Tag Archives: National Gallery of Victoria

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.


Erehwyna Enruoblem

There is so much variety in the architecture of Melbourne, from the early colonial basic rectangular bluestone buildings to recent constructions. In one city block you might see half a dozen or more architectural styles. The mix of European and international style architecture means that Melbourne can look like any generic western city.

Something apocalyptic happening at State Parliament when used as a film location

Something apocalyptic happening at State Parliament when used as a film location

Melbourne does this in many b-grade films: Queen of the Damned, Ghost Rider, and I, Frankenstein, to name a few. In Queen of the Damned Melbourne is made to look like London, England, in Ghost Rider it is an American city and in I, Frankenstein it is a generic European city. None of these films are really worth watching unless you are interested in how bits of Melbourne can be cast in different roles; in I, Frankenstein the entrance of National Gallery of Victoria appears as that of the central train station.

The city has been spared major disasters, fires or earthquakes, that destroys the old architecture and consequently Melbourne’s architecture is a fascinating mix of styles from the colonial to the classical with all kinds of revivals, Gothic Revival, Venetian Revival, Spanish Revival, Romanesque Revival, etc. thrown in to this mix. Melbourne is a place where the king tide of the eclectic architectural revivals of the nineteenth century washed up. Moving into the twentieth century there are examples of early modern architectural styles: Arts and Craft, Art Nouveau and Art Deco before the International Modernist style made all cities look the same.

Spanish Revival in Sparta Place, Brunswick

Spanish Revival in Sparta Place, Brunswick

Rudyard Kipling remarked on visiting Melbourne: “This country is American, but remember it is a secondhand American, there is an American tone on the top of things, but it is not real. Dare say, by and bye, you will get a tone of your own. Still I like these American memories playing round your streets…The Americanism of this town with its square blocks and straight streets, strikes me much.” (Tim Flannery ed., The Birth of Melbourne, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, p.358)

Late nineteenth century Melbourne was frequently compared to American cities due to its cable car trams and grid of streets. Rudyard Kipling referred to Melbourne streets by their equivalent New York names: referring to Swanston Street as Fourteenth Street. Possibly Kipling made this comparison was also made because Melbourne was the about same age as many American cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Australia has a very odd relationship to America. Australian’s fear their second hand American status, yet Australia loves America as a protector. Australia swapped its loyalties to England in July 1966 for going “all the way with LBJ” as PM Harold Holt remarked at the White House. Melbourne’s own relationship with the USA is even stranger; Terry the postman told me about a letter that he delivered addressed to “Melbourne, Victoria, America”.


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.


Armstrong’s Melbourne Sculpture

“Bruce Armstrong’s name is synonymous with current sculptural practice in Melbourne.” Boasts John Buckley Gallery’s website. There is good reason for this boast Armstrong’s sculpture Eagle (aka “Bunjil”) erected in May 2002 at Bunjilway is now an iconic image of Melbourne. However, Bruce Armstrong is hardly a household name.

Bruce Armstrong, "Eagle", 2002

Bruce Armstrong, “Eagle”, 2002

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong "Constellation", 1997, wood and steel, detail

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong “Constellation”, 1997, wood and steel, detail

Bruce Armstrong was born in Melbourne in 1957 and studied painting and sculpture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He has sculptures in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Canberra. In the 2005 Armstrong was an Archibald Prize finalist with a self-portrait with eagle.

“Bunjil” is not an isolated work Armstrong’s sculptures have been around Melbourne for decades. There are two more of Armstrong’s eagles, “Guardians”, 2009 out the front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Russell Street. At Yarra Turning Basin there is a series of angled pillars, Armstrong’s “Constellation”, 1997, made in collaboration with Geoffrey Bartlett. His “Tiger” 1985 is out at Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Armstrong’s two lions beasts (Untitled 1986) once guarded the front of the National Gallery of Victoria but are now out the back in its sculpture garden. When Armstrong’s two lions untitled beasts were out the front I overheard a man and woman from the country who were looking at them. “I reckon I could do that with my chainsaw” the man remarked. I’m sure he could be I doubted that he would make the effort to move such enormous logs and do all the carving.

