Archive for the 'National Gallery of Victoria' Category

09
Aug
15

Exhibition: ‘John Wolseley – Heartlands and Headwaters’ at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 11th April – 16th August 2015

 

This is a wondrous exhibition by John Wolseley at NGV Australia. The whole feeling of the exhibition, its scale and intimacy, the attention to detail and the sheer the beauty of the work is quite outstanding. I was fascinated with the text descriptions the artist gives with each piece of work, included here in the posting.

While Wolseley plays with time (deep time, shallow time and now time) and space here it is more than that, for deep time (or “the zone” in the alternative parlance of athletes) is also used in artistic activity to refer to the experience of being lost in the act of creation or the consumption of a work. To the viewer, so it would seem here for we become lost in the art of creation. There is a sense of timelessness, the experience of unusual freedom within time, an unawareness of time, within Wolseley’s work, yet still grounded in the past and present, flowing into the future of this planet. This sense of place, context, space and time(lessness) are lucidly resolved in the artist’s work.

As the Introduction to the exhibition states, Wolseley conceives the exhibition as gesamtkunstwerk , a total work of art, presenting new possibilities for understanding landscape in the twenty-first century. This generally works well in revealing the unique, dynamic processes of natural ecosystems when the work is on the wall. However, the floor of the gallery (natural timber boards) lessened the experience of the “total work of art” for me. If you are designing an exhibition that would seem to me to be immersive (to some extent) then the work needed more grounding than it contains here.

This is a minor observation in an otherwise superlative exhibition. The colours, the sensitivity of the painting, the flow of the images, water, music, prose… are a narrative almost like a fable if the issues were not so real. The heightened imagery and emotional effects of the work make us truly aware that now is the time for action. The future development of the new coal power stations must be stopped. Renewable energy is the energy of the future as much as it is light emanating from the past.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart.

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Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the art work in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

 

 

“Over the past four years, John Wolseley has travelled and painted throughout the Australian continent. He has journeyed from the swamps of the Tasmanian high country to the coastal flood plains of the tropical north, exploring the nature and action of water and how it has shaped the land.

Wolseley has worked on site beside strange and diverse wetlands – sphagnum bogs, ephemeral waterholes, bilabongs and mangrove swamps – and combined his own distinctive mark-making processes with more traditional watercolour techniques. He has ‘collaborated’ with plants, birds and insects and used a range of drawing systems that includes frottaging (rubbing against) burnt trees, burying papers in snad and swamps and nature printing from leaves, wood and rocks.

The artist’s layered and collaged papers have been assembled as an installation in the shape of a giant branching tree, surrounded by large-scale works which enclose the viewer in an immersive environment. Wolseley has rejected European landscape conventions that often reduce a complex, living system to a static and generalised representation. Instead, he endeavours to reveal the unique, dynamic processes of natural ecosystems. Conceived as gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), Heartlands and headwaters presents new possibilities for understanding landscape in the twenty-first century.”

Introduction text to the exhibition

 

John Wolseley. 'History of the Whipstick Forest with ephemeral swamps and gold bearing reefs' 2011

 

John Wolseley
History of the Whipstick Forest with ephemeral swamps and gold bearing reefs (detail)
2011
Watercolour, charcoal and pencil on 2 sheets (a-b)
233.5 x 286.6 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

One summer’s day I walked from my studio into the forest and followed a dry creek to some swamps and pools bursting with life. This arid landscape, so torn up and churned over, was still miraculously reinventing itself. Such resilience!

In this drawing I bring together the histories of three kinds of time: the ‘deep time’ of geology, ‘shallow time’ since European arrival, and ‘now time’ in October 2011. The history of the hidden workings of the earth I stole from a geologist’s map. Resting on this ancient framework in the painting’s centre is the green swamp. Above this is another map, which tells the story of William Johnson, a visitor to this forest 160 years ago, whose discovery of gold was the birth of the Bendigo goldfields.

When I was working on this painting, this bush was burnt in line with the government’s draconian legislation to burn all public bushland in Victoria every ten years. This often gives no time for vegetation to mature and seed, and biodiversity in certain fire-sensitive ecologies is being ravaged. My reverence for nature’s resilience was moved to a sense of deep chagrin that yet again we are destroying the matrix which is our home.

 

John Wolseley. 'Regeneration after fire - the seeders and the sprouters, Mallee' (detail)  2009-11

 

John Wolseley
Regeneration after fire – the seeders and the sprouters, Mallee (detail)
2009-11
Watercolour, charcoal, pencil and pigment
152.2 x 256.7 cm irreg.
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

I went for a long walk through recently burnt mallee scrub in the Big Desert Wilderness Park. Some of the mallee roots had vivid amber, scarlet and mauve new growth exploding from the surviving stumps. Nearby were scatterings of tiny, bright banksia seedlings that had germinated after the fire, causing seed pods to burst open and expel their seeds. Botanists call such trees ‘seeders’, while their companions, the mallee eucalypts, are known as ‘sprouters’. Sprouters have a large root, known as a lignotuber, which stores water and nutrients – this is part of a brilliant strategy for survival in arid landscapes.

 

John Wolseley. 'From Siberia to Roebuck Bay - the godwits reach the mangrove swamps, WA' (detail) 2012

 

John Wolseley
From Siberia to Roebuck Bay – the godwits reach the mangrove swamps, WA (detail)
2012
Watercolour over pencil, charcoal and coloured chalk
151.9 x 199.0 cm irreg. Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

Each year in June the bar-tailed godwits fly 12,000 kilometres from their breeding grounds in Siberia to the north coast of Australia. I was standing by the sea on the north Kimberley coast when out of a clear sky the godwits arrived in vast, pulsing flocks that swooped down to rest on the mudflats. The land, with its mudflats and sandbanks, had been formed by the great king tides, dragged for eons by the cycles of the moon. And now I could see these great tides of godwit, pulled by another powerful force, flow down and merge with the waters.

