Who owns Hagia Sophia in Istanbul?
The church of Hagia Sophia is one of the most incredible buildings of all time, of any civilisation. Sophia means wisdom in Greek, so its dedication is to God as Holy Wisdom. In Byzantine times Hagia Sophia was the Cathedral of Constantinople. With the Turkish occupation in 1453 it was converted into a mosque and in 1935, under the guidance of the ‘father of modern Turkey’, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it was turned into a secular museum and became the chief tourist attraction in Istanbul. A few weeks ago, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is losing his grip on power, converted it into a mosque with the first Muslim ceremonies held there this week.
To the Middle Ages, both in the East and the West, Hagia Sophia was the greatest building ever made. The French cleric, Abbot Suger of the Royal Abbey of St Denis in Paris wrote in his little book on his administration De Administratione in 1144 – “from very many truthful men, we had heard wonderful and almost incredible reports about the superiority of Hagia Sophia over any other building”. Abbot Suger in his own lifetime set out to match the beauty of Hagia Sophia in the rebuilding of his own church, that of St Denis in Paris, and in the process created a new style of architecture which we now call Gothic.
The legend of the Great Church was certainly not restricted to Suger and if we glance at the popular Old French Crusading literature, such as the amazing Pilgrimage of Charlemagne (Le Pelerinage de Charlemagne) of the mid-12th century – the great church appears as made of pure gold, studded with jewels, while its pulpit is a circular disk radiating with light.
For the medieval west Hagia Sophia was an object of envy – the greatest monument of the true and legitimate empire which they sought to emulate. For the medieval East, for the pagan Slavs it was the principle reason for their conversion to Christianity according to their earliest surviving literary source, the Primary Chronicle. Here it is narrated how the envoys of Prince Vladimir visited Constantinople and in 987 reported to their prince: “We did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty and we are at a loss of how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there amongst men and that their ceremonies are fairer than those of other nations.” Legend has it that the Slavs on hearing this report on the beauty of Hagia Sophia decided that this indeed was the true faith and accepted Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium.
When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, Hagia Sophia was the single most significant architectural monument on which they modelled most of their own subsequent domed mosque architecture. The great architect of Islam, Sinan, set himself the conscious goal to match in his mosques the splendour of the Great Church. In Canberra, the Australian War Memorial was conceived as a scaled model of Hagia Sophia.
This biggest, and according to many, the greatest church of Christendom, was built in a breathtakingly short period of five years, 532-37, by Emperor Justinian’s architects - Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletus. Contemporaries speak of it as a gigantic fabric of vision with the dome appearing as if not supported from the ground, but as if suspended by a golden chain from heaven.
With an overall width of some 70 metres it is a breathtakingly bold building. To put it very simply, the architects took the basic basilica for the plan and placed on top of it a huge dome. But rather than trying to support the dome on pillars or columns, which would be close to impossible on such a scale, at the east and west ends they built two half domes as if falling into the centre, but prevented from doing so by supporting the huge weight of the central dome itself. Built in earthquake prone Constantinople, there was a partial collapse of the dome and repairs in 558, but for the next one and a half thousand years it has remained intact - over 55 metres above the floor with diameter of the dome some 33m.
If we still find the interior of Hagia Sophia overwhelming today even after the experience of skyscrapers and the megalomania of postmodern architecture, it is difficult to imagine its impact in 537 when it was first unveiled. Procopius, Emperor Justinian’s chronicler, noted "It seems not to be founded on solid masonry, but to be suspended by that golden chain and so cover the space. All of these elements, marvellously fitted together in mid-air, suspended from one another and reposing only on the parts adjacent to them, produce a unified and most remarkable harmony in the work, and yet do not allow the spectators to rest their gaze upon any one of them for a length of time, but each detail readily draws and attracts the eye to itself. Thus the vision constantly shifts around."
Hagia Sophia was envisaged as a building with the most impressive stage of all of Christendom, to celebrate the theatrical liturgy to God. A huge five-metre high mosaic image of the Virgin and Child appeared in the apse by 867 accompanied by archangels. Other figurative mosaics are found throughout the great church. This includes a huge Deesis mosaic image made in about 1261 – an abbreviated image of the Last Judgement where the Virgin and John the Baptist come to intercede before Christ for humankind.
The Erdoğan regime is clinging on to power with its actions becoming increasingly desperate and dictatorial. Converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque and covering up the mosaics during Muslim prayers is an attempt to appease the Islamic fundamentalists. This move will fail and while the governments of Greece, Russia and the United States have condemned the move, as has Pope Francis and the United Nations, it will be up to the people of Turkey to overturn this government. For the rest of us, we will need to boycott all travel to Turkey, which has become a dangerous country to visit, even for Anzac commemorations.
Topple the monuments and burn the books
The pharaoh Akhenaten, the great tenth ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty in ancient Egypt, advanced a form of monotheism and promoted a huge revival in the arts and, on his death, his statues were smashed and his triumphs defaced by his successors.
The early Christians toppled the statues of Greek and Roman gods, and of the tyrants who enslaved them and made their fortunes from their labour. Most of the Romans whom we see in art were slave owners. In the process, the Christians destroyed the masterpieces of classical antiquity whose maimed fragments make up today's blockbuster exhibitions.
The Renaissance historian Giorgio Vasari in 1550 lamented that the early Christians, "ruined or demolished all the marvellous statues, besides the other sculptures, the pictures, mosaics and ornaments representing the false pagan gods; and as well as this it destroyed countless memorials and inscriptions left in honour of illustrious persons who had been commemorated by the genius of the ancient world in statues and other public monuments ... their tremendous zeal was responsible for inflicting severe damage on the practice of the arts, which then fell into total confusion."
