Category Archives: Art History

Hate Preachers and Censorship

Censorship by vandalism is unfortunately common in art galleries, public libraries and other public space. These vandals impose a ‘higher law’ on the world with violence, with hammers, knives and explosives. Recently Islamic fanatics have destroyed art and attacked artists that they call blasphemous but don’t forget that other religions have also acted in a similar violent manner.

Nicknamed ‘Pell Pot’ by ordained members of the Catholic Church in reference to the fanatical, ruthless ideologue, war criminal and former Cambodian leader, Pol Pot, Cardinal George Pell assisted in covering up the child abuse in the Catholic Church in Victoria, infamously remarking that: “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people.” This is not to forget another stain against Pell’s character with his encouragement of the vandalism of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987

In October 1997 there were several exhibitions by Andres Serrano planned for Melbourne, the National Gallery of Victoria was to show a Serrano retrospective and Serrano’s History of Sex was at the Kirkcaldy Davies Gallery. However before they opened the then, Archbishop Pell sought an injunction restraining the Gallery from exhibiting Serrano’s Piss Christ on the grounds of blasphemy. The Age falsely reported that the Victorian police vice squad had referred Serrano’s book to the Office of Film and Literature Classification after raiding the exhibition. Journalists also stalked Kirkcaldy Davies Gallery waiting for a police raid that never happened.

New York artist, Andres Serrano was raised a Catholic. Serrano created Piss Christ in 1987, it was a photograph of a plastic crucifixion submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine. The large format photograph was printed in an edition of four, one retained by the artist and three others that are privately owned.

The hearing on the injection on Piss Christ was held before Justice David Harper with Cliff Pannam QC representing Archbishop Pell and well known human rights lawyer, Julian Burnside QC representing the NGV. Pannam argued that for court granting an injunction against exhibiting Piss Christ on the grounds of blasphemous libel in common law and that was also in breach of the indecency provisions of the Summary Offences Act 1988.

Justice Harper did not accept Pannam’s arguments finding that: “not only has Victoria never recognised an established church, but now s 116 of the Australian Constitution forbids the Commonwealth making any law for establishing religion.” Read more on the law of blasphemy in Australia on Find Law Australia.

When legal measures failed there were several Christian extremists willing to act where Australia law would not to protect the honour of their faith by destroying an image that the Archbishop Pell had declared was blasphemous. First John Allen Haywood took Piss Christ down from the wall and kicked it but did little damage. The following day two young men, aged 18 and 16 attacked it with a hammer. After that then Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Dr Timothy Potts closed the Serrano exhibition concerned about the safety of his staff and visitors.

The Christian extremists who shut down the Serrano exhibition received very light sentences. Even though he was unrepentant, John Haywood received a suspended one-month sentence telling the media after his trial that he’d like to punch Serrano. It is not known what sentence the teenagers received. The reaction from the public, the law and media to the actions of these Christian extremists was very differently to the reaction to Muslim extremists when they take violent action against what they consider blasphemy. This is because there are no votes for Australian politicians in creating panic over Christian extremists and hate preachers like Cardinal Pell.

Piss Christ was also attacked when on exhibition in Sweden and in France, on Palm Sunday in 2011 when four Christian extremists damaged it beyond repair.


The Case of Art Forgeries

There are always crimes to spice up art history and the most intriguing, disturbing and masterful of these crimes in art forgery.

In October 2012 there was a day long symposium at the Johnston Collection: The Delicate Art of Deception – revealing fakes and forgeries: talks about fakes in early English glass, Romanian carpets, and antique furniture. Eugene Barilo von Reisberg distinguished between originals, replicas, versions, revivals, copies, reproductions, mistaken attribution and misrepresentations (fakes and forgeries) in his talk “What’s in a name?” Dr Alison Inglis gave a talk about the history of interest in fakes and forgeries.

The medieval fake relics were from a world that had faith in religious history. The idea of history was revived during the Renaissance and after the classical revival and the rest of Europe slowly followed the great man theory of history. This peaked in the nineteenth century because the combined attraction of both the contact magic of the relic of the great man and the idea of genius. However the nineteenth century was also the golden age of art forgery and subsequently the fear of forgers.

The interest in art by contemporary artists was spurred on by the glut of fakes, not that there weren’t still fakes. Progressive modern artists were then promoted to satisfy both the demands of a whig history and the collectors for whom the gloss of contact magic hadn’t worn off. Dr. Inglis noted that public interest in fakes and forgeries peaked in 2010 with multiple exhibitions of art forgeries around the world.

