Tag Archives: NGV

Lurid Beauty and Australian Surrealism

Although the island of Australia is included in the 1929 Surrealist map of the world, this is probably due to Australia’s aboriginal population rather than its artists. It is shown as smaller than New Guinea and about the same size as Borneo.


What surrealism created by Australian artists was mostly an off-shoot of English surrealism. England being that black dot on the map between Ireland and Germany. Importing surrealism directly from the European mainland, in the case of the Marek brothers, was not well received. Surrealism in Australia was, like international art speak, poorly translated from French texts.

Lurid Beauty, Australian Surrealism and its Echoes at the NGV Australia is an awkward exhibition as most of the art in the exhibition is not surrealism. Lurid Beauty fails in distinguishing between being the current style trend and being old-school or hardcore, like James Gleeson or Eric Thake. These are important distinctions to make when you are considering something between an arts association and trend. Roy de Maistre painted in at least three other modern styles and his involvement in surrealism is like Picasso’s pieces working in the current trend and the exhibition’s mix of modern art with contemporary art is not resolved well.

Every generation needs a look back at surrealism in Australia and each time that they do the same small set of paintings are exhibited. Almost all the older work was last exhibited together in the 1993 Australian National Gallery exhibition Surrealism Revolution by Night section of Australian art. Lurid Beauty does include some great new James Gleeson paintings but only the series of Clifford Bayliss drawings have not been regular features of previous exhibitions of Australian surrealism.

Peter Daverington, The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, 2014 (courtesy of Arc One)

Peter Daverington, The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, 2014 (courtesy of Arc One)

There are plenty of great works of art to see in the exhibition but my question is did we need to see them all together? Did surrealism transform or have that much of an impact on Australian art? The relationship between the artists that would identify as surrealists and the contemporary artists influenced by surrealism is tenuous. For example, Peter Daverington’s The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh 2014 looks surreal but has so many other references to all of art history in this painting from Renaissance landscapes to modernism in the drips along the lower edge. For the surrealists there was only Freudian psychology but now there is a multiplicity of psychological theories.

There is no cross over between the old school surrealists and the contemporary artists because there were so few hardcore surrealists in Australia. Erik Thake’s Accidental Animal 1967-68 series of photographs of found paint splatters is as close as it gets.

The curators of Lurid Beauty only hint at the conservative Australian art world; the NGV, Australia and surrealism were all very different places then. Blink and you would have missed the important progressive role of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS).

It was CAS that advanced modern art in Australia in response to then Prime Minister, Robert Gordon Menzies reactionary attack on modernism at the opening of the Victorian Artists’ Society show in April 1937. The evidence for the CAS transforming Melbourne’s art world is there, the first to exhibit photography as art in Melbourne and if you look carefully at the frame of Gleeson’s We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit 1940 you will see that it is “presented anonymously through the Contemporary Art Society.” (For more on the history of CAS in Australian art see my post on their 70th anniversary).

Walking and Thinking about Sculpture

Taking advantage of the winter sunshine on Friday I walked around Melbourne thinking about sculpture. I have to plan my sculpture tour for Melbourne’s Writers Week walking around Melbourne looking at sculptures. I am amazed that I am in Melbourne’s Writers Week with my first book, Sculptures of Melbourne.

Kranky, Miss You Frida

Kranky, Miss You Frida

I am doing a few things to promote my book – I’m writing this blog post and pointing out my up coming events, like Melbourne’s Sculpture Walking Tour on Sunday 23rd August and my talk at Brunswick Public Library on Thursday 10th September. For more details see my events page.

I’m glad that I’ve scouted out the walk as there was test drilling along Swanston Walk for the new underground rail line going on. There was temporary fencing around Akio Makigawa’s Time and Tide. The fencing and drilling rig might be gone by the time of the walk but I probably won’t take the tour that far up Swanston Walk.

Walking up Hosier Lane I noticed that there are more street art sculptures. Lots of new mixed media assemblages by Kranky, including a spectacular painted skull and a lot of rats. From Blek to Banksy rats are a traditional theme for street art.

Kranky, Rats

Kranky, Rats

After my walk around the city I noticed that there was a very small retrospective exhibition of Lenton Parr’s sculptures in the foyer of the NGV Australia. Lenton Parr (1924-2003) was born in Coburg and initially studied engineering. Another engineer – I keep writing about  engineers – see my recent post on Skunk Control; several of Melbourne sculptors started studying engineering (Lenton Parr, Clement Meadmore and Anthony Pryor). Parr was a member of the Centre Five, Melbourne’s modern sculpture group but what surprised me about Parr’s modern steel sculptures was the number of titles with classical references: Perseus, Andromeda, Orion… It seemed that even in the early 1980s the classical names still retained an artist aura. Now, classical references, even in the titles of sculptures, are very rare.

