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.
Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions
Brett Whiteley is a household name known by most Australians who have even the most cursory interest in the arts, while George Baldessin is known only to those knowledgeable about Australian art.
The two artists were born about a month apart in 1939 – Whiteley on Sydney’s north shore, Baldessin in a small town in the north of Italy – yet they were to have a profound impact on the course of Australian art.
Baldessin and Whiteley both enjoyed meteoric success in the 1960s and 1970s, in their respective cities of Sydney and Melbourne, and both died tragically early – Baldessin in an alcohol-fuelled single vehicle accident at the age of 39, Whiteley from a self-administered drug overdose aged 53.
Apart from biographical parallels, in their work, the two artists tackled many similar concerns and, through their art, complemented one another.
If European art of the first half of the 20th century can to some extent be viewed as a dialectic between Picasso and Matisse, aspects of Australian art of the 1960s and 1970s can to some extent be read through the parallel visions in the art of Baldessin and Whiteley.
At a time when there was a fashion for abstraction, Baldessin and Whiteley were staunchly figurative; they rejected the prevailing cool minimalist aesthetic in favour of a deeply felt expressionism and through their art they engaged with society and its problems.
The two artists possessed different artistic personalities and pursued different stylistic conventions, but as you walk through this exhibition you constantly encounter striking similarities.
They both ask:
What does it mean to be human?
What are some of the life forces that unite us with other living beings?
How do our surroundings determine our lives?
Most significantly, both Baldessin and Whiteley believed that art really mattered and that its role was to reflect, to challenge and to better society. The universality of their quest has meant that their art is as fresh and vital for us today as it was when it was made many decades ago.
Although in their lifetime, art critics, including Elwyn Lynn in Sydney and Patrick McCaughey and Alan McCulloch in Melbourne, had drawn parallels between Baldessin and Whiteley, it has taken forty years since Baldessin’s death for these parallels to be put to the test in an exhibition.
The exhibition consists of 129 artworks, some quite small and delicate, others huge, such as Whiteley’s American Dream which stretches 22 metres and is shown in a specially constructed amphitheatre to be seen precisely as the artist intended.
Also included is Baldessin’s virtually unknown monumental aluminium relief and his breathtaking fourteen-metre-long, 25 panel frieze Occasional images from a city chamber – one of the great works in 20th century Australian graphic art.
In the exhibition, there is a mixture of the iconic pieces and works that have never been previously exhibited publicly.
As the curator of this exhibition, I have opted for minimal textual intervention. I have sought to present the visual evidence drawn from each artist’s best work and arranged it in a thematic and conceptual manner to allow for parallels to be drawn by viewers.
We have an excellent cross-section of Whiteley’s brilliant early tonal paintings and Baldessin’s wonderful early tonal intaglio prints. Whiteley’s breathtaking gambles with three-dimensional space are juxtaposed with Baldessin’s revolution in arranging sculptural masses and his reinvention of the art of printmaking.
Throughout the exhibition, in the grouping of works, I have sought to bring out parallels, for example, the question of the divided self, explored in Baldessin’s strange morphing of the personalities of the Mary Magdalene and the working girls on the Rue Saint Denis in a series of stunning monumental drawings and Whiteley’s unforgettable two sides of John Reginald Christie, as the ex-soldier and ex-postie who drank at the local pub and the deranged psychopath who murdered eight women in the neighbourhood and raped their bodies.
Baldessin and Whiteley were two of the greatest draughtsmen to emerge in Australian art of the 1960s and 1970s. Whiteley is the master of the sensuous line, the gestural flourish – a line that could convey the moment of ecstasy. Baldessin’s line is awkward, edgy and wondrously expressive – a line that brings to mind both Goya and Rembrandt. Throughout this exhibition we can trace the graphic element in the work of both artists – through sculptures, paintings, prints and drawings.
The evidence is presented for you to contemplate and to come to your own conclusions.
Visually, this is an exhibition with a huge ‘wow’ factor. But after the initial impact, some of the philosophical profundity and the spiritual power emerges.
Now that decades have passed since the death of the two artists, I feel that the time has arrived to move the focus away from their colourful but ultimately tragic biographies and to look exclusively at their achievement as artists.
Both Baldessin and Whiteley have given so much to Australian art and it is timely for us to celebrate this.
Ars longa, vita brevis – which may be rendered into English as “Life is short, but art is eternal”
Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions
National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square, Melbourne
31 Aug. 2018 – 28 Jan. 2019
The Archibald 2018 – What’s in a name?
