National Gallery of Australia
FRANK STELLA MIKE PARR
Experiments in print
Where it began
Issue no 87 | Spring 2016 A$9.95 nga.gov.au
ISSN 1323-4552 9 771323 455204
Mike Parr: language and chaos brings together thirteen essays by Australian artists, poets, curators and critics reflecting on aspects of Mike Parrâ€™s insatiably experimental practice. Emerging from a background of conceptual art in the early 1970s, the probing nature of his word works and psychoanalytic drawings escalated into the provocative performance art for which he is now internationally recognised. Published to coincide with the major survey show â€Ś
at the NGA until 6 November
Members Acquisition Fund Ariadne is arguably Arthur Streeton’s finest allegorical painting capturing the brilliance of Australia’s coastline. I regard it as a national picture. Gerard Vaughan, NGA Director Help shape our stories by donating to the acquisition of this remarkable painting by seminal Australian Impressionist painter Arthur Streeton. Give now by contacting us on (02) 6240 6408 or via firstname.lastname@example.org Donations of $2 or more are tax deductible
Arthur Streeton Ariadne 1895, oil on wood panel
Augustus – power of a portrait Stories of power, conquests and downfall.
2 million years of human history – in one room! National Museum of Australia, Canberra nma.gov.au/100objects
OPENS 9 SEPTEMBER BOOK NOW Head of Augustus, 27–25 BCE, Sudan © Trustees of the British Museum
NGA CANBERRA Diane Arbus Ends 30 October Powerful allegories of postwar America undergoing seismic social change. Mike Parr: Foreign Looking Ends 6 November One of Australia’s most provocative and influential artists. Frank Stella Opens 19 November Visually powerful works that take printmaking to new levels. Versailles: Treasures from the Palace Opens 9 December From the court of the Sun King Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. New and coming to the collection galleries this spring Nature and design, Heather B Swann’s Nervous, Jeffery Smart and Bea Maddock, contemporary Asian art, Japanese ceramics, Worldbackwards: women of the Russian avant-garde, Australian Geometric Abstraction, Japanese ceramics, Ramesh Nithiyendran, Artists of the Great War
NGA ELSEWHERE Light moves Ends 30 October @ Academy Gallery, University of Tasmania Opens 9 December @ Geraldton Art Gallery A selection of video art since its early days in the 1960s to now. Max and Olive 10 September – 13 November @ Wangaratta Art Gallery Opens 17 December @ Hazlehurst Art Gallery The exceptional partnership between Olive Cotton and Max Dupain. Resolution Opens 16 September @ Tweed Regional Gallery Contemporary Indigenous Australian photomedia.
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News and review
In brief Jeffrey Smart and Bea Maddock, Sandra Hill, contemporary Chinese
the depths of Heather B Swann’s new project Nervous 36
Mike Parr’s Jackson Pollock the Female
and Massier Behind the scenes
Versailles Gerard Vaughan evokes the
Mike Parr Elspeth Pitt examines how Jackson Pollock’s masterpiece Blue poles feeds into
photography, Russian books, Tiffany 18
Heather B Swann Deborah Hart trawls
Frank Stella Jane Kinsman extols the virtues of Frank Stella’s lifelong project in pursuit of a new form of abstraction
Diary of an object Bronwyn Campbell
atmosphere that gave rise to the Palace
illuminates the extraordinary journey of thirteen
Indian paintings from the Gayer-Anderson Gift
Interview Gene Sherman speaks about her life as art collector to Shaune Lakin
Opposite: Mike Parr The Emetics (Primary Vomit): I am Sick of Art (Red, Yellow and Blue) Red 1977, The Performance Room, Sydney. Photo: John Delacour. Image courtesy Mike Parr
Profiles David Hockney, Lesley Dumbrell, Ramesh Nithiyendran
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Issue no 87 | Spring 2016 NGA Cover: Frank Stella Talladega three II, from the series Circuits 1982–84, relief, woodcut. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, gift of Kenneth Tyler, 2002 Editor Eric Meredith Designer Kirsty Morrison Proofreader Meredith McKendry Photographers Sam Birch, Alanna Bishop, Eleni Kypridis, Lisa Mattiazzi, John Tassie, Dominic Thomas Pre-press Michael Tonna Printing CanPrint, Canberra
NGA contributors Jaklyn Babington, Senior Curator, Contemporary Practice—Global Bronwyn Campbell, Provenance Researcher, Asian Art Deborah Hart, Senior Curator, Australian Artonview 87 | Spring 2016 Painting and Sculpture
Jane Kinsman, Senior Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books Shaune Lakin, Senior Curator, Photography Lara Nicholls, Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture Elspeth Pitt, Curator, Australian Prints and Drawings Gerard Vaughan, Director Editorial email@example.com Advertising firstname.lastname@example.org Reproductions email@example.com Back issues nga.gov.au/artonview National Gallery of Australia PO Box 1150, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia +61 (0)2 6240 6411 | nga.gov.au Membership nga.gov.au/members | 1800 020 068 Artonview is free with membership, which comes with additional perks such as reciprocal benefits at art institutions nationally.
Donations +61 (0)2 6240 6691 Sponsorship +61 (0)2 6240 6740 The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra is a not-for-profit entity Many acquisitions, exhibitions and programs are made possible through private and corporate supporters. © National Galley of Australia Published quarterly. Copyright of works of art is held by the artists or their estates. Every effort has been made to identify copyright holders but omissions may occur. Views expressed by writers are not necessarily those of the NGA. Artonview may contain names and images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. ISSN 1323‑4552 Printed on FSC and PEFC certified paper using vegetable-based inks FSC-C017269 | PEFC/21-31-41
Director’s word Gerard Vaughan
In July, we were delighted to welcome our guests from Versailles, the President Catherine Pégard, Chief Curator Béatrix Saule and Head of Exhibitions Silvia Roman, to go through preparations for this year’s summer exhibition. Versailles: Treasures from the Palace celebrates the reigns of three kings through finely sculpted marble and bronze, striking portraits of royalty and nobility, fine porcelain, ornate furniture and gilded objets d’art. It will be a show to remember, not only for the amazing works of art—transported from one planned ‘city’ to another on the other side of the world—but also for the sense of history and luxury, excitement and ceremony, we are planning to evoke in Canberra. An extract from my essay ‘Versailles: a world apart’, to be published in our stunningly beautiful catalogue, provides an appropriate introduction here, on pages 20–5. But that is jumping ahead. First, we have Mike Parr, whose survey exhibition was launched only a few weeks ago with a performance that has caused quite a stir. It was certainly an event unlikely to be forgotten, with Parr creating a confronting performance, Jackson Pollock the Female, critiquing the Pollock’s ‘macho’ reputation and his style of action painting, using Parr’s own blood splashed over a white wedding dress worn by the artist (you can see it on our website). It was, for Parr, a recollection of the huge furore and public debate that accompanied the arrival of Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles at the NGA in 1974. Blue poles has now left for London to become one of the centrepieces of the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Abstract Expressionism. This is only the second time Blue poles has left Australia, but we believe it should be seen among the other great works of the movement that the RA has secured. It will attract huge crowds in a city like London. If you find yourself there after 20 September, I encourage you to see it. We have also sent some of our great Australian works for another major London show, Australia’s Impressionists, which opens at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square on 8 December. At the end of October, we have Artists of the Great War, developed in partnership with the ANU. Planned as part of the ongoing centenary of the First World War, this timely exhibition looks to the role of art in conflict and acknowledges the sacrifice and legacy of those artists whose work continues to provide such a powerful and moving insight into the Australian experience of the war. Curated by the ANU’s Dr David Hansen, it includes works from the NGA’s collection, and works from the important holdings of the Australian War Memorial and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. The exhibition also represents a significant expansion of our already close working relationship with the ANU, as students have contributed to key aspects of developing the show. The experience gained in helping to form an exhibition in a major public institution is intended to give them greater opportunities and experience as the next generation of arts professionals in Australia. We also broadened our relationship with colleagues from around Australia when eleven regional gallery directors visited the NGA on 8 June for an intensive program of talks, tours and networking. They went behind the scenes to our art storage and conservation lab and toured the collection displays and Fiona Hall: Wrong Way Time with our curators.
This information exchange between the NGA and regional venues covered best art museum practice and focused on issues associated with our loan and travelling exhibition programs, offering valuable insights for all involved. Strong relationships, developed over many years, have also played a key role in bringing to the NGA some important contemporary Chinese works of art. In addition to Judith Neilson’s (of the White Rabbit Gallery) loan discussed in the profile on Xu Zhen in our autumn issue, Gene Sherman has been exceptionally generous, too. Gene, who has spent a lifetime in the visual arts building bonds between Asia and Australia, visited us briefly in August to see the works she and her husband Brian had lent for our new space in galleries 9 and 10 (the largest in the building) dedicated to contemporary practice, particularly in Asia. While here, Gene kindly agreed to be interviewed for Artonview, revealing just some of her extraordinary insights and experience. Come November, we are showing Frank Stella’s incredible body of work with master printer and publisher Kenneth Tyler, a collaboration that began in the 1960s and, by the early 1980s, had taken the art of contemporary printmaking to new levels of imagination and experimentation. The strength of the NGA’s collection of twentieth-century American prints owes a great deal to our long relationship with Ken Tyler. Thanks to his generosity and his insight in documenting the groundbreaking activities of his workshops over five decades, we also house an important collection of films and candid photography showing many of the most important American artists of the day at work. There is no shortage of things to see at the NGA in the coming months. We have exquisite Tiffany lamps on display with other brilliant examples of historical and contemporary decorative arts and design inspired by nature. Heather B Swann’s live performance and installation Nervous captures something special, something internal and powerfully moving, balanced with playfulness. Ramesh Nithiyendran’s fun-filled ceramic installation Mud men, too, speaks loudly to young and old alike. And a selection of works from our extraordinary collection of Australian Geometric Abstraction of the 1960s, 70s and 80s is on display over two rooms, showing the depth and breadth of this movement that so profoundly influenced Australian visual culture. Our collection displays are renewed regularly to tell our many stories but, as Gene Sherman suggests in the interview on pages 26–9, ‘excellent work can be done through people as well as through objects’—people such as you, our members, who contribute so much to the life of the NGA. We have launched our seventh annual Members Acquisition Fund with the aim of deepening those bonds by inviting support for the acquisition of Australian Impressionist Arthur Streeton’s spectacular Ariadne 1895. This beautiful panel painting, defined by that quintessential Australian combination of sand, surf and sky, sparkling in strong sunlight, is in every sense a national picture. It will transform our displays of Australian Impressionism. With so much happening at the NGA, we hope to see you here as often as you can manage.
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News and review
Left: Kids discover some of the wonder of Versailles that they will find in the NGA’s new interactive display and activity space opening in November. Below: Special guests from Versailles, Catherine Pégard and Béatrix Saule at the press launch for Versailles: Treasures from the Palace, NGA, July 2016. Opposite: Charles Le Clercq Elisabeth‐Philippe‐Marie‐Hélène of France, known as Madame Elisabeth, playing the harp 1783, oil on canvas. Palace of Versailles. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot
Good as gold To coincide with the July press launch of our summer exhibition Versailles: Treasures from the Palace, the NGA hosted its partners from France, including the Versailles museum’s President Catherine Pégard, Director Béatrix Saule and Head of Exhibitions Silvia Roman. The official launch, with French Ambassador HE Christophe Lecourtier and ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr in attendance, was relaxed and informative. Talks between the French delegation and the NGA’s curatorial, design, education, public programs and publishing teams presented an ideal opportunity for us to work through the details of our exhibition of Versailles’s treasures, which will very soon travel halfway around the world from one planned city to another. Despite their gruelling schedule, our guests also had the chance to form an impression of our building and national collection. They were particularly impressed with the quality of the architecture and spaces at the NGA, and Madame
Saule astutely remarked, ‘You have opened my eyes to art that I have never experienced before, the art of Indigenous Australians. Many of these powerful works reflect a vision of a particular place. There is a lovely parallel with Versailles, as the works there were also made for very specific locations’. We were pleased to have achieved so much and are confident that Versailles will present an enchanting immersive experience for Australian audiences come December. In recreating the atmosphere of the time, the beautifully designed exhibition will be accompanied by a host of public programs, performances and activities, including the customary talks and lectures by world experts—the highlight of which will be a two-day conference in March next year, presented in partnership with the University of Sydney’s Power Institute at and the Australian National University. Film screenings and workshops will further broaden our understanding of the visual culture of seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury France.
As King Louis XIV was a lover of music and dance, performance will play an important role in planned programs. We have a special line-up of musicians planned for the opening weekend. They’ll be announced soon. Dancers will bring audiences into the mix and the roaming characters who delighted us all at the press launch in July will make pop-up appearances. And our new interactive display and activity space opening in November, bathed in gold and full of activities, will be a doorway to Versailles and encourage people of all ages to discover this facinating world of power and opulence. This permanent new space will take pole position close to the entrance (where the NGA shop is today), and present stimulating art experiences year-round. Versailles: Treasures from the Palace @ NGA, Canberra, opens 9 December For the diary: BOOK NOW! Members opening, 9 December, 6.00 pm
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Fog sculpture’s 40th anniversary ‘Miss Nakaya turns on the fog’ was the headline in The Sydney Morning Herald of 17 November 1976 announcing Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya’s major new installation for the second Biennale of Sydney. Fog sculpture #94768, described as ‘fog for people to look into and feel’, became the Biennale’s signature piece that year and was≈a favourite with the public and other artists who responded to it. It was later reconfigured and retitled for the NGA’s Sculpture Garden in Canberra, and gained a new number, #94925, the code for the nearest weather station. The 900 nozzles and pump that produce the delicate mist between 12.30 and 2.00 pm every day create an engaging and ephemeral work of art—a joyous encounter on a hot day, an element of mystery through the bleakness of winter. Designed to be a self-sustaining ecosphere in Canberra’s harsh conditions,
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the ‘sculpture’ activates the natural environment, thickening the foliage and cultivating a range of species. The site was landscaped to the artist’s specifications, and her approach is precise to the point of being scientific. She cites the influence of research conducted by her father, Ukichiro Nakaya, a physicist at Hokkaido University and pioneer of artificial snow and ice. Nakaya’s fog sculptures, produced since 1970, developed from a collaboration with Kyoto University. The original project examined the impact of introducing a square-kilometre of fog into a desert environment, recording the climatic and ecological changes over a period of ten years. Nakaya took out a patent for making ‘cloud sculptures from water-fog’ in 1989, and has more recently created major works for both architectural structures and natural surrounds. Forty years after its installation for the Biennale, we celebrate Foggy wake in a desert: an ecosphere as the first example of Nakaya’s work in a permanent collection anywhere in the world.