Lenton Parr, Orion

Lenton Parr, Orion

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 National Gallery & Nationalism

There is a vast unexamined area of the reason for national art galleries along with a lack of coherence in explaining why they exist. This lack of coherence and examination rests on another idea that lacks both coherence and examination, the nation state.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

The idea of nations and geography makes the artist is built into the very structure of most major art galleries, after all they are often called ‘National’ or ‘State’ galleries. The artificial divisions these gallery make between nationalities and even races perpetrates the idea that the nationality or race is important. (The NGV has a separate gallery of artists who identify as aboriginal.) This nationalism is reflected in the hanging of the art although it does not help our understanding of art history nor the appreciation of the art anymore than hanging the art on the basis of the artist’s gender. The underlying assumption is that there is an underlying core aesthetic to a particular nationality or race is absurdly racist and is not supported by any evidence.

John Burrow writes “For Hegel, in the last part of his Philosophy of Right (1852) (324, 325), it was crucial that the State, in war, could call on the citizen to sacrifice his life. War was no longer, as in the eighteenth century, an affair merely for mercenaries. The State’s right to individual’s life was not just an instrument for his protection (the contract theory), or for the production of welfare (Enlightened Despotism), but a higher spiritual entity than the individual. The requirement of his life was not tyranny but self-sacrifice, submission to one’s own higher will and participation in the life of a higher entity.” (John Burrow, A History of Histories, Penguin Books, 2007, p.459)

The nation state is a religion, a belief in a higher entity. God might be dead and buried but the nation state is very much alive. Several assumptions are made about the sacred nation state but given that nation states are a human invention only a few hundred years old it is not necessary that any nation state exists.

The claim that the state has a right not to be divided and that protecting that state, in the words of Radovan Karadzic before the UN tribunal in the Hague, “holy and just.” (The Independent 20/3/10)  The assumption that a nation state has a right to exist implies that it is a higher entity. This higher entity, the god of the nation, has a unique history, a unique culture, if not a unique language and national identity, is legislated, paid for and demanded by the nation state. Where there is no evidence of this unique culture it must be invented, developed and manufactured. It is assumed that there is such a thing as Australian art but nobody assumes that there will be Australian philosophy (philosophy in Australia is predominately Anglo-American philosophy with a little bit of continental European philosophy).


National galleries are must have items for countries as if they were playing some giant game of Sid Meier’s Civilization but what are the benefits of having a national gallery, like the NGV: “the richest treasury of visual arts in the southern hemisphere”? (The National Gallery of Victoria is a wonderful example because it is now a “national gallery” without a nation since the independent colony of Victoria federated with other Australian states.)

Is the nation state to coil up like old Smaug around its treasure, exuding power and basking in the envy of others? To have a national collection that to use in soft diplomacy to representing the state? As an educational tool to train future artist and designers to better the nation’s productivity? As infotainment, a tourist attraction to bring customers to the city’s restaurants and hotels and improve the tax revenue? Or is it to be sold off when the city goes bankrupt as was suggested for the Detroit Art Gallery?


Sculptures in the Moat

In March 2014, a homeless man Gary Makin went snorkelling in the NGV’s moat collecting the coins. He was arrested – he should gone equipped with a buskers licence and told the police that he was a living sculpture. He would have been the most artistic thing that has been in the NGV’s moat for years.

That was until a few days ago when street sculptor, Will Coles placed some of his concrete giant soya sauce fish into it.

The moat of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is now mostly empty, except for the prosaic coins and fountains. Once there were sculptures standing in its waters. Geoffrey Bartlett’s Messenger 1983 stood in the moat before being moved to the sculpture garden in the back of the NGV. Four years later Deborah Halpern’s Angel (1987-89) stood in the NGV’s before being moved to Birrarung Marr in 2006.

Deborah Halpern, Angel, 1987-89

Deborah Halpern, Angel, 1987-89

As a psychogeographer I am fascinated by the moats around Australian cultural institutions. There is something curiously medieval about moats. There are moats at Melbourne Zoo around some of the enclosures; there is also a moat around La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus. A moat, even an ornamental one, creates a clear separation between one area and another.

