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Category Archives: Art History

Gorilla carrying off a woman

I thought that I should look closely at something that I hate; Emmanuel Frémiet’s Gorille enlevant une femme (gorilla carrying off a woman) 1887, a bronze sculpture. It won a medal in the Paris Salon of that year. Most people in Melbourne, or Montreal or various other cities would be familiar with Frémiet’s Jeanne D’Arc. In Melbourne it stands, in a strange pairing, with Boehm’s St. George outside the State Library.

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Emmanuel Frémiet’s Gorille enlevant une femme (gorilla carrying off a woman) 1887

Frémiet was a nineteenth century French sculptor who specialised in animal sculptures. I just find some nineteenth century sculpture ridiculous; man’s battle with monster from his unconscious that is in retrospect, in the post-Freudian world so obvious. But Frémiet’s sculpture is far worse than any sexual fantasy because this isn’t simply a prototype King Kong as evidence of the stone hand axe that he is carrying indicates. The tool maker means that this sculpture is perpetrating the ugliest of racist stereotypes. Along with the idea of women as property that foreigners want to steal.

The primeval scene is not referencing classical or biblical mythology but a fantasy of pre-history. It is the kind of thing that you might expect on the cover of one of an old Tarzan books from the 1960s. It is not the kind of images that art galleries collect today. If you tried to sell that kind of shit today there would be a campaign to put a stop to your business because it is both racist and sexist.

There is a snake disappearing under the rock. The obsessive details and the quality of the modelling are enough to save the work but not enough to keep it out of storage at the NGV where I hope it spends most of its time.

Fantasy art and visionary art are now considered as a separate category to serious art but Frémiet’s Gorille enlevant une femme is a reminder that this was not always the case. Fantasy art uses broad metaphors, if they are metaphors, and not symbols or icons. It makes me wonder if the change of art styles in modernism was about a change in meaning expressed than in an outward appearance. The rejection of works like Frémiet and what they meant and resulted in art searching for a different meaning and look. Modernism was about looking for a new subject and not a new way of depicting an old subject.

If I were to write such a grand history of art I would use a broader word like ‘meaning’; a word that could encompass all those fuzzy words like ‘spirituality,’ ‘truth’ and ‘beauty.’ For there was a crisis of meaning in European art due to increasing reports and evidence of death of the one, true God; the same God that was meant to be the foundation of European culture. Meaning in art and the meaning of art started to crumble and the obvious racist fantasy presented in Frémiet’s Gorille enlevant une femme is now best seen as evidence of this disintegration. The patriarchy and its ugly irrational racism in bronze.

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Art or arts?

‘Art’, as in ‘contemporary art’ or ‘modern art’, is different from ‘the visual arts.’ This subtle distinction confuses many people including some professional artists and has been the cause of many and repeated disputes. If it weren’t for this confusion and disputes arising from it the distinction would hardly worth mentioning.

‘Art’ is a singular noun that describes a collective idea. What exactly art is never become specific, it is an opened set, like games. It does not have the definite article ‘the’ nor the indefinite article ‘an’ because ‘the arts’ and ‘an art’ are entirely different to ‘art’. ‘The arts’ is the vaguest of the variants as it can mean everything from the humanities, logic, rhetoric to juggling and dance. ‘An art’ is at least referring to some specific skill. Whereas ‘the visual arts’ or ‘the fine arts’ are plural nouns with a definite article that means architecture, painting, drawing and sculpture.

The differences between the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Musée du Louvre explains distinction between the fine arts and art. Both are the result of a royal collection, in the case of Dulwich the King of Poland-Lithuania, a country that ceased to be before the collection of fine arts could be delivered to its king. Opened to the public in 1817, it was opened to students of the Royal Academy two years earlier. Dulwich collection contained works of fine arts for students to study whereas the Louvre contained works of art.

The Louvre had opened twenty years earlier, in 1793, but had already made a revolutionary decision that would make a major difference The revolutionary difference is that the Louvre, along with a royal collection, included confiscated church property as a way of conserving them. The church altarpieces in the Louvre, decontextualised with their religious function removed, became art when displayed to be looked at as if they were paintings or sculptures.

‘Art’ emerged from the discourse about looking at things, like altarpieces in the Louvre, as if they were something like a painting or sculpture. To look at something as if it were a work visual art is the metaphoric relationship that the philosopher, Arthur Danto argues for in his institutional theory of art. It is this idea of art rather than a conspiratorial or consensus driven act of an actual institution that determines what art is.

For about a century the distinction between ‘the visual arts’ and ‘art’ was invisible, an imperceptible semantic distinction. The trajectory that started with confiscated church property continued with the items from other cultures similarly removed from their context. This was quickly followed with products of new technology, like photography and readymade found objects. It was Marcel Duchamp’s readymades that defined and illustrated the already widening schism between art and the visual arts.

Art may involve shopping, confiscating and appropriating images whereas the visual arts don’t highlight these activities. An artist may be making art or painting, sculpting and drawing or doing both.


Asiru Olatunde (1918 – 1993)

Asiru Olatunde (1918 – 1993) was one of a small group of artists in the 1960s who were part of a creative community known as the Oshogbo School. The Oshogbo School is important because it was at the start of modern art in Nigeria and it helped preserve a place that is now a recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is characterised by stylised figures and unusual and diverse media.

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Asiru Olatunde, Dance scene, c.1969

The Oshogbo School or movement developed in the town of Oshogbo in the 1960s. At the time Oshogobo was a market town on the cross roads of road, river, rail connections and a population of about 120,000 people. The town had a tradition of music, wood and stone carving, brass and iron work, and two storey houses with elaborate balustrades.

The Oshogobo movement started when a group of people began to repair local shrines. Encouraged by the German artist Susanne Wenger and her husband the linguist, Ulli Beier who emigrated to Nigeria in 1950s. It was a response to the desecration of the Osun-Osogbo Grove in the 1950s. The Yoruba river and love goddess Osun is the patron of the town. Her festival his held in the last two weeks in August each year. In 2005 the Osun-Osogbo Grove was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Asiru Olatunde, photo from Tyler Collection, University of Tasmania 

Asiru Olatunde was from a family of blacksmiths. He had learnt ceremonial drumming as a boy, but was forced to give it up by his Muslim father. Later he took it up again; playing the talking drum every four days at the shrine of Obatala in Osogbo. Considering the recent conflict between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria Olatunde’s life and art are worth considering as a more sophisticated and creative response to cultural tensions. He was a Muslim who supported local Yoruba festivals and did commissions for Churches.

Olatunde had a ‘heart disease’ (another source claims it was tuberculosis). The illness prevented him from working as a blacksmith but allowed him to be an artist. It was an ‘illness’ as a transformation is a shamanic aspects to the identity of the artist. Please forgive this digression into a structuralist analysis and not discounting the facts of Olatunde actual medical condition. Was this structurally, not pathologically, the same kind of illness that struck down Paul Cézanne and prevented him from following his father into banking. Or the many others who became artists after illness? This point has to be made as there are several illnesses and transformative cures in this story. For Susanne Wenger Iwin Funmike Adunni contracted tuberculosis in Nigeria and she turned to the Yoruba religion and became an Osun priestess. A protege of Ajagemo a priest, she promised him to build dwellings for each of the Yoruba pantheon, a task she completed. She lived for 94 years.

At first Olatunde made jewellery, before hammers his art onto copper panels and then aluminium panels. A nail punch produced a circle for the background. Another larger one struck circles that would become eyes. Straight lines were scratched into the panel before being followed and then decorated with a straight edged tool. It is not repoussé, reverse hammered panels as some commentators have written. The design was roughly scratched onto the front and then hammered from the front. The dented background was beaten back making the foreground stand out.

Hammering and drumming to a rhythm, Olatunde beat the metal to create lively scenes. Dance scenes, scenes of hunting, Biblical scenes, as in Adam and Eve, or Yoruba stories, as in Animal Tree or Tree of Life. These scenes are surrounded by a border that fills in gaps in the design with decorative triangles and hemispheres.

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Asiru Olatunde, Fishing scene, c.1969

I have been looking at two aluminium panels by Olatunde that were purchased at an exhibition of Oshogobo Art held at the British Council Centre in Ibadan June 23 – 28, 1969. Also exhibiting were Jimoh Buraimoh, Muraina Oyelami, Rufus Ogundele, Twins Seven Seven, Asiru Olatunde, Jacob Afolabi, Buraimoh Gbadamosi, Jinadu Oladepo, Adebisi Fabunmi, and Samuel Ojo. In the catalogue there was a short biographies of the artists; Olatunde is incorrectly identified as born in 1932. Part of his biography reads: “… was prevented by ill-health from taking up the profession of his forefathers. He became a drummer, but could not cut himself off entirely from Ogun, the God of Iron and began supplementing his income by making panels from beaten copper and aluminium.” It also claims that Susanne Wenger discovered his work rather than, as is more commonly reported, Ulli Beier.

Are these panels made of recycled materials? Did Beier encourage him to recycle scrap metal? Did Beier help fund materials? Stories of apprentices filling in areas or doing the ‘heavy work’ suggest that either Olatunde was working as a blacksmith with apprentices or that he was taking on apprentice artists. There is so much that remains unknown and uncertain about this artist.

During his lifetime Olatunde had many exhibitions. In 1965 he had a solo exhibition Viruly Gallery Amsterdam. He was also exhibiting at the IMF headquarters in Washington, in Prague, and in 1967 group show Contemporary Art from Africa – Institute of Contemporary Art in London. He has work in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute, Museum of African Art and DePaul Art Museum Chicago, the University of Bristol and the University of Tasmania. For more read Molara Wood blog on the exhibition at John Martin Gallery in 2005.


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.)


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


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