The muscular nature of the sculpture is part of what makes Armstrong’s work powerful, the monumental physical displays of power. There is an unrefined power to the statues of Bruce Armstrong, the large lumps of materials from which they are carved are still visible. His huge animals are usually carved from native red gum and cypress although the monumental 23-meter tall “Bunjil” is cast aluminium painted white.

Armstrong’s sculptures are totemic, in a Jungian collective unconscious way; it is serendipitous that his Eagle happens to correspond to the sea eagle creator, Bunjil, of the Kulin Nation. His public sculptures work as totemic features along paths or guarding gateways. And because of their monumentality they are treated with a kind of awe.


2012 Reflections

This will be my last post for the year, as I need a break.  So here are some reflections on my year of blogging.

Write locally and read globally.

I have been intrigued, and a little bemused, by the global views of this blog. I knew that there were some international views but I thought they weren’t that common.  This is a very local blog with a focus on the visual arts in Melbourne. When WordPress introduced the stats of views from countries I realized how many of my views come from countries other than Australia – I’ve had readers from almost every country in the world. I’m not sure why I have relatively so few readers from New Zealand or why anyone in Africa would be reading it but thanks for reading where ever in the world you are.

Snyder pasting up in Hosier Lane.

American artist Snyder pasting up in Hosier Lane.

This year I have been doing some professional development as a critic going to a lot of art history talks and workshops this year; bloggers do need to do a bit of “professional development” and I’ve certainly been doing that this year. I find out about most of them on Melbourne Art Network. The best were a free mini-conference at Melbourne University: “Dispersed Identities – sexuality, surreal and the global avant-gardes” and the “Workshop on the Human and the Image” at the Centre for Ideas, Victorian College of the Arts (I gave a paper at there – I don’t know if that added to the quality). It has been great getting back to my love of art history and philosophy, although they remind me that I’m glad that I didn’t pursue an academic career especially considering the end of art history department at La Trobe University. The end of the art history department at La Trobe will impact on Melbourne’s visual culture for decades into the future. Studying art history at Monash University was a life changing experience for me – I wouldn’t be writing this blog without it.

The NGV’s new director, Tony Ellwood has been an improvement from what I’ve seen so far; acquiring Juan’s Ford’s “Last Laugh” and exhibiting the Trojan Petition in the NGV’s foyer for a week.

Baby Guerrilla at Union Dinning Terrace

Baby Guerrilla at Union Dinning Terrace

The Trojan Petition brings me to the subject of street art. The big change in street art in 2012 has been street artists competing in mainstream art prizes and being included in the prize exhibition (like E.L.K. in the Archibald) or winning like Baby Guerrilla. Major events in Melbourne’s street art in 2012 included Project Melbourne Underground and the Andy Mac Auction. Hosier Lane has changed since Andy Mac decamped; there has been major construction in the lane and in the adjoining Rutledge Lane (like so many other places around Melbourne) but the art goes on in spite of the now averted/delayed installation of CCTV cameras.

It has been a fun year. Cheers Alley Chats.


“Last Laugh” Recent Acquisition

It is good to see that the National Gallery of Victoria has purchased “Last Laugh” from Juan Ford’s recent exhibition at the Dianne Tanzer Gallery. The NGV has given me several pleasant surprises recently and I am warming to its new director, Tony Ellwood (see: The Trojan Petition).

Juan Ford, Last Laugh, 2012 (oil on linen, 107 x 92 cm)

“Last Laugh” is a realist painting about painting, a painting of paint – modernists do not have a monopoly on uniting materials and subject. The red painted paint is marking and smothering the plant as the man-made smothers the planet. It not easy to paint something that comments on the slow destruction of the planet but this painting comes close. This is not exactly Henry Lawson’s “blood on the wattle” as it is paint and not blood, and the botanical specimen is a eucalypt not a wattle; there are twists and turns in the narrative of all of Ford’s paintings. It is not a joyous image even though the sky is still bright blue for Juan Ford is an intelligent man and understands what sciences forecasts. The last laugh is the longest but also bitter and twisted.