At the time of their design, La Trobe Uni opened 1967 and the NGV in 1968, their architects were clearly expressed with these moats the cultural divisions in Australia between the cultured and the barbarian hordes. The moat around the bastion of culture that is the NGV on St. Kilda Road symbolically removes it from the rest of the world, creating a fortress or a sacred island to protect the art inside.

Now there are no sculptures in the NGV’s moat; Will Coles sculptures have been removed. Now there only a few fountains including the curved steel fountain at the city end of the moat, Nautilus dedicated to the architect of the NGV, Roy Grounds.

Then there is the famous water wall entrance of the NGV that still delights small children. Originally the NGV had more courtyards and fountains, regularly spitting out jets of water amidst rocks. I find fountains in art galleries quaint, but there are a surprising number of water features in art galleries including MOMA.

Recently a friend asked me if I would move on to writing about fountains now that I had completed writing my book on public sculpture (Melbourne’s Sculptures – from the colonial to the ephemeral, due to be published by Melbourne Books later this year). I feel a kind of dread and can already smell the chlorine.

Martyrs, Gladiators, Tourists and Spectacle

Seven rooms of magnificent paintings by Italian old masters from the 16th to 18th centuries make up the NGV’s exhibition, Italian Masterpieces From Spain’s Royal Court, Museo Del Prado. Some of the rooms have themes; still life, ancient Rome and religious art. The exhibition is nothing like visiting the Prado, the paintings are more spread out, it more curated and there are more works on paper on display that are well worth seeing for the artists sketching out their ideas.

Guido Reni, Italian 1575–1642, Saint Sebastian (San Sebastiano) 1615–20, oil on canvas, 170.5 x 133.0 cm Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P00211) Spanish Royal Collection

Guido Reni, Italian 1575–1642, Saint Sebastian (San Sebastiano) 1615–20, oil on canvas, 170.5 x 133.0 cm Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P00211) Spanish Royal Collection

Two works seemed to sum up so much about the collection: Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastian, 1615-20, that clearly shows the influence of Caravaggio and Jusepe de Ribera’s Women gladiators fighting, 1636. I like Ribera’s paintings but not when he is portraying cruelty, which he is in this painting and in his martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (there is another painting on this subject in the exhibition by Valentin de Boulogne). Ribera reality is touching, shown vividly in his Allegory of Touch; his cruelty is too touching.

Jusepe de Ribera, Spanish c.1591–1652, worked in Italy c.1611–1652, Women gladiators fighting (Donne gladiator combattenti) 1636, oil on canvas, 235.0 x 212.0 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P01124) Spanish Royal Collection

Jusepe de Ribera, Spanish c.1591–1652, worked in Italy c.1611–1652, Women gladiators fighting (Donne gladiator combattenti) 1636, oil on canvas, 235.0 x 212.0 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P01124) Spanish Royal Collection

The cruelty in these works is enough to make you step back and ask yourself why are you looking? Is it because it is very well painted? Why has the sacred blood in Christian iconography and archaic Roman funerary rites has become the subject of art?

The sensationalised suffering of martyrs and gladiators from the Prado’s collection now serve slightly different propaganda model for a different empire. Italian Masterpieces From Spain’s Royal Court, Museo Del Prado is part of the NGV’s very successful Melbourne’s Winter Masterpieces series of exhibitions. The income from religious tourists that once made the relics of martyrs a good investment for a city has been changed and now importing exhibitions of Italian masterpieces is a good investment for Victoria.

At the media preview for the exhibition the Minister for the Arts, Heide Victoria MLA, along with demonstrating her art history education and boasting that the NGV had a better Tiepolo, spoke about the impact on the economy of the Melbourne’s Winter Masterpiece exhibition series. The NGV, ACMI and the Melbourne Museum attracts 4.3 million visitors a year and with each visitor spending on average $83.72 that brings in $360 million. Melbourne’s inner city hotels, restaurants and bars all share in the profit of being in a city with an event and spectacle based economy.

What could be more spectacular event than the Italian Masters from Spain’s Royal Court? The very names of Raphael, Titian and Tiepolo are, in themselves, a spectacle. The art of the 16th to 18th centuries was about the spectacular; the technique, composition, subject matter, colours, size and, even, the cruelty portrayed are all created to be magnificent, impressive, spectacular.

The institution of the public art gallery is an invention of the nation state, a spectacle created to suit the needs of the state. The now famous decoupling of painting and sculpture from religious and royal propaganda functions that occurred in France after the revolution and gave birth to art collection of the Louvre only happened in France. In Spain there was no such divorce. The great royal collection of the Prado was a just that a royal art collection, and very much the collection of one man, Philip IV of Spain with lots of family portraits and lots of the artists that he loved. The old accession numbers written on the left hand side of the painting, in red or white paint, are still clearly visible and show that the collection is about ownership.