 

John Wolseley. 'Natural history of swamps III, heron in swamp - Loy Yang Power Station' (detail) 2009-10

 

John Wolseley
Natural history of swamps III, heron in swamp – Loy Yang Power Station (detail)
2009-10
Watercolour, pencil, ink, black chalk, scratching out and leaf
114.0 x 176.0 cm
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

I was looking at a dam in the grounds of the Loy Yang Power Station, when in flew a black-backed heron. It looked for fish in the water and then peered at a billboard declaring ‘Hazelwood Power Station – WETLAND DEVELOPMENT PROJECT’. I walked down to the vast open-cut coalmine, and looked for fish fossils and Cryptogamic flora among the seams of coal. Then I returned to the heron, which now seemed to be looking at the steam and CO2 belching out of the cooling towers – those clouds of CO2 that came from the coal which was once a carboniferous swamp.

 

 

“For four years, artist John Wolseley has roamed the coastal floodplains of the Northern Territory through to the glacial lakes of Tasmania, exploring and recording in exquisite detail the diverse wetlands of Australia. The works he has created will be revealed at NGV Australia.

This series of eighteen evocative works on paper, many of them monumental in scale (up to 10 metres in size), detail the geographical features and unique plants and animals of these wetlands in works characterised by minutely- observed drawing and rich watercolour washes.

Many works combine collage and unusual markings made through burying works or hoisting large sheets of paper across the charred remains of burnt tree trunks and branches. Through this ‘collaboration’ with the natural environment, Wolseley subverts traditional approaches to the depiction of landscape and seeking to give the natural world a more active presence in the work of art.

‘Heartlands and Headwaters celebrates Australia’s unique and diverse natural environment,’ said Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV. ‘Wolseley’s work is not only of great beauty, but also demonstrates how depicting the landscape has become an important form of activism’.

The mangrove swamps of Roebuck Bay in Western Australia, the flood plains of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory, the Finke River in the Simpson Desert and the sphagnum swamps of Skullbone Plains in central Tasmania are just some of the sites detailed in these impressive works.

Commissioned by Sir Roderick Carnegie AC, these works celebrate the beauty of the Australian wilderness and encourage an understanding of the significance and environmental fragility of these remote and little-known sites.

 

About John Wolseley

Born in England in 1938, John Wolseley immigrated to Australia in 1976 and has gained recognition in the past four decades as one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists whose work engages passionately with the environment.

Over the years Wolseley has travelled extensively throughout the country, into the arid interior and remote wilderness areas in all states, camping out for extended periods and immersing himself in the landscape.

This approach is reflected in the distinctly non-traditional character of the landscape works Wolseley produces. Instead of presenting a single overarching view of a particular site they are composite images that combine precisely observed details of flora and fauna. Informed by readings in geology, biology, cartography and other disciplines, these provide multiple perspectives on the location’s topography, journal notations and observations of natural cycles or patterns of the area.”

Press release from the NGV website

 

John Wolseley. 'Murray-Sunset refugia with 14 ventifacts' 2008-10

 

John Wolseley
Murray-Sunset refugia with 14 ventifacts
2008-10
From The Great Tree of Drawings 1959-2015, installed 2015
Pencil, watercolour and charcoal on 15 sheets (a-o)
Dimensions variable (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

John Wolseley Murray-Sunset refugia with 14 ventifacts (detail) 2008-10

John Wolseley Murray-Sunset refugia with 14 ventifacts (detail) 2008-10

 

John Wolseley
Murray-Sunset refugia with 14 ventifacts (details)
2008-10
From The Great Tree of Drawings 1959-2015, installed 2015
Pencil, watercolour and charcoal on 15 sheets (a-o)
Dimensions variable (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

This work was made in the Murray-Sunset National Park, where I found an island of unburnt scrub remaining after a bushfire. This refugium, or sanctuary, provided shelter for plants and small creatures from which they could later gradually recolonise the surrounding sand dunes. The small, flying sheets are papers I released to blow on the desert winds for weeks and sometimes months. Each sheet records carbon traces made by the burnt fingers of trees and shrubs. Having been made soft from dews and showers, and dried and tossed by the desert winds, they have become fixed in a variety of sculptural forms.

 

John Wolseley. 'Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania' 2013

 

John Wolseley
Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania
2013
Watercolour, pencil, pen and ink, and sphagnum on 8 sheets (a-h)
155.6 x 407.6 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

John Wolseley. 'Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania' (detail) 2013

John Wolseley. 'Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania' (detail) 2013

John Wolseley. 'Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania' (detail) 2013

 

John Wolseley
Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania (details)
2013
Watercolour, pencil, pen and ink, and sphagnum on 8 sheets (a-h)
155.6 x 407.6 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

As a creek moves down to the shores of Lake Ina in the central highlands of Tasmania, it swells out into an ancient sphagnum moss swamp. I leant over and peered into a gap between the mats of sphagnum, and a small fish emerged in the crystal water. This brief phantom – a Clarence galaxias – was only miraculously there because its ancestors had been isolated by a glacial moraine (ridge) upstream, which six million years later had saved it from the European trout, which had supplanted most of the other galaxias in the rest of Tasmania. And then, marvellously, it had been saved again by the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, which had purchased these plains to protect them from further loss and degradation.

As the grey shadows moved down the hill and melted into the lake, I soaked and painted the spongy sphagnum mats with tinctures of watercolour – viridian and crimson and Indian yellow – and laid them on several sheets of paper. I did the same with water milfoils, spike reed, tassel sedges and bladderwort, and weighted them down overnight with slabs of bark. Their images were imprinted on the paper, emerging slowly like a photograph being developed.

 

John Wolseley. 'From the edge of the great flood plains of Garrangari and Garrangalli, NT' 2012-14

 

John Wolseley
From the edge of the great flood plains of Garrangari and Garrangalli, NT
2012-14
Pencil, charcoal, black and brown chalk, watercolour, coloured pencil, coloured pastel, frottage and collages of linocut, wood relief printed in black and brown ink, watercolour, charcoal and coloured pencil over pencil and pen and ink on Japanese and wove paper
155.5 x 961.7 cm irreg.
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

In June 2011 I was standing on the edge of the monsoon rainforest bordering a vast flood plain in East Arnhem Land with Djambawa Marawili, the great Yolngu leader and artist. Djambawa recounted how in the dawn of creation ancestral figures had moved up from the coast, digging for edible roots as they went, creating springs of fresh water that still bubble out along the plains. He described how when the first sun came up these ancestor women turned into brolga cranes. As he sang the song several brolgas emerged from the mists and flew slowly towards the coast.

This was the originary moment of this painting. For the next three years, guided by the Dhudi-Djapu clan leader and artist Mulkun Wirrpanda, I collected and drew specimens of plants and trees of the flood plain, and their edible roots and tubers. In the painting I have drawn many of them, along with the various trees festooned with vines.

For me the great miracle of that morning rested in that moment of time – being there, seeing the living land and sensing the ‘deep time’ so intimately linked with the life and art of the people who have lived in it for so long.

 

John Wolseley. 'A Daly River creek, NT' 2012

 

John Wolseley
A Daly River creek, NT
2012
Watercolour, pastel, pencil, charcoal, ink, yellow pencil and collage of woodcut and linocut on Japanese paper (a-c)
152.0 x 602.0 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

John Wolseley. 'A Daly River creek, NT' (detail) 2012

 

John Wolseley
A Daly River creek, NT (detail)
2012
Watercolour, pastel, pencil, charcoal, ink, yellow pencil and collage of woodcut and linocut on Japanese paper (a-c)
152.0 x 602.0 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

Here is a flowing tropical creek near Nauiyu, about two hours’ drive south of Darwin. It shows the fecund, flowing mass of life and aquatic plants and fish, and how they are all an integral part of one particular ecosystem. The plants were all drawn on the spot or collected and drawn later in Darwin. It was May 2012 and I went on several trips with the ethnobiologist Glenn Wightman, the Ngan’gi elder Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart AM and other artists from the arts centre at Nauiyu. They showed me the plants in their living habitat so that I could draw them in action, rather than as dried museum specimens – the Nymphaea waterlily, with its long, convulsive stems, several species of bladderwort, water chestnuts and duckweed.

In this tropical aquatic painting I have tried to show how landscape for me is made up of energy fields that I draw as passages of particular plant forms, in which the individual plants move or dance with different rhythms. My intention is to show how these rafts of different species weave in and out of one another, and across the surface of my painting, rather as a passage of a symphony changes key and mood.

 

John Wolseley. 'Cycles of fire and water - Lake Tyrrell, Victoria' 2011-12

 

John Wolseley
Cycles of fire and water – Lake Tyrrell, Victoria
2011-12
Watercolour, charcoal, pencil, sponging and scratching out on 2 sheets (a-b)
154.0 x 610.0 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

John Wolseley. 'Cycles of fire and water - Lake Tyrrell, Victoria' (detail) 2011-12

 

John Wolseley
Cycles of fire and water – Lake Tyrrell, Victoria (detail)
2011-12
Watercolour, charcoal, pencil, sponging and scratching out on 2 sheets (a-b)
154.0 x 610.0 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

I was sitting on a low sandbank and drawing the pools of water that lay on this ancient salt lake. A rust-coloured cloud erupted into the air and darkened the sky over the water. The wind grew stronger, as if emanating from the core of the fire, and it carried embers and burning branches like dismembered limbs. I felt a kind of disquiet, almost dread. I knew such fires had always been part of the natural cycles of the bush, but this was one of several I had experienced that season where it felt as if fire itself was behaving in a different, more erratic way; as if the subtle equilibrium of the climate was changing.

From out of the billowing clouds of smoke some spoonbills, ibis and cormorants emerged, and flew far out over the lake. Several of them alighted on a patch of sunlit water and remained there, as if illustrating some cycle of eternal return – from action to stillness, from noise to quiet. But as I watched, the great black cloud drifted over their resting place, moving them on as if they were being chased away from the world they had known.

 

John Wolseley. 'After fire - spiny-cheeked honeyeaters at Lake Monibeong' (detail) 2009-11

 

John Wolseley
After fire – spiny-cheeked honeyeaters at Lake Monibeong (detail)
2009-11
Watercolour, charcoal, pencil, gouache and brown chalk
151.7 x 128.9 cm
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

 

 

Walking through the recently burnt Cobboboonee Forest in Victoria one morning, I reached a lake where fresh water rested in sand dunes bordering the sea. I stood beside a burnt banksia tree with powdery black, corrugated bark. It had been a stormy night, but now the sea and lake were calm. Several spiny-cheeked honeyeaters swooped down, perched in the tree and sung out jubilantly. It was as if they were filled with elation at all these elements coming to rest in equilibrium – the lake resting within the sand dune, the quietening of the wind and the passing of the fire.

 

 

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Federation Square
Corner of Russell and 
Flinders Streets, Melbourne

Opening hours:
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Closed Mondays

National Gallery of Victoria website

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02
Aug
15

Exhibition: ‘Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great’ at NGV International, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 31st July – 8th November 2015

 

A scintillating exhibition at NGV International which showcases one of the world’s greatest art collections. Exhibition design is outstanding (particularly the floor tiling), as are the Da Vinci, Titian, Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens and Flemish still life. Among my favourites is a small Watteau Savoyard with a Marmot (1716) which is absolutely still, delicate and exquisite: I thought of the photographs of Atget, his street sellers, when I saw this painting; and Frans Snyders’ tour-de-force Concert of birds (1630-40) which has such presence.

Well done to the curators, the Hermitage Museum and the NGV for staging such a magnificent exhibition.

Marcus

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Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

All photographs © Dr Marcus Bunyan and the National Gallery of Victoria.

 

 

Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great showcases one of the world’s greatest art collections. Featuring works by artists including Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez and Van Dyck, the exhibition offers a dazzling array of works including the finest group of Dutch and Flemish art to come to Australia.

This exclusive Melbourne exhibition will also highlight the innovation and vision of Catherine the Great, whose inexhaustible passion for education, the arts and culture heralded a period of enlightenment in the region. The extraordinary works sourced and commissioned by Catherine during her thirty-four year reign, created the foundations for the Hermitage today – considered to be one of the world’s greatest treasure houses of art and decorative arts. The exhibition will offer audiences an immersive experience, recreating the rich atmosphere of the Hermitage to showcase these exquisite works.

German-born Catherine the Great (Catherine II) came to power in 1762, aged thirty-three, and ruled Russia for the next thirty-four years, until her death in 1796. She saw herself as a Philosopher Queen, a new kind of ruler in the Age of Enlightenment. Guided by Europe’s leading intellectuals, she modernised Russia’s economy, industry and government, drawing inspiration both from Antiquity and contemporary cultural and political developments in Western Europe. A fluent speaker of Russian, French and German, Catherine was largely self-educated, independent, idealistic and visionary.

While her reign was not always peaceful, Catherine sought to bring order, stability and prosperity to the vast Russian Empire. Her ideals of abolishing serfdom and ensuring the equality of all citizens under the law were ahead of her time, and strongly resisted by the nobility of the day; however, she achieved numerous other reforms, including the introduction of paper money and modernisation of Russia’s education system. French philosopher Denis Diderot, who visited St Petersburg in 1773, described an audience with Catherine as being ‘more like study than anything else: she is a stranger to no subject; there is no man in the Empire who knows her nation as well as she’.

 

Room 1 Catherine the collector

Between 1762 and 1796, the years of her reign, Catherine the Great oversaw a period of cultural renaissance in Russia. The world of ideas in which she was deeply involved from an early age found tangible expression in the material world the Empress later created around herself. The great complexes of imperial buildings Catherine constructed reflected her informed interest in both Classical and Chinese culture.

Catherine not only assembled a collection of Old Master paintings equal in scale and quality to leading European collections, but also paid considerable attention to the acquisition of contemporary art. While the richness and technical perfection of her diverse collections of decorative arts aimed to dazzle and please, they also had the more practical purpose of raising standards of artistic production in Russia. The fact that more than 400 exemplary works of art from her personal collection, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, porcelain, silver and precious gems, are seen here for the first time in Australia is cause for celebration.

 

Installation view of room 1 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' featuring Alexander Roslin (Swedish 1718–93) 'Portrait of Catherine II' 1776–77

Installation view of room 1 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' featuring Alexander Roslin (Swedish 1718–93) 'Portrait of Catherine II' 1776–77

Installation view of room 1 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' featuring Alexander Roslin (Swedish 1718–93) 'Portrait of Catherine II' 1776–77

 

Installation views of room 1 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne featuring Alexander Roslin (Swedish 1718-93) Portrait of Catherine II 1776-77

 

Installation view of room 1 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 1 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 1 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 1 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Sèvres Cameo Service

The Sèvres Cameo Service relates to Catherine’s great passion for collecting engraved gemstones. Comprising 797 individual pieces designed to serve dinner, dessert and coffee to sixty people, the Cameo Service was commissioned from the celebrated Sèvres porcelain manufactory outside Paris as a present for Catherine’s court ‘favourite’, Prince Grigory Potemkin. The Empress’s monogram, ‘E II’ (the Russian version of her name being Ekaterina), woven from garlands of flowers and surmounted by a crown, adorned almost every object in the service.

Production of the service was both time consuming and labour-intensive. The exquisite blue element alone – made from separate layers of copper enamel that gradually seeped into the porcelain and set the pure colour – required five firings. In addition to the hundreds of porcelain objects decorated with painted and sculpted cameos and related silverware, the service also included grand central table decorations fashioned from biscuit, or unglazed cream-coloured porcelain, by the sculptor Louis-Simon Boizot. These decorations illustrated tales from Greek mythology, and were presided over by a grand biscuit statue of Catherine the Great as Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts.

 

Installation view of room 1 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 1 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of room 1 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Exhibition passageway

Installation view of passageway video of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Installation view of passageway video of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne

 

 

Room 2 Italian art

When Catherine the Great began collecting European art, opportunities to acquire fine Italian Old Master paintings were already severely limited. Demand from wealthy collectors was high and the marketplace was saturated with misattributed works, some of which inevitably made their way to the Hermitage and other great collections.

Despite this, Catherine achieved great success collecting sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings, particularly from Venice, including great paintings by Titian, Paris Bordone and the enigmatic Lorenzo Lotto. These are complemented by fine examples of Roman and Florentine paintings, such as the famous Female nude (Donna nuda), by an artist very close to Leonardo da Vinci. This select group of paintings beautifully illustrate developments in figurative art, portraiture and religious art in Italy from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

In the early years of her reign, Catherine the Great acquired en masse several large collections of drawings representing all the main European schools. This set the foundations for the current Hermitage Museum’s outstanding Cabinet of Drawings. In terms of quality, Catherine’s acquisitions of Italian drawings were of the highest standard. The majority of these date from the mid sixteenth to late eighteenth centuries and include many rare and precious works.

 

Installation view of room 2 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne featuring Domenico Fetti (Italian 1589-1623) 'Portrait of an actor' 1620s

 

Installation view of room 2 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne featuring Domenico Fetti (Italian 1589-1623) Portrait of an actor 1620s

 

Domenico Fetti (Italian 1589-1623) 'Portrait of an actor' 1620s

 

Domenico Fetti (Italian 1589-1623)
Portrait of an actor
1620s
Oil on canvas
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

 

Domenico Fetti was court painter to Gerdinand II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, when he made this striking portrait of an actor. It is though to be Tristano Martinelli who made his fame working in the commedia dell’arte tradition. It is believe that Marinelli created and popularised the standard roll of the Harlequin in theatre. Fetti himself was involved with the theatre in both Mantua and Venice.

 

Installation view of room 2 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne featuring Paris Bordone (Italian 1500-71) 'Portrait of a lady with a boy' Mid 1530s

 

Installation view of room 2 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne featuring Paris Bordone (Italian 1500-71) Portrait of a lady with a boy Mid 1530s

 

Paris Bordone (Italian 1500-71) 'Portrait of a lady with a boy' Mid 1530s

 

Paris Bordone (Italian 1500-71)
Portrait of a lady with a boy
Mid 1530s
Oil on canvas
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

 

This work by Venetian artist Paris Bordone is a typical example of formal Renaissance portraiture. Bordone’s main aim was to show the high social standing of the sitters, so he painted their luxurious costumes in great detail. He draws our attention to the sumptuous sleeves of this woman’s dress, he headgear resembling a turban, as well as her opulent jewellery. Bordone was one of Titian’s most talented pupils whose work is characterised by a level of precision not often present in his master’s work. This painting entered the Hermitage as a work by Giorgione.

 

Installation view of room 2 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 2 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne featuring to the left, Domenico Capriolo (Italian c. 1494-1528) 'Portrait of a young man' 1512 and to the right, Lorenzo Lotto (Italian c. 1480-1556) 'The Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Saint Justine' 1529-30

 

Installation view of room 2 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne featuring to the left, Domenico Capriolo (Italian c. 1494-1528) Portrait of a young man 1512 and to the right, Lorenzo Lotto (Italian c. 1480-1556) The Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Saint Justine 1529-30

 

Portrait of a young man by the Venetian master Domenico Capriolo captures the intellectual values of Renaissance art. Everything that surrounds this youth speaks of his interests, such as the church that indicates his piety; the statue of Venus that reveals his passion for Antiquity; and the folder (containing verses or drawings) that illustrates the richness of his inner world. The painting is dated 1512 and the artist’s name symbolised by a medallion containing a Capreolus, or deer, which is a play on his name. Such allusions were common in Renaissance art and would have been readily understood by his contemporaries.

 

Lorenzo Lotto (Italian c. 1480-1556) 'The Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Saint Justine' 1529-30

Lorenzo Lotto (Italian c. 1480-1556) 'The Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Saint Justine' 1529-30

 

Lorenzo Lotto (Italian c. 1480-1556)
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Saint Justine
1529-30
Oil on canvas
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

 

Lorenzo Lotto is a much admired sixteenth-century Venetian artist. The Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Saint Justine has the typical dynamism of Lotto’s work, achieved not only through the poses, gestures and movement of the foliage, but also through his intense colour palette and the juxtaposition of resonant blues with red and yellow tones. Here, the Holy Family has been joined by Saint Justine of Padua, martyred in 304 AD, identifiable through her attribute of a sword piercing her breast. Justine was a very popular subject for artists of Northern Italy.

 

Installation view of room 2 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne featuring Leonardo da Vinci (school of) 'Female nude (Donna Nuda)' Early 16th century

 

Installation view of room 2 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne featuring Leonardo da Vinci (school of) Female nude (Donna Nuda) Early 16th century

 

Leonardo da Vinci (school of) 'Female nude (Donna Nuda)' Early 16th century

 

Leonardo da Vinci (school of)
Female nude (Donna Nuda)
Early 16th century
Oil on canvas
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

 

This painting entered the Hermitage collection as a work by Leonardo da Vinci, but is now widely accepted to be by one of his close followers, possibly his pupil Salai. Perhaps more important is that it may be a close copy of a lost painting by Leonardo. Female nude (Donna Nuda) also shares some of the qualities of the famous Mona Lisa c. 1503-19, in the Louvre Museum, Paris; namely the repetition of the pose, the position of the hands and the landscape setting seen behind a stone ledge in front of which the figure is set. This is the most refined of numerous variants of this composition in existence.

 

 

Room 3 Flemish art

In the seventeenth century, Flanders comprised the Catholic-dominated Southern Netherlands or ‘Spanish’ Austrian Netherlands, an area larger than modern Belgium. Thanks in large part to the talents of artist Peter Paul Rubens, the Flanders or ‘Flemish’ school in this era became very prestigious. While chiefly a painter, Rubens had far-reaching stylistic influence on many visual art forms, from prints to silverware and architecture. Every leading artist of seventeenth-century Flanders studied in, passed through or was connected with Rubens’s studio.

A diplomat and court insider, Rubens operated on an international stage. His art was correspondingly monumental; characterised by large forms modelled with loose brushstrokes in glowing, brilliant colours. Rubens’s pupil Anthony van Dyck and collaborator Cornelis de Vos led the way in bringing new naturalism to portraiture. While they catered to different markets (van Dyck to the nobility and de Vos to a rich merchant class) their mutual influence is apparent.

Flanders was a nation built on trade, and Flemish artists travelled widely, especially to Italy. From Italy they brought back new pictorial trends, such as the theatrical naturalism of Caravaggio. Flemish artists excelled in naturalistic effects, which they applied even to traditionally humble subjects, such as still lifes and animal pictures, seen to brilliant effect in the art of Frans Snyders and David Teniers II.

 

Installation view of room 3 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 3 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 3 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 3 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

room-three-installation-e

 

Installation views of room 3 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne featuring Peter Paul Rubens and workshop (Flemish 1577-1640) The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1620 at centre

 

Rubens painted the subject of the Adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2:1) more often than any other episode from Christ’s life. Rendered at life-sized scale, this painting combines the humility of Christ’s birth with splendid, worldly pageantry. Three Kings from the East are shown crowding into Christ’s stable (portrayed as a cave, in an allusion to Christ’s later interment) wearing gold- embroidered silks and satins, and offering gifts. The eldest king, Caspar, kneels before Christ with gold; behind him is Melchior, with frankincense; and Balthazar with myrrh, used for embalming. With the help of his studio, Rubens produced more than sixty altarpieces during his career.

 

Installation view of room 3 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 3 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of room 3 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish 1577–1640) 'Roman Charity (Cimon and Pero)' c. 1612

 

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish 1577-1640)
Roman Charity (Cimon and Pero)
c. 1612
Oil on canvas
The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Acquired from the collection of Count Cobenzl, Brussels, 1768

 

Roman Charity (Cimon and Pero) depicts a story told by the Roman historian Valerius Maximus in his Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX (Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings), written around 30 AD. The story involves Cimon, an old man awaiting execution in prison who was not given food. Cimon’s daughter Pero visited him, and suckled him at her breast like a child. Pero’s nourishing of Cimon was considered an outstanding example of paying honour to one’s parents.

 

 

Room 4 Dutch art

The Hermitage holds the finest collection of Dutch art outside the Netherlands. While Peter the Great (1672-1725) had a passion for Dutch art and acquired some notable masterpieces, Catherine the Great established the depth and breadth of this extraordinary collection, beginning in 1764 with her first acquisitions. In that year Catherine purchased 317 paintings that had been assembled for Frederick II of Prussia by the German merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. Among this substantial group were more than 100 Dutch paintings by the most notable masters.

In 1769 Catherine purchased the collection of Count Heinrich von Brühl, which included spectacular landscapes by Jacob van Ruisdael, Isaack Jansz. van Ostade and Aert van der Neer, as well as four Rembrandt portraits, including the wonderful Portrait of a scholar, 1631. For the rest of her life Catherine continued to add outstanding Dutch works to her rich collection. Although the paintings and drawings from the Dutch school included here are only a fragment of the extensive and diverse collection assembled by Catherine the Great, they reveal her artistic preferences and taste.

 

Installation view of room 4 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 4 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of room 4 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne with Rembrandt. Harmensz. van Rijn (Dutch 1606-69) Portrait of a scholar 1631 at centre.

 

Rembrandt painted Portrait of a scholar shortly after moving from his native Leiden to Amsterdam in 1630. He had already established a growing reputation in Leiden and was enticed to the capital by the art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh, father of his future wife Saskia. Once completing the move, Rembrandt rapidly became the city’s leading artist, mainly on account of dazzling portraits such as this early masterpiece. He then secured the most prestigious commissions from wealthy and powerful citizens of Amsterdam.

 

 

Room 5 French taste

The Russian aristocracy spoke French and modelled their manners and style on those of the French Court. Catherine followed the vast intellectual strides of the French philosophes with passionate interest. She also embraced the arts, luring French artists, architects and craftsmen to St Petersburg.

Catherine relied on agents and advisors in France and Germany to identify and acquire works of art on her behalf. In this way she acquired the collection of Paris banker Louis Antoine Crozat, Baron de Thiers and other important bodies of work in France. Her holdings of French art came to encompass works by Renaissance masters as well as seventeenth-century landscapes and history paintings.

Catherine also acquired examples of work of her own century by Rococo artists such as Antoine Watteau. The playful, erotic and at times wistful art of Watteau’s generation gave rise to the intimate and worldly art of François Boucher, whose pictures Catherine also purchased. The Empress collected modern masterpieces created in reaction to French courtly and decadent styles. Her paintings by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin are premier examples of a new, moralising directness in ambitious French art.

Catherine’s buying in France was not limited to French art. Also in this room are paintings by great German, Spanish and Italian masters that were acquired in Paris from prestigious collections under the direction of Catherine’s French advisors.

 

Installation view of room 5 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 5 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of room 5 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne.

 

 

Room 6 Catherine and the world

For Catherine the Great, collecting art was part of a wider economic and diplomatic program designed to stimulate economic and cultural activity at home and abroad. At a meeting in December 1762 with the Moscow Senate, Catherine suggested that consuls be stationed in Spain, Holland and England not only to promote maritime trade but also to source luxury goods and works of art as examples for Russian artists and manufacturers to aspire to.

Through Catherine’s consuls and agents, such items began to flow into St Petersburg, steadily elevating that city into a vibrant centre of European culture. While her cultural sympathies were French, Catherine was also very curious about Britain – the economic success story of the age. She informed herself about Britain’s trade, commerce, manufacturing, philosophy and political system, and purchased works by modern British neoclassical masters, such as Joseph Wright of Derby and Joshua Reynolds. Examples of Spanish, Italian and German art were often not sourced in their own countries of origin but acquired as a part of larger collections.

 

Installation view of room 6 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 6 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 6 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 6 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 6 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 6 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of room 6 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne with the 1773 sculpture Catherine II by Jean-Antoine Houdon (French 1741-1826) at centre.

 

 

Room 7 The Walpole collection

In 1779 Catherine the Great acquired 198 paintings from a celebrated collection formed by Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, Britain’s first prime minister. They were bought from the family estate, Houghton Hall, and sold by Walpole’s grandson, George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford, who approached the Russian ambassador to Britain directly about the sale. At more than £40,000, the price was high, but the transaction was concluded in only two months. Attempts were made to keep this famous collection in Britain, to no avail.

The Walpole collection was outstanding in quality, and significantly enhanced the Hermitage’s range of Flemish and Italian works. The Russian ambassador to Great Britain, Alexey Musin-Pushkin, who organised the valuable purchase, wrote to Catherine the Great: ‘The greater part of the nobility here are displaying general dissatisfaction and regret that these paintings are being allowed out of this country, and are setting in train various projects to keep them here … No little assistance comes from Lord Orford’s zealous desire to unite [the collection for] the gallery of Your Imperial Majesty, rather than to sell it to parliament itself or, least of all, to divide it through sale to different individuals’.

 

Installation view of room 7 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 7 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of room 7 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne with Frans Snyders (Flemish 1579-1657) Concert of birds, 1630-40 at right and Frans Snyders (Flemish 1579-1657) Jan Boekckhorst (German 1605-68) Cook at a kitchen table with dead game, c. 1636-37 second left
Frans Snyders (Flemish 1579-1657) 'Concert of birds' 1630-40

 

Frans Snyders (Flemish 1579-1657)
Concert of birds
1630-40
Oil on canvas
The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Acquired from the collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, 1779

 

An important place in Flemish seventeenth-century painting is occupied by two specific genres: animal painting and the still life. One of the most important animal and still-life painters was Frans Snyders, a very close collaborator of Peter Paul Rubens who often painted still-life details and animals on the master’s canvases. Snyders’s superb skill as a painter of animals is revealed by Concert of birds, based on a subject from Aesop’s Fables. It shows a gathering of feathered creatures screeching and singing under the direction of an owl seated on a dried branch in front of an open music score.

 

Frans Snyders (Flemish 1579-1657) 'Concert of birds' 1630-40 (detail)

 

Frans Snyders (Flemish 1579-1657)
Concert of birds (detail)
1630-40
Oil on canvas
The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Acquired from the collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, 1779

 

Frans Snyders (Flemish 1579-1657) Jan Boekckhorst (German 1605-68) 'Cook at a kitchen table with dead game' c. 1636-37 (detail)

 

Frans Snyders (Flemish 1579-1657)
Jan Boekckhorst (German 1605-68)
Cook at a kitchen table with dead game (detail)
c. 1636-37
Oil on canvas
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

 

Frans Snyders was the son of the owner of one of Antwerp’s largest wine and eating houses. His dramatically realistic still lifes celebrate the exotic variety of rare fowls available at Antwerp’s markets. Images of dead animals being prepared for a banquet were understood in Snyder’s time as lessons in Christian morality. Many Dutch and Flemish still lifes featuring the sacrifice of an animal for the table functioned as allusions to Christ’s Passion and the transience of the flesh.

 

Installation view of room 7 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 7 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of room 7 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne with, at left in the bottom image, Anthony van Dyck (Flemish 1599-1641) Portrait of Philadelphia and Elizabeth Wharton, 1640

 

This is one of the most charming portraits of children paint by van Dyck, who had particular talent for such works. It is one of a group of family portraits commissioned from can Dyck by Philip, Lord Wharton in the late 1630s. Van Dyck worked in England for approximately ten ears and brought a new standard of elegance and style to English portraiture. He largely conveyed this through his flair for painting lavish costumes and sumptuous fabrics, a sensibility he carried through to his portraits of children.

 

 

Room 8 China

Eighteenth-century Enlightenment fascination with the East, particularly China, is reflected by Catherine the Great’s architectural and landscaping works completed in St Petersburg and at her summer and winter palaces, as well as by her collecting of Oriental curiosities and philosophical texts. Russian interest in China can be traced to the reign of the Romanov tsars in the seventeenth century, when several missions brought back Chinese treasures and goods to the Russian Court. Importantly, in 1689 the first treaty between Russia and China was signed at Nerchinsk, outlining the border between the countries and rules about caravan trade.

Like many educated people of her time, Catherine was fascinated by the concept of the enlightened ruler thought to be found in China, such as the Kangxi Emperor (reigned 1662-1722), Yongzhèng Emperor (reigned 1723-35), and Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1736-95). One of her regular and most influential correspondents was French philosopher Voltaire, who praised the Celestial Kingdom, its monarchs and men of wisdom; only in China, he thought, was a man’s life, honour and property truly protected by law. Such a clear link between Catherine’s desire for justice and order in Russia and general perceptions of good Chinese government, combined with the Enlightenment fashion for curiosities of all kinds, led to great Russian interest in China in the second half of the eighteenth century.

 

Installation view of room 8 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 8 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 8 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 8 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 8 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 8 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

Installation view of room 8 of the exhibition 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great' at NGV International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of room 8 of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at NGV International, Melbourne

 

 

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06
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15

Research paper: ‘Beginnings: The International Photographic Collection at the National Gallery of Victoria’ Dr Marcus Bunyan

May 2015

 

This is a story that has never been told. It is the story of how the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia set up one of the very first photography departments in a museum in the world in 1967, and employed one of the first dedicated curators of photography, only then to fail to purchase classical black and white masterpieces by international artists that were being exhibited in Melbourne and sold at incredibly low prices during the 1970s and early 1980s, before prices started going through the roof.

The NGV had a golden chance to have one of the greatest collections of classical photography in the world if only they had grasped the significance and opportunity presented to them but as we shall see – due to personal, political and financial reasons – they dropped the ball. By the time they realised, prices were already beyond their reach.

Justifications for the failure include lack of financial support, the purchasing of non-vintage prints and especially the dilemma of distance, which is often quoted as the main hindrance to purchasing. But as I show in this research essay these masterpieces were already in Australia being shown and sold in commercial photography galleries in Melbourne at around $150, for example, for a Paul Strand photograph. As a partial public institution the NGV needs to take a hard look at this history to understand what went wrong and how they missed amassing one of the best collections of classical photography in the world.

.
Dr Marcus Bunyan
May 2015

Word count: 5,594

 

Download this research paper:

Beginnings: The International Photographic Collection at the National Gallery of Victoria (2.1Mb Word doc)

 

Abstract

This research paper investigates the formation of the international photographic collection at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

 

Keywords

Photographs, photography, 19th century photography, early Australian photography, Australian photography, international photography collection, National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria photography department, Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Australia, Melbourne, photographic collections, curator.

