Category Archives: Art History

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.


Whaley’s Stolen Paintings

Maybe no-one had stolen art in Victoria in the eighteenth century. Perhaps Australian thieves or reporters had no interest in art for it wasn’t until 1924 that a local art theft is reported in a Melbourne newspaper.

In The Argus on page 18 under the unlikely heading “Country News”: “During Mr George Whaley’s absence from Cowes a few days ago someone broke into his boathouse and stole 14 paintings.” There are no other details or further reports about the theft.

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George Whaley, The Ferry Genista in Sydney, c. 1887. Oil painting (Image courtesy of the Phillip Island and District Historical Soc.)

The anonymous reporter had made one mistake, the paintings had been stolen from Whaley’s houseboat, not boathouse.

“The artist began building another vessel, about the year 1919.  On the beach in front of the Bay View site, his house boat the Ophir gradually took shape.  This odd-looking scow was 30 ft. long, flat-bottomed, with bluff ends, and a stateroom that took up all the deck space, in which its owner used to cook, eat, sleep and paint.  After 12 months here, an attempt was made to tow the Ophir to new surroundings.  She was floated off on a high tide one morning, but was found to be leaking badly, and on coming abreast of Erehwon Point began to sink.  Feverish baling and a hurried beaching succeeded in saving her, and on subsequent tides, she was coaxed almost up to the tea-tree.  The artist, who continued to live on board for another year, covered the walls with paintings of seascapes, nudes, and portraits.  This quaint abode however then began to fall to pieces through exposure, and its owner sold it for five shillings.”

J. W. Gliddon Phillip Island in Picture and Story (Cowes, [Vic.] : Committee of Trust “Warley”, Cowes Bush Nursing Hospital, 1968)

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The Ophir at Erehwon Point c.1920 (Image courtesy of the Phillip Island and District Historical Soc.)

It can’t have been very difficult for a thief to break in to the Ophir beached near the tea-trees in a dilapidated condition.

George Whaley painted for the emerging post-war tourist trade in Cowes selling his paintings for 7s 6d, about $50 each. So the fourteen stolen paintings could not have made the thief a fortune, even if he was able to sell all of them.

George Whaley was born in 1862 in England, the son of a Nottingham lace manufacturer. He was not yet twenty-five when arrived in Melbourne on 4th February 1887 on the RMS Potosi. Why he moved to Australia is not clear was he seeking his fortune or was he pursuing the romantic dream of becoming an artist? He described himself on the shipping records as a ‘clerk’, perhaps he had worked for his father in that capacity. Whaley had also received some training in art for soon after he arrived in Australia he completed a competent oil painting of The Ferry Genista in Sydney.

When Whaley arrived in Melbourne in 1887 he would have found a city undergoing a boom in real estate prices. Six years later there was a banking crisis and eleven banks collapsed around Australia. Somehow Whaley found work throughout this turbulent period and in 1899 the thirty-eight year old Whaley married Ida Bridget Martin the daughter of German immigrants. They had four children. It is not clear what work Whaley was doing but he and his growing family moved around Victoria eventually settling in Castlemaine.

In Cowes Whaley lived his bohemian beachcomber life while Whaley’s wife, Ida remained in Castlemaine, perhaps Whaley was visiting her at the time of the robbery. George Whaley died on 3rd April 1933 in Castlemaine.

Thanks to John Jansson of the Phillip Island and District Historical Society for all his research into George Whaley and the images without which this post would not be possible.

 

I am currently researching art theft in Melbourne, so if you have been the victim of art theft, or the thief, and would like to discuss it with me please contact me.


Dada’s Success and Failure

I didn’t expect to see a painting by the Spanish Dadaist, Francis Picabia at the Art Gallery of Ontario but there it was; not from his Dada days but from the 1940s, complete with a couple of palm trees. It is like finding out that a punk band, like The Mekons have become a country/folk music group, which they have.

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Jonathan Jones, The Guardian regular art critic, amongst others, can’t understand this scenario and complains that “a tiny but brilliantly subversive protest movement has become the common currency of big-money, mass-audience art – Dada’s founders would feel sick.

No indication that Picabia was feeling sick, more like a holiday in the sun.

Of course, Mr Jones Dada has become mainstream. Wasn’t that always the intention of the Dada revolutionary council of Berlin? Wasn’t that the point of disseminating the information about Dada to the world? Why the publications, the lecture tours, the exhibitions, the records if it wasn’t to get the idea out there.