Indigenous delegation to New Zealand In May, with the support of Wesfarmers Arts, three of the NGA’s Indigenous Arts Leadership alumni attended the 2016 Museums Australia National Conference, held in Auckland for the first time this year as part of a joint venture between Museums Australia and Museums Aotearoa. Jael Muspratt, from the NGA’s Travelling Exhibitions team, and I accompanied the awarded participants, Zena Cumpston, JoAnne Driessens and Sophia Sambono, on this journey to enrich their knowledge and experience in the arts on an international stage. The theme of the conference was ‘Facing the Future: Local, Global and Pacific Possibilities’, and it explored ideas of relevance, place, custodianship, knowledge and practice, with a special focus on Indigenous cultures. Participants found new perspectives and confidence to bring home, and it was a great opportunity to network with colleagues from overseas—vital to sustaining
News and review
Members Lounge Designed for comfort and style, the newly refurbished Members Lounge is a great place to relax, reflect and recharge with friends over complimentary coffee and tea. Furniture and fixtures have been chosen from Australian designers of international renown, including chairs by Grant Featherstone, crockery by Marc Newson and a feature light-fitting by Robert Foster, a much-loved local who sadly passed away in July. The lounge also includes a bookcase full of art-related books and journals, daily newspapers and popular magazines to enjoy while taking advantage of the outlook across the Sculpture Garden and Lake Burley Griffin.
Opposite: Fujiko Nakaya Foggy wake in a desert: an ecosphere or Fog sculpture #94925 1982, water vapour. Purchased 1977 Right: The new Members Lounge at the NGA, Canberra, August 2016. Below: The 2016 Museums Australia National Conference, Aotea Centre, Auckland, 15–19 May 2016. Photo: Jo-Anne Driessens
their careers into the future. Reflecting on the conference, Cumpston said, ‘I found MA16 to be a really valuable experience in a myriad of ways, some of which were totally unexpected. The fact that much of the conference was focused on First Nations peoples was so exciting. I am very grateful to both the National Gallery and Wesfarmers for yet another incredible opportunity to network, build my skills and gain confidence’. From the welcome to the closing address, conversations that took place were about connection to country and about the pride we take in our languages, traditions and cultures— although I was struck by the way in which New Zealand’s indigenous language flowed so fluently from the lips of Maori and non-Maori alike! Jael and I were proud to be part of this delegation representing the NGA in Auckland, and we were both very impressed by the professionalism our alumni displayed. They were all deserving recipients of this opportunity. Kelli Cole, Assistant Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
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News and review
Strange and terrible lands Artists of the Great War, a new exhibition opening at the NGA at the end of October, explores the horrors of the First World War, which were palpably expressed in the work of Australia’s official war artists and their combatant and non-combatant peers. The ubiquity of death is a consistent theme in the exhibition. Over 60 000 Australians were killed in the four-year conflict, and the gravity of their sacrifice is conveyed by Hilda Rix Nicholas’s sombre portrait of fallen men These gave the world away 1917 and the solitary shrouded figure in John Wardell Power’s only known war painting Ypres c 1917. Depictions of activity beyond the trenches add different perspectives to the story, such as Iso Rae’s luminous imagery of the reinforcement base at Etaples and the disquietingly still hospital interiors of George Coates, George Lambert and Arthur Streeton. Propaganda, too, is explored in a selection of recruitment posters promoting nationalistic fervour and in the incisive larrikin wit of Will Dyson’s anti-German cartoons. Dyson, Australia’s first official war artist, features prominently. His prints and drawings from the Western Front depict, with realism and reverence,
Artist and Empire in Singapore In October, the National Gallery Singapore will present Artist and Empire, a major new exhibition in collaboration with Tate Britain. Art from across the British Isles, North America, the Caribbean, Asia, the Pacific, Australia and Africa will tell the story of how Britain’s Empire has influenced the creation and collection of art over the past 400 years and how artists have reinforced, resisted and reflected the Empire in their work. It will show how artists mapped the world and its resources and how carefully staged paintings of international events manipulated the sympathies of audiences in Britain, dramatising conquests, treaties and ‘last stands’. Grand portraits of key political figures illustrate how British leaders were presented in ‘exotic’ or hybrid costume to reflect bonds of union while conversely establishing differences between cultural groups. The exhibition will
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also explore the challenges to Imperial ideology put forth by twentieth-century artists and how today’s artists reflect on these histories. The exhibition was first presented at the Tate Britain in London from 25 November 2015 to 10 April 2016. But its showing at the National Gallery Singapore will shift the focus to Southeast Asia. It will feature more works by artists from the region—particularly artists in British Malaya such as Low Kway Song, Abdullah Ariff and Chuah Thean Teng—alongside major loans from the Tate collection and other international collections such as the National Gallery of Australia’s. The works from the NGA are by some of the major figures in Australia’s colonial and Federation art history, including Benjamin Duterrau, John Lewin, John Glover, Augustus Earle, Tommy McRae, Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen, and by contemporary Indigenous artist Michael Cook. Artist and Empire @ National Gallery Singapore, from 29 October
the spirit and camaraderie of the troops in what he described as ‘strange and terrible lands’ in his 1918 book Australia at war: drawings at the front. Artists of the Great War is a joint project of the NGA and the ANU and is curated by Dr David Hansen, with the participation of his students from the ANU School of Art Centre for Art History and Art Theory. The display features generous loans from the Australian War Memorial and Royal Australasian College of Surgeons alongside significant works from the NGA’s collection. Athena Chambers, student, ANU School of Art Centre for Art History and Art Theory Artists of the Great War @ NGA, Canberra, from 29 October
Left and below: Hilda Rix Nicholas These gave the world away 1917, oil on canvas. © Bronwyn Wright; Hans Heysen Morning light 1913, oil on canvas. © Hans Heysen. Both Ruth Robertson Bequest Fund, in memory of Edwin Clive and Leila Jeanne Robertson, 2011 Opposite, from top: Arthur Streeton Circular Quay 1892, oil on wood panel. Purchased 1959; John Russell In the morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes 1890–91, oil on canvas. Purchased 1965 All works National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Making an impression in London Arthur Streeton’s Blue Pacific 1890 made history in September last year when it became the first Australian painting to be exhibited in the permanent collection of London’s National Gallery alongside works by European contemporaries such as Claude Monet and Edouard Manet. It has since elicited such a lively response from the gallery’s audiences that, come December, this major tourist destination will stage an exhibition of some thirty-five works by four of Australia’s key Impressionists, Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, John Russell and, of course, Streeton. The exhibition will include some of the artists’ best works from collections worldwide, including a large component from Australian public institutions. The ten on loan from the NGA include Streeton’s Golden summer, Eaglemont 1889, long recognised as one of our greatest Australian masterpieces. The painting’s extraordinary visual poetry won it praise when it was exhibited in London in 1891 and in Paris the following year. It and the other works in the exhibition will represent the various manifestations of Impressionism made in Australia’s unique context, which followed the movement’s rise in Europe, particularly France, where Russell, for instance, worked alongside Monet. Also on its way to London from the NGA is Blue poles 1952, the most celebrated work in Jackson Pollock’s post-1950 period. At the end of September, it will take centre stage in the Royal Academy of Arts’s landmark exhibition
Abstract Expressionism alongside Pollock’s largest work Mural 1943, from the University of Iowa Museum of Art, and his Summertime: 9A 1948, from the Tate. Masterpieces by Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko will join the works by Pollock at the heart of the show, and key pieces from the 1940s and 1950s by others in the canon, including Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt and David Smith, will form a foundation on which to explore the contributions of artists beyond North America.
Exhibitions like this, featuring masterpieces from Australia’s national collection, are not to be missed. If you are in London, show your support, and NGA members can contact us on +61 (0)2 6460 6691 to attend a special reception at the Royal Academy on 27 September. Abstract Expressionism @ Royal Academy of Arts, from 24 September Australia’s Impressionists @ National Gallery, London, from 7 December
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A place for solitude The works of Bea Maddock and Jeffrey Smart, while stylistically quite different, both reveal a profound interest in philosophical concerns. Maddock’s art is deeply introspective, enquiring and experimental, informed among other things by her reading of Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and nothingness. Smart was also interested in literature, in the poetry of TS Eliot for instance, but his work is more theatrical than Maddock’s, the strong underpinnings of geometry creating stage sets for imagining. Both artists worked in ways that are not didactic but invite open-ended, poetic responses, and both are interested in notions of solitude, of figures isolated in space. More than any other Australian painter, Smart has explored the aesthetics of our modern world in hyper-real works that veer toward the surreal and dream-like. He had decided in his early twenties that he had painted his last billabong, devoting himself, instead, to images unique to our time—billboards, highways, railway stations, apartment blocks and factories. His aim was to find beauty in everyday subjects, and he is quoted in the 1999 book Jeffrey Smart retrospective as having said, ‘to me the world has never been more beautiful. I am trying to paint the real world I live in, as beautifully as I can, with my own eye’. It is an aim that he undeniably realised in his lifetime, despite challenges along the way. His last major painting, Labyrinth 2011, painted shortly before his death in 2013, eloquently portrays this. With the tiny figure of HG Wells at the centre,
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it combines Smart’s love of geometry with the sense of a life of entries, dead ends and exits, like a complex puzzle that can be hard to decipher but remains endlessly intriguing. Maddock’s paintings referencing solitude can be traced from expressive figurative examples undertaken during her time at the Slade School and a brief residency in Italy to her more conceptual word painting Solitary 1979, painted in Macedon, Victoria. Early on, Maddock was encouraged to limit her palette and chose predominantly blues, greens, greys and black for small landscapes and figure studies. The brooding intensity of these works, however, contrasts
with the sumptuous orange in Looking out 1966. Her ability to shift the emotional tenor of her paintings is also apparent in the nuanced tonal variations of words in Solitary, combined here with her love of the poetic resonances and array of possible meanings of words, from ‘solitary’ to ‘solvable’. She is also, without doubt, one of this country’s greatest printmakers. As part of the revitalisation of collection displays at the NGA last year, a gallery space was dedicated to artists who have made a major contribution to Australian art and whose works are represented in depth in the collection. In the first iteration, works by Fred Williams,
Right: Sandra Hill (Minang, Wardandi, Ballardong, Nyoongar peoples) Double standards 2015, rice paper, shellac, Marri and Balga resin, ink and synthetic resin. Purchased with assistance from Warwick Hemsley and the Hon Melissa Parke, 2016 Opposite, from left: Bea Maddock Four finger exercise for two hands 1982, photoetched linocut. Gift of the artist, 1984; Solitary 1978–79, encaustic and collage on canvas. Purchased 1980 Below, from far left: Jeffrey Smart On the periphery 2003, oil on canvas. Purchased in honour of Dr Brian Kennedy, with contributions from members of the NGA Council and Foundation, 2004; Waiting for the train 1969–70, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Gift of Alcoa World Alumina Australia, 2005; On the roof, Taylor Square 1961, oil on canvas mounted on hardboard. Purchased 1969. © Estate of Jeffrey Smart
Ian Fairweather and John Brack were exhibited. Now it is Maddock’s and Smart’s turn. Both artists demonstrated a remarkable commitment to their art over their lifetimes, and there is a pervasive sense of the human condition and a strong sense of composition and geometry in their work. It seems fitting then that the display of their works will lead visitors to the NGA into a new display of Geometric Abstraction, primarily from the late 1960s and 1970s, opening up further opportunities to plumb the depths of our remarkable national collection and how it shapes our history. Deborah Hart, Senior Curator, Australian Art
Double standards Indigenous affairs in Australia took an interesting turn this year when the idea of treaty was momentarily put out there in the lead up to the July election. Not surprisingly, it didn’t go far before being eclipsed by other topics, although discussion of constitutional recognition remains. They may pave the way for greater social, and even policy, changes in Australia that could see flow-on effects to talking about other areas of Indigenous affairs. The Stolen Generations, land rights, native title, deaths in custody, preservation of language and culture, identity and so on. These issues are never far from the minds of Indigenous Australians, and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artists regularly reference or tackle them in their work. Although Western Australian artist Sandra Hill is not overtly political, she is part of the Stolen Generation that came out of the ‘protection’ and ‘assimilation’ policies still being enforced when she was a girl. She was just seven when she was taken from her family in 1958. Despite this, her work, she says, is deeply personal, more a reflection of her own journey through life rather than a political statement. Her focus is, instead, on the present and on celebrating the resilience of Australia’s Indigenous people and cultures today. It is hard to ignore, though, the powerful
symbolism that the glowing Australian flag takes on in her 2015 work Double standards, recently purchased by the NGA with the assistance of former Council member Warwick Hemsley and the Hon Melissa Parke. The work features 216 neatly configured little square handmade Japanese rice-paper boxes, most of which feature printed images sealed with native Balga resin—deliberately used to reinforce her cultural heritage and presence within the work. It is a visual, and highly personal, essay of what she and her people have suffered and lost in the recent past. Some of the images are Hill’s personal family photos. Others, of the everyday lives of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, are from archival and media sources. These images reveal a glimpse at the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous living standards in Australia. But not all of the boxes are filled. Some are left blank, perhaps in reference to those parts of history and people’s lives lost forever or, more positively, yet to be filled as we try, together, to bridge the gap. It is a strong reminder of the shared histories that have made Hill the powerfully resonant artist she is today. Tina Baum, Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Sandra Hill is one of thirty contemporary artists selected for the 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, opening in May 2017.
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Contemporary Chinese photography Over the past decade, the NGA has developed an internationally significant collection of photographs made in our region during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Now, we are focusing on developing a critical contemporary collection. Works from China will mark the beginning of this far-reaching project, as photography has played a vital role in the development of contemporary Chinese art. For many artists, the camera provides a means of critically examining the implications of China’s rapid expansion and a way of speaking back to the tightly controlled ideological applications that have historically burdened photography in the country. A recently acquired rare print of Zhang Huan’s pivotal work To raise the water level in a fishpond 1997 is the perfect kick-starter for this collection. It responds to the experience of contemporary China and presents an image far removed from the bucolic landscapes of traditional Chinese visual culture. It shows the artist with migrant labourers and a boy in a small fishpond in Beijing. Together, they momentarily raise the pond’s water level, albeit by the smallest of margins. Zhang, and artists like him, are concerned with making sense of what it means to be living in
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China today, and it is this experience the NGA wishes to capture. With support, we will continue to build a collection that will tell the story of modern-day China and of photography’s central place in contemporary Chinese art. To raise the water level in a fishpond is currently on display at the NGA among other photographs by Zhang and works by a selection of contemporary Chinese artists on loan from the Gene and Brian Sherman Collection. Shaune Lakin, Senior Curator, Photography
Above: Zhang Huan To raise the water level in a fishpond (close up) 1997, chromogenic photograph. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2016 Below: Design and nature at the NGA, Canberra, May 2016. Opposite: Worldbackwards: women of the Russian avant-garde at the NGA, Canberra, July 2016.
Russian Futurist books Between 1910 and 1916, a coterie of Russian Futurist painters and poets came together in Moscow and St Petersburg to collaborate on a collection of small format books that were radically original in form and content. Cheaply produced using lithography, hand-printed rubber stamps, drawing and collage, the books were sewn or stapled together in small editions with great variations between copies. Small enough to be held in the palm of your hand they could easily be carried in a coat pocket and passed around between friends and colleagues. Expressing the Futurist’s conceptual and aesthetic attitudes to art, these books fulfilled a distinctive role for both the artists and their audiences, acting like little anarchic bombs designed to destabilise the idea of an absolute model for art. The first lithographed Futurist book, Mirskontsa (Worldbackwards), was published in Moscow in November 1912 and occupies an important place in the history of avant-garde art. In an attempt to replace linear narrative and chronology with reversibility and chance, it merged the poetic language of zaum (beyond sense) with an
Tiffany and Massier Louis Comfort Tiffany is a name synonymous with the decorative arts, his extraordinary glass lamps of the 1890s encapsulating a new vision of the natural world. He was the son of Charles Tiffany, founder of the New York jewellery store Tiffany and Co, and became the leading American exponent of the flamboyant, nature-focused Art Nouveau style of the late nineteenth century. He produced pieces in silver, bronze, mosaics, enamels and ceramics but is known chiefly for his large coloured-glass windows, lamps and blown-glass objects. His intense appreciation of the systems of nature and the forms of plants and flowers resulted in attenuated glass vases in the shape of opening flowers in which he used his patented iridescent glass, marketed from 1880 as ‘Favrile’, to simulate the delicate patterns of petals and stamens. Many of the designs for his glass objects and windows were developed by a group of his employees known as the ‘Tiffany girls’, whose contribution to the design of Tiffany’s lamps
assemblage of lithographed drawings. It joins a selection of other Russian Futurist books in the new international art collection display Worldbackwards: women of the Russian avantgarde at the NGA. These books were created by a pioneering group of young artists in the years immediately preceding the 1917 Revolution.
The group included Natalia Goncharova and Olga Rozanova, as well as Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin and poets Alexei Kruchenykh, Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Sally Foster, Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books
has only recently been documented. Leading
a new vision of the natural world in which insects,
the group, Clara Driscoll interpreted Tiffany’s
fish, marine organisms, eucalypts, fungi and
vision into some of the most celebrated works of American design, including the Dragonfly table lamp. The insect’s attraction to light was a vivid metaphor for Tiffany’s use of glass in natural colours to showcase the newly available electric lamps. The background glass in the motif is cut and reassembled from one piece of mottled glass resembling frogspawn on a pond. Works such as this helped maintain his reputation, which was already well established in America and had been cemented internationally in 1895, when his work was exhibited alongside that of Clément Massier and Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer at L’Art Nouveau, the Paris gallery that introduced the style to Europe. Massier’s ceramic background began with his family, whose pottery had been operating since the early eighteenth century. He established his own pottery in 1883 in the French seaside town of Golfe-Juan, specialising in the use of lustre glazes applied to forms influenced by Turkish, Persian, Greek and neoclassical ceramics. Lévy-Dhurmer
seaweed took precedence over more conventional depictions of the landscape. The mystery of the underwater world was evoked through his use of iridescent, metallic lustre glazes on simple fluid forms in some of the most eloquent expressions of the Art Nouveau style of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Lévy-Dhurmer left the company in 1895 to pursue a painting career that saw him become one of the most significant artists of the Symbolist movement. The NGA’s Tiffany works are currently on display with a generous loan of three lamps and an exceptional group of Massier works from a private Australian collection. They form a significant component to the exhibition Design and nature, which showcases a diverse and engaging selection of historical and contemporary decorative arts and design inspired by nature. Dr Robert Bell AM, Senior Curator, Decorative Arts and Design
was hired as Massier’s artistic director in 1887
Design and nature @ NGA, Canberra,
and developed the firm’s lustre glazes to explore
until 6 November 2016
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Behind the scenes
Goodbye … but not for long NGA installers and conservators taking down Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles 1952 in preparation for Mike Parr’s performance in relation to the work (see pages 36–43). It will then travel to London for the Royal Academy’s major show of Abstract Expressionism, before returning early next year. Once the subject of heated public and political debate in Australia and now the most treasured and most visited in our national collection, Blue poles remains one of Pollock’s greatest and most talked-about masterpieces. It has left Canberra only a handful of times since arriving in 1974, and only once to a destination overseas, so it is with great pleasure we share it with the world.
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The book corner The NGA’s Dr Robert Bell has spent a lifetime coming to understand the history of decorative arts and design in Australia and internationally. So, in the lead up to the NGA’s major survey show and book on Australian practice mid next year, we asked him to pick out some appetisers. CFA Voysey: arts and crafts designer Karen Livingstone. V&A Publishing $80 The suit: form, function and style Christopher Breward. Reaktion Books $45 Collecting design Adam Lindemann. Taschen $55 Studio Olafur Eliasson: the kitchen Olafur Eliasson. Phaidon $60 From Bauhaus to ecohouse: a history of ecological design Peder Anker. Louisiana State University Press $81 The lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany Martin Eidelberg & Alice Cooney Freelinghuysen. Vendome Press $45 The kinfolk home: interiors for slow living Nathan Williams. Artisan $65 The tale of tomorrow: utopian architecture in the modernist realm Sofia Borges & Sven Ehmann (eds). Die Gestalten Verlag $115
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VERSAILLES: A WORLD APART Gerard Vaughan evokes the atmosphere that gave rise to the Palace of Versailles as the indomitable seat for maintaining the newly found supremacy of the king in seventeenth-century France. This fascinating and often tumultuous world of power, passion and luxury will come to life in an epic exhibition at the NGA this summer. 20 Artonview 87 | Spring 2016
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Left: Adam-François van der Meulen (attributed) The building of Versailles c 1680, oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust, London. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016 Opposite: Palace of Versailles. © lapas77 / Shutterstock.com Pages 20–1: Pierre Patel The Palace of Versailles c 1668 (detail), oil on canvas. Palace of Versailles. Photo © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin Page 24: Antoine Pezey Louis XIV receiving the oath of the Marquis de Dangeau, Grand Master of the united Orders of Notre Dame of Mont Carmel and of Saint Lazare, in the chapel at the chateau at Versailles, 18 December 1695 c 1695, oil on canvas. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot Page 25: Jean Cotelle or Jean Cotelle, the younger Perspective view of the three fountains at Versailles 1689–91, oil on canvas. Palace of Versailles. Photo © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin
Embodying the twin attributes of absolute power and unbridled opulence, the political, social and cultural life of the Palace of Versailles represents a phenomenon unique in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. Those who lived at Versailles referred to it as ce pays-ci or a world in itself. And the whole world came to Versailles, to admire its architectural grandeur and luxurious lifestyle, and to marvel at the vast gardens with their astonishing water features. People came, above all, to observe the French monarchy— the richest and most powerful in Europe—exert total authority not only over the nobility who were obliged to live there but also over the whole nation. Versailles was pivotal for more than a century, spanning the three reigns of Louis XIV (1643–1715), Louis XV (1715–1774) and Louis XVI (1774–1792). The royal association with Versailles, about sixteen kilometres south-west of Paris, began in 1623 with the acquisition of the estate and lordship by Louis XIII, who constructed a comfortable lodge as a convenient place to stay while pursuing his passion for hunting in the royal domains that surrounded it. As a child, Louis XIV developed a fondness for the place. In the early 1660s, the young king began to build a vast palace complex around his late father’s hunting lodge, eventually making it not only his preferred residence but also the seat of power. Many factors led to this. The disgrace and eventual imprisonment of the Superintendent of Finances Nicolas Fouquet marked the beginning of a new political order, and the genesis of the new Palace of Versailles. Fouquet had built for himself—by diverting state income—a vast modern mansion, Vaux-le-Vicomte, with formal gardens of astonishing size and beauty. In August 1661, he gave a house-warming party for 6000 guests, with Louis XIV as guest of honour. The king was appalled by his minister’s ambition and extravagance, but he equally admired the architecture and general taste of Vaux-le-Vicomte.
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Fouquet was tried and thrown into prison, and Louis sequestered the estate and its contents, removing everything for his own purposes. Cartloads of paintings, furniture, precious objects and even garden ornaments were taken away, although he later allowed Fouquet’s wife to recover the house itself. The idea emerged of creating for himself an equivalent, but larger, country residence, and the estate of Versailles seemed ideal. Not only did he acquire Fouquet’s possessions and assets, Louis also acquired the three geniuses who had created Fouquet’s masterpiece: the architect Louis Le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun and garden designer André Le Nôtre. Working in an exhilarating partnership with the king, they created Versailles under the watchful eye of the Superintendent of the King’s Buildings, JeanBaptiste Colbert. Once Louis XIV had moved the entire court and, thus, the seat of government, from the Louvre to his new palace at Versailles in 1682, it eclipsed Paris as the political and cultural heart of France. More than 1000 people lived in the palace—a figure that can be multiplied several times over when the militias and armies of servants, chefs and gardeners are accounted for. During Louis XIV’s extended periods of construction, thousands of additional labourers worked on the building itself and on the vast earthworks for the gardens. Writing in 1684, the Marquis de Dangeau asserted that 22 000 labourers and 6000 horses were currently toiling at Versailles. A century later, when the young Austrian archduchess MarieAntoinette arrived at Versailles to begin her new life as France’s dauphine, 6000 people were waiting to greet her. There was a clear pecking order regarding accommodation. First were the magnificent apartments of the king and queen (public and private), then the apartments of direct members of the royal family. A wing of the palace
was reserved for the ‘Princes of the blood’, including the king’s Bourbon cousins of the Orléans, Condé and Conti branches, followed by the senior levels of aristocracy and ministers. A rigid code of etiquette determined daily life—depending on ordained social rank and the right of entry to different parts of the royal suite of rooms or to activities such as joining the royal hunt—although it was flexible enough to accommodate the king’s changing favourites. Ironically, entry to the palace itself was easy for anyone who was well presented, and it was even possible for casual visitors to find themselves in attendance at the great ceremonies of the day, the principle being that the king should be visible, and available, to his subjects. Louis XIV had inherited the throne at the age of four, on the death of his father in May 1643, and his mother, Anne of Austria, acted as regent during his minority. She was assisted by the all-powerful prime minister Cardinal Mazarin, who exerted a profound influence on the young king. Mazarin died in 1661, after which Louis took over the reins of government, deciding to consolidate his power through total monarchical control. There would never again be a dominant prime minister, but rather hand-picked advisers who constituted the Conseil d’Etat or the state advisory council. The creation of Versailles was one outcome of this process and the product of a period of stability. There were good reasons for Louis’s strategy concerning new arrangements for the court. Requiring all the powerful regional nobles to be confined under one roof, away from Paris, prevented any notion of rebellion. As a boy he had experienced the violent upheavals of the Fronde, a series of civil wars in the years 1648–53, when factions of powerful nobles, working with the ancient Parlements, or judicial bodies, sought to seize political control. At the same time, his father’s sister, Queen Henrietta Maria of England,
lived through the appalling atrocities of the English Civil War, resulting in parliament seizing control of the country and eventually executing King Charles I, with Louis’s aunt fleeing to France as a royal refugee. The building of Versailles occupied several phases over nearly half a century. Le Vau, the architect of Fouquet’s mansion, began by expanding the original hunting lodge of Louis XIII, reflecting the existing architectural style, with the building faced in stone and red brick—the town facade of the Palace of Versailles retains this treatment today. The king used the Versailles estate for grand entertainments and at first he simply required additional accommodation for his guests. Images of some of these famous events, which lasted for days, are included in the exhibition. Pierre Patel’s view of Versailles in 1668 shows not only the enlarged hunting lodge but also how rapidly Louis proceeded: the size and grandeur of the new gardens, Le Nôtre’s design for which owed much to the king’s painter Le Brun, is already noticeable. The stage was set. A debate ensued as to whether the first building should be demolished and replaced, or renovated and expanded, and the latter option prevailed. In the years 1669–70 Le Vau and architect François d’Orbay presented plans for an ‘envelope’ to wrap around the original building on the garden facades, developing the now familiar monumental system of long facades rising through three storeys. At the same time, he gave the king’s Grand Apartment its final form, a suite, or enfilade, of seven large rooms, beginning with the guardroom at the east. Through the 1670s, Le Brun produced highly sophisticated ceiling decorations to reflect the theme of each room. These apartments were the setting for the king’s great court receptions, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when the rituals of monarchy were played out.
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After Le Vau’s death, it fell to his successor, the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, to give Versailles its more refined and elegant final form, constructing vast new wings to the north and south, and Versailles’ most famous interior, the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces or Grande Galerie). Constructed in 1678–79 and occupying what was originally a long recessed open-air balcony between the king’s and queen’s apartments at the western extremity overlooking the gardens, it too caused astonishment. This glittering room, 73 metres in length and illuminated by up to 8000 candles, provided the decor for the most extravagant royal events, with its 357 individual mirrors, lavish silver furnishings and porphyry and marble urns. The sumptuous marble wall panelling and columns were completed in 1680, and, in the period 1681–84, Le Brun painted the vaulted ceilings with thirty scenes glorifying Louis XIV’s early triumphs. The elegant west‑facing facades were also given final form by Hardouin-Mansart, with the principal floor resting on a rusticated basement, the facade defined by high, round-headed windows contained within repeated groupings of engaged Corinthian pilasters and pairs of protruding, freestanding Corinthian columns. The world had seen nothing on this scale before, and its grandeur continues to astonish every visitor to the palace today. A guiding principle at Versailles was that it must, above all, represent French taste, design and craftsmanship. In 1662, Louis XIV acquired the great Gobelins tapestry workshop and supported it with major royal commissions for Versailles such as Louis XIV’s audience with Cardinal
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Chigi 1665–80. Likewise, the magnificent Savonnerie carpet was woven for the Louvre, the king’s principal residence before the move to Versailles— although it remained little used as a Parisian base. The Savonnerie carpet factory had been granted a state monopoly by Louis XIII in 1627, with its products the exclusive property of the Crown and, thus, available not only for the royal residences but also as prestigious diplomatic gifts. In the same spirit, in the mid eighteenth century, Louis XV and his principal mistress Madame de Pompadour created the Sèvres porcelain factory, acquiring major services for Versailles, and the king encouraged his courtiers to follow suit. Later, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette continued this support by arranging displays of each year’s new porcelain types and designs in the king’s own apartment, and likewise encouraged members of the court to place orders. Notable from the start was the twin imagery of Mars, the god of war, and Apollo, the sun god (associated with peace, music, the arts and learning), and Louis XIV adopted both as personal symbols of his reign. Military trophies dominated the interior decor as much as the exterior of the palace—Louis was constantly at war and kept huge armies, and there is a direct correlation between the expensive building programs at Versailles, carried out at times of peace, and the huge military expenditure during periods of war, when much of the construction paused. Louis promoted himself as a new Apollo, the Sun King, and the solar imagery of the stylised face of the god, with radiating beams of light, became his own. The throne room in the king’s apartments at Versailles, where he received important guests, was designated the ‘Salon
of Apollo’, with appropriate allegorical paintings by Le Brun. When visitors passed through the king’s apartment and gazed westwards over the parterres and fountains, with the Grand Canal stretching over 1500 metres to infinity, they would see the Bassin d’Apollon 1668–71, with Apollo and his horses rising from the water, and other sculptural features such as the Fountain of Latona (the central figure of which features in the exhibition). Many court masques and entertainments were conceived to reflect the same themes. While Hardouin-Mansart was completing the Hall of Mirrors, he was also busy reorganising the great terrace and its water parterres immediately below, and other improvements to the gardens. He worked to achieve a perfect integration between the palace and the grounds, a vast stage set in preparation for the next phase of the life of Versailles. After the court moved from Paris in 1682, life at Versailles came to be defined by its extravagant entertainments, designed to amuse and distract the thousands of courtiers who now lived and worked there—fireworks in the gardens, music, theatre, balls and private parties of every kind, and the exhilaration of the Grandes Eaux, when all the fountains, driven by their sophisticated hydraulic systems, were turned on. In the gardens, many of the individual bosquets, or groves, conceived as garden rooms by Le Brun and Le Nôtre in the 1670s, were reorganised by Hardouin-Mansart in the 1680s as places of resort and amusement, not just for the huge new crowd of permanent residents but for the many casual visitors who had access to the palace. The town of Versailles was full of private houses and rented lodgings to accommodate those courtiers and bureaucrats not privileged enough to reside within the palace. There are many accounts over the three reigns of how people lived at Versailles and the daily rituals of the court, beginning with the ceremonies accompanying the rising of the king and queen in the morning. The king’s day commenced with the Petit lever, where he was dressed in his private apartment by his valets and inner circle, followed by the ritual of the Grand lever, where the ceremony continued before a larger audience. Louis XIV would normally lunch sitting alone (Dîner au Petit Couvert) in his apartment, waited on by his valets and chamberlains, and attended by his senior courtiers. The ceremony of the Souper au Grand Couvert, when the king and queen dined in the evening at a table in the queen’s antechamber in full public view, was a major event. Only members of the royal family could accept an invitation at table, while the highest-ranking courtiers observed the event seated on stools, and a larger crowd stood to watch. Formal rules of etiquette applied to everything, but the unspoken rules and rituals were equally important, and mistakes could make or break careers and reputations. Everything depended on being in the royal presence, knowing the king and being publicly acknowledged by him. In 1676 Madame de Sévigné described a visit to Versailles: in the morning she attended the ceremony of La toilette de la reine, when the Spanish-born Queen Marie-Thérèse was dressed for the day. Later, she wrote of her pleasure at being personally acknowledged by the king after dinner: he ‘returned my salutations as if I were young and beautiful’. In the same year, Elisabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine—the Bavarian princess who became the second wife of Philippe, the king’s younger brother, and one of the court’s most astute chroniclers—wrote to her aunt in Hanover, explaining why she had not had time to write earlier. She described the routine of the previous day: she had ridden out with the royal hunt in the morning and had not returned until 3.00 pm; she was then obliged to change and participate in a reception, with conversation and gaming (always a major part of the life of
the court) until 7.00 pm; then she attended the theatre, which didn’t finish until 10.30 pm, followed by supper; and, finally, she attended a ball that continued to 3.00 am. Each morning, the king would meet his principal ministers and advisers in Council after daily mass, which usually took place in a temporary chapel, the form and detail of which is clearly represented in Antoine Pezey’s painting of 1695. The king had his own chaplaincy and, since 1682, had installed a community of the missionary Lazaristes, an order founded by St Vincent de Paul, to cater for the spiritual needs of the palace inhabitants. Attendance at mass was a necessary part of the daily ritual of the king and his closest courtiers. The soaring chapel of Versailles, which combines Italianate, classicising elements with the tradition of French Gothic, was constructed in the period 1704–10 as the last major element of the building program. The austerity of its beautiful interior, defined by white marble colonnades, contrasts with the gilded magnificence of the high altar. As the king moved around the palace with his retinue, he passed through crowds of courtiers and distinguished visitors such as foreign ambassadors, making acknowledgments and, from time to time, chatting to a select few. The story continues in the lavishly produced book accompanying … Versailles: Treasures from the Palace @ NGA, Canberra, opens 9 December For the diary: BOOK NOW! Members opening, 9 December, 6.00 pm
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CREATING COMMUNITIES Gene Sherman, art collector and philanthropist, shares with Shaune Lakin her experience building cultural bridges between Australia and the rest of the Asia–Pacific region. She was born in South Africa, where she spent her formative years, and moved to Sydney with her husband, Brian, in 1976. After beginning a career in the academic world she turned her hand and mind to the art of the Asia–Pacific region, first as a commercial gallery owner from 1986 and then as founder of the not-for-profit Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in 2008. She was at the NGA in August to see the works she and her husband Brian have loaned for our contemporary Chinese art display. Artonview 87 | Spring 2016 27
If ever there are cultures that depend on long-term relationships, these cultures are in Asia. Americans can meet you today, do business tomorrow. The British take a little longer. The French take longer again, probably. But the Asians need to know you.
Shaune Lakin: I want to start with why, after moving to Australia and teaching French literature for a time, you chose visual culture to come to know this new place, the Asia–Pacific region. Gene Sherman: Art was very much part of my growing up. My aunt was in her studio and exhibiting regularly in galleries. My father was collecting. Looking back, we lived very modestly. We needed a new bathroom, a new kitchen; instead, we acquired art. My dad always collected. He was not an expert, that’s taking it too far, but he was knowledgeable about Persian carpets—a second area of collecting interest, apart from the art of the times in which we lived. Art has been part of my life ever since I can remember. When I left Sydney University, because student numbers were dramatically dropping in the departments of European literatures and languages—and after running the Modern Languages department at Ascham, a wonderful private girls’ school—I thought: What can I possibly do with literature? I’m not planning to be a writer … If I teach high school, I’m going to be teaching language. I speak French already. What was I going to learn myself? What other strings do I have to my bow? Working in the art world was the obvious next chapter in my professional life. Shaune: That’s interesting. You had this familial relationship to art. Do you think that the connection between family and art that you experienced in your youth has informed your work as a gallerist and philanthropist, as an early advocate for Asian art and relations in Australia? I ask because you have a great capacity to make people feel special. Gene: According to my wonderful supportive Advisory Board, who have now served a full nine years at SCAF [Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation]—John Kaldor, Andrew Cameron, Dr Claire Roberts, Sam Meers, among others—my core strength lies in creating communities. Even though you and I haven’t seen each other for many years, you still feel I know you and want us to reconnect. I like to nurture people. I like collecting a family of people around me with similar interests. I have eight first cousins in Sydney plus one in Perth. Our family, all originally from South Africa, now numbers eighty people across four generations. Many of them work in the creative industries.
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Shaune: And where are we now in terms of when you started to think about the Asia–Pacific, specifically Asia? Australia’s relationship to our region was profoundly different then to the one we share now, to the extent that it’s possible for all of us who work in public galleries now to be expected to show some kind of engagement. How do you feel about that? Gene: I’m delighted. Remember, at the beginning, it was a huge battle. If I hadn’t had the financial safety net offered by my generous husband Brian, I wouldn’t have been able to risk mounting the Gu Wenda show, for example, or bring work by Xu Bing, Cai Guo Qiang or Zhang Huan to Sydney. There were no collectors at that stage. Education had to be undertaken from scratch—certainly this was the case in the private collecting realm. The Asia–Pacific Triennial [at the Queensland Art Gallery] in Brisbane was enormously significant. Artists from the region were invited to Australia and connections grew apace. Shaune: So the impediments were just that there were no collectors, or were there other points of resistance, too? Gene: There were other points of resistance in that China was quite difficult to deal with. Communication was a problem, and systems had not yet been established. Somehow, I managed to make my way through multiple hurdles with lots of hard work and much perseverance. I managed with the help of a group of Chinese dissident artists, Guan Wei and Ah Xian among them, who had come to Australia and eventually learned to speak English. I exhibited their work at Sherman Galleries. I formed deep and enduring relationships with them and still see them all to this very day. I had tea and coffee with Guan Wei, his daughter Mimi and wife Liu Pin about three or four days ago. I remember Mimi as a newborn baby. They now live in Beijing but spend several months of the year in Australia. Via the Chinese artists who were here, I managed to find my way to artists in China. There were no galleries to contact. That was another obstacle: how to get in touch with these difficult-to-access artists. There were no mobile phones, not even fax machines.
Shaune: How did you? Gene: Initially, through Guan Wei, once he had started speaking English. I had to have translators at the beginning. I met Nick Jose, who was an enormous help, and Claire Roberts, who was then at the Powerhouse as curator of Asian Decorative art. Nick had recently come back from China where he had been cultural attaché during the late eighties. I suddenly came in contact with an entire world I hardly knew existed. From an African perspective, Asia seemed immensely far away. I made and remain friends with all the early Australian Sinophiles and experts: Claire, Nick, Linda Jaivin, Geremie Barmé. Each colleague and each artist led to another. Cai Guo-Qiang came to Sydney in 1994 and came to see me. He had lost his passport, and I helped him go through the bureaucratic hoops to obtain a new one. He didn’t speak any English and was in a terrible state. And so, my knowledge and acquaintance grew. Shaune: There’s a really important story there, that whole period, that generation, which includes you, Linda, Geremie, Claire and so many others who were forging strong cultural connections between people in China and Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. Gene: They were very successful. We showed the film The Chinese lives of Uli Sigg at SCAF the other night for a small group people who have been instrumental in bringing Asian and Pacific art to Australian audiences. Linda was there. Geremie couldn’t come—he is moving to New Zealand. Guan Wei was there. Suhanya Raffel was there. She had been an integral part of this journey—the story we are talking about. The film was about Uli Sigg, who I’ve known for many years and who has this amazing collection of Chinese contemporary art that goes back to the seventies, which has been donated, largely but not in full, to M+, a new art museum due to open in Hong Kong in 2019. Uli first went to China just after the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), at which time he founded Schindler, the first Western–Chinese business venture since the communist party came to power in 1949. Subsequently he became Swiss ambassador to China and finally a major collector with a worldwide profile. After the film, a number of people in the audience shared their own stories. We have our own stories. Australia doesn’t get enough credit for the persistent hard work and ultimate success we enjoyed in establishing solid links with China and our Asia–Pacific neighbours.
Shaune: It’s true. Those stories need to be documented more thoroughly. To bring it back to now, though, how might we—and I’m thinking of a public museum rather than a private space—best engage with the area that you’ve been working with for the past thirty or forty years? We face our own major challenges. For one, Australia must compete with the power and authority of those large, well-funded organisations based right there in China and with what’s happening in Hong Kong. Gene: Suhanya will, I think, be a great help now that she has been appointed Executive Director of M+. She is Sri Lankan-born but has been in Australia since her early teens. She grew up here. She went to high school and through university here. She married an Australian. Her children are Australian. She will inevitably take this knowledge and consciousness of Australia’s role in Asia–Pacific visual culture to what will soon be the core, and by far most significant, museum in the Asia–Pacific region. The Ullen sponsors are trying to find new support for their privately funded exhibiting operation. They may be tired of supporting a major institution, which, as we all know, could become an issue with other private institutions. I planned to direct our foundation [SCAF] for ten years. I am clearly not going to live forever. My children have their own extraordinary passions and pursuits. I am going to announce details of the next chapter in SCAF’s evolution at the end of this year. I have an original and exciting new project in the pipeline. More to follow over time. To get back to your question, it’s harder to collect Chinese contemporary art now. Prices are so much higher than they were. However, Southeast Asian art is still relatively affordable. That’s one option. Another way into the conversation might be to focus on establishing relationships. Much excellent work can be done through people as well as through objects. Shaune: We just need to continue to build relationships. Gene: Yes. Which means that you and your curatorial team have to find ways to get to Asia on a regular basis. If ever there are cultures that depend on long-term relationships, these cultures are in Asia. Americans can meet you today, do business tomorrow. The British take a little longer. The French take longer again, probably. But the Asians need to know you. They need to have dinner and tea with you a hundred times. They really do. They need to feel they trust you and, then, once they do, in my experience over many decades in Asia, they will do anything for and with you.
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HEATHER B SWANN’S THEATRE OF THE ABSURD Deborah Hart trawls the depths of Heather B Swann’s new project Nervous for which she enlisted a composer, musicians, singers and poetry, her own and Kevin Brophy’s, to create a performance and installation of extraordinary introspection and insight. Her sculptures, theatrical players themselves, were catalysts for her collaborators, and the live performance has been filmed and forms part of the exhibition to give a sense of what has been described as ‘a sonic haunting of objects’.
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The darkness of night can be beautiful and unsettling. A thousand eyes glint in the deep, dark forest and we do not know if we are awake or dreaming. Eyes embedded in the covers that shroud us ward off evil spirits. At night we wake in fright. Are the Banksia Men of old coming to get us? They sing a heavy, ancient song: a dirge, a lament, a chant. They want to wake us from the sleep of the ages. They want to wake our innermost selves.
Above: Shoulder Height 2014, iron, plywood, paper, ink Opposite: Heather B Swann in her studio with HeavyHead 2016 (yet to receive its fur coat), Talking Heads Rocker 2014 and Shoulder Height 2014, Canberra, July 2016. Photo: eX de Medici Page 30: Banksia Men 2015, wood, metal, silk, glass, sound. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Dr Christine Annette Lunam Bequest through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation, 2016 Following pages, clockwise from top left: HeavyHead 2016, plywood, paper, glue, faux fur, wheels; Black Sun and Blue Moon 2014, paper, glue and ink in two parts; Talking Heads Rocker 2014, plywood, paper, glue, ink, marble dust, boot polish
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We find ourselves on the brink of a great adventure in installation and performance with Heather B Swann’s remarkable Nervous project, being shown and performed in its entirety at the NGA for the first time. Her Banksia Men 2015, shown at this year’s Adelaide Biennial, have become part of a larger installation and collaborative multidisciplinary project, Nervous, which has been evolving over the past two years, and over a lifetime, inviting us into a world of intense emotions and states of being: ‘magnificent obsession / ecstatic vision / schizophrenic nights / anguish / longing / delirium’. There is both ambition and bravery in this large undertaking, sufficient to expose human emotions and vulnerability. Yet, paradoxically, to take a cue from Joseph Roth, there are no heroes here. We put ourselves out there on the stage of life and all of us, at some point, find ourselves nervous. It is a state of being that speaks of anxiety, of uncertainty. How will we perform in the world? How will we be received? We think of our audience and all those eyes and minds watching and seemingly judging and we are a bit afraid. Eyes are everywhere. The watchers are watching and the watched watch back. Sometimes we just want to hide away. We want to hide behind the mask. We want to disappear into the ‘other’. We want to pretend we are someone or something that may in fact be a greater, a truer expression of who we really
are. We might sing, draw, write, sculpt and perform about the unknown and unknowable to express our fears. If we embody these fears and put them out there, they may not be so frightening. There are no easy answers in the realms of strong emotions, but the questions can be illuminating. If you come with us on the Nervous journey with open hearts and minds you might discover some questions for yourself or they may find you—because they are already there, hiding, lurking, waiting for some friends in the nightscape of the mind. The ‘Mental’, as Swann refers to the context of Nervous, is an experiential space—a performative arena—that is sometimes for quiet watching, sometimes filled with hauntingly beautiful song and sometimes noisy with the competing sounds of who, what and where we are and why all the dark stuff in the world happens. Why history keeps repeating itself. In the small self and in the macrocosm, we want to find our better selves, not just for ourselves but also for the greater good. But there are also shadows of the mind, perennial dark forests beyond our control to plough through. So we keep ploughing. Out of the catastrophe of the First World War, Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc understood the need to ‘break down the walls’ between the visual arts, music and performance. Out of dark spaces, artists and musicians emit all manner of dissonant and resonant shapes and sounds, rediscovering old myths for new imaginings. Nervous, as an installation and as a collaborative realm, is about finding new spaces for dreaming. Art and music have long been conjoined with ceremony. And, in the procession of life-size Banksia Men, there is an element of the ceremonial in the strange, low chanting. When they are resting they appear sentinel-like, on beautifully made Duchampian stands. The wearable, and performative, components are
themselves exquisitely fabricated out of ruched jet-black silk, with big shiny eyes sourced from a toymaker in Berlin. It started as one Banksia Man and turned into nine. Hundreds of hours of sewing, gathering and shaping went into their creation until their presences could come through as a dramatic group. They are silky and shaggy with threads, immensely tactile. We want to touch but we are also a little afraid, a little nervous. For generations of Australians they call to mind the writing of May Gibbs. Swann is intrigued by the implications of Gibbs’ scary Banksia Men who stole white gumnut babies. Wasn’t it the little black babies who were stolen in real life? Dare we look truth in the face as time and reason change the way we retell our stories? What fears were harboured of the bush? These Banksia Men covered in eyes look back at us like figures in a Greek Chorus. What the hell were you thinking? Do you even know? When they sing their deep, dark, scratchy songs, we quake in our boots. Anthropomorphosis is Swann’s stock-in-trade. The origins of the idea for Banksia Men came from banksias she saw in the exhibition Capturing flora at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. The fruits of the banksia are hard and woody and look like eyelids, while the seeds they protect look like eyes. Applied to the Banksia Men, they appear to have 360-degree vision. They see all around them. Before they became sculptures, a gift of three gnarly plants became drawings that, in the artist’s estimation, weren’t working: ‘So I did a big black drawing over the top of them and I held the piece of paper up and there he was, and I said, “Oh hello! It’s a Banksia Man” … I did more drawings and, when I was working out the sculptures to make for Nervous, the Banksia Man kept popping up because he had eyes all over him’. Ideas about sight, insight and inner vision are crucial to Nervous. It all began following a random encounter in a Melbourne bookstore, when
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Swann spotted a muse for her art, a pale-blonde, beautiful, visually impaired young woman, Astrid Connelly. The two became firm friends, and Swann discovered that Connelly, a professional singer, wanted to be part of a work of visual art that encompassed performance. Swann decided to create a project for her, and it grew from there. As Connelly’s sight is very limited, the idea of what we see provided challenges and new spaces for imagining and working together on ideas of envisioning. In the Nervous performance, Connelly wears a dress covered in glass eyes and sings a song written by Swann, ‘I see you’. She sounds like an angel, her exquisite soprano voice bringing a heightened luminosity that counters the rich darkness of the Banksia Men chant. It is music that translates the abstraction of these sculptures, evoking myriad possibilities for making and unravelling: Undo this storm Undo this storm Undo this storm and wait I can’t control withering wonders Flowers that lose their shape I lie awake and watch it all It feels like thousand eyes … These words by Reykjavik indie group Of Monsters and Men conjure up associations with Swann’s work Stupid Little Dreamer 2014. In Swann’s work, like that of the Surrealists before her, eyes were a means of revealing dreamscapes of the subconscious, summoning the uncanny. A simple, fragilelooking bed is covered by a blanket embellished with countless glass eyes. It relates to a drawing she did years ago for an Ihos Opera production about schizophrenia, ‘and it grew out of being sad and acknowledging that making art is a way of hanging on in the world’, she reflects.
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As we contemplate the work, we experience an unsettling surreality. It is not a bed that invites you in but is itself another kind of being in the world, a creature looking out. By contrast, the solid big black form of HeavyHead 2016, which rolls into Swann’s ‘Mental’ from the wings, has no eyes. His head bends down in a gesture that speaks of sadness, loneliness and loss. He is all longing. He is a Trojan horse of secrets. As Swann says, ‘He is full of deep thought, and any serious contemplation of how the world works must inevitably produce great sadness’. Yet it is as though the profound contemplation invested in this form makes us want to befriend him. There is also something comforting and loveable in his velvety bulkiness, in his satisfying shape. Adding to his paradoxical nature he embodies great stillness but can be wheeled around. All the works in Nervous nod to the imaginary world of Angela Carter’s The magic toyshop, where boundaries of the real and unreal dissolve, as well as to the iconoclasm of Dada. The words of poet Kevin Brophy, from his poem ‘Into day’, sung in part in Nervous, further illuminate the feeling of HeavyHead: … carved from a child’s night wheeled out into your sight, velvet and round, possibly hollow, looking as if I’ve just swallowed the family piano. You wake in the night to find me grazing In the deepest of corners … Throughout Swann’s Nervous are patterns of lightness and heaviness. The big pendulous forms in Donkey Basket 2014, padded with a silk lining, make the viewer want to be a participant—to climb in and hide and think for a while. The form came from a real donkey basket she saw in Spain and it evokes the heavy labour of the donkey, along with containers for carrying the stuff
of life. Swann wrote: ‘the words pile up / weighting the donkey down / the donkey does the work / the work is donkey / the weight is the work / fill the donkey basket / move the words around / empty the basket / throw the words out / throw the weight around’. Shoulder Height 2014 is like a drawing in air. It makes me think of the unbearable lightness of being. Here, two pairs of carved legs recalling the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois rest on their tippy toes, the points—perfectly poised and balanced—investing the work with precision and clarity. They are together but apart—held in tension by an arc in space that becomes the yoke for carrying the work. It was designed for a six-foot man and is carried in the performance by Jack Swann, who, like Connelly, is a talented singer. Are the pairs of legs trying to escape from each other or are they held in stasis? Either way, they feel very much alive. Swann once remarked that ‘this surreal landscape … is full of trepidation but also a bit funny’. Her idea calls to mind a sense of the absurdities of life and the words of Martin Esslin (who also wrote about Samuel Beckett) in his 1965 book Absurd drama: ‘The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy … The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief’. The tension between like elements in Shoulder Height reappears in Talking Heads Rocker 2014 in which two heads like Roman busts face each other across the seesaw rocker—like twins in a double bind. What kind of conversation might they be having? Solemn words for a dark night? Or pass the salt, won’t you? Go on, give it a try. Be absurd. Find some friends to sit between us. No friends in sight. Oh well. Do the math. Scrunch the sums. Rock the rocker. While these heads are far apart, Black Sun and Blue Moon 2014 nestle close to each other as if, having finally found each other—the echo of light against dark—they whisper sweet nothings that no passer-by could hear. The blue moon in the title again calls to mind the lyrics of a popular song, one written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart in 1934, which seems particularly apt in the realm of feelings evoked by Swann’s Nervous. It has been said that the idea of the title ‘Blue moon’ for the song, is a play on words, ‘since blue is also the colour of melancholy’, and the narrator is sorrowful and lonely until he finds love—a stroke of luck so unexpected that it must have taken place under a blue moon. Some years ago, Swann made a conscious decision to pare back her palette to a predominance of black. Black has emotive power. It corresponds
with the distillation of forms to their essence and to the compression of complex emotions. In the theatricality of the works, embodying a sense of the absurdity of life, and in the migration of ideas across drawing, sculpture and performance, there are some parallels with the art of William Kentridge, whose work she greatly admires. The experimental nature of Swann’s drawing practice that underpins her sculptures corresponds with Kentridge’s ideas of the activity of drawing as contingent and a way of finding out who we are and how we function in the world. In the installation of Nervous, the sculptures, as carriers of deep feeling, will be placed in dialogue with each other, their black shapes set in space against white walls in a dramatic and engaging theatre of mind and imagination. Nervous @ NGA, Canberra, until 20 November Special thanks goes to the artist Heather B Swann for sharing her thoughts quoted in this essay, to the Art Gallery of South Australia for the loan of Banksia Men and for allowing them to be performed and to David Hansen for his kind assistance.
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PARR/POLLOCK Elspeth Pitt examines how Jackson Pollock’s masterpiece Blue poles 1952 feeds into Mike Parr’s Jackson Pollock the Female, performed on the opening night of Parr’s survey exhibition at the NGA on 11 August. Pollock’s painting and the commentary that surrounded it when it was purchased by the NGA in 1973 made an indelible impact on Parr, who was then emerging from Australia’s conservative art scene as a major international force in conceptual and performance art.
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‘Performance releases a lot of stuff. Performance art, in a way, breaks up the mediums of art … It can be such a powerful intrusion from the outside. That’s what was so salient about [Hans] Namuth’s film of Pollock painting … I’ve often talked about that recorded moment … when Pollock exclaims “I am not a phoney!” This was said while succumbing to the opposite. Working with Hans Namuth all day and this Bolex camera in its black casing under a sheet of glass, the thing’s a mirror. He’s looking into a mirror … dripping paint in relation to this image, all over the glass, and he’s being told to repeat himself until the impulse is dead … That was the end of Pollock.’ Mike Parr, interviewed by Diana Smith, Oberon
At the time of writing this article, Mike Parr’s new performance work Jackson Pollock the Female exists only in outline, in a running sheet emailed to me by the artist: ‘The Bride [an alter ego who entered Parr’s practice in the early 1990s] enters a large white space, stripped of all works bar Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles. She wears a white silk dress. She walks to the painting and takes her place calmly beneath it. A make-up artist carefully paints the Bride’s face while cameras document the event. Then, dissonantly, a doctor approaches. Dark blood is extracted from the Bride’s right arm and drawn into a succession of vials. Wavering between consciousness and unconsciousness, she stretches out on the floor of the gallery. Then, taking up her brushes once more, the make-up artist paints the Bride’s dress with blood, in globules, slits and arabesques like the work of Pollock behind her’. It is unclear how the audience will react to this work, though one can make a guess. Some will think the performance important, others will find it horrific. Admiration will be countered by criticism, perhaps in equal parts. Parr’s art has always been divisive. Yet, while often extreme, it is rarely gratuitous. Of his contribution to the 1977 Paris Biennale, Grahame Sturgeon contemporaneously observed in The Australian that ‘every move he makes is of the deepest psychological significance to him’. I know that this performance, too, has evolved in the artist’s mind over months, even years—a collection of accumulating ideas gathering weight and resolve, finding form through writing and incessantly refined. The performance is the definitive, tangible incarnation of a long interior process, mounting anxiety and finally, release. Parr has performed or made work in relation to other artists in the past. His 1983 installation A-Artaud (against the light) self portrait at sixty-five comprised anamorphic portrait drawings conceived as a visual counterpart to the glossolalia that became an increasing feature of the modernist poet’s work in the 1940s. The Wedge (for Vito Acconci), an immense Jarrah block installed at Roslyn Oxley’s Paddington space in 1989, referenced Acconci’s Seedbed 1971 in which Acconci lay concealed beneath the floor
of Sonnabend Gallery broadcasting sexual fantasises into the space above. Parr’s 2006 performance Amerika was an act of restitution offered to the great German artist Joseph Beuys, whose basalt tree marker placed with a fig sapling by René Block (on Beuys’s behalf) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the 1984 Biennale of Sydney had disappeared from the grounds some years earlier. The links between the practices of these artists and of Parr are clear enough. He admires and extends their work: Antonin Artaud’s disjointed language and unconscious responses, Acconci’s insertion of indecorous elements into pristine gallery spaces and Beuys’s personal mythologies and material experiments. By comparison, the connection to Pollock is seemingly more tenuous. Yet, in swooping over and encircling his canvases, Pollock was not only an action painter but also a proto-performance artist. So too, the ire and argument that the acquisition of Blue poles inspired when Parr was emerging as an artist form another part of the complex background from which this performance has emerged. No work of art had ever figured so prominently in the Australian popular press or consciousness. It caused unprecedented furore, and yet it was not the work of art so much as its purchase price around which most commentary revolved. Almost every headline from 1973 to 1974 referenced the A$1.3 million price tag, a staggering amount then (and now) and a record figure for a postwar American painting at the time. Former director of the National Gallery of Victoria Daryl Lindsay was quoted in the Canberra Times as saying that, while Pollock was an important painter, it was an ‘enormous’ price to pay. Terry Ingram, writing in the Financial Review, quipped that the gallery had paid Renaissance prices for Baroque, a thread extended by artist and former Commonwealth Advisory Board member William Dargie, who observed that the gallery could have probably had a Rembrandt for the same figure. Gough Whitlam, who sanctioned the purchase, defended its acquisition in financial terms at a parliamentary press conference, stating he had no doubt
Barbara Cleveland eats an apple 2016, BC Institute, Sydney. Photos: Zan Wimberley
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Opposite: Parr/Nixon The Wedge (for Vito Acconci) 1989, floor made from Western Australian jarrah. Private collection. Installed Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Paddington, Sydney. Photo: Fenn Hinchcliffe Below: Dream (The lights of Empedocles), Part II 1982, Canberra School of Art
it would make a ‘handsome profit’ if resold, an idea raised in various state parliaments, floated in the Federal House and evidently discussed with the previous owner Ben Heller. Letters sent to newspapers around the country puzzled over the painting, questioning how its purchase could possibly be in the public interest when homelessness and economic disadvantage were stalwart features of the Australian social fabric. One correspondent to The Canberra Times noted that the same figure could provide at least eighty-six housing-commission dwellings. But deeper questions, rarely raised or explicitly discussed, underpinned the outcries of financial extravagance, the judgments on which arthistorical periods the gallery’s collecting activity should focus and the broader concerns about social inequity. The questions, ‘What is art worth?’ and, perhaps even more interestingly, ‘What is Australian art worth in comparison to its American counterpart?’, for the most part, lay peculiarly latent. The opinions of Australian artists regarding the purchase of Blue poles were sought out intermittently. Some were in favour (Patrick White, Russell Drysdale, Tony Tuckson), others against, including Sali Herman, who was widely cited as saying, ‘the whole thing just stinks’. Interviewing then director James Mollison in The National Times, Geoffrey De Groen enquired as to what quantity of the acquisition budget was allocated to the collection of work by Australian artists, to which Mollison replied, ‘a fairly small percentage’. He added that, in comparison to the vast sums spent on international art, an Australian work of ‘real quality’ by an artist like Frank Hinder could be bought for ‘around $600.00’.
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The startling disparity between art market prices and, more to the point, what the gallery was willing to pay for an American painting and an Australian one was taken up by Terry Smith in The Nation Review in which he called Australia a ‘colonial lackey’, yet again ‘ripped off’ by the New York art market. His renowned article ‘The provincialism problem’, published in Artforum in 1974, drew a pointed comparison between Pollock and Nolan: ‘whereas both Jackson Pollock and Sidney Nolan are seen as “great artists” by the art audience in Australia, it is inconceivable that Nolan should be so regarded in New York. And in Australia, Nolan’s “greatness” is of a different order from Pollock’s. Nolan is admired as a great Australian artist, while Pollock is taken to be a great artist—his Americanness accepted as a secondary aspect of his achievement qua artist. In such circumstances, the most to which the provincial artist can aspire to is to be considered second‑rate’. At around the same time, Parr was still winding down Inhibodress, a seminal artist collective that had continued to function as a concept beyond the closing of its base in a former factory space near Finger Wharf in the Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo in 1972. While the Inhibodress audience had been modest in scale, its activities were influential. The space, along with Melbourne’s Pinocotheca, had been largely responsible for introducing conceptual, video and performance art to Australian audiences. Writing to the American critic Lucy Lippard in 1971, Parr and co-founder Peter Kennedy vowed to ‘reconcile the local avant-garde with the most progressive international art’. But it had been a hard task given the conservative climate in which the space functioned. Sydney Morning Herald art critic Donald Brook appealed to his readers to support the young enterprise or see it close, which it did in November 1972. By comparison, Ian Millis, in his renowned ‘obituary’ of Inhibodress, condemned its work as derivative, refusing to see it as a legitimate endeavour to have been operated within an international network by young artists discontent to loiter at its fringe. The savagery of Millis’s piece arguably affirmed Smith’s reluctantly held position that a provincial artist can only ever be considered second-rate. In developing Jackson Pollock the Female, Parr asked why his work should not be shown in the context of Pollock’s. Because of a lingering cultural cringe, bigotries ingrained in international art markets or the inelasticity of gallery display models? Perhaps more than any other Australian artist Parr has laboured constantly to conceive his work within contexts transcending national, temporal and theoretical dimensions. Certainly, considering Pollock and Parr without reference to nationality, time and art-historical parameters reveals shared circumstance and creative intent. Both were raised in financially precarious situations, both wrestled with mental disquiet and, as a result, both became absorbed in psychoanalytic theory, which came to motivate their art in different ways. Many artists working in the twentieth century claim psychoanalytic theory as an influence. Yet Pollock and Parr’s engagement with the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and their subsequent adherents and swathes of revisionists, was sustained, not fleeting. They probed its implications more intensely than many artists, particularly those vaguely identifying as surrealists, whose exploration of the tensions between the conscious and unconscious comprised a bizarre but elegant patois of dream imagery maladroit at serious inquiry.
Pollock’s The moon woman cuts the circle c 1943, a vigorously painted work in which two muscular arabesques emerge from a white shard, is often cited as an explicit reference to the Jungian concept of the anima, the inner feminine aspect in every man, and its opposite, the animus. The painting also foreshadows Pollock’s movement toward ‘all over’ compositions, a feature of late modernism in which perspectival hierarchies are negated. The increasingly dimensionless aspect of his painting arguably peaks in Blue poles, with perspective at once implied and refused by the poles striking through the faceted paintwork. To some, this suggests the dissolution of spatial dimensions and the assimilation of self, bringing conscious and unconscious into concert within an elusive threshold space. In the NGA’s 2002 publication Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles, Anthony White has remarked that it is Pollock’s revealing and concealment of the canvas, rather than an explicit visual metaphor, that most strongly alludes to the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind. The same cannot be said of Parr’s The Bride, a potent figure whose resonance amplifies with every iteration. The Bride first appeared publicly in the doorway of Ivan Dougherty Gallery in 1994, with visitors forced to step over her body to enter the space. While many ideas feed into her, she often embodies a threshold or liminal state that one enters into during a ritual, a point at which one has relinquished their pre-ritual status but is yet to acquire the new one they will hold once that ritual is complete. Frequently worn down through durational performances, driven to exhaustion or collapse, she exists in a delicate nexus between gender, symbol, life and death, evading the nomenclatures typically used to order the world. Like Pollock’s painting she, too, is a perspectival disturbance, an attempt, in Parr’s words, to ‘break the image’. Mike Parr @ NGA, Canberra, until 6 November For the bookshelf: Mike Parr: language and chaos, available at the NGA Shop and online at shop.nga.gov.au For the diary: ‘Palimpsest: layers of meaning’, drawing workshop, 15 October, 10.00 am ‘Reproduction zero’, talk by Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax, 22 October, 2.00 pm Plus performances: ‘Alphabet/Haemorrhage libretto’, a new arrangement by Dr Alexander Hunter and first written by Parr in 1992, 15 October, 2.00 pm ‘Telling time’, Amala Groom and Frances Barrett, 29 October, 2.00 pm ‘Reading for The End of Time’, a durational performance by Mike Parr based on Roland Barthes’s Camera lucida, 5 November, 10.30 am
Amerika 2006, performance for as long as possible, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
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SAVING ABSTRACTION Jane Kinsman, in the lead up to a new exhibition at the NGA in November, extols the virtues of Frank Stella’s lifelong project to shed the shackles of his early success in pursuit of a new form of abstraction, going beyond two dimensions and embracing an unusual bedfellow in decoration. Making an early correlation between abstraction and Renaissance art, he has sought to reform the twentieth-century art movement to keep it bold, lively and relevant in an ever-changing world of art.
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Above: Black series I 1967, lithographs. Purchased 1973 Opposite, from top: Star of Persia I and II from the series Star of Persia 1967, lithographs. Purchased 1973 Page 44–5: Dubiaxo from the Imaginary places series 1994–99 (detail), lithograph, screenprint, etching, aquatint, relief, stamping. Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund, 2002
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Page 48: Feneralia 1995 from the series Imaginary places 1994–99, stencil, lithograph, etching, aquatint, relief, collagraph. Gift of Kenneth Tyler, 2002 Page 49, clockwise from top right: Dubiaxo and Egyplosis from the series Imaginary places 1994–99, lithograph, etching, aquatint, relief, stamping, screenprint. Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund, 2002;
Estoril five I and Talladega three II from the series Circuits 1982–84, relief, woodcut, hand-coloured. Gift of Kenneth Tyler, 2002 Page 50, from top: The monkey‑rope from the series Moby Dick deckle edges 1993, lithograph, etching, aquatint, relief, screenprint; Monstrous pictures of whales from the series Moby Dick deckle edges 1993, lithograph, etching, aquatint, relief, screenprint. Both purchased
with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund, 2002 Page 51: Schwarze Weisheit for DJ 2000, colour lithograph, etching, aquatint, relief, embossing. Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund, 2002 All works in the feature from the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Frank Stella was born in 1936 in Malden, outer suburban Boston. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in history from Princeton University in New Jersey in 1958, then moved to New York. ‘I never really wanted to become an artist. But, I did want to make things’, he confessed in a conversation with the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Adam D Weinberg on 7 March 2014, and an interest in contemporary events followed. Like many young artists in immediate postwar America, he was initially smitten with artists associated with Abstract Expressionism. Unlike other young artists, though, he achieved almost instant notoriety soon after graduating when, in 1959, he astonished the art world with the sombre, pure forms of his Black paintings, heralding the arrival of minimalism. Stella’s career, however, followed an unexpected trajectory in his search to validate and renew abstraction, finding new imagery that not only embraces shape, space and colour but also, to the surprise of many, decoration. In a series of lectures at Harvard in the first half of the 1980s, Stella drew parallels between the ‘tepid’ Renaissance of Nicholas Poussin, which necessarily led to Baroque art, and the crisis of postwar abstraction, which he thought also needed to find a new impetus to retain its pre-eminence in the ever-changing world of modern art. The desire to avoid an art style he likened to a ‘slug of lead’, referring to the High Renaissance artist Poussin, and, instead, find a passion to ‘fill the void’, as Caravaggio had done, took Stella on a journey of remarkable invention. In his search for this new path for abstraction, he experimented with highly dramatic and almost narrative forms from the late 1950s onward. The survival of abstraction in a viable form was important for Stella, but the divergent extremes of his evolving body of work left many of his early enthusiasts shaking their heads as he travelled from understated geometric forms to a fully blown Baroque style with a suggestive, dramatic expression and an enveloping sense of space. Early on, he had rebelled against the perception that he had been instrumental in introducing a minimalist language, and his career was characterised by a reaction against this unwanted mantle of purity. Yet, there is consistency in Stella’s work. An underlying ‘spring-loaded’ tension and dynamism has always characterised it, from the early Black paintings of his youth to the more off-the-wall extravaganzas of recent years. His art chronicles a lifetime of experimenting with abstraction, and it is this narrative that was the underlying current of his major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art in 2015. But some critics still considered his later contributions a total lapse of taste—a response that, for this author, recalls how singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was ostracised by his most devoted fans (so grounded in folk music) once he took up the electric guitar. Ben Davis, in his review for artnet on 3 November 2015, agreed with critics who ‘don’t much like the swollen theatrics of Stella’s late works’. These ‘late monsters’, for Davis, took up far too much space, were too adventurous and far too dramatic, although he also conceded that the casual art viewer might well find them more to their liking. ‘Stella,’ he acknowledges, ‘tacked to the shifting winds [of the art world], from airy elitism to savvy spectacle, right on time’. Jason Farago, on the other hand, recognises Stella as an artist who continues to explore new ideas, untrammelled by his earlier success. In his review in the Guardian of 29 October 2015, he writes that it is Stella’s ‘boundless and commendable evolution, rather than some static mastery, that is the mark of Stella’s seriousness’.
Throughout his career, Stella has been a constant adventurer and highwire act, an ‘unstoppable risk-taker’, as master printmaker and collaborator Ken Tyler, who has worked with him, described him to me in April this year. The criticism that Stella should have moved to parlour-sized works in a more conventional form failed to appreciate the bravura of an artist still intent on seeking new ways to give life to the art of abstraction. It’s this exploration that a new exhibition at the NGA in November will present for audiences to discover. Frank Stella @ NGA, Canberra, opens 19 November
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LOVE, LOYALTY AND WAR Bronwyn Campbell illuminates the extraordinary journey of thirteen Indian paintings given to Australia in 1954 by identical twins from Ireland. Born of the admiration the twins had for Australian soldiers, the gift included 335 works in total, but it is the thirteen from the eastern Deccan region that reveal an intriguing history of ownership that can be traced back to a British Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad in the early nineteenth century.
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Diary of an object
The disastrous landing at Gallipoli is writ large on the Australian psyche. The bravery of the ANZAC soldiers has inspired not only a century of artistic tributes and nationalistic pride at home but also the respect of allies and adversaries alike. This was especially true for the Irish-born identical twin brothers Colonel Thomas Gayer Gayer-Anderson CMG, DSO, and Major Robert ‘John’ Grenville Gayer-Anderson, Pasha, whose admiration for Australians was cemented during their service on the Turkish coast. In spite of being often separated by vast distances, the brothers were struck by particular experiences throughout their lives that, beyond explanation, bore remarkable similarity. They called these experiences ‘Twin Similar Happenings’ and attributed them to being ‘two halves of the same being’. One especially significant example, from early in their military careers, was the forging of close friendships with two Australian officers who were alike in appearance, character and outlook—both notably possessing ‘fine horsemanship and unusually large moustaches’. It was in honour of these two ‘splendid fellows’ and the bonds forged in combat that the brothers resolved to make a gift from their large art collection to the Commonwealth of Australia, which was realised in 1954. The twins were both keen artists and collectors, and their shared passion for Indian painting and drawing began in 1926 when the Cairo-based Robert gave his brother six paintings he had purchased locally. Entranced by them, Thomas was delighted when, later that year, he was posted to India, where he began collecting in earnest, seeking out the descendants of artists and trawling bazaars and curio shops for treasures. The brothers continued to acquire Indian works their whole lives. Working alone after his brother’s death in 1945, Thomas carefully catalogued, restored and mounted the paintings and drawings that they had amassed. In 1952, he gave the greater part of the collection to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London,
reserving a selection for Australia. Given in 1954, the Gayer-Anderson Gift included 277 Indian paintings, drawings and objects. The catalogue that Thomas painstakingly wrote out by hand has been an invaluable source of information for the NGA’s Asian Art Provenance Project, as he took great care to keep a record of where he acquired the works, when and often from whom. The gift included a group of thirteen distinctive paintings from the eastern Deccan region, including Baz Bahadur and his mistress Rupmati hunting, which have been variously identified as originating in Hyderabad, Chennai or Machilipatnam. In the case of this little-known eastern Deccan style of painting, the chain of ownership may provide important clues to the identity of the maker. Piecing together information from the catalogue and other sources, we know that Thomas Gayer-Anderson bought at least thirty-nine paintings of this type at Walker Galleries in London in 1952 and that they had previously been in the collection of Sir Henry Russell of Swallowfield Park in Berkshire. In 1798, fourteen-year-old Henry Russell arrived in Calcutta (presentday Kolkata) with his father, a judge of the Bengal Supreme Court. He commenced work for the East India Company later that year and had become assistant to the Resident at Hyderabad by 1800. The Residency was an East India Company diplomatic position in the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, held at the time by James Kirkpatrick, a famous example of a ‘White Mughal’, a European who adopted the dress, religion, lifestyle and customs of India. The young Russell made himself indispensable to Kirkpatrick, and, unsurprisingly for someone immersed in Indian high society from such a young age, he too threw himself into the lifestyle of an Indian noble and had a series of affairs with Indian women. In his capacity as an executor of Kirkpatrick’s will, after his death in 1805, Russell cared for his mentor’s widow, the famous beauty Khair-un-Nissa. Documents preserved
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54 Artonview 87 | Spring 2016
Diary of an object
Opposite: Rai Venkatchellam Portrait of Henry Russell c 1802–05, opaque watercolour and gold on paper. Private collection. Image courtesy Prahlad Bubbar, London Right: The twins seated in the courtyard at Beit el-Kretliya, Robert’s home in Cairo, surrounded by members of the household, c 1935. Thomas is on the left, Robert on the right. Image courtesy of the Gayer-Anderson Estate Previous pages: Deccan painting, possibly Machilipatnam style, India Baz Bahadur and his mistress Rupmati hunting, Desakhya ragini, A group of ladies bathing, The emperor Babur c 1780, opaque watercolour, gold leaf, tin leaf. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, The Gayer-Anderson Gift, 1954
in the Bodleian Library at Oxford suggest that the vain young Indiaphile and Khair-un-Nissa embarked on a star-crossed love affair. Russell’s life at this time, as well as his relationship with Kirkpatrick and his family, is vividly described in William Dalrymple’s 2003 book White Mughals: love and betrayal in eighteenth-century India. Russell was an avid art collector of Indian and, later, European art. Among the many paintings he purchased in India was the group that includes Baz Bahadur and his mistress Rupmati hunting. Painted around 1780, it depicts the last sultan of Malwa, Baz Bahadur, hunting on horseback with his lover, Rupmati, a poet and singer of noble birth. The entire composition reflects their union, with the hunting dogs paired lovingly in the background and a buck and doe inseparable in the foreground even as Baz Bahadur looses his arrow at them. Even the trees grow in pairs, symbolising the great love the couple bore one another. Baz Bahadur was so besotted with Rupmati that he neglected his domain, and in 1562 the Mughal emperor Akbar sent an army to annex Malwa. Baz Bahadur was defeated and exiled for years, while Rupmati, dressed in her wedding clothes, drank poison to avoid being claimed by the conquering general. It may have been this emotive image of doomed lovers that inspired Russell to buy the vibrant paintings. Enriched with gold leaf, portraying emperors, noblemen, gods and groups of women bathing, worshipping and hunting, they were all apparently painted in one studio, thought to be in the town of Machilipatnam. Was it coincidence that Machilipatnam was where Khair-un-Nissa, disgraced by her associations with two Englishmen, resided in exile? Perhaps it was, as the once-vibrant trading port had crumbled by the time she made her home there. It had been devastated by a cyclone in 1800, an event these fragile, jewel-like paintings would unlikely survive. Perhaps, then, Russell bought them elsewhere for the association they had with the place his lover waited for him while he worked in Hyderabad, a week’s journey away.
As his self-importance and ambition waxed, Russell renounced his Mughal robes and enthusiasm for flying in the face of expatriate society. In 1808, he abandoned Khair-un-Nissa and married an Anglo-Portuguese heiress, Jane Casamajor, who died tragically a few weeks later. Khair-un-Nissa, bereft of husband, children and lover, died in 1813, aged only twenty-seven. In spite of his scandalous personal life, Russell became Resident in 1810, although his lack of diplomatic talent and dubious financial dealings meant that he left India permanently in 1820. Becoming Sir Henry on his father’s death in 1836, he took up residence at the family seat at Swallowfield Park, surrounding himself with his vast art collection in his luxurious mansion. It is there that the Deccan paintings likely remained until after the Second World War, when a combination of death duties and socio-political change resulted in the dissolution of many English country estates. Or perhaps they had been sold off or given away earlier. Either way, one hundred years after the death of Sir Henry in 1852, Thomas Gayer-Anderson came across them in Walker Galleries. He then gave one to his great friend WG Archer, who was in charge of the Indian section of the Victoria and Albert Museum and had helped him catalogue his collection. The rest were divided between the NGA and V&A. Other works Sir Henry brought home from India are in collections around the world, both public and private. Further research may reveal the obscure origins and missing history of the eastern Deccan works. South Indian painting styles still hold many mysteries for art historians to unfold, but looking more closely at their provenance might just shine a light on the secrets of their creation. In memory of Bill Hamilton, 1919–2016, who was a volunteer in the NGA’s Paper Conservation department for twenty years, during which time he undertook a great deal of research into the Gayer-Andersons and their gift.
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David Hockney Living with Picasso Jane Kinsman
After spending several years in his native Yorkshire, in northern England, David Hockney has now returned to live in Los Angeles, at his home in the Hollywood Hills. It was there, in his huge studio (once a tennis court), that we spent some time together earlier this year talking about his recent work and particularly the enduring influence of Pablo Picasso on his practice. He showed me a group of his most recent compositions intended for a Royal Academy exhibition in July, and we flicked through proofs for the forthcoming Taschen book David Hockney: a bigger book—‘Every page is a zinger’, he muses. Hanging on the walls were portraits —family, friends and acquaintances of all ages—all on the same seat in the same space but in a remarkable array of poses, gestures and facial expressions. The figures were uncannily slightly smaller than life-size and set against alternating vivid green and turquoise-blue backdrops worthy of Henri Matisse (Hockney is a great fan). After some lunch, we resumed our conversation, and Hockney his chain smoking. Having spent time with him before and being privy to his habit and, of course, his longstanding and incredible passion for Picasso, I had thought to bring him an ashtray with a Picasso design of a butterfly on it, which may have contributed to why the great twentieth-century artist dominated our afternoon discussion. In the period after the Second World War, London witnessed some very influential exhibitions of the modern art by Piet Mondrian (1955) and Jackson Pollock (1958) at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and by Georges Braque (1956) and Picasso (1960), organised by the newly established Arts Council of Great Britain. As a student at the Royal College of Art in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hockney was privy to these shows, and their influence was felt. But it was Picasso, in particular, that he came to love. ‘Picasso was a unique artist, there’s nobody else quite like him actually’, he says, ‘Not even Matisse really. He can only be compared with maybe Michelangelo in the sense that Michelangelo was famous at twelve years old because of his sculpture, while Picasso was a prodigy, a young prodigy, looking at painting in Barcelona when he was fifteen years old’. As an exercise in devotion and in his desire to retrace Picasso’s artistic development, Hockney had collected a complete set of Christian Zervos’s catalogue raisonné of over sixteen thousand paintings and drawings by Picasso, a monumental 33-volume publication compiled over four decades. Hockney tells me that he has carefully examined every work in the publication three times, concluding that, ‘You can see he [Picasso] doesn’t repeat himself. And, that’s amazing, absolutely amazing … That’s why people will keep on discovering Picasso. He died nearly fifty years ago, but you can go on finding things in Zervos that are little groups of painting’.