The modern world also has demands on art, it had to scientifically prove its authenticity, or at least documentary evidence of authenticity. Scientific analysis and micro-history are the current paradigms of art authentication. Works of art become archeological sites to be deconstructed layer by layer following Lacarod’s exchange principle that every contact leaves a trace. The problem with this paradigm is that although it is rigorously evidence based it doesn’t tell much about art, there is little poetry to the microscope.

Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett of Melbourne University’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation spoke about attribution and how in a hot art market need, speed and greed allow attribution to slip. The Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation provides Australia’s most scientific attribution assessments.

Fakes and forgeries reveal how the institutions, the collectors and the art experts understand, value and tell the story of history and what truths are value. In his book The Art Forger’s Handbook, the art forger, Eric Hebborn tells of two art collectors that he admired Thomas Butts and Luman Reed. Butts bought from William Blake and Reed having once acquired a forgery only bought directly from living artists.

Apart from their abuse of historical facts art forgeries appear to be a complaint of affluence. And apart from new technology and new forgers there doesn’t seem to be anything new in the discussion of fakes and forgeries: there are new scandals to talk about, like the Libertos but the old scandals, like Van Meegren are still discussed. Forgers, and their books, make such fascinating reading; Tom Keating is like a character straight out of an episode of Minder.

“When the dealer who sold Cat. 219 discovered that one of his sources, Elmyr de Hory, was a master forger, he hastened to alert all those to whom he had sold works acquired from de Hory of the situation and properly offered them their money back. Most accepted but the owners in this case (Mr. and Mrs. Patrick E. O’Rourke from Minneapolis) declined stating they bought the drawing because they loved it and not because it was a ‘Modigliani’. They still love it regardless of the author.” (Fakes and Forgeries, catalogue of exhibition at the Minneapolis Inst. Of Art. July 11- Sept. 1973 p.220)

Philosopher, Mark Sagoff makes the analogy between appreciation of art with love. “Love attaches to individuals and not simply to their qualities or to the pleasures they give. People are not interchangeable; we stand by old friends. Why? You love a particular man or woman – not just anyone who fills the bill. You cannot love a person by pretending he or she is someone else. You cannot appreciate a forgery by pretending it is a masterpiece.” (Mark Sagoff “ On Restoring and Reproducing Art” The Journal of Philosophy 75, 1978, p.453)

However, if your love turns out to be an imposter, like the recent cases of the British undercover police officer who fathered a son while in his undercover role, then that would change the relationship.


Dada Against WWI

Hugo Ball wrote in his diary: 1915 New Year.

“On the balcony belonging to Marinetti’s translator we demonstrate in our own way against the war. We shout ‘Down with war!’ into the silent night of big-city balconies and telegraph wires. Some passers-by stop. A few lighted windows are opened. ‘Here’s to the New Year!’ someone shouts. The merciless Moloch Berlin raises its concrete head.” (Flight Out of Time, a Dada Diary by Hugo Ball, edited by John Elderfield)

Hugo Ball

Hugo Ball

What was the twenty-eight year old, writer and dramaturg Hugo Ball doing protesting the war on New Year’s Eve in Berlin? It might not be surprising to people now, as Hugo Ball went on to be one of the founders of the anti-war anti-art movement, Dada. However, only a few months earlier in 1914 Ball had been an enthusiastic supporter of the war. He had volunteered three time for war service but had been refused on medical grounds. What had turned an idealistic patriot into an anti-war protester?

In late August 1914, shortly after the Germans had taken the Liége forts Ball was still an enthusiastic civilian who had boarding a German troop train as it crossed into Belgium. He was taken off the train and arrested by the German military as a spy in Liége but released when the authorities realised that he was only an idealist.

It certainly wasn’t an uninformed change of mind as Hugo Ball appears to have been a bit of an early battle field tourists. He wasn’t arrested as a spy again, perhaps had some kind of press credentials from the Berlin paper Zeit im Bild.

There are many reasons and influences that might explain Hugo Ball’s reversal of opinion on the ‘Great War’. Was it in September seeing soldiers graves in Dieuze, the headquarters for the German 6th Army? Finding a copy of Rabelias in the rubble Fort Manonvillers, one of the permanent fortifications of the “Verdun Fortified Region”? Or, reading lots of philosophy, the first couple of pages of his diary are full of notes on who is reading? Or, was it the influence of his girlfriend, Emmy Hennings?

If there needed to be a single cause for Ball’s reversal of opinion then it was the death of his friend, Hans Leybold who was, with Ball, the co-publisher of the journal, Revolution. The last issue of Revolution appeared in September 1914, after that Leybold was drafted into the German army and was killed shortly after in Belgium. For Leybold the war was all over by Christmas.

John Elderfield speculates that it was Leybold’s military decorations that Ball dumped into Lake Zurich on 20th of October, 1915. However, the list of medals that Ball gives, “the Black Order of the German Eagle, the Medal of Bravery, the Cross of Merit First, Second and Third Class” appear to be more imaginary rather than actual. The Order of the Black Eagle was the highest order of chivalry in the Kingdom of Prussia and, although Prussia did have a Military Merit Cross, there was no “Medal of Bravery”.

On 26/6/1915 Ball wrote: “The war is based on a crass error. Men have been mistaken for machines. Machines, not men, should be decimated. At some future date when only the machines march, things will be better. Then everyone will be right to rejoice when they demolish each other.”

(See my post: Dada and the start of WWI)


Picasso Who?

Writing about the scandal of the current Picasso Museum in Paris, there are several Picasso museums around Europe, Jonathan Jones raised the question of how relevant Picasso is in contemporary art. (The Guardian “Nightmare at the Picasso Museum” 16/10/2014).

I was considered this question. For me Picasso is definitely overrated, it is not that I dislike Picasso, although mostly I prefer George Braque’s cubist work. Often Picasso’s works look like preserved relics, hastily done and looking aged before their time. Too look at it more objectively turned to my blog. After writing hundreds of post about the visual arts this blog for seven years how often have I referred to Picasso?

Only nineteen times; compare to the number of times that I’ve references to Andy Warhol (16), Salvador Dali (10), Joseph Beuys (6), Nam June Paik (4), Jackson Pollock (3) and Henri Matisse (2). I am biased and there were too many references to Marcel Duchamp, about 75, even as I restrain myself from mentioning him, to compare him to Picasso as Jones suggests.

MaxCat, Brunswick, 2009

MaxCat, Brunswick, 2009

Of the nineteen references to Picasso only twice have I written about seeing the influence of Picasso on an artist: Maxcat and Juan Davila. “Maxcat’s innovative use of lines and the sense of poetry with the bird on the figures head reminded me of Picasso.

There have been two negative remarks about Picasso but only one was by me and that was more about Picasso being overrated in the popular media. Black Mark: “I never want to see another documentary celebrating the life of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh or Picasso” The other one was from Singaporean artist, Kamal Dollah: “My view is, you can bore these kids with Picasso and Rembrandts.”

Most of the other references to Picasso have been largely because he is an extremely well known artist; one of the references is about a sculpture of him at an apartment building in Singapore. He is mentioned three times regarding his sculptures from recycled material and his collage. There are three more references to the 1986 kidnapping of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV by the Australian Cultural Terrorists. One reference to a Picasso painting in a gallery’s collection, one reference to his dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and one quoting the song by Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers.

In the room the women come and go, talking about Picasso – “What an asshole. Just look at his paintings.”


Antique Guide to the NGV

Cleaning up her piles of books that belonged to her aunt Catherine discovered a guide to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) from 1968, the year that it opened the St Kilda Road building. (Well, it is not yet an antique, but it soon will be.) This piece of ephemera is a portal to another time of art in Australia.

NGV Guide 1968

NGV Guide 1968

The guide is small booklet with a purple paper cover, stapled binding and 32 pages with black and white illustrations. Printed by the Aldine Press Pty Ltd., a commercial printer specialising in book and periodicals, still operating in Prahran. There is no price on the booklet but the cover does fold out to include a membership form for the Gallery Society.

The purple cover has the stylised image of the roof of the gallery with the three central courtyards. In the plan of the gallery the courtyards are named both by the architect and after the donors: the oriental courtyard, named ‘Coles Court’; the sculpture courtyard, named ‘Lindsay Court’ and the ‘playhouse courtyard’ named ‘Keith Murdoch Court’.

It starts with a dry introduction from Eric Westbrook, the then director of the NGV, mostly about the gallery’s benefactors. There are maps of the two floors of the gallery, showing the original layout of the exhibition space.

The rest of the publication is an introduction with illustrations to the main areas of the galleries collection. It is interesting to note what is missing from the text. The term ‘ethnic art’ is used instead of ‘aboriginal art’. Reading about the European art collection it is remarkable to notice how much is about English art and that France is not mentioned, although the Impressionists are.

“Highlights of the European twentieth century are works by Modigliani, Rouault, Delaunay, de Stael, Tapies, Soto and others.” (p.23)

The description of Australian art, then housed on the second floor of the St. Kilda Road gallery, clearly shows Australia’s ‘cultural cringe’.

