Category Archives: Art History

Henry Moore & Australian Sculpture

Australian interwar sculptors mark the transition from traditional to modernist. Interwar modernism in Australia was not building on any modernist foundations, it was the start, and it started in England with Henry Moore.

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Henry Moore was the acceptable face of modernism in England. He was English and his easy version of biomorphic surrealism was friendly. Although it was modern sculpture, all smooth with holes in it, everyone could engage with because everyone has a mother.

It was a particularly British sense of modern and Moore did things including making his sculpture from local stone, to maintain the idea that the sculptures were British. The British liked to distance themselves from the mainland of the continent hoping to avoid the French revolution and the other revolutions, like modernism, that might arise after it.

Assisting Henry Moore was almost a rite of passage for Australian sculptors. George Allen, Lenton Parr, Ron Robertson-Swann, and Ola Cohn all worked with Henry Moore at one time. Art in Australia was still part of Britain even if it was on the other side of the earth. Australia was too close to Britain to look to at European art and consequently early modern sculpture in Australia was in part a response to Henry Moore.

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Ola Cohn sculpture at Melbourne City Library

In Ola Cohn’s autobiography, A Way With The Fairies – The Lost Story of Sculptor Ola Cohn edited by Barbara Lemon (R. W. Stugnell, 2014, Melbourne) there are no insights provided about the transition to modernism in Australia. Cohn doesn’t seem like a typical modern artist as she doesn’t express any desire for change, she just goes along with the changes. The lack of insight that Ola Cohn exhibits in her autobiography means that her rambling account of her life has many details with little meaning.

However, there is one insight that is quoted in Cohn’s autobiography. Blamire Young in “Art – Past and Future: Streeton and Ola Cohn” (The Herald 1931 p.86) writes: “Our approach to modern art is surrounded with difficulties, and its effect on Australian students who visit Europe is interesting to watch. They return to Australia with an amazing understanding of its outward and most recognisable  characteristics, but it is seldom they make us feel that they have been through the spiritual suffering that its originators had to undergo.”

For Cohn and many other Australian sculptors modern art meant simply smoothing out the figure into a streamlined form and nothing else. There was no deeper meaning to early Australian modernists as there was no modern revolution or revolt in Australia. Early Australian modernism was simply a copy of British modernism, more a shift in style rather than a revolutionary attitude.

In the progression of modernism another one of Henry Moore’s assistants, Anthony Caro would continue to be a major influence on Australian sculptors, particularly in the work of his students Ron Robertson-Swann and Fiona Foley. The history of Australian sculpture continues to be entwined with British sculpture and the legacy of Moore’s influence in Australian sculpture continues to this day.


Dada Centennial 1916-2016

“Where is the monument to the folk who took a stand against the war rather than those who capitulated to its madness?” Robert Nelson asked in The Age on Remembrance Day, 11 November, 2015

Dear Robert Nelson, the monument exists but it is not in the architecture of state power, the column, the triumphant arch or faux tomb of imperial power dominating territory. It is a single word “Dada”.

Dada, a little word that means everything and nothing. A word like a Buddhist mantra capable of destroying all illusions by using it as a substitute for all other words. Instead of patriotism, dada; instead of reason, dada.

Not that the word works like magic but the question that Dada posed still remains as potent as ever. What is art and culture doing other than making various governments look like a humane and decent society, masking and distracting from the genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes? If this is how much of an improvement the best of art and culture can do then why continue with it?

This is not a joke, this is a serious point.

Dada Zurich

Mark outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

One hundred years ago on the 5th of February 1916 in Zurich three “oriental gentlemen,” as Hugo Ball described them in his diary arrived at the newly formed Cabaret Voltaire. The Cabaret Voltaire was a music and poetry night that Hugo Ball was running at the Holländische Meierei tavern in Zurich. Hugo Ball had had left Germany for neutral Switzerland, he had been an idealistic German patriot before he saw the horror war for himself.

The “oriental gentlemen” were certainly from the east as they were Romanian. They were the architecture student and artist, Marcel Janco, his brother George and a 19 year old poet who was calling himself, Tristan Tzara.

The reason why they were there was because Romania had ended its neutrality in 1916 and joined the war on the Allied side. It was one of the stupidest decisions of the war; outstanding even considering the extraordinary stiff competition of stupid decisions made in World War One. The Romanian army was obliterated.

The three young men kept on saying “da da”, “yes yes” in Romanian. The word “Dada” was invented later that year, around 11 April 1916, the first Dada periodical appeared over a year later in July 1917. There is a long standing debate about who invented this word but it has to be remembered that they were all very drunk at the time (or using other drugs, yes, I’m looking at you Herr Huelsenbeck and your cocaine).

Historical debates about dates aside, on Friday night in Clifton Hill DADA lives! 1916-2016 celebrated a century of Dada. Over a hundred people packed into the narrow space of the shopfront bar with its tiny stage at the back with of poetry and performance. Sjaak de Jong was the MC for the evening. Most of the performances were of original material but Santo Cazzati did read a historic Tristan Tzara Dada manifesto and perform a recognisably accurate version of Raoul Haussmann’s poem, phonème bbbb.

People try to laugh Dada off but that is just a desperate tactic to hold onto the certainties of dictatorships. Attempts have been made to quarantine Dada in art galleries and libraries around the world but it keeps on breaking out with nihilistic force. For it is nothing, it is ridiculous and is better than any god/country/insert reason here that you can dream up as nobody has ever killed or died for it.


I am not Schwitters either.

“Up the stairs he went, and once more rang Grosz’s bell. Grosz, enraged by the continual jangling, opened the door, but before he could say a word, Schwitters said “I am not Schwitters either.” (Hans Richter, Dada, art and anti-art Abrams, 1964, New York, p.145)

I am not Schwitters either so I don’t know who is Schwitters. To understand a person from only one perspective is like looking at a silhouette, there are only two diamentions. The more views, the more contradictions and a three or four dimensional character starts to take shape

Hans Richter account of Kurt Schwitters “a first class businessman, a born shop keeper” (p.149) is markedly different from that of  E.L.T Mesens, of a man travelling third class with a very small suitcase that contained nothing but a spare celluloid collar for his thick flannel shirt and bunch of his Merz publications. Kurt Schwitters is best known for his Dada collages but he should also be remembered for his great modern poetry.

Schwitters cover trial

Three Stories: Kurt Schwitters by Kurt Schwitters, Jasia Reichardt (Editor) (Tate Publishing, 2011, London) is a small 32 page hardcover book with three stories and a poem by Schwitters. There is also an introduction by the editor Jasia Reichardt and an essay about Schwitters by Mesens.

The only images in the book are a couple of small marginal illustrations that accompany “The Flat and Round Painter”. This fairy tale is an absurd allegory about why all paintings are now flat. It was written around 1941 when Schwitter’s was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.

“The Idiot” was originally written in Norwegian and was translated by Schwitters into English. The setting feels very Norwegian although there are no definite references to any particular location.

“The Landlady” 1945 is a short sketch of an “intelligent” landlady who would make Basil Fawlty appear reasonable.

For me the best part is his “The London Symphony” written in 1942. The realism and urbanism of this poem is truly radical as all the lines came readymade, composed from the hand painted advertising signs that Schwitters saw on the streets of London.

“Tribute to Schwitters” by E.L.T. Mesens was commissioned for ARTnews in 1958 and has been unavailable since then. There is also Ernst Schwitters reply to Mesens is a previously unpublished response by the artist’s son Ernst Schwitters and a response from Mesens. Mesens raises issue Mondrian’s attitude towards Dada and this is part of the dispute with Schwitters’s son.

Another point of difference of opinion is over the quality of Schwitter’s treatment in the English internment camp on the Isle of Man. Mesens claims that he enjoyed it but the artist’s son, Ernst Schwitters, who was in the interment camp with his father, disagrees. Although a Belgium citizen Mesens was involved and informed by the English especially Roland Penrose with whom he ran the London Gallery.


Sculptors & Stonemasons

This post is based on the tours that I gave to publicise the publication of my book, Sculptures of Melbourne earlier this year. Most of the examples can be found around Gordon Reserve at Parliament Station.