The art of the Italian masters, the spectacle of the royal bling of the Spanish empire is still functional to the National Gallery. The collection of the Prado and the exhibition at the NGV International are a kind of public relations, or marketing that Mazda, principal sponsor of the exhibition, are proud to be associated with. To build on this association there are two new Mazdas were parked in front of the NGV’s famous water wall.

It is hard to know if the Italian masters themselves would be disappointed or pleased that Spain was now close to bankrupt, that the Catholic church morally bankrupt and their painting currently on a continent that, was to them, a mere geographical speculation. Or would they simply move on to a patron with money?

Inge King – Retrospective @ NGV

Without a doubt Inge King is Melbourne’s most important sculptor of the second half of the twentieth century. Her importance comes from being amongst the first modern sculptors in Melbourne, her many public sculptures and her long life.

Inge King, Sun Ribbon 1980-82

Inge King, Sun Ribbon 1980-82

Inge King Constellation is a retrospective exhibition at the NGV Ian Potter Centre (Fed Square). In giving an overview of her life’s work the exhibition shows the point where King found her style and then how it developed. Her early works resembles various European modern sculptors: Jan Arp, Juan Miro, Henry Moore, along with a bit of Alexander Calder.

Sculpture was, until the 20th century, made from raw materials, clay, stone, wood, metal; then came assemblage, a particularly modern method because it requires previously manufactured materials to assemble. In 1959 King acquired and learnt to use an arc welder; it was with the welded assemblage of steel plates that she found her style. It was a style that was perfect for public sculpture. A field guide to recognising a King’s public sculpture would probably note they are assemblages of metal and mostly painted black.

King’s public sculptures are very familiar to many people in Melbourne. Her sculptures are across the city from Melbourne University, the Arts Centre to EastLink. Students and graduates of Melbourne University would be familiar with King Sun Ribbon (1970).

Inge King, Forward Surge 1972-74

Inge King, Forward Surge 1972-74

Forward Surge (1972-74 installed in 1981) fits perfectly into the curved architecture of the Arts Centre Melbourne and Hamer Hall, turning the horizontal curves of the buildings vertical. The curves delight small children who try to climb them only to have to slide back down when the curve becomes to steep. King remarks in a video interview that although she understands why the council wants to stop skateboarders using Forward Surge, because they have to repaint it, she is glad that skateboarders do use it.

As a member of the Centre 5 group King wanted to reunited modern sculpture with architecture. Her Red Rings (2008), located at the junction of the EastLink pedestrian and bike trail and the Dandenong Creek trail, are three steel rings painted red. The human scale of the Red Rings, 2.5 metres in diameter allows for people to move through them.

The NGV’s exhibition has many of the maquettes, at various scales, for these public sculptures. There is the maquette for the bird form, Sheerwater (1994) in front of the Esso building on Southbank.

Inge King, Sheerwater, 1994

Inge King, Sheerwater, 1994

The exhibition gives further insight into King’s interest in reuniting sculpture with architecture, one of the five objectives of the Centre 5 group that King was involved with. Her sculptures can be walls, screens and arches but they can also relate to architecture by projecting from walls or, made of aluminium instead of steal, hanging from the ceiling.

King’s arrival in Melbourne in 1951 marks the beginning of modern Melbourne; the beginning of an international outlook aware of Europe and the USA rather than provincial colonial view. King said that when she arrived Melbourne was “like opening a can of flat beer”. It was the arrival of post-war immigrants that saved Melbourne’s culture and made this contemporary, artistic city.

There was no interest in modern sculpture in Melbourne when King arrived and to make a living she turned to jewellery making. The exhibition includes two vitrines of her boldly modern jewellery; vambrace style bracelets set with opals, necklaces and rings with geometric elegance that can be seen in her most recent sculptures.

Given Inge King’s importance in the history of Australian art it is a shame that this exhibition was so disjointed. The exhibition is located in the large foyers of each floor of Ian Potter Centre, extending a bit into a gallery on the second floor and on the landings of stairs. Starting on the third floor with her earliest work, her classic black sculptures are on the second floor and her most recent work in stainless steel on the ground floor. Extending into the gallery space on the second floor allows the curator to include a mini-retrospective of King’s husband, Grahame King, a notable print maker.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,345 other followers

%d bloggers like this: