculpture park
Is Gibbs Farm the most picturesque and the most significant sculpture park in Australasia?
Gibbs farm, about an hour’s drive north of Auckland, New Zealand, is a 400 hectare property whose western boundary is flanked by the spectacular Kaipara Harbour – the largest harbour in the Southern hemisphere.
The property was acquired by the businessman Alan Gibbs in 1991 and populated with roaming herds of zebras, Tibetan yaks, bison, giraffes, ostriches as well as sheep, alpacas, deer, swans, emus and peacocks amongst other animals.
What makes the farm unusual is the 27 monumental sculptures that are dotted around the property, some by the world’s most renowned sculptors and, in a number of instances, the largest and most ambitious works by these artists.
Gibbs Farm has developed something of a legendary reputation – more spoken of than experienced at first hand. The farm is private and, although entry is free, it is devilishly difficult to gain admission.
I have met people who have waited three years for their chance to see this open-air sculpture park; others have conspired for years from overseas or joined rather expensive fund-raising art tours. I have been fortunate to visit Gibbs Farm twice, in 2017 and May 2019, both times in perfect weather.
Alan and Jenny Gibbs have been art collectors for decades and on Gibbs Farm the idea was to challenge the artist with a site-specific installation with few financial or logistical constraints. One of the great highlights is Richard Serra’s Te Tuhirangi Contour, 1999/2001.
Running a breath-taking 257 metres, it is an elegant ribbon of steel winding across the landscape. It consists of 56 Corten steel plates, each six metres high and each weighing about eleven tons. The wall leans out eleven degrees from the vertical and seems to whimsically skim across the surface or, in Serra’s words, it “collects the volume of the land”.
It is one of the most impressive monumental minimalist pieces that I have ever encountered and when you glance at the work more closely, about half-a-metre above the ground line there is a continuous subversive white mark. The cause is sheep rubbing against the warm rusty steel and in an unexpected way grounding the piece into the rural farming environment.
Another memorable piece is Anish Kapoor’s huge Dismemberment, Site 1, 2009. Coloured bright red, it consists of an 85-metre long mild steel tube with tension fabric. To give it a context in scale, it is like an eight-storey high sculpture stretching a city block and has been located in a cut cleft within a high ridge.
The scale is such that it is impossible to the see the whole work at a single glance from any angle (except perhaps from the air) and as you move around the work you are provided with additional elements to piece together this dismembered composition. The scale and glimpses of the landscape and the harbour add to the incredible ambience of the piece.
One of the most perplexing and rewarding sculptures at Gibbs Farm is Sol LeWitt’s Pyramid (Keystone NZ), 1997, built up of standard concrete blocks with a base of sixteen by sixteen metres and a height of 7.75 metres.
This founding artist of minimalism and conceptual art has created here a most remarkably sensuous sculpture. Although clearly made up of many modules of considerable complexity, the whole adds up to a beautifully simple single pyramid.
The more you are absorbed by the intricacies of the piece the more striking and bold is the overall conception. The architectonic monumental character contrasts with the dissolving reflecting surfaces within the lush green setting.
One of the beauties of Gibbs Farm is that one wanders through it as within an enchanted landscape. There is Daniel Buren’s meandering Green and White Fence (1999-2001), which I understand is still growing and now stretches to 3.2 km.
Neil Dawson’s Horizons, 1994, sits on one of the highest hills in the sculpture park and through a tromp l’oeil strategy is suggestive of many different forms rich with associations.
Andy Goldsworthy’s Arches (2005) consists of eleven seven-metre-long pink arches stretching into the sea made from Lead Hill sandstone blocks quarried in Scotland. It is a wondrous and mysterious creation that has now weathered and, between my visits, has increasingly taken on the appearance of the surrounding environment, seeming to have become one with the seascape setting.
Gerry Judah’s Jacob’s Ladder (2017) is one of the more recent additions to Gibbs Farm, twisting and climbing 34 metres into the sky, and is made of 480 lengths of steel weighing 46 tonnes with a width of eight metres. From a distance, there is a lightness and airiness that disguises its mass and suggests a metaphorical ladder of revelation.
The Heysens: Harmony and discord
Although Hans and Nora Heysen were blessed with longevity, both living into their nineties, their artistic careers followed markedly different trajectories.
Hans Heysen (1877-1968) was an evergreen favourite artist with the general public through his gum tree portraits, images of pastoral arcadia and of the quintessential Australian landscape, while his daughter Nora Heysen (1911-2003) had a career studded with early highlights, but one which subsequently petered out into genteel obscurity.