This almost obsessive reflection on the work of Picasso reveals the painstaking care with which Hockney views art generally. It’s something he has taught himself in his lifelong search for how to depict things. Those lessons of Cubism, Picasso and the depiction of time and space are evident in his masterful series of colour lithographic prints Moving focus 1984–87, which he made at Kenneth Tyler’s print workshop in Bedford Village in New York. He embraced in the series, which is in the NGA’s collection, the notion of the Cubist collage, placing different views together in a single image. As viewers, then, we must take our time observing the various elements on the surface, shifting our focus, as it were, to see the movement of time and space that Hockney has carefully constructed. Hockney lamented that Picasso had become unfashionable as a figurative painter in his later years, as abstraction and minimalism became more popular in avant-garde circles. ‘I remember in the eighties when people thought Picasso, late Picasso, was terrible. They even tried to get rid of him, I think. But they can’t’. Even early supporters, including the great collector of Picasso’s Cubist works Douglas Cooper, thought Picasso had lost his way. Cooper is known to have described the Picasso’s late works as ‘frenetic doodles’. Hockney disputes this assessment and describes them instead as ‘a marvellous Cubism of the brush. That’s all it was, just a brush stroke. And I’ve noticed a lot about Picasso. I’ve noticed, after about 1960, all the brush marks are visible, all of them … Well why would you cover up a mark?’ Picasso was adopting the painting style evident in the watercolours of Paul Cézanne, where form was articulated through brushwork. Similarly, Hockney’s process is becoming more transparent in his work. His relatively new iPad compositions have revealed to him a method of making art in which he can trace his steps backwards and forwards. He also has in this new tool a dazzling new palette and an extraordinary freedom that has advanced his lifetime obsession with solving the mystery of how we ‘view the world and how to depict it’, as I wrote in the book Workshop in 2015. Works done on the iPad such as his series The arrival of spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011, now in the NGA’s collection, present a complex sense of space that envelops us, giving us an almost physical sense of being within the picture. Even in this new technology, though, Picasso remains a constant for Hockney, who is confident that his idol ‘would have gone mad with this’. Next year, the NGA will exhibit Hockney’s prints in a show that will take visitors on a journey from his early years making etchings as a student at the Royal School of Art to his time developing extraordinary prints and paperworks at Tyler’s workshops and his recent experiments with the iPad.
David Hockney working on his series Moving focus, Tyler Graphics Ltd, Bedford Village, New York, 1985. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, gift of Kenneth Tyler, 2002. Photo: Steven Solomon
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Lesley Dumbrell Winds of change Lara Nicholls
I am standing in the NGA’s cafe with renowned abstract painter Lesley Dumbrell, and we are looking out at the havoc wrought on the vegetation of the Sculpture Garden by a severe storm that had swept through Canberra the day before. A mature gumtree dramatically uprooted by windthrow serves to punctuate our conversation of the past few hours. We had spoken at length about her Op art masterpiece of 1975, Foehn, a work that is entirely about wind. The word ‘foehn’ is a meteorological term used to describe the dry wind that flows down the leeward slope of a mountain after it has travelled up the windward side from the ocean, carrying cool, moist air that results in rain and snow clouds at the summit. The urge to capture the fleeting, intangible, cosmological, philosophical and experiential elements of life on this planet has, for decades, driven artists to abstract and distil the world around us in non-representational ways. It is this desire that lies at the heart of Dumbrell’s decision to paint wind, which has no intrinsic visual definition. ‘Landscape has always been the thing’, she concedes, but she is referring to a different, more elemental reading of it, ‘the sparkle of light on a wet country road or the flicker of light through the stands of gum trees as you drive past in a car … it is the ephemeral part of nature that I find interesting—the fleetingness of it and trying to capture the feeling of it’. I remember what she had written in the 1990 book Field of vision: ‘I like to believe that this is the timeless element of the world, and hope that even if we destroy ourselves the landscape will survive. I try to express gentleness, stillness, contemplativeness, timelessness, sometimes old fashioned notions about grace, elegance and even joy’. On the subject of colour, Dumbrell explains that she was deeply influenced by Wassily Kandinsky’s treatise of 1912, Concerning the spiritual in art; and painting in particular, which she read when an art student at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in the early 1960s. Kandinsky defines the experience of perceiving colour as both physical and psychological. He writes, ‘to a more sensitive soul the effect of colours is deeper and intensely moving. And so we come to the second main result of looking at colours: their psychological effect. They produce a corresponding spiritual vibration, and it is only as a step towards this spiritual vibration that the elementary physical impression is of importance’. In Foehn, the palette and the structure of the work brings the viewer closer to the elemental experience of being in nature—the cold or the heat, the wetness of water against the cheek and the sound of wind or the movement of water—all the things our senses are alive to when in the midst of nature. ‘I wanted to make a painting of the movement of wind and how it swoops past you. It is also about water falling … in the end the viewer has to decide what they feel about it’, she says.
Although she paints in oils today, from 1966 to 1990, Dumbrell painted exclusively in Liquitex synthetic polymer paint, a medium that James Doolin introduced her to when they were both teaching at Prahran Technical College in Melbourne. It brought new colours and a distinctive clarity to her palette. It also dries very quickly, leaving little room for error, which is why she first maps out her work in small scale in gouache and watercolour. Despite the illusion of mechanical precision from afar, the brush strokes are very painterly—underneath, the ghostly outline of the underlying grid can be made out. ‘I still think my handwriting is in that painting’, she says. The process of selecting and mixing colour is deeply personal, too, ‘entirely intuitive’ and built on ‘an emotional scale’, she confesses. ‘Colour has an optical playfulness’ that builds the structure of the work. ‘I use hot and cold colours and when they bump up against each other they create a dynamic energy’. The colours of Foehn graduate subtly from light to dark so that the dominant sense of green softens as we move through the painting. The yellow marks interact with the green, flowing together toward the pale centre, where they build in intensity and seem to culminate. But the eye only settles briefly before moving along another line flowing through the work. It is what Dumbrell refers to as a non-hierarchical ‘environment’ within the composition. The crisp optical coolness of Foehn belies another fascinating story behind its inception. It was painted at a critical time in Dumbrell’s career and a pivotal moment in the women’s art movement in Australia. In 1975, the New York at critic and feminist Lucy Lippard visited Melbourne and encouraged women artists to mobilise their collective resources. The result was the Women’s Art Register and the publication of the Lip journal, which examined ‘art and politics from a feminist perspective’. Dumbrell commented in the first issue, ‘Looking back, 1975 can be seen to have been an important year for Australian women’. In that year, the winds of change were blowing through art and politics, and Foehn, painted on a monumental scale by an artist in full command of her powers and acquired for the national collection a year later, is testament to the ‘process and change’ that the Lip collective sought for women artists. Foehn is one of the key works from the collection that will be included in the NGA’s forthcoming travelling exhibition Abstraction: celebrating Australian women abstract artists, which opens at the Geelong Art Gallery on 25 February 2017. Another important painting by Dumbrell, Ripple 1972 is currently in our display of Geometric Abstraction in the Australian galleries alongside Doolin’s Artificial landscape 67-6 1967 and other masterpieces of this genre in the national collection.
Lesley Dumbrell with her work Foehn 1975, at the NGA, June 2016.
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Ramesh Nithiyendran Attitude and agitation Jaklyn Babington
Built on an attitude of agitation, and ostentatious in style, the ceramic sculptures of Ramesh Nithiyendran appear to strut and shout, Look at me! I’m raw and garish. I’m atheist, Hindu, Christian, feminist, queer and gender fluid. I’m exotic and everyday. Reactions to his installations run the gamut of emotive spectatorship, from fits of giggles, wonderment and critical celebration to rankle and disgust. In provoking these responses, he has repositioned ceramics in the spotlight of the ‘now’, put the purists offside and forced an expanded discussion of Australian contemporary art. Ahead of his Mud men project for the NGA, I met with him to determine just how his figures hold such command. A great deal of his impact is achieved by a series of deliberately constructed tensions—some clever, some frivolous—which result in a potent mix: sculptures of a hectic aesthetic set with serious social and political function. Drawing from wildly varied subject matter, including Hindu and Christian religions, patriarchy and its opposition in queer and feminist theory, he further incorporates motifs of art history. Citations of Arte Povera, 1980s ‘bad’ painting, military monuments and the fashion industry are thrown together, while self-parody, alliteration and the occasional ‘dick joke’ provides an entertaining base content. With such an irreverent style, one could assume that Nithiyendran is just a flashy provocateur. But he insists he doesn’t set out to scandalise: ‘I have never intended to make subversive ceramics. It just seems to be how I have become framed within our climate’. In fact, his sculptures participate in one of the oldest genres of art, the self-portrait. ‘I found people would project what they thought of me onto the work. It was heavily racialised’, he says. And the more it happened, the more he felt obliged to start referencing his cultural identity in the work: ‘I thought, maybe a good way to address this is to reference the things I believe I have an ethical right to—my experience, my identity— things that I grew up with. I started accessing my personal history. It seemed natural to consider the works as self-portraits’. Trained in painting yet self-taught in ceramics, his idiosyncratic approach to his work is based on a series of ‘tests’ that upturn the formal considerations traditionally governing the ceramic form. He explains, ‘I always want to create dynamic sculptures. I start with a set of design principles: asymmetry, tension, contrast and an increased scale’. One of the ways in which he achieves the tension of which he speaks is by creating a highly disrupted surface comprising alternative materials, including human hair (bought on eBay), mass-produced rubber snakes, graffiti-tagged cardboard and slabs of polystyrene. ‘I like this idea that they look a bit shitty. I use elements of contrast, the shitty against the highly refined’, he says. Indeed, it is upon this set of visual agitations that he has developed his unique grunge aesthetic.
Further, he engages with the cultural and political symbolism of his materials. His polychromatic pallet (red, white, black, pewter and gold) and use of excessive embellishment not only evoke the aesthetic of Southern Indian temples and appropriate the distinctive presentation of deities in the region, but also recognise the political context in which they exist. ‘When they [the colonisers] saw Indians, they interpreted their heavy adornment as a mark of being uncivilised,’ he says, ‘I’m interested in the racial element of the polychrome. That’s where my pallet and surfaces come from. It is a reaction against austerity … I’ve blinged it!’ Alongside the formal tensions within his sculptures, he plays with several conceptual dichotomies. Hindu and Christian iconography both appear frequently in his work, in which contemporary representations of Ganesha, Shiva and Jesus can be identified, as well as several associated motifs, including the snake, big-bellied torsos and the crucifix. His recurrent use of phallic iconography as contemporary linga, an ancient Hindu form used in the worship of Shiva’s creative energies, sets the Hindu celebration of the phallus in contrast with Christianity’s modern modesty and its suppression of the phallus as an image. His sculptures, however, are not of a devotional type. They function, instead, with a social and political purpose. ‘I’m interested in exploring paradigms of worship and their social structure, but from outside a religious perspective’, he explains, ‘I play with the idea of gods. They have been around for thousands of years and, in the next hundred years, we will still be preserving them. I’m trying to present a contemporary translation of idols and deities—those that can exist from a secular perspective’. With the five sculptures that comprise his NGA installation, Nithiyendran embodies the complex identity of a ‘future’ Asian art collection. ‘What I’ve found in lots of galleries’, he says, ‘is that there is always an Asian collection … with a concrete grotto kind of thing happening and a certain scale of plinth used to contextualise the deities. There is a history of cultural appropriation that I’m interested in. It’s an “exotic tourism” thing’. By riffing on the framing of Asian art in collecting institutions such as the NGA, Nithiyendran provides us with his version of what a contemporary collection from the region might look like at the other end of this Asian century. Mud men @ NGA, Canberra, until February 2017 This installation was made possible with the support of the De Lambert Largesse Foundation. The work was produced during an artist-in-residence program at the National Art School, Sydney.
Ramesh Nithiyendran with his work Snake tower 2016, part of his installation Mud men at the NGA until February 2017.
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Aesop is pleased to partner with the National Gallery of Australia once again in 2016. While our primary business is skin care, we explore and support the arts as an avenue through which to inspire, learn and communicate. Aesop Canberra Store AF01, Canberra Centre 148 Bunda Street Canberra 2601 ‘All that is worth remembering of life is the poetry of it.’ William Hazlitt
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COLLECTORS’ EXHIBITION 2016 NOW SHOWING
Featuring European Old Masters to Nineteenth Century and Australian Colonial to Contemporary
JACQUES-EMILE BLANCHE 1861 – 1942 Place Saint Marc a Venise le Soir 1912 oil on panel 83 x 106 cm CLARICE BECKETT 1887 – 1935 A Shady Spot c.1927 oil on canvas laid on board 39 x 54.5 cm
RUSSELL DRYSDALE 1912 – 1981 Desert Landscape oil on canvas 29 x 39.5 cm
Request a fully documented catalogue featuring over 100 artworks, including paintings, sculpture, works on paper and decorative arts from the Gallery, or view the exhibition and the scholarly essays pertaining to the artworks, on-line.
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Mike Parr: language and chaos brings together thirteen essays by Australian artists, poets, curators and critics reflecting on aspects of Mike Parrâ€™s insatiably experimental practice. Emerging from a background of conceptual art in the early 1970s, the probing nature of his word works and psychoanalytic drawings escalated into the provocative performance art for which he is now internationally recognised. Published to coincide with the major survey show â€Ś
at the NGA until 6 November
National Gallery of Australia
FRANK STELLA MIKE PARR
Experiments in print
Where it began
Issue no 87 | Spring 2016 A$9.95 nga.gov.au
ISSN 1323-4552 9 771323 455204