A grandiose equestrian monument to the tyrant Sforza was completed in clay in 1493 (with the horse over seven metres long), but a few years later it was used for target practice by the French troops occupying Milan and thus the world lost the most significant sculpture by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. Most of the treasure house of French medieval sculpture and the original stained glass windows at the Basilique Cathédral de Saint-Denis, the Royal Abbey, was destroyed following the French Revolution of 1789.
The Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan were blown up by the Taliban in 2001, mainly as a protest that money was being offered for their restoration while there was famine in the country. After the Russian Revolution, statues of the tsars were toppled by the Bolsheviks, while after the denouncement of Stalin's personality cult by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, statues of Stalin were toppled. In the process, some of the finest Russian and Soviet monumental sculptures were destroyed.
I was annoyed on one occasion when the prominent German painter, sculptor, stage designer and art professor Jörg Immendorff said to me that they should open a Third Reich museum in Berlin. Knowing his anti-Nazi sympathies, I realised only later that what he was really saying is that you need to come to terms with your history, rather than simply negate it. In his schooling, it seemed to him that nothing happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945 and that the toppling of sculptures and the burning of books leads to a temporary amnesia. You can only confront the dark corners of history by turning a light on them - they will eventually die through exposure to the truth and it will be a lengthy process, but they cannot be obliterated through force.
The destruction of the Edward Colston statue (1895) in the centre of Bristol on June 7, 2020, I suspect, is hardly a cause for celebration. As not known by many outside art circles, the sculpture was a major artwork by the Irish working class artist, John Cassidy, who I think may have been assisted on this commission by Mr J. Ashton Floyd. Cassidy, who spent most of his life in Manchester, in his monumental sculpture celebrated the merchant philanthropist who endowed schools, alms houses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Colston was a merchant trader, and in 1680 became a member - and between 1689-90 - a Deputy Governor, of the Royal African Company that traded slaves to the Caribbean and the Americas.
The company had been established by King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York (later King James II) with many notable investors, including the philosopher John Locke and the diarist Samuel Pepys. Colston left the company in 1692, but unlike Locke, never renounced slavery and continued as a Tory Member of Parliament. It is unclear how much money he made from the slave trade, most of his wealth came from his other merchant activities, but what he and much of his society did was reprehensible and needs to be condemned. However, the toppling of his sculpture has already caused a backlash from some in British society with statues of Black cultural figures in Britain defaced or toppled.
Should major artworks of bad people be destroyed? The 'Topple the racists' group in the United Kingdom has produced a map of UK statues and monuments "that celebrate slavery and racism" and that need to be toppled. These include Horatio Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square (a hero, but nevertheless a supporter of slavery), Cecil Rhodes, Henry Dundas, Robert Clive, Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Captain James Cook and Lachlan Macquarie. Winston Churchill, as a racist, has been added to the list and his monuments have been defaced and are now being protected by police. Statues of King Leopold II in Belgium have been attacked, as has Christopher Columbus in America, together with any number of Confederate statues scattered throughout the country.
In Australia, with this reasoning in mind, anything connected with Captain Cook, Lachlan Macquarie and much of the cream of colonial society should be targeted, their statues toppled, their books burnt, and places, streets and suburbs named after them, renamed. The monuments along Anzac Parade in Canberra could also be targeted as well as any memorial that mentions the Boer War. From more recent history, Jo Bjelke-Petersen and Robert Menzies surely are also ripe for the chop.
This historical revisionism may be good for the heart and produces a warm inner glow that comes with the settling of old scores, but will only stir the possum of racism in society and, along the way, destroy a good deal of nationally significant art. Also, as history has shown us time and time again, tides do change and when the other mob sweeps into power, they will topple the statues and burn the books of earlier liberators.
It is painful and unpopular to speak of tolerance, particularly if you come from a population that is being murdered, vilified and excluded and when you have a knee placed on your throat that is choking you to death, but sometimes history has to be confronted, highlighted and condemned rather than toppled, disguised and santitised. Make more monuments, make more art to drown out the voices of our dark histories. White Australia does have a Black history, we should celebrate this Black history rather than try to sanitise colonial history.
The Russianness of Russian art
I have never been a great admirer of national theories of art. Arguments that Italian art is characterised by a sense of classical grace, French art through an innate ‘stylishness’, while German art through a Teutonic harshness and emotionalism seem to have as many exceptions as examples that create the stereotype. Nikolaus Pevsner’s brilliant Reith Lectures titled ‘The Englishness of English Art’ took a slightly different perspective, isolating qualities that he thought were peculiarly English, and through them he ventured to explore the English national character.
About a month ago I embarked on a little art adventure to explore the art of the Russian diaspora in Australia. Collaborating with the main Russian language newspaper in Australia, Unification, through its energetic editor Vladimir Kouzmin, I invited Russian artists in Australia to submit up to three artworks each for potential selection in an online exhibition. From the submissions by April 25 I had selected 27 artists, while by May 25, we had 50 artists in our exhibition represented by about 120 works. I had known only about two or three of these artists personally and so had little idea of what to expect.
What surprised me was not so much the quality, although some of it is very, very good, but a somewhat unified sensibility. The 50 artists, from all the Australian states – with the largest clusters from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane – all identified with Russian culture. Many of the artists were trained in Russia in some of the most prestigious art schools including the Surikov Institute and the State Stroganov Academy, both in Moscow, and at the Russian Repin Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. Others in very respected regional art schools. Some completed their training in Australia, a few were fully trained in Australia and a few are self-taught.