Juan Ford’s “Last Laugh” is representative of many of Ford’s recent paintings as it is part of a series of similar paintings in his current exhibition and is similar to several paintings featuring Australian plants in his last exhibition. And there is no doubt, after a long string of awards, grants, commissions and group institutional exhibitions that Juan Ford is an artist that should be included in the NGV’s collection

The oil painting will fit into NGV’s collection in several ways and continue its narrative into contemporary painting. The question of genre is raised by these paintings, are they still life or landscapes or portraits of the nation through its flora emblems? Genre is one of those great post-modern subjects and genre mixes are a feature of post-modern art. “Last Laugh” is so much of this time and yet it obviously has many lasting qualities that will serve the NGV’s collection well in future.

As a long time fan of Ford’s work I wish, like all fans do, that he did more like his early work with engrave anamorphic images. His ability to paint that once was great has improved so much since then. (See my earlier post on Juan Ford.) But I can see why the NGV decided to acquire this strange and beautiful painting.

See also “In the Studio with Juan Ford” on Vimeo. http://vimeo.com/46172316


Geoffrey Bartlett’s Public Sculpture

Remember Geoffrey Bartlett’s “Messenger” 1983 that stood in the NGV ‘s moat? It is now located at the back of the NGV in their sculpture garden’s moat. Geoffrey Bartlett should be better known as a sculptor in Melbourne. “Messenger” was from a time when Bartlett was influenced by the American sculptor, David Smith. It looked like a kind of Rube Goldberg device; I kept wishing that it would move to release some of the tension in it. There is an obvious reference in “Messenger” to Smith’s “The Letter” 1950.

Geoffrey Bartlett, “Messenger”, 1983, steel

Melbourne based sculptor Geoffrey Bartlett first solo exhibition in 1976 at the Ewing Gallery, University of Melbourne, seven years later his sculpture stood in front of the NGV. Artists emerged quickly in those days. Back in the 1980s the sculptors Geoffrey Bartlett, Augustine Dall’Ava and Anthony Pryor shared a studio on Gertrude Street.

Personally I prefer Bartlett’s later sculptures, after he was influenced by Henry Moore and added more volume and mass to his sculptures, and there are plenty around Melbourne. These later sculptures have fusion of elements organic and metallic with the individual parts united into a whole complex form. There is a biomorphic appeal of his sculptures, like “Nautilus, Study with 2 Legs” 2010, 24 George Street, East Melbourne. There is also the appeal that his sculptures show their construction process, you can see the bolts and rivets that hold his stainless-steel sculptures together.

“Bartlett intends to disclose, rather than hide the construction process, believing in providing the viewer with an honest impression of the nature of the structure.” [Caroline  Field, “Geoffery Bartlett: The Art of Refinement” Geoffrey Bartlett – Silver Cloud (Deakin University, 2001, Toorak) p.9]

Geoffrey Bartlett, “Orion”, 2008, stainless steel

Geoffrey Bartlett is inspired by astronomy – there is his “Orion” 2008 at the Lucient Building, 430 St. Kilda Road (or his “Orion, Study 2,” 2011, 20 Straun Street, Toorak), “Aurora”, 2006, named after the Greek goddess of dawn on the corner of Harbour Esplanade and Bourke Street in the Docklands and, in collaboration with Bruce Armstrong, “Constellation”, 1997 along the boardwalk at the Yarra Turning Basin.

Geoffery Bartlett & Bruce Armstrong “Constellation”, 1997, wood and steel, detail

“Constellation” sees the return of maritime themes in Bartlett’s work but  in other ways a departure from Bartlett’s usual style. Seashells, like that of the Nautilus, have long inspired Bartlett. In 1988 Bartlett created “Mariner” for New Zealand’s Trans-Tasman Shipping.

Other sculptures by Geoffrey Bartlett in Melbourne include: “Landscape at Moyston”, Price Waterhouse Coopers, 215 Spring Street, 1996, and “Obelisk” for the City of Melbourne, Focal Building also on Spring Street. There are also public sculptures by Bartlett in Auckland, and Newcastle, NSW.

Geoffery Barlett “Aura”, 2006, stainless steel, Docklands


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