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Category Archives: Art History

The medical ethics of posthumous diagnosis of artists

The tradition of posthumous diagnosis of famous artists goes back at least to Sigmund Freud writing about Leonardo da Vinci in 1910. In his essay “Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood” Freud’s psychoanalytical examination of Leonardo focused on Leonardo’s painting The Virgin and Child and St. Ann. In this examination Freud as art connoisseur and Freud as psychologist are confused and ultimately Freud’s analysis and outing of Leonardo as a “passive homosexual” is unethical.

It is not uncommon for physicians to write papers where they give a posthumous diagnosis of medical conditions in notable dead artists or other identifiable historic figures, for example, that El Greco had astigmatism. However, I would urge that both the authors and the editors of medical journals to be consider the ethics and relevance of such papers.

The publication of inaccurate posthumous diagnosis created with the authority of a physician makes for both bad art history and bad medical science. Even though there is often more information about a notable artist, due to the existence of diary, letters and their works of art, than other people the likelihood of the posthumous diagnosis being incorrect is still very high. Of course it is not just physicians who make errors in art history, everyone is going to be wrong, however, what makes the physicians errors worse is that they are not making them using anything like proper medical methodology. The only things that can be learnt from the incorrect diagnosis of breast cancer in Rembrandt’s model for Bath of Bathsheba (1654) is that paintings are not a useful diagnostic tool, something that should already be obvious.

There needs to be some guidelines for both writers and editors regarding the ethics of publishing papers containing diagnosis of famous dead artists. I propose for reasons of both accuracy and ethics that priority be given to articles that explain a diagnosis made public by the artist during their lifetime and where there is a benefit to the public in making and explaining a diagnosis. If the diagnosis was not made during the artist’s lifetime it is more than likely to be incorrect. There is the potential for a diagnosis damaging the reputation of the artist and the reputation of their art.

Is it ethical for a physician to provide an unsolicited posthumous diagnosis of medical conditions in notable artists or other identifiable historic figures that they have never examined, simply as a matter of historic conjecture, because the person is both famous and dead?

“At their strongest, confidentiality protections after death would be equal to those in force during a patient’s life. Thus, if information about a patient may be ethically disclosed during life, it likewise may be disclosed after the patient has died.” (Opinion 5.051 – Confidentiality of Medical Information Postmortem, AMA website, accessed 18/12/2015)

The AMA does lay out some ethical reasons for the disclosure of medical information postmortem. In most articles about dead artists there is a clear failure to consider both “the impact disclosure may have on the reputation of the deceased patient” and the “personal gain for the physician that may unduly influence professional obligations of confidentiality.” (Opinion 5.051) There maybe some research and educational purposes in doctors writing about famous dead artists but in examining the literature there didn’t seem to be one clear example.

As a basic guidelines for physicians writing about famous dead artists or other famous dead persons: don’t write anything that you wouldn’t write when the person was alive. Writing about a diagnosis that was made during the person’s life that the person made public themselves provided that has a public benefit. But this is not a simple matter as can be seen in “Before and After and Superman – Andy Warhol” James C. Harris, MD JAMA Psychiatry January 2014 Volume 71, Number 1 (Downloaded From: http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/ on 12/17/2015) Does the fact that Warhol openly discussed his childhood illness Sydenham chorea (historically known as St. Vitus dance) imply permission for further discussion of the effects of the illness on him? Is this different from an examination Warhol’s denied but widely reported use of amphetamines and cocaine? The confidence of Harris’s diagnosis that Warhol’s obsessive compulsive behaviour and hoarding an effect of Sydenham chorea ignores alternate explanations and Harris does not mention alternative explanations for Warhol’s behaviour. At what point does such discussion become inappropriate? Would making Warhol the post-child of the disease for an advertising campaign be appropriate?

These complicated cases aside lets have no more articles about El Greco’s eyesight, Richard Dadd’s mental illness or Giorgio De Chirico’s migraines. Instead let the final word be from: Bogousslavsky J “The last myth of Giorgio De Chirico: neurological art” (Front Neurol Neurosci. Epub 2010 Apr 6) who concluded that De Chirico’s art practice was “…a continuous, organized process to which organic brain dysfunction never contributed.”

(Thanks to Catherine Voutier for her assistance in the medical research.)

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Dada Meme Infects the World

At the beginning of the twentieth century for the first time in history there was enough young people not just to fight a world war and to start to create subcultures. With the Dadaists there was still too few of any of them to bother with classifications. The history of eccentrics leads people to retrospectively classify them in subcultures, those strange attractors in the chaos of society.

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Greil Marcus in his book, Lipstick Traces tries to trace Dada and punk back to the Anabaptists. Others trace them back to Cynics of Ancient Greece. Was Diogenes was a hippy or a punk?

Instead of wondering about future histories or museums, instead of trying to trace an illegitimate ancestry for Dada or punk, look at the attraction. What was the reason for their existence? Why do people around the world identify with them?

Dada and punk gave expression to a status frustration of talented and intelligent youth who had no influence in the direction of art, culture or the world. Dada was the first of many cultural guerrilla resistance forces. Operating in occupied territory, these movements attack and retreat, sometimes melting away into the general population. Their tactics change to take advantage of the local terrain and exploit weakness in psychosocial defences. For such movements survival is the same as success and both Dada and punk did so much more than just survive. They spread rapidly. Perhaps this was because the conditions were right but more likely there were already people who were doing that kind of thing looking for a larger movement to identify with.

The thing about Dada was that it was an art movement not just for the professional, trained artist, but for anyone. Many of those involved in Dada did not continue to be artists because they were medical students who became doctors, students who became teachers. Is it any surprise that Dada didn’t survive long with such an incoherent group of proto- punks, hippies and new agers.

The Cabaret Voltaire and the Dada Gallery in Zurich ended like so many artist run initiatives to come after them. Wednesday 9th April 1919 was the date for the final grand soirée in Zurich. By then Dada had already spread around the world. The debate as to where punk started, USA or England, mirrors the debate about the origins of Dada. The meme of Dada was transported in person by members of the Zurich crowd but it was also spread by mail. The impact of the postal service on Dada and subsequent similar movements cannot be ignored.

In 1917 Richard Huelsenbeck spreads the meme to Berlin where Club Dada was formed. In 1918 Dada spread to Max Ernst and Johannes Baargeld in Cologne via Hans Arp. Marcel Janco took Dada back to Rumania were Contimporanul is formed. In 1918 Kurt Schwitter’s applied to join Club Dada in Berlin but is rejected so he creates his own Merz movement, or magazine, or both.

Dada was already in New York with Francis Picabia acting as the link between the Dadaists in New York and Zurich. He was already doing his own thing, publishing a zine in Spain before he ever heard of Dada. Dada continued to spread in Barcelona with Picabia to a mix of French, English, Italian and Russian.

Tristan Tzara takes Dada to Paris.

In Russia (Krutchony, Terentieff, Zdanevich) Perevoz was DaDa. Ma is the Hungarian version 1918-22 (Lojos Kassak, Sandor Barta). It was Mécano in Holland with Theo Van Doesburg.

There is the big Dada/Surrealism split in Paris in October to December of 1919. But to the east new Dada like groups are still announcing themselves. Tank in Zagreb 1922, The Green Donkey Group in Hungary, 1927 (Odon Palasowki). In Japan it was Mavo.

Dada eventually arrived in Melbourne in 1952 with Barry Humphries, Clifton Pugh and Germaine Greer where it was known as Wobboism. It was so old by then that neo-Dada movements had already started in Japan and the US.


2016: Dada, Punk, Parties

Last Friday night I was at the Blender Xmas Show; it is a longstanding tradition, a blended mix of exhibition, party and open studios. Maybe not for much longer for there is talk about Blender closing, nobody knows anything definite. Has the whole area around the Melbourne market has been rezoned? Research is required but after the Sky Vodka mixers, basically ethanol was mixed with filtered and deionised water marketed in cobalt blue bottles that might have been fashionable in the 1990s and standing around in the warehouse for a couple of hours research is the last thing on my mind.