What struck me and a number of my art friends who looked through the recent selection of artwork is that it all seemed to be characterised by a Russianness – less in terms of imagery and more in terms of a sensibility. It is an often observed feature that migrants in the diaspora frequently long with a sense of nostalgia for their home country. In Russian there is an untranslatable word “Тоска” that is sometimes rendered inadequately in English as “yearning”. The genius Vladimir Nabokov when confronted with this dilemma translated it as “hyp’” with an explanatory note that it was like “hypochondria, but without the chondria”. Much of the work in this exhibition is characterised by this sense of “Тоска” a yearning for something mystical and profound.
While a small number of the artists do ‘brand’ their images with a cupola topped church, most of those who employ Russian imagery generally do this in a more subtle and effective manner. Yulia Pustoshkina has developed what she has termed ‘folkloric surrealism’, a creative grafting of the Russian traditions of folkloric imagery of Ivan Bilibin and the miniaturist manner of Palekh and Fedoskino mythic illustrators with her own quirky imagination. There is a slightly whimsical wit in her art and a delightful sense of revelation in the mesmerising degree of detail. Vera Yavits is another artist obsessed with fantasy and her own personal enchanted vision. The brilliant and versatile Yelena Revis, originally from Omsk and now based in Sydney, creates her own brand of energetic modernism.
It is more problematic to speak of a Russianness with artists working in a non-figurative manner. The Sydney-based artist working under the name Robertz in her rich acrylic abstractions allows us to become enveloped by layered seas of colour – pulsating in their intensity.
The Melbourne-based artist Irene Grishin Selzer has devised an unusual technique in her ‘clay paintings’ where she blends different soils, glazes and oxides to create a fired panel of considerable size where there is a layering of marks like some indecipherable script that becomes a completely absorbing experience. The painting, although physically made of the materials of this place, is like an exquisite microcosm with a palpable feeling of a yearning for a different plain of existence.
Vladimir Rachko is a very accomplished artist from Moscow (now based in Melbourne) who creates elaborate, cerebral paintings drawing on the history of the Russian avant-garde referencing the greats like Kandinsky, Malevich and Filonov in a witty and erudite manner. His artist wife, Elena Rachko creates exquisite and refined still life compositions.
Natasha Daniloff, an artist with a considerable Australian reputation, imbues everyday objects with a sense of nostalgia and profound charm. As with the work of Elena Rachko, Daniloff’s work may contain nothing in it that is demonstratively Russian, yet it reflects a whole range of cultural associations that are distinctly of Russia.
Vera Sell-Ryazanoff is a mystical Russian artist with a very impressive training from Moscow. In the many years that she spent in Australia (presently she resides in Berlin) she perfected a technique of painting with sand that seems to create dissolving auras of light illuminating angelic beings.
It is difficult when addressing an exhibition of the work of 50 artists not to write in the form of an annotated catalogue, so I will pause rather than mention a score or so of other very interesting artists. Much of the art in this exhibition is of a profoundly contemplative nature; it references things, concepts, ideas and literary associations that lie beyond the artwork itself. The cultural associations draw on a great literary tradition – from Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to Gumilev, Mandelstam and Akhmatova – and breathe of the spirit of Russia.
None of the work at this exhibition could be described as ‘nationalistic’, in the sense of championing one country as being superior to all others, but much of the work has a national identity – sometimes a spiritual yearning, a daydream, nostalgia and the search for another, deeper dimension beyond that which exists on the surface of things.
The exhibition will continue to consider further entries until June 15, 2020 and subsequently will remain as an online exhibition.
The online experience of art
Objectless art has been around for a while with its roots in Fluxus, conceptual art and post-performance art.
Glitch art, GIFs and web collage have been omnipresent and have permeated many aspects of cultural life as well as commercial advertising. Journals including NOOART (Journal of Objectless Art) reflect a sophisticated discourse that has arisen around objectless art. Objectless prints and posters – in other words prints entirely conceived on a computer screen and designed to be viewed on computer screens anywhere in the world – appeared freakish a few decades ago and are now marketed as downloadable prints internationally.
In contrast to art that was conceived from the outset to exist as a digital code and to never seek refuge through objectivity, there is a growing fashion for objectless art that is basically a surrogate for something that exists as a physical object. Museums around the world have for at least a couple of decades offered virtual tours to their exhibitions – usually in the form of a slick promo to encourage you to go and see the real thing.
COVID-19 has changed all of that and the ‘real thing’ has become inaccessible, possibly permanently inaccessible, and all that we are left with is the virtual tour. On March 12, 2020 the Tate opened its much-anticipated Andy Warhol exhibition that was scheduled to run until September 6, 2020. Five days after it opened, the Tate closed its doors indefinitely and the potential audience was treated to a rather lame curators’ virtual tour of the exhibition that only highlighted the tragedy of missing what appears to be a great show.
As far as recent virtual tours go, my favourite is from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in Russia that runs for a cool 5 hours and 19 minutes and takes in 45 of the museum’s galleries with a focus on 588 works interspersed with live performances. With echoes of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), the Hermitage virtual experience is also one continuous take. What I like about it is that it is an artwork in its own right, rather than a clinical documentation of something that is now inaccessible to us.
As public and commercial art galleries are generally closed to the public (although occasionally some of the commercial art galleries are accessible by appointment) most of the art has gone online. If art is thought of as a commodity, then there is no reason why collectors should not buy art online in very much the same way as they may acquire an expensive piece of furniture or fashion garment. If, on arrival, the garment fails to live up to expectations, it can easily be slipped back into its box and returned for a full refund. Likewise, if the purchased artwork when displayed in its new setting fails to please its new prospective owner, it can normally be sent back for a refund.
I must confess that I am a highly addicted art user and I need my regular fix of seeing art in the flesh – with its tactile surfaces, scale and even sense of smell – and do my frequent commercial art gallery crawls on a look out for artists whose work I have never seen before and whose names are unfamiliar to me. Art that I see on my computer screen, or even worse on the small screen of my phone, does little for me unless I already know the artist well and have a good idea of what her work usually looks like in the flesh. The digitised image is of course better than nothing, but it is a bit like a shadow of the real thing.
The lockdown of our galleries does in a curious way throw open possibilities. For many years I have been interested in the work of contemporary Russian artists working in Australia. Over the years I have encountered a handful of such artists and found the work interesting, intriguing and ultimately fascinating. There have been exhibitions of the work of Russian artists scattered throughout Australia, but what I thought would be a good idea would be to hold
Logistics of hiring a venue and having the appropriate lighting and security (not to mention the politics of accepting and rejecting work) as well as the considerable expense to the artists as well as the organisers made such a venture not viable. With the coronavirus locking us down, the opportunity arose for a national exhibition that could be held online. Vladimir Kouzmin, the editor of the Russian language newspaper in Australia ‘Unification’ that is celebrating its 70th anniversary, much to my surprise, agreed to give realisation to my proposal. Assisted by the talented web designer Leonid Tsvetkov who within a couple of weeks had devised a simple, attractive and user friendly webpage on the newspaper’s website and after a couple of weeks of word-of-mouth advertising on Russian language social media sites from a greater pool of potential candidates, I selected 27 artists and about 70 works for the first instalment of our exhibition.
On April 25, 2020 it went live with texts available in Russian and English. My intention is to add to the website as new artists apply for consideration for the exhibition with a target of about 40 artists by mid-May and 60 or so artists by June 15, which will be the cut-off date for the online show. While as curator I adopted a broad-church approach to show including a broad range and diversity in mediums, styles and conceptual approaches, I did enforce a professional standard in the selection that rejected work that technically was unresolved or bordered on photographically derived commercial illustration.
The results are fascinating with the names of most artists unfamiliar to me. There are a number of very strong artists, primarily women, who are worthy of greater national exposure. Perhaps when this virus thing blows over, there may be a chance to stage a smaller and more selective exhibition where the work can be presented to the public in the flesh. For the time being, this virtual adventure unfolds and, at least for the curator, this is a particularly exciting experience.
From Ovid to COVID
Ovid’s Metamorphoses, penned at the beginning of the first century AD, is a Roman poet’s epic account of the loves of the gods from the creation of the world to the reign of Julius Caesar. This ‘best seller’ from Roman antiquity is one of the most influential works in Western culture with a profound impact on literature and the visual arts.
One recurring theme in Ovid is divine vengeance where aggrieved gods will turn on their adversaries to smite them with an arsenal of horrors, including plagues. At one stage the Roman poet exclaims:
“All remedies we try, all medicines use,
Which Nature could supply, or art produce;
The unconquered foe derides the vain design,
And art, and Nature foiled, declare the cause divine.”
Ovid’s famous account of a plague on Aegina (Met. 7.523-613) is a tale of Juno, enraged that the island was named after her rival, sending a plague to wipe out the population – that commenced as a “young disease with milder force” that grew “to a larger size” and “Infected all the air, and poisoned as it flew”.
Throughout the ages people have seen pestilence as an act of divine wrath. Recently I came across an interesting Galaktotrophousa icon – literally a milk-giving icon. It has an inscription: “Star of Heaven, please save us from the epidemic. Please answer our prayers, because your Son hears you and he will not hold back anything from us. Our Lord Jesus, set us free from death, because your pure Virgin Mother hears our prayers, and for the sake of your Mother help us. For our sake, you pure Virgin, the hand of Jesus, you are the saint and the Mother of God”.
Outside a few pockets of fundamentalists (of various persuasions) plus the flat earth advocates and climate change deniers, few see in COVID-19 divine retribution. This may be an unnecessarily hasty conclusion to draw and this coronavirus may well be explained as a direct global response to climate change. The planet is striking back, at least according to Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the interim director of Harvard University's Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. He observed, “We've had a few shots over the bow here – SARS, MERS, COVID, Ebola. We need to hear what nature is trying to tell us, which is clear: let's be smarter about how we do business with the biosphere and stop disrupting the climate we depend on.”
The devastation caused by this virus with the tragic loss of life has caused a significant pause in global warming, a radical reduction in greenhouse emissions and the regeneration of habitats. Dolphins may not be swimming in the Venice canals (they are actually in Cagliari’s port, in Sardinia), but the water in the canals has become clearer and you can see fish and there are ducks in the fountains in Rome.
It goes without saying that when the economy sneezes, the arts get a cold. Now the economy is gravely ill and the arts have hit a brick wall. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art faces a US$100 million loss from the Covid-19 pandemic, despite its pre-coronavirus endowment of US$3.6 billion. In the US it is estimated that 30% of the country’s museums will fail without considerable assistance.
The recently released nearly 400-page The Art Market 2020 paints a gloomy picture of the global art market. The global art market sales in 2019 were about US$64.1 billion, down about 5% on 2018. The challenges of Brexit, the turmoil in Hong Kong and the economic uncertainties in Europe and America all took their toll.
In 2020 the international art market is collapsing. Most of the international art fairs (that constitute almost 40% of the global art sales) have either been postponed, scaled back or cancelled. The Melbourne Art Fair has been rescheduled from June this year to February 2021. Most of the commercial art galleries, nationally and internationally, have closed their doors to walk-in traffic and have had their openings banned (during which most of the sales occur) in this period of social distancing. They have continued to open by appointment only or as an online presence. Art auctions continue to limp along, but much of the public spectacle has gone with the heavy reliance on on-line bidding. Also the general economic downturn and the mood of apocalyptic uncertainty have taken the wind out of their sales.