Hans Heysen is, in many ways, an atypical landscape painter in the Australian context, one who did not emerge out of the glowing green and gold formula of the Heidelberg School and the various diluted versions of impressionism. He was born in Hamburg in Germany on 8 October 1877 and emigrated to South Australia as a child with his family in 1884.
Between 1893-94, Hans studied watercolour painting in James Ashton’s ‘Norwood Art School’ in Adelaide and by 1898 he was at the South Australian School of Design. In the following year, supported by four private local patrons, he went to Europe for four years, spending two-and-a-half years in the different Académies in Paris, and then visited Holland, Britain, Germany and Italy.
Shortly after his return to Australia, Hans painted the large and majestic oil painting, Mystic Morn, 1904, for which he was awarded the Wynne Prize for landscape art by the Art Gallery of New South Wales trustees. When it was exhibited in the seventh Federal Exhibition in Adelaide, it was promptly acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia, their first acquisition of his work. Heysen worked on sketches for this painting near Meadows in the Adelaide Hills during Easter in 1904 and painstakingly executed the work in his city studio on the large four-foot by six-foot format (122.8 x 184.3 cm).
The picture to a large extent reflects European Symbolism, both in the poetic symbolic allusions of its title and in the symbolic golden light that imbues the landscape. It also betrays traces of Art Nouveau in the sinuous line of the saplings in the foreground floating over the silhouetted background gums reminiscent of those encountered in Sydney Long’s art. Long may have had this in mind when he commented in 1905, in reference to Mystic Morn, “The gum trees are there, but the feeling is not Australian. The Australian feeling is not to be got by sticking in a gum tree.”
For all of its inherent nationalism, it is interesting to note that in this painting, and in virtually all of Heysen’s oeuvre, it is cattle and other domestic farm animals that dwell in the Australian bush, as in European Barbizon art, rather than kangaroos or other native animals.
Later in 1904, Heysen married Selma (Sallie) née Bartels and following several financially very successful exhibitions, the Heysens bought in 1912 the thirty-six-acre property, The Cedars, near Hahndorf, an area settled by German migrants, where he was to remain until his death in 1968.
Hans Heysen was an artist whose reputation has suffered through his popularity and the amateur imitators who churned out acres of poorly executed gum tree paintings in the Heysen style. While Heysen did become, in Herbert Badham’s words, “the portraitist of the gum-tree” which became like a patent in his art, his art was based on very solid workmanship with a firsthand knowledge of developments in European art.
Despite the overt nationalism detected in his pictures, during the First World War when the anti-German sentiment in Australia reached its xenophobic peak, the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales refused to include Heysen’s work in a Loan Exhibition of Australian Art until he “definitely and satisfactorily” declared that his “allegiance and sympathies are with the British Nation”.
Heysen was offended and declined to make such a declaration and was not included in the exhibition. As he explained in a letter to Elioth Gruner, “I … am sorry at not being represented but as I dislike the approach of the Gallery Board on the question of nationality I must take the consequences of what I thought right to stick up for – if a man’s feeling for Australia cannot be judged by the work he has done – then no explanation on his part would dispel the mistrust.”
It is a curious irony that an artist who defined a particular nationalist vision of the Australian landscape within the context of Federation experienced some persecution as a German migrant but he continued to live in the mainly German enclave of Hahndorf and at the age of ninety, at his own request, was buried at the Hahndorf cemetery by a pastor of the Lutheran Church.
Nora Heysen was the fourth of Hans and Selma Heysen’s eight children and was born at The Cedars in Hahndorf in South Australia in 1911. Having a famous artist as a father was a mixed blessing, where there was both an encouragement in art, as well as a degree of interference.
Nora recalls, “one day I left a painting of a basket of eggs in the studio – which I thought was pretty good – but when I got back I found Father had drawn squares all over it showing where my draughtsmanship was wrong. I was furious. Of course he was right, but it took me a long time to see it ...”
Study in Adelaide was supplemented with tuition at the Central School in London under Bernard Meninsky. Nora spent three years in Europe, between 1934 and 1937, sharing her flat and her excursions to Paris and the art galleries of Britain with a sculptor from Adelaide, Everton (Evie) Stokes.
After spending some months back at The Cedars, in 1938 she shifted to Sydney where she would remain for the rest of her life. That year she was awarded the Archibald Prize for an accomplished but ultimately conventional portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman, the first woman to be awarded the prize.
Five years later, in October 1943, Nora was appointed as an Australian official war artist, the first woman to receive this appointment, and spent some time in New Guinea where she met her future husband, Dr Robert Black, In 1954, Nora and Black moved to The Chalet in Hunters Hill, in Sydney remaining there till her death in 2003.
Although both through family connections and the Archibald Prize Nora Heysen had established a profile in Adelaide and Sydney, it was only quite late in her career that her work received serious attention.
In 1989, when she was seventy-eight years old, a retrospective exhibition of her work was held in Sydney which revealed the full scope of her talent with strong introspective self-portraits, vibrant flower pieces and meditative still life compositions.
Throughout her life, Nora was haunted by the uncertainty of her identity as an artist – her individuality as opposed to being the daughter of a great artist. When she was in her fifties and interviewed by the press, the article was published under the title “I don’t know if I exist in my own right.”
It appears that only late in life Nora was recognised for her own art and acclaimed by the broader art community as an artist of considerable standing, quite independent of being the daughter of Hans Heysen.
Hans and Nora Heysen: Two generations of Australian art
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, March 8 – July 28, 2019
The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art
In the crowded marketplace of biennales and triennials, the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT), after quarter of a century, is still going strong and now has reached its ninth reiteration.
Back in 1993, the first APT struck one through its unconventional character. It explored the art of our neighbours – big and small – presenting many artists who were then totally unknown. The geographic spread of Asia and the Pacific was somewhat nebulous and, as illustrated in subsequent APT exhibitions, could include Turkey, Iran and Iraq, China, India and Pakistan, as well as Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia. What I learned early in the piece is that the APT is something that you need to accept as a given, rather than question too closely or intellectualise.
Queensland Art Gallery curators, like talent scouts, travel the region widely picking up in their nets whatever catches their eye as interesting, unexpected and provocative, and roping it into the exhibition and commissioning artists to produce site specific work. It is better to be inclusive and include something unusual from Uzbekistan or North Korea, than to be prescriptive and to stick to clearly defined geographic boundaries.
Unlike many biennial and triennial art exhibitions, each APT is assembled from the ground up and not through a shopping list of established names of artists. I have attended each of the nine APTs to date, and have made many exciting discoveries, often not having previously heard of at least half of the artists presented.
APT is one exhibition that I make an effort never to miss. I spend one whole art-saturated day but always feel that it could easily absorb at least a week of prolonged visits. The Ninth APT, is one of the strongest of the recent APT exhibitions, boasting about 400 artworks by about 80 artists and art collectives from about 30 countries.
Female artists appear to outnumber male artists and there is an emphasis on First Nation artists and, I think, that for the first time we are seeing artists from Laos. There is a particularly strong contingent of artists from Pakistan and, perhaps more emphatically than in previous exhibitions, the minimalist and conceptual strands in contemporary Asian art are more strongly pronounced.
Jonathan Jones, an artist from the Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi peoples, known to many in Sydney from his Kaldor Public Art Project in 2016, creates the most impressive immersive installation at this APT. In collaboration with the Wiradjuri Elder, Dr Uncle Stan Grant Snr, Jones has created a huge installation of about 2000 ‘bird sculptures’ like a suspended flock presented within its own soundscape.
On closer inspection, each sculpture is one of six traditional tools made from different materials: emu eggshell spoons, stone knives, animal bone awls, mussel scrapers, spear points and weavings. Each tool has a handmade string with a small bundle of feathers attached and these are then individually fixed to a wall suggesting a huge flock of birds.
Jones’ untitled (giran), 2018 is conceived as a meditation on the murmuring of the giran (wind), an evocation of slow art with an expressed desire to enter into the spirit of the wind and to contemplate ancient knowledge. As Jones observes, “Each tool embodies knowledge passed down through generations and represents the potential for change. Each idea, each tool, is limitless in its potential.”
The nature of the APT makes it impossible to conveniently sum up the exhibition, a list of highlights seems to imply that the rest of the exhibits are duds and an annotated catalogue of 400 exhibits is tedious in the extreme. I have decided to make a number of idiosyncratic observations.
Anne Noble from New Zealand, who has shown previously at the APT, exhibits here her serenely beautiful images of bees as well as allowing us to enter and see an actual operating beehive at GOMA. She presents an umwelt of the honey bee now elevated to something of global significance.
Nona Garcia from the Philippines in her two huge installations, Drift and Hallow, advances a meditation on nature – a lament. Where she lives in Baguio City, there is rapid deforestation. When a tree is cut down in her street, pieces of it are delivered to her studio and on them, in a hyperrealist style, she depicts the dismembered branches.
Mithu Sen, an artist from West Bengal in India, who now works in New Delhi, creates a sprawling installation, which she interrogates through a conversation with a robotic assistant. Strange and quirky, she effectively subverts many of the assumptions that prevail in our social structures.
Pannaphan Yodmanee, an emerging Thai artist working in Nakhon Pathom in central Thailand, creates what at first sight appears like a huge Buddhist demolition site, where under slabs of concrete appear delicate Buddhist paintings, sacred objects and damaged temples. She creates a very effective play on feelings of eternal peace and the temporary presence of violence and destruction.
Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, who was born in Myanmar but has found refuge in the Netherlands and elsewhere, creates a most effective manifesto exposition on military oppression and the workings of a totalitarian state.
There is a complexity and diversity in every APT, one that is designed to challenge prevailing assumptions and bring fresh material to a more general audience. APT 8 attracted an audience of about 600,000 visitors; APT 9 is of even higher calibre and should attract an even bigger audience. This is one of the exhibitions that Australians critically need to see and where Australia has taken international leadership.
The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art
Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
24 November 2018 – 28 April 2019
How the Soviets brought socialism to Mars
Have you heard how the Soviets brought socialism to Mars? If not, you obviously have not seen Aelita.
A few days ago, I was wandering around the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and came across a spectacular but completely unpublicised exhibition titled The Ballets Russes and the Russian avant-garde.
It was tucked away opposite the gallery shop and, apart from containing the wonderful painting by Natalia Goncharova, Peasants Dancing, 1910-11, it had a rich array of Russian avant-garde costumes and designs for which this gallery has an international reputation. Canberra does hold one of the finest collections of Russian avant-garde materials and Ballets Russes costumes, designs and stage sets in the world.
A part of this exhibition was the continuous screening of Aelita, sometimes known in English as Aelita: Queen of Mars or even by the more clunky title Revolt of the Robots. Described by some as the most influential film that no one has ever seen, the story of the making of the film and its subsequent history is almost as fantastic as the plot of the film itself.
Yakov Protazanov, the well-known Russian-Soviet film director, was working in Paris during the Russian civil war and after its conclusion and the introduction of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, he accepted Mezhrabprom-Rus’s invitation to return to the Soviet Union and make films.
Aelita was based on a novella by Aleksei N. Tolstoy published in 1923 – a romantic space travel story whose plot is difficult to follow without a couple of shots of vodka. Protazanov was creative with his use of the text for the film he directed in 1924.
In brief, a mysterious cryptic transmission ‘Anta Odeli Uta’ is received around the world in 1921, which the Soviet engineer Los is convinced is a message from Mars. This inspires Los to daydream and to build a spaceship that would take him to Mars. Through a number of complex circumstances, Los suddenly finds himself on a spaceship heading for Mars with two companions, the Bolshevik soldier Comrade Gussev and Kratsov, an amateur detective.
Meanwhile on Mars, the scientist Gol designs a telescope through which they can observe activities on nearby planets, including on earth. Aelita, the Queen of Mars, is intrigued when she sees through the telescope busy city streets on earth, camels in the desert, warships and the mysterious scene of people kissing. On Mars the Queen rules, but the Elders govern, while the workers live in the dungeons underground.
Predictably, Los and his party land on Mars, to be imprisoned by the Elders, but to be greeted by Aelita. Los explains what kissing is all about and the queen falls in love with him, while his comrades organise the rebellion of the proletariat and a newly forged hammer and sickle become the symbols of the revolution. Finally, a Martian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is declared as the workers smash through the bars surrounding the underground city and storm the palace. Aelita, as part of the aristocracy and thus who can never be trusted, orders the soldiers to fire on the workers and in the midst of the chaos, a poster in the background is highlighted reading: “The only tyres worth your money are… Anta Odeli Uta”.
At this stage Los wakes up back on earth and the whole space odyssey had only been a daydream. The film was a grand production, the publicity stunts were out of this world, with leaflets dropped over Moscow from aircraft with the enigmatic words “Anta Odeli Uta” – see the film and have the mystery revealed.
The masses loved it. The party ideologues were suspicious and shortly afterwards it disappeared, only to gain a legendary reputation through surviving photographic stills. In its earliest performances in Leningrad cinemas, Dmitri Shostakovich played on the piano the music he provided for this silent film. The film was only properly revived in the post-Soviet period.
Why is this earliest Soviet science fiction film worth reviving? The stage sets, costumes and cinematography are revolutionary and stunning. The costume designs were by the great Russian avant-garde artist Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Ekster, also known as Alexandra Exter, a Cubo-Futurist, Suprematist and Constructivist artist, some of whose original designs and maquettes are in the Canberra collection.
Although Ekster’s costumes look awkward in stills and drawings, in the film they gain fluidity and grace. The headwear, cylinders and radiating spirals are striking and effective. The mechanical soldier and worker costumes in many ways look forward to futurist designs in subsequent decades.
Isaac Rabinovich and Sergei Kozlovsky were responsible for some of the other designs intended to spread Marx to Mars. They are literally out of this world in their vision of the Martian cities, palaces and dungeons and stand out in today’s history of early 20th century avant-garde art.
Aelita casts a long shadow in the history of cinema with its impact felt on Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Woman in the Moon and in the more recent Liquid Sky, as well as the Flash Gordon serials. With a free digital download available (see the first hyperlink) Aelita can now be loved by all earthlings.
On a personal note, when I first embarked on my series of GAB blogs, my secret (or perhaps not that secret) intent was to create a platform where I could post a weekly blog to an audience of a few hundred people. I have failed to keep to my end of the bargain, the blogs have become monthly, but the audience fluctuates between 2,000 to 3,000 readers a day. Thank you – I am humbled. I intend to revive the bookshelf function on this website shortly with reports – short and lengthy – about books that pass over my desk.
What if an artist’s daughter becomes an artist? Fathers and daughters
Many years ago I had the honour of being invited to open the major retrospective exhibition of the work of Nora Heysen. It had been curated by the amazingly erudite Lou Klepac and was held at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.
It was a knockout show that traced Nora Heysen’s development from her early juvenile years in Hahndorf, South Australia, through to her mature work, where she was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture (1938) and the first woman to be appointed as an Official War Artist (1943-46). Despite recognition in many sectors, she was shy about exhibiting, and avoided publicity and the limelight.
Nora was the daughter of the very popular landscape painter Hans Heysen and was brought up within the sheltered workshop of the family property, The Cedars, outside of Adelaide. At The Cedars, she had her own studio and worked under the watchful eye of her father, while taking lessons in art in Adelaide.
In 1934 she travelled with her family to Europe and remained alone in London to attend art schools. She returned to The Cedars in October 1937 and worked in her old studio for a few months before abruptly leaving for Sydney to strike out on her own.
After her opening in Canberra in 2000, at the age of 89, Nora Heysen told me something that has haunted my imagination ever since. She recounted how, on her return from Europe and working in a style that we could term as ‘conservative classical modernism’ – in other words basically an academic style that had absorbed elements of Paul Cézanne and the Impressionists (in her case mainly Pissarro) – an incident occurred in her studio.
She had been working on a still life composition and left it on her easel in her studio overnight. When she returned the following morning, she noticed that her father had intervened in the composition, straightening out her lines and reinforcing the perspectival structure of her composition. Over breakfast Hans did not mention his artistic intervention and she never brought it up herself, but it confirmed in her mind that she needed to get out of Adelaide if she was to survive as an artist.
A few weeks later, Nora Heysen left the comfort and security of her family nest at The Cedars and left the protection and patronage of her father whom, as she told me, she simply adored, and by early 1938 had settled in Sydney and joined the Society of Artists. She supported herself through painting portraits and a few months later won the Archibald. Her father still pulled strings in the art world to open the path to commissions for his daughter and along the way did not spare her with tips on painting, as can be seen in their voluminous correspondence.
News that the National Gallery of Victoria will be holding a large Hans and Nora Heysen exhibition in March 2019 brought to mind my memories of Nora, but also raised the question of fathers and daughters as artists. We are all familiar with stories of artists being the sons of artists, Pablo Picasso being initially taught by his father José Ruiz y Blasco, is an obvious example.
What about the daughters of artists who become major artists in their own right? Historically, the Academy has often barred women from attending life classes. Being unable to master the nude impeded their development as fully fledged artists. One way around this was for a daughter of an artist to work as an apprentice in her father’s studio and, when she had mastered his skillset, she could embark on her own path.
Here the most famous example in art history is Artemisia Gentileschi, who trained in the manner of Caravaggio in the studio of her father Orazio Gentileschi. Subsequently, she branched out on her own working in Florence, Rome, Naples and in England. Although her art has been overshadowed by sordid and tragic episodes in her biography, over the past few decades she has been rightly acknowledged as a significant Baroque painter.
The French Baroque artist, Louise Moillon was taught by her father and subsequently her stepfather, both of whom were artists. She became famed for her still life paintings, which were collected by nobility and royalty.
Marietta Robusti, the daughter of the great artist of the Venetian Renaissance known as Tintoretto, received, along with other members of the family, her training in her father’s studio with her identity generally subsumed within that of the studio. It has been argued that she was a major contributor to the workshop and on her early death at the age of 30 in childbirth, the workshop declined.
The French animal painter and sculptor, Rosa Bonheur, likewise was the daughter of an artist and rose to considerable prominence in the 19th century breaking many of the social and artistic taboos of her time.
This little thought adventure is unresolved – Hans lovingly meddled in Nora’s art and career; Orazio did as much in his power as possible to advance the career of his talented daughter, while Tintoretto roped Marietta and her brothers Domenico and Jacopo into the family painting business. I suspect that, in the end, Raymond Bonheur, while taking early pride in his daughter Rosa, was later calling for smelling salts as she championed lesbianism and democratic principles, long before they became fashionable.
It will be interesting to see, how many other examples can be excavated of an artist father teaching his daughter art, with her then going on to become a significant artist in her own right.
Curious world of Escher
It was Marcel Duchamp who famously declared – “there is no solution because there is no problem”. Much of modernism in art is not about problem solving, but grappling with formalist problems of picture making.
In this, the Dutch 20th century printmaker, MC Etcher, has gone against the grain and spent much of his life making bewilderingly complex images that at their core contain a problem, which demands from the viewer a solution.
MC Escher (1898-1972) is an artist whose name is synonymous with mathematically challenging, optically intriguing and intellectually perplexing prints. He created a world of impossible objects, endless staircases and radical visual transformations that challenge our grasp of reality and our understanding of the shape of time. Escher’s woodcuts, lithographs and engravings, at least in reproduction, have become iconic, where the image is known better than the artist’s name.
In his lifetime, Escher had to wait until he was in his fifties to receive widespread popularity and only at the age of seventy did he achieve his first retrospective exhibition. Escher, with his intricate tessellations, complex geometric structures and mathematical riddles, steered a course in his art that seemed a long way from the popular trends and styles in twentieth century modernism and attracted the support of fellow intellectual travellers rather than mainstream art critics and art historians.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in the work of Escher with a hugely successful exhibition of his art held in Rio de Janeiro in 2011. A major touring exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh in 2015 toured to London and throughout Italy, attracting huge crowds in each venue. The time for Escher has arrived.
The last major Escher show I saw was the substantial centennial tribute exhibition that I caught in San Diego, two decades ago. Curated by Ruth Fine from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, it thematically presented the development of the artist’s vision in a fairly didactic manner.
In the previous history of exhibiting Escher, there is nothing to prepare us for the shock to the senses in the National Gallery of Victoria show. Borrowing about 160 Escher prints and drawings from the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, the NGV engaged the nendo design studio in Tokyo and its Chief Designer and Founder, Oki Sato, not to design an exhibition around Escher, but to enter into a collaborative dialogue with the artist.
A hallmark of a great exhibition, one that revisits a repertoire of world-famous art, is that it allows us to find a new perspective on what we thought we already knew. In this exhibition, we see Escher afresh – not through the eyes of twentieth century empiricism, but through those of twenty-first century digitally liberated design. One of the main challenges that Escher set himself was to replicate three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface. His intention was not to completely embrace illusionism and treat the piece of paper like a frame for a window into the world, but to continuously explore the tension between these dimensions. nendo works in reverse. The studio operates in three-dimensional real and digital worlds but wishes to replicate two-dimensional effects.
Throughout the exhibition, there are numerous visual ambushes that subvert our grasp on reality as we are invited to enter an exciting labyrinth of visual ambiguities. Oki Sato’s ‘icon image’ for Escher is a little schematic house design through which the fantastic world of Escher is engaged. This design is replicated in many completely unexpected ways, such as a giant ‘chandelier’ made up of tens of thousands of these tiny houses that becomes a kinetic fabric of vision and a metaphor for the distorting mirror created by Escher. In another exhibition space, the viewer encounters a house-shaped tunnel, or an illusionistic space made up of these house designs of ever-diminishing sizes, allowing you to be initially physically, and then visually, drawn into an impossible space. This acts as a metaphor for the optical illusions so close to the heart of Escher.
The most impressive of the nendo interventions and one of the most impressive installation designs attempted in any Australian gallery, is a huge space accessible from a specially constructed elevated platform where scores of these simplified houses have been fabricated leading from positive to negative spaces. It is within this installed, completely immersive environment, consisting of improbable constructions, that we encounter some of the classic pieces of Escher.
These immersive environments seduce and intrigue the viewer, constantly leading them into the fantastic imagination of Escher. This is less an exhibition of the prints of Escher than a physical encounter with the world of Escher and the experience of his improbable inventions.
The exhibition does include most of the classic works by Escher, such as the Drawing hands lithograph (1948), where each hand appears to be drawing the other; the perfectly observed Eye mezzotint (1946) and his most famous images – the Day and Night woodcut (1938) and the Ascending and Descending lithograph (1960). A rare treat is his bewilderingly complex late woodcut Snakes (1969) – an exploration of interlinking shapes of infinity – now shown within the ‘snake house’, a serpentine, waist-high installed room replicating and reinterpreting Escher’s snake design.
This exhibition is not so much a presentation of the work of Escher, but an interpretation of his art from a very contemporary perspective. It will surprise, delight and challenge the viewer and suggests that, perhaps, this cerebral sombre Dutchman had a dry sense of humour that he hoped would be discovered in posterity.
Australian Print Triennial in Mildura
Mildura, on the banks of the Murray River, appears as an oasis within a flat and bleak landscape. In the 1960s and 1970s the Mildura Sculpture Triennials became a major focal point for sculptural practice in Australia before being snuffed out by petty rivalries and political intrigues.
More recently, Mildura’s role as a cultural oasis has been resurrected by several significant events, including the establishment of Stefano’s restaurant in 1991, which formed a creative cultural hub that fed into the Mildura Writers’ Festival and the music festivals.
The creation of The Art Vault in 2008 by the passionate lover of printmaking, Julie Chambers, provided a significant centre for printmaking with excellent printmaking facilities and a program of residencies and exhibitions that has included many, if not most, of the significant artist printmakers in Australia over the past decade.
The first Australian Print Triennial (APT) was held in 2015 where over 150 artist printmakers, print curators and print collectors descended on Mildura and over several days the art of the original print was passionately discussed in forums, public lectures, over long lunches catered by Stefano’s and in a series of workshops. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and the general message was ‘can we have more of the same in three years’ time – please’.
The Second Australian Print Triennial was held in Mildura in 2018, which continued many of the features of the first triennial, but with a number of significant changes.
Julie Chambers was joined at the helm by Vikki Moore, another Mildurian passionate about the arts and art in Mildura; there were numerically more and more extensive hands-on workshops (with each registered delegate free to enrol in two of them), and a series of lively debates focusing on matters of critical importance to printmakers, such as authenticity, authorship and the future of institutional printmaking.
There was also a plethora of exhibitions, the most significant of which was the Mungo Prints, where a group of nationally recognised artists visited Mungo within the Willandra Lakes and created a series of works.
As in the first Triennial, the APT Print Award took centre stage with this year’s $10,000 award going to the South Australian printmaker Olga Sankey and $1000 Highly Commended awards going to Rosalind Atkins (VIC), Roslyn Kean (NSW), Jock Clutterbuck (VIC), Edwin Garcia Maldonado (Venezuela) and Glenda Orr (Qld).
Of the 150 artists, curators, gallerists and collectors who attended this year, many were repeat offenders from the first triennial, but there were also about fifty new faces. However, the enthusiasm remained very high whether it be in the exchange of passionately held views or the relaxed hours of dining on the banks of the Murray River on the concluding Long Lunch with exquisite food and entertainment from the charismatic Robyn Archer, Nicky Crayson and her group and the unique, and unforgettable Press Gang, with lyrics written especially for this occasion.
One of my most unforgettable memories was going past Stefano’s (a couple of doors up from The Art Vault in Deakin Street in central Mildura) where a group of printmakers was having breakfast and there was a loud and animated discussion concerning the viscosity properties of a particular printing ink.
A question that arises in my mind is why have the APTs in Mildura been such a runaway success, whereas many other art gatherings seem to be like a rehearsal for a funeral and full of pomp and ceremony.
From my observations, there appear to be three main reasons, although I have little doubt that some participants will disagree and may offer their own assessments.
The first deals with location. Unlike a major city, for example, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane or even Canberra, there are very few distractions in Mildura. There are few galleries, museums or art collections to tempt the delegates, so for the five- to three-day duration of the APT (depending on whether people arrive early to participate in the workshops), the group largely sticks together and develops its own momentum.
Secondly, there is a certain tribal nature to the art of printmaking. This may in part stem from the fact that printmaking, virtually more than any other major art form, has fought with the question of definition.
What is an original print? How can there be multiple originals? Traditionally, prints have not been ranked as highly as painting and sculpture in the hierarchy of the arts and printmakers have frequently flocked together both for purposes of sharing resources, to make the prints, as well as to exhibit them.
Also, printmaking is intrinsically a collaborative art form with shared facilities in printmaking workshops, shared skills and the use of master printers. Although the idea of printmaking as a sort of ‘cottage industry’ inhabited by artisans with expertise in a narrow technical speciality, like wood engraving or chromolithography, has long passed and most artist printmakers embrace many mediums including sculpture, digital media, painting and installation, there remains a technical skill base amongst printmakers. Invariably, printmakers want to know how something was done and in gatherings of printmakers shared technical knowledge is at a premium.
Thirdly, the magic of Mildura also stems from the generosity of spirit of Julie and Vikki. This is not only a question of dipping into their own financial resources to prop up the event, but also having an authentic hospitality, enthusiasm and the desire to make a contribution to printmaking and to the cultural life of Mildura.