A commonly held misapprehension is that the Archibald Prize is primarily an art exhibition, one which sets out to show the best of Australian portraiture.
Art critics, like well-trained Pavlovian dogs, invariably rise to the bait, denounce the exhibition as the worst Archibald ever and compete for clever derogatory rejoinders targeted at the selected finalists. While the crowds, like herds of happy lemmings, flood into the gallery despite the hefty admission charges.
It is a win-win situation, the gallery makes a healthy profit on a low-cost show plus (what has now become) a huge dividend on ‘renting out’ the Archibald finalists to regional art galleries. This year they will be going to Geelong, Tamworth, Orange and Lismore, each gallery expecting to double their annual attendance figures compared with non-Archibald years.
The public generally love it, as they gaze on the faces of the rich, famous or the simply obnoxious, knowing that there is no arcane profundity accessible only to the cognoscenti and that their opinion is as valid as anyone else’s.
Instead of thinking of the Archibald as an art event, it is more accurate to describe it as a sociological phenomenon – something to be studied and observed, rather than judged and criticised. When you pause to think about it, the mechanics of the Archibald border on high farce.
Many hundreds of hopefuls pay their $50 application fee in the hope to win the $100,000 prize. They then arrange the delivery of their paintings to be viewed for selection by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (an appointed body of citizens known for their deep pockets but not for their art expertise).
The selected few become finalists; the discarded many pay for the unsuccessful entries to be returned. Finally, the same Trustees (presently eleven members, only two of whom are artists) select the winner – an announcement that stops a nation.
The process is identical for the accompanying Wynne Prize for landscape painting or figurative sculpture, while the third in the trifecta of art prizes, the Sulman (for subject, genre or mural painting), is judged by an artist. In 2018, the judge for the Sulman Prize was Angela Tiatia, a New Zealand-Australian artist of Samoan heritage.
What’s in it for the winner of the Archibald Prize?
There is of course the money: $100,000 for the Archibald, with half as much for the Wynne, and the Sulman weighing in at $40,000. It is not Australia’s richest portrait prize, the Doug Moran boasts of a prize purse of $150,000. Others, include the newly announced Darling Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra with a purse of $75,000 and the Portia Geach Memorial Award scoring a purse of $30,000 and restricted to women artists.
The artist lives not by bread alone, the huge boost through publicity is generally worth more than the monetary gain. One could say that one Archibald is worth at least three Doug Morans.
That said, can anyone remember who won the 2017 Archibald?
The correct answer is Mitch Cairns, who has hardly become a household name. I suspect that this year’s winner, Yvette Coppersmith, may also sink without a trace and her homage to George Lambert only serves to highlight the talent of Lambert as Cairns fades into insignificance in the company of Henri Matisse.
Looking back at the winners of the Archibald from the past ten years, the ones that still shine, or at least twinkle, in the Australian art galaxy – Del Kathryn Barton, Ben Quilty, Tim Storrier and Louise Hearman – all had established reputations before they received their boost from the Archibald. Most of the other winners were not transformed into stars by their fifteen minutes of Archibald fame.
This year’s Archibald is about as poor in quality as the shows over the past few years, where gimmicks, technical incompetence masquerading as innovation and dull academic dross, easily outnumber moving transcriptions of the human face in all of its magnificent manifestations.
The handful of paintings that left an impression on me and, that I can still recall a month later, include works by Nicholas Harding, Graeme Drendel, Euan Macleod, Vincent Namatjira, Salvatore Zofrea and the quirky triple study by Prudence Flint.
However, as I have said, this is not an exhibition about art and it is wrong for me to condemn some of the exhibitors for simply painting pastiches of other artists’ work or lacking the necessary skills in perspective, anatomy, colour theory or the simple application of paint – or the ability to think outside of slogans and simple one-liners.
Like the Melbourne Cup, the Archibald will continue year after year as long as there is money to be made from it and the crowds keep on rolling up.
MoMA at NGV
Over the past few years, the National Gallery of Victoria seems to have broken all records. Its Triennial exhibition attracted 1,231,742 visitors, while the announcement of NGV Contemporary structure, with $150 million already pledged in the state government budget and a completion date of 2025, makes the much debated Sydney Modern at the Art Gallery of New South Wales appear like a sideshow. Now the new exhibition from New York’s Museum of Modern Art is about to set a new record.
The 15th Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art, is the gallery’s biggest, grandest and, almost guaranteed to be, most popular event in this series.