The German Culture Minister, Monika Grütters, has promised government financial help to cultural institutions and artists affected by the coronavirus. Other countries in Europe and certain state governments in America have followed in their footsteps. We all know that more Australians annually visit cultural institutions than sporting fixtures, but at a government level we seem to be more fixated with the latter. There has been little or no relief for individual artists in Australia as few qualify as small businesses employing staff or can claim to have been made redundant by their loss-making studio.
Go online and go digital is hardly a saviour. Most who can and should have done this years ago, but for many this is not feasible. Many, if not the majority, of visual artists in Australia live below the poverty line. Many survive on casual jobs, a bit of waitressing in a café down the road, occasional shifts in a bar or at a public art space and sales from exhibitions in public and commercial art galleries. What happens if all of these sources suddenly dry up – all at the same time? The situation becomes dire, with basic necessities of life still needing to be met – rent, food, utilities and frequently studio hire.
As a matter of urgency, we need immediate rent relief for all artists, a mortgage moratorium and a subsidy for loss of income. Cultural institutions and artists, as a priority, need immediate government assistance. Libraries, museums, performing arts and music sectors, according to satellite national accounts data from the federal Department of Communications, are worth collectively around A$8.1 billion in economic output in 2020. If you add the commercial visual arts sector, the number will be considerably higher. Without federal government financial support, many in the arts sector will fail permanently at a great loss to Australian cultural life and to the economy.
Some artists, such as the unique Chips Mackinolty have made some brilliant COVID art; globally many have simply applied facemasks to some of the most famous artworks, from the Venus de Milo, to the Mona Lisa and Lucian Freud nudes.
Erwin Fabian: one of Australia's leading artists dies as 104
When Erwin Fabian died on 19th January 2020, there was a sense of disbelief. In part it was because he had always been there - as long as anyone could remember- he was 104 years-old after all. Also, in part, with him died some of Australia's cultural heritage - a Dunera boy, he was a survivor of the holocaust and he was one of Australia's most respected sculptors and graphic artists.
In a weird coincidence, his neighbour in Arden Street in North Melbourne, across the road from where Fabian had his studio, James Mollison, Australia's most distinguished gallery director, died the same day. He was 88.
Erwin Fabian was an extraordinary man and artist in every conceivable sense. He did not suffer fools gladly and when journalists approached him for a comment he would send them packing despite the despair felt by his gallerists who knew and treasured publicity as a strategy to promote their artist's work, However, when intelligent and well prepared commentators, such as Jana Wendt, sought him out, his door was always open and he was both receptive and hospitable.
I was fortunate that at our first meeting several decades ago we 'clicked', a friendship was born and Fabian was determined that someone should know his story, see and understand his work and a long series of taped interviews took place over a number of years. He was impatient not to be distracted too much from his art making, as he used to say, he was "delayed in starting", and once he was confident that his story was in my hands, the publication could wait until he died. Now that he has passed over, the monograph is being written and will be published in 2021.
What was so remarkable about Fabian's art that it warrants all of this attention Why is he represented in all of the major public art collections in Australia, in his native Berlin as well as the British Museum in London and many other collections around the world.
Erwin Fabian was born in Berlin in 1915, the son of the distinguished expressionist painter Max Fabian. By the time he was ten, he had lost his father, by the time he was twenty-two, he had lost his homeland, and by the time he was twenty-five he had lost his freedom. At the age of twenty-five, he had been reclassified by the British authorities from being a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany to an undesirable enemy alien to be deported to Australia for internment in internal prison camps in remote locations of Hay, Orange and Tatura.
He was deported on the infamous Dunera, which brought many German and Austrian Jewish cultural refugees fleeing the Nazis in Europe. They were sent to Australia to be interned, but ultimately, collectively, they were to do more for the creation of Australia as a clever country, than decades of federal government policies and funded programs.
As a sculptor, Fabian worked almost exclusively with scrap metal, very occasionally with glass and wood, materials that were allowed to sit, frequently for years, waiting to mature like ripening fruit, on the concrete floor of his studio. Then the alchemy commenced as shapes were arranged and rearranged until they seemed to belong. This was an ineffable quality of belongingness that is the key to his art making, a process that stretched over a number of years or sometimes found an almost instant resolution. I feel that the essence of Fabian's creative process is the creation of a new natural order, where all of the elements appear as if they belong, as if they have been found this way in nature without actually resembling any specific form found in nature.
Fabian had that rare ability of creating a new and convincing reality through which the viewer can be seduced and captivated. His sculptures, in the final analysis, belong to the grand tradition of humanist sculpture - in other words, they interact with us on a human and emotive level - we come to believe in their existence not only as aesthetic objects, but as metaphors for the human spirit,
The other major aspect of Fabian's oeuvre were the monotypes that he started to make while he was in prison camps in Australia. In his unusual technique, Fabian covered a hard surface, like a pane of glass, with ink, then placed a sheet of paper on top of this and drew on this, on the back of the paper, creating a sort of traced image in reverse - a unique impression with a rich play of different textures and lines, where masses suggest faces, figures and forms without even a hint of literalness of representation. As with much of his work it is immediately memorable and visually exciting.
Fabian was initially recognised as a printmaker when the National Gallery of Victoria acquired a figurative monotype under Daryl Lindsay on the recommendation of Dr Ursula Hoff. Subsequently, purchases were made by the British Museum in London, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and by many other institutions.
In the final analysis, Erwin Fabian's art is a celebration of visual intelligence. He was a major and significant artist, one of the venerated and respected elders of our tribe.
James Mollison – a legacy
James Mollison – Australia’s premier art director, charismatic visionary and my friend, died 19 January 2020. He was 88 years old.
Who was James Mollison – a gay lad from Wonthaggi in South Gippsland in Victoria, who trained as a schoolteacher and as the arts teacher at Melbourne High inspired the young Les Kossatz to become an artist. He subsequently became an education officer at the National Gallery of Victoria, briefly was the director of Melbourne’s Gallery A commercial art gallery and in 1967 was the director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, then known as the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.
At the age of 38, in 1969, he came to Canberra where he stayed for 20 years and from obscurity rose to become a household name in the Australian art world and well known in the community more broadly. He initially took up the position of the executive officer for the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board and as the exhibitions officer in the Commonwealth Prime Minister's Department.
Two years later, his position had morphed into that of the acting director of the fledgling Australian National Gallery and by 1977 Mollison was appointed as the director of the gallery, a post that he retained until 1989, when he returned to his beloved Melbourne. From 1990 to 1995 he served as the director of the National Gallery of Victoria.
In 1977, when Mollison was appointed as gallery director, I was tasked with establishing the academic discipline of art history at the Australian National University. What appealed to me was to work, where possible, directly from the art object (rather than from reproductions) and the fledgling national gallery seem to present an ideal opportunity. The only fly in the ointment was that the gallery was not yet built and was not to open to the public for another five years. When I discussed this with the director, he was unfazed and simply told me to bring my students to the warehouse in the slightly seedy Canberra suburb of Fyshwick where the collection was housed. So commenced a relationship that continued for many decades.
As well as heading the art history discipline at the university, I was also the art critic for The Canberra Times, a curator and several other things. I collaborated with Mollison on many projects and got to know him quite well professionally and socially. He was a passionate workaholic, encyclopaedic in his art interests, he had a wonderful eye and an unquenchable enthusiasm.
Although he was best remembered for several spectacular purchases, such as Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles (1952) and Willem de Kooning’s Woman V (1952-53), when he worked with our visionary Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, these were minor skirmishes with philistine politicians and their friends in the gutter media of the day. The attacks drew blood, Whitlam lost the election and two major potential acquisitions, Georges Braque’s Nu Debut (1907) and a fourth century BC life-size bronze, possibly by Lyssipos, were forfeited. Mollison’s acquisitions stood the test of time and have increased in value some 300 fold.
Mollison did manage scores of major acquisitions, including Kazimir Malevich’s House under construction (c1915-16), Claude Monet’s Grainstacks, midday (1890), Constantin Brancusi’s Birds in space (1931-36) and Amedeo Modigliani’s Standing nude (c.1912).
I will never forget my first encounter with some of the newly acquired gems for the collection first shown in the exhibition Genesis of a Gallery held at the ANU, incidentally, directly beneath my office. Fred Williams came to my office to whisk me away for an unofficial preview before the opening. It was then that I was first introduced to the Ambum Stone, one of the most perfect sculptures that I have ever experienced. Williams and Mollison shared this opinion. The gallery collection is studded with these outstanding aesthetic objects.
Mollison, like a librarian in love with books, loved art and bought widely and bought well. By the time the gallery opened to the public in 1982, it had a collection approaching 50,000 art objects, while by 1998, this had jumped to over 90,000 art works. Not only did he secure (with love) from Sunday Reed Nolan’s Kelly series and Arthur Boyd’s huge gift to the nation, he also co-funded and acquired the Aboriginal Memorial (1987). The Ken Tyler print collection, Picasso’s Vollard suite and the huge collection of Ballets Russes costumes, stage sets, Russian graphics, constructivist and futurist art also entered the collection.
Mollison was a driven visionary, hired some of the best curators nationally and internationally (despite their idiosyncrasies and difficult personality traits) and trained a whole new generation of art professionals (many of whom were my former students). I would argue that he largely created a new breed, for Australia, of art professionals that went through the entire system.
What was the legacy of Mollison? He re-booted the Australian museum scene, helping to destroy our provincialism and to bring it out on to the international stage. Ultimately, he, more than any other individual, changed the way most Australians view art today in their public galleries and museums. We have an enormous debt to this very unusual individual and it is a strange feeling that he is no longer with us.
What should Australian publicly funded art galleries and museums show?
There are three certainties in life when it’s summertime in Australia: bushfires, the cricket and blockbuster exhibitions at the major Australian publicly funded art galleries and museums.
The shortlist for this summer includes Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Japan Supernatural at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Matisse and Picasso at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and Water at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane.
In the best blockbuster fashion, these are all exhibitions with an international focus and reliant on high-profile international loans. Of all Australian galleries, it is only the National Gallery of Victoria that belongs to the international big-time league, boasting almost 3 million visitors a year, and it is included in the top twenty most-visited art museums in the world. The runner-up is the Sydney gallery with 1.3 million people visiting its building in the Domain.
Melbourne’s dominance means that in its international blockbuster exhibitions, it can mount shows that would hold their own on any international stage, whether it be the Tate in London, the Beaubourg in Paris or the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
This is certainly true of its current Haring/Basquiat show. Having seen a number of exhibitions devoted to these artists, in the depth of its loans and the boldness of the installation, the Melbourne show is outstanding and compares well with any parallel exhibitions. In many ways, the show is defiant, provocative and the gallery does not feel obliged to hang the fig leaf to conceal any part of its agenda.
The same cannot be said of others in the current crop of exhibitions, which are undoubtedly studded with individual gems, but at best will tour to the National Gallery of Singapore. This is not a criticism, but a statement of fact – most of the state galleries simply lack the budget and the pull to compete with the adults in the room.
Setting aside the example of Melbourne, my main question is – should the state art galleries and museums be mounting exhibitions where they will always be second best or should they only mount exhibitions that will be the best in the world?
