Public sculptures of religious figures are becoming more common in Melbourne. A decade ago there were hardly any but recent commissions seem to have doubled their numbers. The cynical psychologist in me suggests that the erecting permanent statue is a compensation for the decline in religion’s status in Melbourne. I use the word statue, rather than sculpture, because all of them are life-sized realistic figures made of bronze.
Darien Pullen, Fr. Patrick Bonaventure Geoghegan, 2017
Darien Pullen’s statue of Fr. Patrick Bonaventure Geoghegan (1805-1864) the first Catholic priest in colonial Melbourne, stands with his hand outstretched in a blessing. Installed in 2017 in front of the oldest Catholic church in Melbourne, St Francis Church on Elizabeth Street. The sculptor, Pullen has worked at Meridian Sculpture Foundry since 1984 where he mostly assists in the modelling area. This is the second life size statue of a religious figure that Pullen has made; in 2015 he was commissioned to make a statue of St Patrick, for Australian Catholic University, Melbourne Campus.
Louis Laumen Mary MacKillop 2012
Louis Laumen’s Mary MacKillop 2012, Catholic university depicts a young female figure plain 19th Century dress. The figure is on a conversation bench; you can sit down next to Mary, if you can squeeze in between the her and dove, but it looks like she is just getting up. She is about to put her book down and stand up. She is looking towards her birth place across the road. It is also a reference to images of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, with the dove to symbolise the Holy Spirit. In the middle of Australian Catholic University’s new St Mary of the Cross Square on Brunswick Street that connects to the University. Laumen is best known for his statues of sporting heroes at the MCG, has done other sculptures for the Catholic church, including a previous Mary MacKillop for Penola College in Victoria and St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. Laumen finds the church’s commissions were less restrictive than those for the MCG.
Julie Squires, St Mary of the Cross McKillop, 2012
St Mary of the Cross McKillop, 2012 by Julie Squires is installed at the new St Mary of the Cross Mausoleum at Melbourne General Cemetery. A life-sized statue of a nun, an older Mary MacKillop, embracing a little girl. The plinth puts the two figures at eye level for the average viewer. The use of different patinas on the sculpture adds to both the realism and increases the sentimental nature of the sculpture. Its sculptor Squires has taken over from Laumen in sculpting the sporting heroes around the MCG; after all sport is the major religion of most Australians.
There are few statues of notable Australian women in Melbourne. There are few public sculptures in Melbourne representing actual women, aside from nude idealized or symbolic women. For most of the 20th Century there were more memorials statues to British women, Queen Victoria and Nurse Edith Cavell, than Australians.
Ailsa O’Connor, Mary Gilbert, 1974
This was noted and in a small way rectified at the height of the women’s art movement in 1970s with the Mary Gilbert Memorial, 1974 by Ailsa O’Connor (1921-1980). The life-size cement fondue bust is in the Fitzroy Gardens Conservatory.
Ailsa O’Connor was teacher and a radical artist. O’Connor studied at both the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Melbourne University. She was a member of the Social Realist Group (along with Noel Counihan) and the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne (exhibiting in their 1942 Anti-Fascist exhibition). O’Connor joined the Communist party in 1944 and was a founding member of the Union of Australian Women in 1953. She represented Victoria at the World Congress of Women in Copenhagen in 1953. O’Connor taught at Brunswick Technical School where one of her students was Leonard French.
Ailsa O’Connor had done her research into women in early Melbourne and found Mary Gilbert the first European woman to live in Melbourne and the mother of the first European child born in the settlement. O’Connor’s imaginary portrait of Mary Gilbert shows a clear influence of Käthe Kollwitz, a German Realist artist (1867-1945) in style of the head. Kollwitz a major influence on O’Connor’s throughout her life.
In 2012 a statue of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop by Julie Squires is installed at Melbourne general cemetery cemetery’s new St Mary of the Cross Mausoleum. The life size bronze statue depicts Mary MacKillop embracing a child. Julie Squires is a Melbourne-based sculptor educated at the Hunter Institute of Technology and Newcastle University who has also created the bronze “Horse “ (2008) located at Mordialloc Bay and a memorial sculpture to motoring icon Peter Brock (2008) in Bathurst.
There is a bust of Nellie Melba in Her Majesty’s Theatre, a Peter Corlett statue of Kylie Minogue in Docklands and statues of the women sprinters, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland-Delahunty at Gate 3 of the MCG. That seems to complete the survey. A mother, a nun and entertainers – all archetypal conventional roles for women; the conservative tradition of Melbourne has left little room for women and Australian women are hardly included in the official Australian identity as it is represented in public sculpture.