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Joseph Roulin 1889, oil on canvas 64.4 x 55.2 cm The Museum of Modern Art, New York Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Rosenberg, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Mr. and Mrs. Armand P. Bartos, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, Mr. and Mrs. Werner E. Josten, and Loula D. Lasker Bequest (all by exchange), 1989 Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018
It is an exhibition where not only all of the big names are present – Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Lyubov’ Popova, Piet Mondrian, Salvador Dalí, Frida Kahlo, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Cindy Sherman – but they are represented by some of their best-known signature pieces.
Arranged in eight roughly chronological-thematic sections, at least the first five can be negotiated without bothering with the labels as these are some of the most iconic works that are known to most people with an interest in the visual arts.
MoMA in New York, which turns ninety next year, has established a position of dominance in its construct of Modernism in the western art world, so that many people in Australia view modern art through the MoMA historical prism.
This was largely a creation of Alfred Hamilton Barr Jr. (1902-1981), the inaugural director of the museum. Barr was appointed director in 1929, dumped in 1943, but allowed to stay on in an advisory capacity until 1967. Barr developed a holistic view of visual culture, where industrial design, architecture, photography, film and advertising combined with the traditional fine arts of painting, sculpture and graphics.
Barr’s vision involved the establishment of six different curatorial departments at MoMA: Painting and Sculpture, Drawings, Prints and Illustrated Books, Film, Photography, and Architecture and Design. This was innovative at the time, but subsequently it has become the dead hand of history with Media and Performance Art more recently slipped into the curatorial mix.
MoMA is constantly involved in the process of reinventing itself, but guided by Barr’s vision. Also, MoMA exercises a certain hegemony in many international museum art circles and whereas the founders of modernism have been enshrined in an art historical tradition, the choice of some of the more contemporary practitioners, as reflected in the final room of this exhibition, seems more arbitrary and questionable. Nevertheless, the authority of MoMA gives this selection a voice of authority so that artists included in their exhibitions seamlessly slip into the canon.
In some ways Barr and MoMA developed a determinist model for modern art with flow charts and somewhat simplistic ideas of cause and effect. Barr championed the ‘old masters’ of modern art – Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Léger – but was reluctant to embrace the New York School and Abstract Expressionism.
MoMA commenced purchasing Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell and Hofmann only in the post-war period and not a single Mark Rothko was acquired on Barr’s watch. This notwithstanding, Barr’s name is uttered with holy reverence at MoMA, something that was most apparent at the exhibition’s launch in Melbourne.
Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA since 1995, acknowledges the founding father with respect but has aggressively steered the museum in more contemporary directions. It is due to the expansionist policies of Lowry that a window of opportunity has slit open and some of the museum’s permanent exhibits have come to Melbourne. I was surprised to learn from him that some of the items were secured for loan through the direct intervention of Victoria’s art-loving premier, Daniel Andrews.
As you enter the exhibition in Melbourne, you encounter four major paintings: Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Joseph Roulin 1889,
Paul Gauguin’s The Moon and the Earth 1893, Paul Cézanne’s Still life with apples 1895–98 and Georges Seurat’s Evening, Honfleur 1886. These four artists, I understand, were also included in Barr’s inaugural exhibition at MoMA.
As the show continues, it opens up as a tour de force exhibition, where Dalí’s most famous painting, The persistence of memory 1931, stops any viewer in their tracks, reminding them how tiny and compressed was the artist’s idea on the shape of time.
Juxtaposed with these icons of modernist painting are an aluminium Outboard propeller c.1925 manufactured by the Aluminum (sic) Company of America, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a steel ring of the Self-aligning ball bearing 1907 by the Swedish engineer Sven Wingquist, and a Railroad car spring 1920s made by the American Steel & Wire Co., Worcester, Massachusetts.
This rich fabric of connections between everyday architecture and design, which punctuates common life, and rarefied objects deemed as fine arts, is the theme that runs throughout the exhibition.
Chronologically it runs from the 1880s through to the present, spread amongst its eight sections: Arcadia and Metropolis, The machinery of the Modern World, A new Unity, Inner and outer worlds, Art as Action, Things as they are, Immense encyclopaedia and Flight Patterns.
While there are over 200 items on display, occupying the entire ground floor of the National Gallery of Victoria, and the exhibition boasts an international perspective, it is essentially a northern hemisphere construct of modern and contemporary art. The only Australian artist involved, as far as I could determine, is Martin Sharp and his design for a Cream record cover derived from Robert Whitaker’s photographs.
This is a landmark exhibition – rich, dazzling and profoundly visually exciting – that also plants a dissenting seed in my mind as to what a construct of modern and contemporary art would look like from the antipodes.