There is an imperative placed on most public art galleries to be part of cultural tourism, bring revenue into the local economy and to mount glittering shows of exotic novelties that should amuse the crowds.
I am not really sold on this idea. If taxpayers’ dollars fund these institutions, should they not be considered as educational and cultural institutions whose charter should clearly state that they should mount exhibitions that are of great national or state significance. In most instances, these would be exhibitions that could not be staged at this level of excellence anywhere else in the world. This would mean major exhibitions on all aspects of Australian art, including Indigenous art, Oceanic art, Australasian art, Pacific Rim art and some aspects of Asian art, especially that of southeast Asian art.
I already anticipate howls of disagreement – elitist, provincial and narrow-minded. The tourist sector (that is always struggling in any media release) would strongly disagree as would the revenue-hungry local government. Diplomatic and aspiring art gallery directors will in conciliatory tones say, “surely we can do both – popularist blockbusters and scholarly focused exhibitions of Australian art and art of our region”.
Sadly, in most instances it is difficult to do both – it is a case of carefully juggling limited resources (financial and curatorial), limited space and limited publicity dollars. For us to do what I would like to happen, we would require a substantial increase in funding for our public art spaces and yet we are living in a political climate where the Liberal and National Coalition federal government has abolished any ministry with the name ‘arts’ in it. What hope is there for the arts to flourish and grow in this climate?
At the same time as the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra launched its credible, beautifully presented but slightly low on substance Matisse and Picasso show, it opened a most amazing exhibition devoted to the art of Hugh Ramsay. It is a definitive exhibition that explores an extraordinary Australian artist who, despite dying at 28, achieved so much and competed with the best in the world.
The NGA needs to be applauded for this superb exhibition (with no admission charges) and the good scholarly monographic catalogue, yet I am certain that the publicity budget for this exhibition is only a fraction of that devoted to its blockbuster counterpart. Sadly, many in the art world will remain unaware of the significance of the Ramsay exhibition – or even its existence.
Likewise in Sydney, beyond the hype associated with the spooky Japanese, Quilty is the major Australian show that should warrant the focus of attention from the art community. While opinion on the merits of Ben Quilty may be divided, this is certainly a major exhibition for this very high-profile Australian artist.
There are scores of Australian artists (especially women artists) and artists from our region that are desperately in need of major serious exhibitions. Many of these are very exciting artists, considerably more interesting than their over-promoted cousins overseas, and it should be the role of our public art institutions to educate the public in their appreciation.
Yes, this may be a utopian dream that one day we may catch up with what is happening in many art galleries around the world, but dream we must, especially when the local product is frequently superior to the relatively minor trinkets imported from abroad at great cost.
The affable Guan Wei has been a fixture in the Sydney art scene for a quarter of a century. Although he belongs to the same generation of artists who fled China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, Guan Wei had come to Australia months earlier for a residency at the Tasmanian School of Art. When he popped back to China and saw what was happening, he returned to Tasmania and then gravitated to Sydney where he took up permanent residency in 1990.
With a smile one could say that he also took up ‘permanent residency’ at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) – becoming their first artist-in-residence for a year in 1992. Later, in 1999, he was the first artist to be granted a solo exhibition at the MCA and now, twenty years later, as far as I am aware, he is the first and only artist to hold two solo shows at this young and prestigious institution at Circular Quay. He was also the first, or one of the first artists commissioned to execute a giant mural for the new foyer of the MCA when it opened after its renovations with a sprawling frieze-like composition that made poignant comments on Australia's attitudes to the ’boat people’, to climate change and global pollution.
Now aged sixty-two, Guan Wei divides his time between Beijing (where since 2008 he spends much of his time in a large studio making huge paintings and sculptures) and Sydney (where he maintains a modest studio in Newtown). He produces work at a prodigious rate with over sixty solo exhibitions to his credit all around the globe and dozens of commissions.
Guan Wei has developed a hybrid mode of thinking and method of work that reflects both traditional Chinese as well as Western European visual systems. In his art, since the 1990s he has devised a peculiar blend of Surrealism with a distinctly Chinese sensibility. In Chinese art, as far as I can gauge, there is nothing quite like it, whereas his work has taken the Sydney art scene by storm and his witty visual commentaries on the antipodean lifestyle have won instant acceptance.
Storytelling, mythology and the migrant experience all interweave in his art into a light-hearted visual narrative, which frequently contains a political sting in its tail. His is predominantly a linear style, where humanoid forms are outlined against relatively flat background masses. Apart from distortions in the articulation of his figures, Guan Wei also engages with the Surrealist strategies in games with perspective and scale, for example, huge birds descend on landscape masses, which cartographically resemble continents.
The exhibition at the MCA brings together several bodies of work all in the collection of the MCA. Two-finger exercise (1989) was made in Beijing and consists of forty-eight small gouache paintings, poems and collages made from black-and-white photographs and Chinese envelopes. In the paintings, his humanoid figures have only a single eye or a gaping mouth and hold two fingers up in the air as a victory salute that he witnessed all over the city that year.
Feng Shui (2004) is a huge mural, comprising 120 individual panels, that explores the idea of harmony amongst all living beings and elements co-existing with the planet earth. The term sometimes rendered in English as ‘geomancy’ is an ancient Chinese philosophy where energy fields are brought into harmony with the environment. In a curious way, there are echoes with the small gouaches on the adjoining wall. There are nine swimming figures, ten floating white clouds, a fecundity of birds and marine life and the four winds of the four ‘corners of the world’ bring life to the ocean currents.
The artist writes concerning his thinking about the piece, “[an] ancient and traditional Chinese concept based on the interrelationships between human beings, nature, the environment and the universe at large, and how these specifically relate to the spaces we inhabit. Ancient Chinese Taoists believed that good feng shui maintained the balance between humans and nature and, additionally, that to create a harmonious living space, the construction of any building should follow the natural order of the environment. As the condition of our environment grows more critical daily and we move headlong towards the depletion – or destruction – of our natural resources, such enlightened ancient wisdom seems to take on an even greater significance for our modern lives. The guiding premise is that good feng shui can bring much happiness to our lives and the theme of this work stems from this core notion of the equilibrium between human beings, nature and the environment.”
The final piece at the exhibition is Paper War (2014-15) and again conceptually is a multitiered work. In 2003 in New York, Guan Wei made a work where he overpainted a reproduction of a Qing Dynasty long landscape scroll with figures and military symbols. Now, through video animation, the figures have been brought to life and have become more menacing and contemporary. The artist notes, “We witness war through TV, film or computer, and it is now quite ‘appealing’, like playing a video game. Although seemingly unreal, that is reality.”
Guan Wei, as always, amuses and delights his audience in China and around the world.
Guan Wei: MCA Collection
Museum of Contemporary Art, 140 George St, The Rocks, Sydney
11 October 2019 – 9 February 2020 daily 10am – 5pm (late night opening Wednesday until 9pm) No admission charges
Memorable and disturbing images of Petrina Hicks
The Sydney-based photographic artist, Petrina Hicks, has established a reputation for very deliberate, arresting images that play with the shape of time. They are sparse images, where all extraneous detail has been deleted as you are forced to witness a disturbing encounter with something that is frequently ethereal, uncanny and mercilessly uncompromising. There is a subdued eroticism in many of the photographs, but one that does not invite voyeurism or male sexual gratification.
Unlike some photographers who champion a form of illustrative academic narrative, Hicks is stingy in not providing us with too many clues – the image is the thing that matters and it is allowed to assert its own form of magic without depending on a verbal or theoretic commentary. However, in the imagery, there is a rich resonance with art historical associations, mythology and literature. Once the primacy of the image has been established, it is allowed to find echoes within a broad cultural framework, at times employing strategies from montage and surrealism.
Hicks has been working for about fifteen years with the same model – Lauren, an albino singer and performer – who does not appear to have aged over this passage of time. There is a touch of the otherworldly about Lauren – a delicate fragility where light seems to bleach detail and to erode corporeality of her body.
Hicks poses her models in unlikely juxtapositions – a girl appears to be swallowing a budgie’s head, Lauren in an awkward position is holding ten peaches (to add to the enigma we are informed that they are bruised peaches), a girl holds a large pink conch shell that seems to conceal her face in a surreal gesture. On other occasions, dogs, snakes and cats seem to drape themselves lovingly around the female figures. Apart from some unnecessary heavy-handed punning in some of the titles – Bird’s eye, Bird fingers and She wolf – the interpretation of these enigmatic images is left to the viewer.
Petrina Hicks, Bruised peaches 2018, from the Still Life Studio series 2018 ed. 2/4, pigment inkjet print, 120.0 x 120.0 cm (image) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2018, © Petrina Hicks. Courtesy of Michael Reid, Sydney; and This Is No Fantasy, Melbourne
The uncanny has been a popular hunting ground for many contemporary photomedia artists and one need only think of someone like Pat Brassington. Hicks’ photography can in part be interpreted as lying within the general spectrum of the uncanny, but it pulls in a slightly different direction. Her photography is large-scale, glossy and seductive in its presentation with more than a passing nod to commercial photography in which the artist has served an apprenticeship.
For Hicks, a game with time is one of her main strategies in creating an image. Isobel Crombie, the curator of the Petrina Hicks: Bleached Gothic exhibition that has just opened at the National Gallery of Victoria at Federation Square, observes, “Hicks’s work often seems to slow down time into one compressed moment”.
In some ways, it is also an ‘arrested’ compressed moment, where there is a projected path of transition – puberty, unfinished action or concealed vision – that has been arrested when time slows down, as in a Bill Viola sequence. But unlike in Viola, it is not allowed to find its resolution. Does the girl swallow the budgerigar? Will the snake sting her Cleopatra? Will the wolf devour the lamb? Will the girl ever grow up? The created situations are unusual, even uncanny, and we are left with an enigmatic image with very few clues provided to help us to resolve it.
Hicks’ large-scale, high-gloss pigment inkjet prints are not only striking on first encounter, but they are also memorable, more so in the flesh with the experience of scale and surface, than in reproduction. Over the years when I have seen her images in various exhibitions, I have found that they become engraved in my memory – they are the sort of images that cannot be easily ‘unremembered’. They are very deliberate and highly contrived compositions, where nothing has been left to chance and all that is not part of the central idea has been deleted from the image. Hicks works with medium-format film photography, where much of the image is resolved in the exposure rather than through later manipulation.
In the few examples of video work presented in this exhibition, Hicks seems to enjoy her game with subdued eroticism, where the sensuousness of a young girl licking a flower is frozen in time and seems to hint at a possibly sinister dimension. Have we witnessed something that is private and innocent, but can be defiled by the gaze of the outsider?
At the age of forty-seven and with over twenty solo exhibitions and over a hundred national and international group shows, Hicks cannot be considered an emerging artist, but one who has a distinguished track record. Her visual curiosity and probing intellect give this exhibition a sense of consistent visual excitement by an artist, who in this exhibition explores autobiographical truths through a cast of characters who play out her fears, phobias and thought adventures.
Petrina Hicks: Bleached Gothic, NGV Australia, Federation Square, Level 3, 27 Sep 2019 – 29 Mar 20 20, Open 10am–5pm daily, [no admission charges]
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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