Bertram Mackennal, allegorical relief, 1888  Victoria’s Parliament House

Bertram Mackennal, allegorical relief, 1888 Victoria’s Parliament House

I was asked on one of my sculpture tours if Bertram Mackennal would have been a better sculptor if he hadn’t spent so much time working on commissions. I replied that I didn’t think that he would have been a sculptor at all if not for all the commissions.

Sir Bertram Mackennal, was born in Fitzroy the son of a sculptor and architectural modeller. His father supervised the architectural ornamentation on Victoria’s Parliament House and in 1888 Bertram Mackennal did two panels for Parliament House. Mackennal became Australia’s first international star artist exhibiting at the Royal Academy, the Paris Salon and doing portraits of British kings.

If Mackennal were alive today he would not be a sculptor. He would have been making pop music, films or something where good money can be made by a talented hard worker.

Bertram Mackennal, Sir William John Clarke Memorial, 1902

Bertram Mackennal, Sir William John Clarke Memorial, 1902

In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century working class stonemasons could see their sons become upper class gentlemen sculptors. The economic power of craftsmen skills is a major factor in breaking down European class system from the Renaissance to the present. The working class lad who became a gentleman, or even a knight, because they were very hard working and very talented.

The stonemasons that built Melbourne, cutting, carving and decorating its buildings had plenty of work for stonemasons and so many could afford to pay for their sons to be better educated and the industrial muscle to demand better working conditions. It was the power of the stonemasons union that could demand an eight hour day in April 1856.

Stanford Fountain

                       Stanford Fountain

Charles Summers and William Stanford were both the sons of Somerset stonemasons who had apprenticeships in stone masonry before coming to Australia for the gold rush. Stanford was more impulsive than Summers. He was sentenced to 22 years for highway robbery and horse stealing completing his fountain in 1870 while still in Pentridge Prison.

Charles Summers had already got his lucky break when he had become an assistant to an English sculptor. After finishing the Burke and Wills Monument in Melbourne Summers moved to Rome where he established a sculpture business, a business that he passed on to his son. Summers sculpture business in Rome sold more sculpture to the Melbourne Public Library and, also to George Lansell, the “Quartz King” of gold rush Bendigo. When Lansell was in Rome he specifically visited the Summers factory where he purchased a considerable number of sculptures.

Charles Summers, Burke and Wills Monument, 1865

Charles Summers, Burke and Wills Monument, 1865

Paul Montford was the son of a sculptor and stonemason and his brother continued his father’s stone mason business in London. He employed many stonemasons and amongst them was Stanley Hammond who went on to become a sculptor himself continuing this tradition well into the twentieth century in Melbourne.

The end of sculpture as a family business marks a change in attitude to sculptors and sculpture and art in general. Art as a family business was common for centuries, three generations of the Bruegel family painted just as two generations of the Summers or Montford families sculpted. Art changed from a trade with apprenticeships to a vocation, from a matter of situation and birth to a question of character.


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.

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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).


Paul Montford’s Clay Is Still In Use

In the traditional way of making a bronze or stone sculpture a clay model on a wooden or metal armature is first made. A plaster cast is made of the clay model and the clay is pulled off the armature and reused for the next sculpture. The plaster cast is then used to make either a wax model for bronze casting or a plaster model for stone masons to copy. So the clay that Paul Montford used modelled his sculptures, including to create the models for his sculptures at Melbourne’s the Shrine of Remembrance, is still being used by sculptors in Melbourne almost a century later.

Paul Montford, John Wesley, 1935

Paul Montford, John Wesley, 1935

When Montford arrived in Melbourne in 1923 he reported in his first letter (May 12, 1923) to his brother, Louis Montford in London on the availability of materials for sculpture: “no stone that can be carved,” “no bronze founders here worth the name” but “good clay and plaster”. This would suggest that Montford acquired his modelling clay locally after he arrived. (Catherine Moriarty Making Melbourne’s Monuments – the Sculpture of Paul Montford, Australian Scholarly, 2013, p.82)

In other letters Paul tells his brother about the difficulties in keeping clay wet in Melbourne’s summer heat. In one letter (Jan, 1926) he reports hosing the cloth covered model for the Desert Mounted Corps Memorial because using “a syringe was too slow”. (Moriarty, p.118)

Due to a bizarre treatment for tonsillitis Paul Montford died of radium poisoning in 1938. At the time radium was still considered as a potential wonder drug. And his modelling clay was passed on to his assistant Stanley Hammond, who would have used to the clay to model his many sculptures from the lions at the Boer War Memorial on St. Kilda Road to his statue of John Batman on Collins Street.

Stanley Hammond, John  Batman Memorial, 1978

Stanley Hammond, John Batman Memorial, 1978

I lost track of Montford’s clay after Stanley Hammond death in 2000, at the age of 87. I heard a rumour that Louis Laumen had the clay but that turned out not to be true. I was disappointed not be able to trace this modelling clay from the Montford to the present as it would have given an unusual narrative thread to the first chapter of my book, Sculptures of Melbourne, but it was not essential to the history.

Then on the first day of my promotional walking tours for my book I was given the answer. Some of the Montford’s clay is now in the possession of William Eicholtz and is still being used to model sculptures, including Courage. Thanks Will.

William Eicholtz, Courage, 2014

William Eicholtz, Courage, 2014


Alan Bond and art: a posthumous review

After winning the America’s Cup in 1983 Alan Bond toured the piece of silverware around the country where it was displayed in state and national galleries. Sitting in the middle of a gallery the Art Gallery of NSW in a glass case it was an ugly display of a public institution bowing to corporate power.

Also in 1983 Bond’s family company, Dallhold Investment Ltd. paid US $3.96 million for Edouard Manet’s Le Promenade at Christie’s New York. The painting was previously owned by the American financier, Paul Mellon. This purchase received little attention at the time but later the purchase would became a significant fact in Bond’s trial.

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, 1889

In 1987 Alan Bond got a lot more attention when he purchased Van Gogh’s Irises. The painting was previously owned by John Whitney Payson who had inherited from his mother, Joan Whitney Payson, a business woman and avid collector of Impressionists and Post Impressionists.

Bond had paid a record amount for the painting, US $53.9 million, making it still one of the most expensive paintings ever sold, but most of the money was a loan from Sotheby’s. The timing of the purchase was suspicious, just a few weeks after the Wall Street crash of Oct. 19, 1987 and it made headlines around the world. Had Bond and Sotherby’s Inc. colluded to create an artificially high benchmark for a painting and create confidence in the art market? It was enough for rival auction house Christies to make a complaint to the financial regulator about the deal. But who was manipulating who?

Alan Bond did not have control of Irises for long but he made the most of it parading it from the media. It was displayed in his Perth penthouse office for seven months. It then toured five Australian cities just like Bond’s prized America’s Cup. In his speech at the National Galley of Australia Alan Bond had the audacity to compared himself to Van Gogh as “free spirits ahead of their time”.

Sotheby’s then put Irises into storage in mid-September 1988. In 1989 in response to allegations in the British press that Sotheby’s was about to foreclose on the sale, Sotheby’s Financial Services Inc. claimed that Bond was meeting all of his repayments on Irises. In November that year, to help pay Alan Bond’s debt Sotheby’s auctioned Manet’s Le Promenade for US $17 million. There was just small problem, Alan Bond didn’t own the Manet as had been purchased by his family company, Dallhold Investment Ltd.

A few months later, in 1990 Sotheby’s sold Irises to the J Paul Getty Museum for an undisclosed sum and in 1992 Bond was declared bankrupt. In 1996 Bond was jailed for three years for fraud, part of this fraud involved the sale Manet’s Le Promenade.

However, these well known deals was not all of dodgy deals involving art that Alan Bond was involved in. When his business empire collapsed Bond arranged for 13 paintings and sculptures moved from Perth to London to avoid the liquidators as Colin James reports in the Adelaide Advertiser.

Alan Bond cannot be described as an art collector as he saw art as another market to play, high commodities to be traded. Art was something that he could by that would bring him many things that he lacked: attention, respectability and class. His corrupt and self-serving involvement in art and culture was of no significance except to the art market, who if Alan Bond hadn’t come along would have found another mug putter/dodgy businessman to help inflate the market price.


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