Every revolution that is completed becomes the establishment; every successful revolt permanently change the system. That is the process of history. It is not a betrayal of the American War of Independence, or other revolts and revolutions, to have its relics in a museum. But if you had the right sneer in your voice you could make it sound like it.

Would you, Mr Jones, argue that Dada was a success if they were being thrown out or sold in flea markets?

It is illogical to suggest that current ownership of Dada art and relics, or anything else, implies anything about its success or failure in anything other than being owned. The collections of museums, galleries and libraries are not a proof of the objects collected success or failure.

Does every utopian movement have to continue in an eternal purity of process in the same way that the church doesn’t in order not to be “trivialised or misappropriated”?

Should we rather not be celebrating the triumph of these nihilistic bolsheviks who made the contemporary art world? Where is the big Dada parade, with the figure of death in the lead and the oompah band bring up the end? A world where art is free to be anything. A world where in primary schools and kindergartens around the world children are taught the Dada art techniques like collage. Are little children’s art “trivial” enough for you, Mr Jones?

Sure we have all moved on and what was yesterday’s rebellion has now become a museum piece, we no longer wear monocles and ransom note typography is old fashioned.

Sure the Dadaist desire to destroy culture has been converted to a desire to make art that is as boring as life but nobody stole Dada. There are no unauthorised users of an open system, you can’t misappropriate nonsense, you can’t misappropriate nothing.

Sure, Dada failed to end the war, and it has been the same imperialist war on and off for the last century, but who hasn’t failed to do that?

Meanwhile, a century later, the current rebellion against culture is, of course, not Dada. The current rebellion is hardly recognised, invisible, underground and unthinkable.


Public Sculptures – a tourists guide

Public Sculptures in Melbourne by Gera Tonge and Stanley Hammond M.B.E. is a 24 page pamphlet printed on green A4 paper, folded to A5 size, and bound with two staples. Published around 1985 it is a fascinating time slice through the history of Melbourne’s public sculpture. Thanks to William Eicholtz for this generous little gift.

Basically the pamphlet contains two pages on “Methods and materials used in producing public sculpture”, a list of 100 sculptures, a map of their locations and biographies of  some of the sculptors. It is illustrated with black and white photographs of some of the sculptures.

As a subtitle the pamphlet declares that it was intended as “a tourists guide”. The map is divided into three locations that are suggested “as a walking guide” “which can each be explored easily on foot.”

  1. Spring Street, East Melbourne and Fitzroy Area
  2. The City, University and Exhibition Buildings Area
  3. Kings Domain, Shrine and St. Kilda Road Area

Several sculptures are no longer in their original locations, others have moved and the total number of sculptures in these areas has doubled in the thirty years since the pamphlet’s publication.

It appears to be self published. Although there is no date it is after the move the Vault to the banks of the Yarra 1983. The controversy over Vault piqued Melbourne’s interest in public sculpture and may have been an additional motivation for publication.

Stanley Hammond knew the history of sculptures in Melbourne because he had lived it most of it. Born in Trentham Stan had started off as a stone mason working on the Shrine Remembrance before becoming one of Orlando Dutton and then Paul Montford’s assistants. Hammond made many war memorials during his career, including the lions at the Boer War Memorial on St. Kilda Road. He also made the figure of John Batman near the corner of Collins and Market Streets.


Street Art’s Institutional Phase

On some walls layers of graffiti and street art have been building up for decades. They are like layers of archeology they could be divided up into phases of work on the street. They are not perfect layers of paint, paper and glue. There are plenty of overlap, early isolated examples and the long tails of previous phases mix with subsequent phases. This leaves plenty of room for argument over when one phase started and finished, so all the dates in the next paragraph are vague.

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Hosier Lane, Meeting of Styles 2016

A short history of Melbourne’s graffiti/street art would consist of the following phases, each with their own distinct group of artists and media. Starting with the white paint and brushes of the old message, the text based graffiti and sgraffito where the art was in the literary aphorism. Followed by, and concurrent with, the muralists of the 1960s and 70s, a left wing political tradition of public art making. Then came the old school, hip hop aerosol graffiti of the 1980s from bubble letter to wild style. Then street art with peaks of stencils, and subsequent peaks in other media: paste-ups, installations and yarn bombing.

In case you hadn’t noticed, and confirmed by Dr Lachlan MacDonald, street art is now the institutional phase, the “mainstreaming of street art”. In the institutional phase there are established career path for artists, established curators, collectors, major exhibitions and civic interest in street art murals. The very fact that Dr MacDonald, Head of Centre for Cultural Partnerships, Faculty of the VCA and MCM, was talking about this at a Street Art Round Table on the 22/4/16 at Melbourne University is evidence of the institutional phase.

Not that this institutional phase is necessarily bad for the ecology of street art. The archeology of this phase will reveal a layers of better quality paint with more durable pigments as spray paint is now being manufactured to suit the needs of aerosol art. In this phase the wild street art and graffiti is not being buffed to extinction but at times, facilitated or conserved. And unlike any of the other phases, the institutional phase understands the place of street art and graffiti in the urban ecology.

The Street Art Round Table was a one day forum present by Asialink attended by students, academics, street artists, curators, collectors, creative directors, arts managers and civic administrators. It was a series of short talks about a variety of aspects about street art, including a talk about street art’s hipster brother the resurgence of sign writing. I was particularly interested in hearing about street art in Singapore presented by Jasmine Choe from Singapore Youth Arts (see my earlier posts about street art the city state of Singapore). Further proof, if it was needed, of the institutional phase of street art.

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Unknown, paste-up cans, Hosier Lane, 2016


Dada 1916

A hundred years ago April 18, 1916 was the first time that Hugo Ball used the word ‘Dada’ in his diary.

“Tzara keeps on worrying about the periodical. My proposal to call it ‘Dada’ is accepted. We could take turns at editing, and a general editorial staff could assign one member the job of election and layout for each issue. Dada is ‘yes, yes’ in Rumanian, ‘rocking horse’ and ‘hobbyhorse’ in French. For Germans it is a sign of foolish naïveté, joy in procreation, and preoccupation with the baby carriage.” (Flight Out of Time, University of California Press, 1996, p.63)

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There is a stupid debate as to exactly who, when, how and where this now quasi-religious word was first uttered. Ball’s diary entry makes no mention of any occult random selection of a word from a dictionary. There is a clear reference to the influenced by the arrival of the four young Romanians, the pretentious teenage poet, Tristan Tzara, the artist Marcel Janco, his brother, and another Romanian, all saying “da da” who arrived earlier that years at the Cabaret Voltaire.

The war had started two years earlier so why did it take until 1916 for the word Dada to be used?

In May 1915 Hugo Ball had left Germany for neutral Switzerland, he had been an idealistic German patriot before he saw the horror war for himself. (For more about Hugo Ball see my earlier post Dada Against WWI.) In Zurich the pacifist journalist and shorthand prodigy, Ferdinand Hardekopf introduced Ball to Hans Richter. The future avant-garde film maker, Richter had already been discharged from the German Army after being seriously wounded at Vilnius in 1914. Germany occupied Vilnius and the rest of Lithuania from 1915 until 1918 but for Richter the war was over.

The following year, on 2 February 1916, in Zurich Ball and his future wife, Emmy Hennings established the Cabaret Voltaire. The Cabaret Voltaire that would morph into Dada as more young men avoiding the war joined in.

It was a critical mass, a youth culture idea that would spread around the world. Dada spread from city to city, like a youth culture, inspired by the stories of the others activities and outrages. From Zurich to New York to Berlin to Cologne to Paris and on. It spread like a viral idea, a meme. In 1923 Tokyo Dada was ‘Mavo’.

Dada finally reached Melbourne in 1958-59; Australia was so conservative that the long delay meant this was at the same time that there was a neo-Dada revival in New York and Tokyo. In Melbourne the tiny band of Dadaists held in exhibition in 1958 which featured art by Clifton Pugh (under a psdonym), Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries. They called it “Wobboism”, allegedly after a Mr. Wobbo a local rubbish collector.

But back to 1916 why were there three Romanians saying ‘da da’ in Zurich?

Romania had been neutral at the start of the war arguing that its treaty obligations to Austria-Hungry were only if it were attacked and as it had started the war there was no obligation. Eventually in August 1916 in a desperate dream to get support for its territorial claims over Transylvania Romania joined the war on the Allied side. Romania’s army was crushed by Central Powers. In a war full of stupid decisions superlatives are insufficient to describe Romania’s involvement. The young Romanian draft dodgers at the Cabaret Voltaire had carefully avoided becoming patriotic dead heroes.


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