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What is on my mind is wrapping this blog up for the year and other anniversaries. It is a century after the summer of 1916 when Dada bloomed in Switzerland but who cares, it is history. To commemorate this centennial I wrote some posts about Dada this year; posts about the various historic forces that had aligned to bring the original Dadaists together in Zurich and the small celebrations for the centennial amongst poets in a bar in Clifton Hill.

I re-read my post about the success and failure of Dada after Joe Corre, the son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood burnt his Sex Pistols memorabilia. Remember that Dada could not be properly understood until after punk. Ending up in the hands of rich collectors or in museums is not the problem, it is not an indication of success or failure, nor a cause of ossification. Thinking that the success and failure of a movement is dependent on the location of holy relics is as nostalgic as a collector’s desire. Corre was forgetting his father’s three word manifesto: “cash from chaos.”

I am also think what I will do next year with this blog? My first WordPress blog post, Faster Pussycat, was on February 16 in 2008, so early next year in February it will be the tenth anniversary since the start of this blog. This year was a time for big round number milestones for this blog: 1000th posts and 500,000th views. I celebrated my 1000th blog post with a psychogeographical walk. It was not a tour, it was like this blog, a psychogeographical walk, with no plan and no destination. People did give me a presents and bought me drinks, thank you.

I have written some diverse blog this year from a gallery crawl around Chelsea in NYC, to graffiti piecing in Burnside on the far west of Melbourne, to the VR experience of Sean Gladwell’s studio. But the most unusual experience was watching the forgery trial in the Supreme Court.

If you are reading this blog for the first time or for the thousandth time, thank you for reading in 2016.

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Victorian Architectural Ornamentation

I have been looking at all the ornamentation on Victorian buildings. The keystones with heads, the corbels scroll brackets, the flower shaped patraes and the plethora of other embellishments, like over decorated wedding cakes, on nineteenth century buildings. Now in the twenty-first century they are in varying states of repair, some crumbling away.

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I am amazed that I haven’t heard about some concrete pineapple or other orb becoming dislodged and crashing onto a roof. Do have a metal armature supporting them? There is so much about these ornaments that I don’t know.

Given that I see these ornaments every day I am struggling to even to learn the vocabulary to describe them. They are so alien after the modernist world. Where John Ruskin might have endorsed ornamentation, the architect Alfred Loos declared decoration a crime.

Who made these things?

Some of these architectural ornaments were made by Colin Young Wardrop, who also taught modelling and woodcarving at Geelong College, and William C. Scurry. Both men were on the council of the Yarra Sculptors’ Society.

Ken Scarlett’s Australian Sculptors has details on William C. Scurry.

“Messrs Wardrop and Scurry, Sculptors, Modellers, and Fibrous Plaster Manufacturers, 48 and 69 Arden Street, North Melbourne. This business was established in 1892, and since that date has made rapid strides in advancement. Messrs. Wardrop and Scurry have been large contractors for the principal decorative work in the city and suburbs, the principal buildings entrusted to their care being the Princess Theatre, the Theatre Royal, Opera House, Federal Coffee Palace, the Queen’s Walk, and numerous other places of interest in Melbourne.”

“The firm also executed the group of Justice and the other ornament for the Bendigo Law Courts, also the group of figures for the Bendigo Art Gallery. They were the first to introduce fibrous plaster for decorative purposes in Victoria, and in this class of work they certainly excel, as may be seen from the interior decoration of the Princess Theatre and Opera House” (p. 585)

It is uncertain when William Scurry’s father arrived in Melbourne but what is know is that in 1856 Scurry’s uncle, James Scurry was working with Charles Summers and John Simpson MacKennal. James Scurry was producing decorations for the interior of Parliament House on Spring Street including the two figures, Mercy and Justice, on the north side of the Legislative Council Chamber. Charles Summers went to create the Burke and Will Monument. John Simpson MacKennal was the father of Sir Bertram Mackennal, who became Australia’s first international superstar artist.