“Australian Art is essentially a colonial art drawing its stylistic impetus from the metropolitan centres of the world. Originally English traditions were paramount while in the later nineteenth century, French influences predominated. To-day, the styles of Western European Art have become universal and interacting. American abstract expressionism and the kinetic experiments of the French Groupe de Recheche d’Art Visuel mingle with traditions of the School of Paris and have their influence there. However, the particular life of this country and the individual attire of its people, flavour the work of its artists creating a distinctive Australian art. Though the idiom has brome international, the accent remains Australian.” (p.27)

Many aspects of the NGV have changed but I did note that the galleries collection of William Blake drawings remains a consistent feature of the galleries exhibition of Prints and Drawings department; Blake’s “The Whirlwind (Angel Crossing Styx)” is illustrated on page 11 and his drawings were on exhibition again this year.


Dada and the start of WWI

On the September 15, 1914 the avant-garde film maker, Hans Richter was inducted into the German army. Two friends, Ferdinand Hardekopf, journalist, writer and shorthand prodigy and Albert Ehrenstein, a poet gave him a farewell party and they promised to meet in Zurich, in two years, if they were still alive. Was the reason for the Zurich meeting was that Hardekopf, a pacifist was around planning to go there? In Zurich Hardekopf was close to Hugo Ball.

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

A few months later Richter was seriously wounded at Vilna, Lithuania. One of his brothers was killed and another wounded that same year. After recovering from his wounds and being discharged from the army Richter did travel, as promised, to Zurich where he met with two friends. They introduced him to the artists Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck.

It is worth remembering that many of the future Dadaists were initial supporting the war and that a lot can change in a few years of war and the lives of young men and women. The theoretician of Dada, Hugo Ball was so enthusiastic that at the start of the war he boarded a troop train for Belgium. He got as far as Leige where he was arrested as a spy but released when the authorities realised that he was only an idealist. However, in Berlin, the Herzfeld brothers were anti-war and already publishing the left wing journal, Neu Jugend.

During WWI a small group of young pacifist artists gathering in Zurich to escape the war and created art that changed the art history. Dada was an anarchic anti-art movement that formed and spread to like minded individuals around the world, setting the ground work for the contemporary art. For as the last century has shown the world has not learnt the stupid futility of war anymore than they have learnt the stupid futility of Dada. In the words of Ferdinand Hardekopf: “Dada is dead. And you?”

Yesterday Australia committed troops to fight in the Middle East, yet again, as if the last three or four times improved the situation.

On my Black Mark Facebook I am reporting on the activities of the Dadaists a hundred years ago, on the day of their centenary.


The Many Faces of Dada

The Many Faces of George Grosz (Degenerate Comix) is a graphic novel by Keith McDougall about the life of the German artist, George Grosz, adapted from the writings of Weiland Herzfelde. (See my review of The Many Faces of George Grosz #1)

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In #2 the narrative has changed from Herzfelde being the narrator to Grosz being the central character and Herzfelde’s brother becomes John Hartfield. For like George Grosz’s costume changes the Dadaists were often changing their names, working under different names or living under false names; their identities were mutating.

Who were the Dadaist exactly? Avant-garde cabaret act, radical artists, publishers, medical students every time you look they change into something else. If the Dadaists were alive today what would they be doing? Bands, zines… would they even be together at all? Given that the Dadaists appear to be a disparate bunch of hippies (Hans Arp & Hugo Ball), punks (Richard Hulsenbeck), new agers, goths, head-bangers (Max Ernst’s nickname was “Metal Head”) and other, perhaps, yet unclassified freaks. Back at the beginning of the 20th century there was still too few of any of them to bother with such classifications. However in retrospect the classifications appear clearer. “Freaks” that  very 60s word, comes from back in a time when they were still working out the identity of some of these youth tribes. In The Many Faces of George Grosz Grosz is presented as an unclassifiable freak, a proto-Dadaist.

McDougall has done his research both historically and graphically, at the beginning of Chapter 5 in Grosz autobiography there is a small illustration of a smiling man dressed up as an American Indian. In #2 Grosz takes the two Herzfelde brothers to see the Berlin’s Café Oranienburger Tor. The band at the Café Oranienburger Tor is described by Grosz in his autobiography: “the band leader known as “Mister Meshugge” carried on like a lunatic. He pretended to be quiet out of control and kept breaking his baton or hitting the poor fiddler over the head with violin.” (George Grosz, A Small Yes and A Big No, Zenith Books, 1982 p.75)

Dada history was made for comic books, the conjunction of text and images. What I dislike about many comics, including this graphic novel, is the way that story is drawn out, it worse than watching a TV series because the wait is longer. Now two years later #2 has arrived – will #3 be finished in time for the centenary of Dada? A century later it is worth re-examining Dada and the Dadaists.


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