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Tag Archives: Queensland Art Gallery

The theft of La belle Hollandaise

Bizarrely, Picasso’s Weeping Woman was not the first of his paintings to have been stolen from an Australian state art gallery to make a point. In 1967 Picasso’s La belle Hollandaise (The beautiful Dutch woman) was stolen from the Queensland Art Gallery. At the time the painting was valued at $200,000 (the equivalent of $2,367,132 today).

Picasso had painted it in 1905 on cardboard mounted on wood, 77.1 × 65.8 centimetres, in gouache, a water-based poster-paint. La belle Hollandaise depicts a young woman wearing nothing but a traditional Dutch lacy-cloth cap. It was painted when Picasso was between his early ‘Blue period’, when he painted sad, downbeat subjects, and his ‘Rose period,’ when he focused on pleasant scenes in a primarily pinky hue.

The eccentric multi-millionaire grazier Major Harold De Vahl Rubin had purchased La belle Hollandaise for £6,000 in 1940 (about $477,882 today). In 1959 he wanted to know its current value, so he put it up for auction and bought it again, setting a record for the highest price paid for a living artist. Satisfied that he knew its value, he then donated his entire collection of modern European art to the Queensland Art Gallery: a Degas, a Renoir, a Toulouse-Lautrec, a Vlaminck, and three works by Picasso, including La belle Hollandaise.

In the middle of the night, on Monday 5 June, Robert Ferguson climbed up some scaffolding on the outside of the gothic brick building on Gregory Terrace in Bowen Hills, Brisbane. The building is now known as the Old Museum Building, but back in 1967 it was the Queensland Art Gallery. Ferguson forced open a top floor window with a screwdriver and entered the Gallery. Fortunately for Ferguson, there was no burglar alarm in that part of the Gallery. Little is known about the 22-year-old New Zealander who had been working as a labourer, but his father confirmed to reporters that his son did have a passion for art and was a frequent visitor to art galleries. Ferguson later claimed to have been motivated by a strange idealism. He was aware that the Gallery was considering the sale of La belle Hollandaise to raise money for a new building to be built on the southern bank of the Brisbane River. So he decided to steal the painting, later telling the police, “I was satisfied the public did not appreciate the painting, so I decided to steal it.”

Once he had stolen the painting, Ferguson’s main problem was where to keep it. He claims that for five days he hid it wrapped in blankets in the bush on the slopes of Mt Coot-tha. How the painting survived two rainy days and nights in such conditions is one of the many mysteries surrounding this theft.

Ferguson then decided to return the painting to Mrs Julie Rubin, the widow of the original Australian owner, Major Harold Rubin. Mrs Rubin was frightened by the sudden appearance of this strange young man at her mansion, ‘Toorak House’, in the inner-northern suburb of Hamilton, Brisbane on Sunday 11 June. However, as he was carrying a familiar Picasso, she let him in. Ferguson wanted her to reconsider her late husband’s gift and begged her to keep the painting for a month before reporting it to the police. Mrs Rubin agreed to this and the young man left.

The very next day the police arrived with a search warrant and found La belle Hollandaise in a spare bedroom. It was very embarrassing for Mrs Rubins, who then refused to give the police any information about the young man, except to say that she didn’t know him. This is odd because, who other than Mrs Rubin and Ferguson could have informed the police about the location of the painting?

Ferguson was not arrested until Saturday 24 June. Somehow the police were able to track him down. When they did they found a loaded pistol in his possession. He confessed to the theft, pleaded guilty to the firearms charges and was jailed for a month for possession of the loaded pistol.

La belle Hollandaise still hangs in the Queensland Art Gallery.

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“Modern Art” in Brisbane

The modern world started at different times in different places in different disciplines. In philosophy the modern world started in 1600. In the visual arts it is a few centuries later; modern art starts sometime in the mid 19th century and continues to around 1965. Contemporary art, is the current term used to describe galleries showing art created post WWII. But in Queensland, one of the more conservative states in Australia, the term “modern art” appears to still be with us.

I was under the misapprehension that GoMA, which opened in 2006 in Brisbane, was a contemporary art gallery. It looks like a contemporary art gallery. GoMA has three floors of contemporary gallery space and cinemas around a rather empty main foyer space. It has a dedicated children’s art area, an important feature of any new art gallery. There are also reading spaces, a reference library, and elegant outdoor balconies.

GoMA has contemporary art by Gilbert and George, Julian Opie and Ron Muerk in its collection. I didn’t see any art there created prior to WWII; that was all over in the QAG (Queensland Art Gallery). But when I looked I realized that GoMA stood for “Gallery of Modern Art”. So why is it still a “gallery of modern art”? Perhaps it is a slavish imitation of New York’s MoMA, established in 1929.

But it is not just GoMA with that is behind the times hanging on to the term “modern art” in Brisbane, there is also the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) in Fortitude Valley. And, like GoMA, the Queensland Government funds IMA. It is even stranger because IMA is in the same building as the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts. There is no modern art at IMA; it shows contemporary art exhibitions.

You would have thought that someone would have said that the term “modern art” is not the correct term. Just next door the State Library of Queensland when I visited was showing the touring exhibition “Modern Times: the untold story of modernism in Australia”. For this exhibition modernism in Australia was defined as between 1917 and 1967.

Art history definitions aside, it is very difficult to understand the difference between the QAG and GoMA except that they are different buildings on Brisbane’s South bank precinct (another example of Brisbane’s slavish copying). The same artists are exhibited in both galleries: Ah Xian has art currently on exhibition in both. Both share the same website. QAG appears to have simply extended into another building with a silly name. QAG is more of a modern art gallery than GoMA with modern artists like Tatlin, Miro and Picasso in its collection. Typical of modern art galleries, QUG has a history of art sampler collection with example work, second or third rate, collected to illustrate the history of art. This historical approach to the collection at QUG is in contrast to the contemporary style of themed exhibition of GoMA’s permanent collection.

I don’t know why Queensland still uses the term “modern art”. Art is not an important feature in a state where beach holiday tourism, sugar cane and horse racing have always been more important. The QAG is the major state art gallery but only had a permanent home in 1982. Perhaps there is still “modern art” in Queensland because of the belief that “a better future” can be made in Brisbane. Or maybe the Queensland’s politicians are too parochial, stupid and ignorant to the listen to anyone else.


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