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Federal Coffee Palace, Melbourne


What ever happened to the avant-garde?

I remember the idea of the avant-garde artist and a time when there still were avant-garde artists but it is a distant memory of the nineteen seventies. Even then the time between being an avant-garde artist and an establishment artist was getting shorter and shorter.

Eventually all that remained of the avant-garde was the shock, not the shock of the new, but just shock art. Mark Kostabi and Jeff Koons were not avant-garde they were just shocking. Then there was nothing avant-garde, everything that was new was old. Australian aboriginal art was fresh on the art market in the 1980s but thousands of years old. There were the kids out in the street doing their graffiti but that wasn’t avant-garde.

Was the avant-garde simply a feature of modernism? If not, would it be correct to describe any artist from the 17th Century as ‘avant-garde’?

Although there may no longer be an avant-garde there is the underground and independents.

Independent started in the late 1960s, a vague, nebulous idea of not being controlled by a large corporate institution. It was more of an economic than an artistic progressive model.

The underground would never become mainstream, it wasn’t so much an avant-garde as resistance movement deep behind enemy lines.

The avant-garde is different from simply being opposed to the status quo. Being opposed to the status quo may also be an indication of conservative and reactionary thinking. Likewise being different is not necessarily avant-garde, it could merely be eccentric, or again, deeply conservative.

The military model of the avant-garde art would be that of the advance guard, the forward flank that is the first to engage with the enemy. It also provides a clear indication that progress has been made would be if the rear guard moves to occupy the area formerly occupied by the avant-garde, such as in the case of impressionist painters or jazz.

The military model does raise the question of what is the enemy of art?

This academic model of the ‘avant-garde’, or at least of innovation, presumes that in to develop art it is necessary to be conscious, in the Hegelian sense, of the history and theory of art. It is an understanding that only those in an academic environment have the training and research opportunities to accomplish. The audience for this art must be educated, lectured to and continually challenged to see if they are keeping up with the progress of contemporary art. However a studied approach to a new conclusion is insufficient for the avant-garde needs to be seriously relevant and not merely the product of ‘serious culture’.

“In jazz, as in classical music, the avant-garde is less of a site of innovation than an academic branch of an art-form.” Michael Jarrett, Sound Tracks – A Musical ABC, (Temple University Press, p.174)

The popular arts has its own model for innovation in the arts that proved powerfully sometime between Toulouse LaTrec’s poster and Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground. The use of electronic instruments on the Dr Who theme was indicative of the shape of future contemporary music.

Robert Maycock in Glass, a Portrait (Sanctuary, 2002) argues that the popular arts provided an economic way to bypass the moribund institutional system. The numerous film scores of Phillip Glass and also other composers like, Michael Nyman shows how the economics of popular art now provides more autonomy for the artists than the old institutional art system. The popular arts also provides a motivation for the progress and a means to entrench the progress in the system.

What is the avant-garde today? What would it mean to be an avant-garde artist or musician? Is the value of the avant-garde practice based on its historic achievements and not on any present necessity?


Examining the spirit in secular art

Robert Nelson The Spirit of Secular Art, A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Value (Monash University ePress, 2007) is an ambitious project, a complete history of western art from Ancient Greek art to the present day. Very ambitious as it requires the author to have a good knowledge of the entire history of art which Nelson does have.

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Along the way Nelson does make some interesting arguments about the architecture of frames in medieval altar pieces, progress in academic art in the nineteenth century and the limitations of symbolism compared to Freudian psychology. See Peter Steele’s review “The Material Stretched by the Spiritual” in Eureka Street Vol18 no.4

Ambitious as the project is, it is unfortunately a rather conservative project. Nelson follows the usual strata of art periods; Ancient Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, etc. The idea of broad layers of styles defining a time, does not fully explain all of the art being created during that period nor is it a clear guide to the history of influences on artists.

