From the Archibald to Duchamp
Recently on a visit to Sydney I popped into the Art Gallery of New South Wales and saw the Archibald Prize 2019 exhibition and The Essential Duchamp from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The only thing that they have in common is the $20 ticket price to enter each exhibition. This year’s Archibald is one of the most forgettable in years and the fairest outcome would have been to not have awarded the prize this year. Tony Costa got the $100,000 gong for a lacklustre portrait of the artist Lindy Lee. It is a particularly shallow painting that may try to engage with Lee’s practice as a Buddhist, but fails to capture any of the profundity of the artist’s practice
There are a number of good painters in this year’s cull, including Euan Macleod, John Beard, Blak Douglas, Vincent Namatjira, Luke Cornish and Imants Tillers, but none is represented by a major work that we could place amongst their finest.
The unusual genre of small paintings of artists’ self-portraits when 30+ weeks pregnant seems to have found favour with the trustees who selected the Archibald this year, but the works of Natasha Bieniek or Katherine Edney do not make for interesting paintings. The mandatory Prudence Flint, this year titled The stand, is an ambitious double portrait, that possibly does not quite come together with the female lingerie-clad nude, in scale and prominence, dwarfing the artist’s partner, who is ostensibly the subject of the painting.
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was one of the most important and divisive figures in 20th century art. He challenged many of the traditional assumptions concerning art and its perception and once famously observed, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
The exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales consists of about 125 pieces and is organised by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which holds a huge proportion of the Duchamp opus. It is a touring show that has been to Tokyo and Seoul before its arrival in Sydney. It is also accompanied by an intelligent book catalogue – not the usual vanity-driven bit of exhibition merchandising. Over the years, I have made several pilgrimages to Philadelphia to see the amazing Duchamp collection (as well as its remarkable selection of the work of Constantin Brancusi).
It is undoubtedly true that this is the largest selection of Duchamp’s work to be seen in Australia and this in itself makes a visit mandatory for anyone with a serious interest in 20th century art. Most of the iconic pieces, including Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912, and the readymades, are in the show as well as the artist’s early and rarely seen works when he was experimenting with various forms of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, including The chess game, 2010, Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel, 1910, and Sonata, 1911.
However, what is also inevitably true, Duchamp’s two most important works – The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1923, and Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage ("Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas"), 1946-1966, which is a tableau visible only through a peep hole in an old wooden door – are both missing from this exhibition. The first is too fragile to ever travel again, while the latter is an elaborate installation and cannot be really dismantled to be viewed elsewhere. These two key pieces that occupied the artist for much of his life still require a pilgrimage to Philadelphia.
Another – and somewhat sobering – observation is that when I visited Sydney mid-week on a dull afternoon – the Archibald was crowded, while the Duchamp exhibition was largely deserted. I am uncertain as to the moral one can draw concerning Sydney art audiences.
Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes, AGNSW 11 May – 8 Sep 2019
The Essential Duchamp, AGNSW 27 April – 11 August 2019
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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