This generosity of spirit is infectious, so Robyn Archer AO, a patron of the APT, has presented inspirational keynote addresses at both triennials. Julian Burnside AO QC, another patron of the APT, is quick to lend his name and support to the triennials and The Art Vault.
The APT has become a cause as well as a celebration of printmaking in Australia. It has become an important milestone in the developing history of printmaking in this country.
How (not) to paint a prime minister
In October 2018 a commissioned portrait of Australia’s 27th prime minister, Julia Gillard, was unveiled in Parliament House in Canberra. It was different from all of its predecessors for a couple of reasons – it was the first female in the line-up of the previous all-male prime ministers and it was the first ‘giant head’ style portrait.
In all, there have been twenty-five prime ministerial portraits commissioned as part of the Historic Memorials Collection that consists of about 250 works, predominantly portraits.
Portraits of women subjects in the Historic Memorials Collection are in short supply and include William Dargie‘s portrait of Enid Lyons (1951) and Archie Colquhoun‘s portrait of Senator Dorothy Tangney (1946) commemorating their respective roles as the first female member of Federal Parliament and as the first female senator. There is of course Dargie’s portrait of the Queen, but this probably doesn’t count, although she is Australia’s head of state.
The commissioning of prime ministerial portraits used to run like clockwork. Once the prime minister left office, within a couple of years they were invited to select an artist to execute their official portrait with an Official Artists Register for the Historic Memorials Committee (now administered by the National Portrait Gallery) offered as a non-binding guide to recommended artists.
The art loving prime minister, Gough Whitlam, broke with the rules and recommended a portrait painted by his mate, Clifton Pugh, which had won the 1972 Archibald Prize for Portraiture. The commissioning powers acquiesced; the portrait subsequently entered the collection and is outstanding for its vibrancy, expressive characterisation and energetic brushwork.
Once the portrait was commenced a large-scale oil sketch was produced on which the sitter and the committee signed off and then the final full-scale portrait was completed. To my knowledge, only one finished portrait was knocked back by a former prime minister and that was a portrait of Malcolm Fraser by Bryan Westwood. I think that he felt that it made him look like an arrogant petty despot with arms folded on his chest and sneering at the public.
It was replaced, at the sitter’s request but on the taxpayer’s purse, with an awful painting by Sir Ivor Hele, who incidentally, had also painted prime ministers Sir Robert Menzies and Billy McMahon.
A woman artist painted only one of the twenty-five portraits, and that is June Mendoza’s portrait of John Gorton. Most of the commissioned portraits belonged to the dark tonal school, which colloquially artists refer to as the ‘horse shit and gravy school’ of academic painting. Highlights are few and early in the piece and include George Lambert’s characterful portrait of Prime Minister Billy Hughes and Robert Hannaford’s classically observed portrait of Paul Keating.
Most of these public executions are truly awful, but probably worthy of their subjects. The process of commissioning portraits of Australian prime ministers ran smoothly until about 2010, when Jiawei Shen was commissioned the final official portrait of John Howard. Here the sitter looks remarkably like a startled cockroach.
However, subsequently, once Australia started to replace prime ministers with the frequency most people replace batteries in smoke alarms, the commissioning process seems to have broken down and no further portraits have been commissioned until that of Julia Gillard in 2018.
Julia Gillard’s portrait was painted by Vincent Fantauzzo, a male artist from Melbourne well known for his popularist portraits of Heath Ledger, Neale Daniher, Asher Keddie and Elizabeth Debicki and a regular finalist in the Archibald circus where he has been a frequent peoples’ choice favourite.
As with many of the portrait prizes Fantauzzo has developed a hyperrealist technique applied to huge heads, which are several times life-size. It is a perfect formula for art competitions where size matters and the style has to be accessible to the lowest common denominator.
It seems a pity, when there are so many excellent women portrait painters available today, as a glance at the Portia Geach Memorial Award for 2018 will testify, for a woman prime minister who has done so much to advance women’s rights to have settled for a fairly predictable male artist.
The portrait itself is unconvincing, more like a smug Lady Macbeth than the charismatic, sharp-witted and visionary prime minister who struggled against unimaginable odds and in many cases prevailed. Prime Minister Gillard deserves better than this!
In 1910 the Historic Memorials Committee debated whether photographs would suffice for portraits and decided that all parliamentarians would be photographed, but the highest office holders and a few others would be commemorated with commissioned paintings.
Perhaps, more than a century later, this policy may need to be reconsidered if the country keeps changing prime ministers with such monotonous regularity.
One advantage that Australia has over many countries is that its portraits remain in parliament – a place where rotten pictures accompany rotten politics – and they do not visually pollute the National Portrait Gallery as they do in Washington DC.
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.
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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