The book is also a bit of a jeremiad, a general complaint about contemporary art. Nelson writes several times that contemporary artists are “sacrificing their talent”. Although I am now antique I don’t want to be a grumpy old man and complain about the standard of art today. It is as boring and false as complaining about the youth of today ever was.

However, the real problem is art’s the sacramental roots and however much Nelson knows about the history of western art, he is not as knowledgable about the history of western religion.

Throughout his history Nelson tries to demonstrate how the sacred added an aura to art in different ways at different times. The term ‘sacred’ is a fuzzy and elastic word, even in comparison to the word ‘art’, and poorly defined terms are the downfall of many studies. For Nelson spirituality haunts art and exorcism is impossible even for secular artists. I have doubts about anything artificial having essential and eternal features as such elastic apparitions may give an object any aura you imagine.

Art’s relationship to the sacred appears to be both complex and varied, leaving many trace elements behind in the mix. Artists may be inspired, or even possessed by muses, spirits, ghosts, gods and genii. Art, particularly the abstract and mathematical nature of music, could be considered an emanation of the divine. And this is not an exhaustive list.

In Roberto Calasso’s book, The Marriage of Harmony and Cadmus, he explains, in his simple but elegant manner, the relationship between beauty and the gods. The gods appreciate beauty, music, perfumes in the same way that we do. For if they did not we would have nothing in common with the gods, there would just be an immense power imbalance.


Cowen Gallery @ State Library

Trying to imagine what the National Gallery would have looked like when it was in the State Library. At the same time as looking in the future at what Patricia Picininni images the evolution, or the genetic alteration of car drivers.

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Patricia Piccinini, Graham, 2016

Prior to the construction of the National Gallery of Victoria on St. Kilda Road in 1968 the National Gallery of Victoria was located in the State Library. It consisted of the Swinburne Hall, the painting school studios and three galleries. What were the McArthur and La Trobe galleries are no longer open to the public, but the Cowen Gallery and the two linking rooms, are still used for exhibiting art at the State Library.

A century ago it would have looked rather different, the now redundant skylights would have allowed diffused natural light into the galleries. The paintings and prints would have been hung Salon style, hanging multiple works right up to the ceiling to fill the wall. Rather than the way it is hung now with a single row of works at eye level along the wall. On the walls would have been Alma Tadema’s The Vintage Festival in Ancient Rome, Watt’s portrait of Tennyson, and John Longstaff’s Breaking the News. In the middle of the room there were marble statues of the royal family by Charles Summers.

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Charles Summers, bust of the actor Gustavus Brooke, 1868

The numerous marble busts by Charles Summers still on exhibition reminds me that he was allowed to arrange the sculptures in the gallery. Summers placed plaster casts of Michelangelo next to a plaster cast of his Burke and Wills Monument to demonstrate his references. Summers’s ego exhibited in this arrangement amused some English visitors but for nineteenth century Melbourne he was their Michelangelo.

The plaster casts and etching of works by other artists hanging in the gallery indicate that issues of originality and even the function of the art gallery was very different.

In the present the art gallery at the State Library is an odd mix of art from Melbourne’s past, with a particular focus on landscapes of Melbourne and portraits of Melbourne identities, along with some contemporary art. Above the stairs hangs a tapestry by the Australian Tapestry Workshop based on a painting by Juan Davila.

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Juan Davila and Australian Tapestry Workshop, Sorry, 2013

Graham was just sitting there in his shorts going viral as people crowded around taking photos of him. After a selfie with Graham in the background the visitor might spend awhile with the headphones and iPads finding out why Graham looks that way and how the collaborated between the TAC, Patricia Piccinini, a leading trauma surgeon and a crash investigation expert produced him. Piccinini’s art makes an impact both in the gallery and online and that makes her work perfect for a road safety awareness campaign.

I wonder how Graham would have been greeted, if he had been created a century ago, and where would he have been displayed in Melbourne. Undoubtedly he still would have received a lot of media attention.


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