Exhibition ephemera in Australian art
The fastest growing and most ill-disciplined part of my art library is something that I euphemistically term Australian ‘exhibition ephemera’. This includes invites to exhibitions, exhibition media releases, price lists and an increasing number of glossy exhibition catalogues of ever-growing proportions.
The National Gallery of Victoria’s The Field Revisited exhibition in 2018, with the facsimile republication of the original The Field catalogue of 1968, reminded me how unconventional the show was in 1968.
The whole presentation of the exhibition on aluminium sheeting, perhaps not so successfully captured in the resuscitation, (whereas in 1968 the works seemed to leap out off the wall, in 2018 they seem to float on a rippling sea of silver), was unprecedented in Australian art. The lavish catalogue, funded largely with American money, also set a new benchmark for public gallery catalogues in this country.
In the only serious study, that I am aware of, focussing on exhibition catalogues published by public institutions in this country, an excellent thesis by Dr Jim Berryman, The Field catalogue is taken as a starting point in Australia of the transformation of the catalogue from the humble documentation of an exhibition to an autonomous scholarly publication or a flashy piece of merchandising.
Today, the National Gallery of Victoria is the largest (by number of titles) art publisher in the Southern Hemisphere and catalogues published by most of the state, national and regional galleries have become weighty and voluminous publications.
Public galleries and museums may feel the need to produce substantial publications and, not infrequently, these are the most authoritative collections of recent scholarship on the subject extant. The same cannot be said of the majority of publications coming from the commercial sector.
Sadly, the need to produce a catalogue, with many commercial ventures, has become a process of legitimation, so that a gallery or an artist feels that they require a published catalogue to justify their exhibition.
The perceived wisdom is that the bigger and glossier the publication, the more important is their exhibition.
Several years ago, I embarked on an impossible project, reasoning that the more impossible the project, the more necessary it was to attempt it. The project was to write an account of contemporary art practice in Australia and part of the methodology was to acquaint myself with as much of the art activity in this country as possible and weave this into a lengthy narrative.
In my archive, exhibition ephemera has been growing roughly at the rate of one metre of shelf space per month. In my storage method, I had isolated about 600 artists or art collectives who are of particular interest to me and who receive their own folder or archival box for storage of their ephemera plus an electronic folder, while the rest are filed alphabetically. This in turn is cross-referenced with books and other publications.
The avalanche of glossy catalogues devoted to very minor and completely forgettable art practitioners in the past couple of years has become a serious storage problem.
Comparing notes with friends and colleagues working professionally in the arts, I have to report that most of them, despite the archiving instincts of our species, confess to systematically placing virtually all of the commercial catalogues arriving in the mail into the paper recycling bins.
I think that it is only the National Gallery in Canberra that still attempts to run the ‘grey box’ ephemera archive for all of Australian art, originally established by the far-sighted inaugural director, James Mollison.
In the private sector, the maverick art book and ephemera collector Ray Coffey has set up an Australian Art Ephemera Library, which was publicly launched by Kevin Rudd earlier this year. Coffey stores his archive in adjoining houses in Brisbane that he has acquired for this purpose and he systematically scans and digitises his holdings.
I must confess that I am an object person who loves paper and despite spending two-thirds of my life in front of the computer, I have an overwhelming preference for a tactile book, rather than the lifeless screen of any of the mechanical reading contraptions.
This is especially true of publications on art where, if well designed, the ‘voice’ of the images combines with the qualities of the paper and the weight of the type to create a holistic experience.
Reading something online is more than adequate if the only purpose is information, that is, if you are reading only for content. The physical publication is necessary if you wish to experience the subject that you are reading about.
In exhibition ephemera publications, we have reached something of a watershed moment. The mass of hardcopy publications has become unsustainable – economically, environmentally and conceptually.
If a decade ago, such publications were linked with a ‘wow’ moment and people paused in their steps to examine them and stored them on coffee tables and bookshelves, today they frequently attract little more than a passing glance before they graduate to the recycling bin.
I would argue that electronic invites and e-catalogues today have a longer life expectancy than physical publications and are more likely to be stored digitally than their physical counterparts.
As we are now transitioning away from commercial art galleries staging solo exhibitions as the primary mechanism for marketing art in Australia, perhaps the time has arrived to more completely embrace digital technologies for the promotion of art and artists.
Perhaps printed catalogues, especially in the private sector, should be increasingly reserved for publications that are in themselves conceived as works of art and not simply vehicles for disseminating commercial content about art and artists.
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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