 

 

Beginnings: The International Photographic Collection at the National Gallery of Victoria

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Introduction

Invented by Louis Daguerre in 1839, the daguerreotype – a plate of copper coated in silver, sensitised to light by being exposed to halogen fumes – was the first publicly announced photographic process and the first to come into widespread use. The first photograph taken in Australia was a daguerreotype, a view of Bridge Street (now lost) taken by a visiting naval captain, Captain Augustin Lucas in 1841.1 The oldest surviving extant photograph in Australia is a daguerreotype portrait of Dr William Bland by George Barron Goodman taken in 1845 (see image below). This daguerreotype is now in the State Library of New South Wales collection.2

After these small beginnings, explored in Gael Newton’s excellent book Shades of Light,3 the Melbourne Public Library (later to become the State Library of Victoria) launched the Museum of Art in 1861 and the Picture Gallery in 1864, later to be unified into the National Gallery in 1870, a repository for all public art collections, the gallery being housed in the same building as the Library.4 The Pictures Collection (including paintings, drawings, prints, cartoons, photographs and sculpture) was started in 1859.5 The collection of photographs by the Library had both moral and educative functions. Photographs of European high culture reminded the colonists of links to the motherland, of aspirations to high ideals, especially in conservative Melbourne.6 Photographs of distant lands, such as Linnaeus Tripe’s Views of Burma, document other ‘Oriental’ cultures.7 Photographs of settlement and the development of Melbourne recorded what was familiar in an unknown landscape. “Documentation of both the familiar and the unknown intersected with the scientific desire for categorisation and classification.”8

It is not the purview of this essay to dwell on the development of photography in Australia during intervening years between the 1860s – 1960s, but suffice it to say that the collecting of photographs at the State Library of Victoria continued the archiving of Australian identity and place through the ability “to define the self, claim the nation and occupy the world.”9 Australian photographic practice followed the development of international movements in photography in these years: art and commerce from the 1860s – 1890s, Pictorialism from the 1900s – 1930s, Modernism in the 1930s – 1940s and documentary photography from the 1940s – 1960s. The development of Australian photography was heavily reliant on the forms of international photography. Analysis of these years can be found in Gael Newton’s book Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839 – 198810 and Isobel Crombie’s book Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria.11

In 1959 the epic The Family of Man exhibition, curated by the renowned photographer Edward Steichen from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, toured Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide to massive crowds. Featuring 503 photographs by 273 famous and unknown photographers from 68 countries this exhibition offered a portrait of the human condition: birth, love, war, famine and the universality of human experience all documented by the camera’s lens.12 In Melbourne the exhibition was shown in a car dealer’s showroom (yes, really!) and was visited by photographers such as Jack Cato, Robert McFarlane, Graham McCarter.13 The photographs in the exhibition, accompanied by text, were printed “onto large panels up to mural size [and] gave The Family of Man works an unprecedented impact, even given the role illustrated magazines had played through most of the century.”14 This loss of the aura of the original, the authenticity of the vintage print, a print produced by the artist around the time of the exposure of the negative, would have important implications for the collection of international photographs in the fledgling National Gallery of Victoria photographic collection (even though Walter Benjamin saw all photography as destroying the authenticity of the original through its ability to reproduce an image ad nauseum).15 As Benjamin observes in his Illuminations,The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.”16 Other ways of looking at the world also arrived in Australia around the same time, namely Robert Frank’s seminal book The Americans,17 a road movie photographic view of American culture full of disparate angles, juke boxes, American flags, car, bikes and diners.18

 

Beginnings

While legislatively the National Gallery had split from the State Library of Victoria in 1944,19 it wasn’t until August, 1968 that the National Gallery of Victoria moved into it’s own building designed by Roy Grounds at 180 St Kilda Road (now known as NGV International).20 In the years leading up to the move the Trustees and Staff went on a massive spending spree:

But although the sources of income from bequests were limited during the year [1967], a somewhat increased Government purchasing grant continued, which, with the allowance made by the Felton Committee, seemed to stimulate Trustees and Staff almost to a prodigality of spending. Perhaps, too, an urge for as full a display as possible at the opening of the new Gallery contributed; for by the end of the year the entire grant for purchase until the end of June 1968 had been consumed, and as well some commitments made for the future. Only donations made from private sources, and through the generosity of the National Gallery society, enabled the rate of acquisition to be maintained.”21

.
Unfortunately, this profligacy did not include spending on photography. This was because the Department of Photography was only formed in April 1967 after the Director at the time, Dr Eric Westbrook, convinced the Trustees of the Gallery “that the time had come to allow photographs into the collection.”22 The impetus for establishing a photography collection “was the growing recognition and promotion of the aesthetics of photography.”23 The Department of Photography at the NGV thus became the first officially recognised curatorial photography department devoted to the collection of photography as an art form in its own right in Australia and one of only a few dedicated specifically to collecting photography in the world.24 While the collecting criteria of the NGV has always emphasised “the primacy of the object as an example of creative expression,”25 the fluid nature of photography was acknowledged in a 1967 report on the establishment of the Department of Photography.26

The new department, however, did not gain momentum until the establishment of a Photographic Subcommittee in October 1969 that consisted of the Director of the Gallery and three notable Melbourne photographers: Athol Shmith, Les Gray and Chairman, Dacre Stubbs, along with the Director of the National Gallery Art School, Lenton Parr. Advising the Committee were honorary representatives Albert Brown (in Adelaide) and Max Dupain (in Sydney).27 The Photographic Subcommittee defined the philosophies of the Department and began acquiring photographs for the collection.28 While the Department was located in the Gallery’s library and had no designated exhibition space at this time,29 Committee members stressed the need to make contacts with the international art world and fact-finding missions were essential in order to establish a curatorial department in Australia as no photography department had ever been established in Australia before. “Members were also concerned to position the new Department in an international context (achieved initially through linking the Gallery to an international exhibitions network and later by purchasing international photography.”30

Financial support and gallery space was slow in materialising and then (as now) “it was enlightened corporate and individual support that would significantly help the NGV to create its photography collection.”31 The first attributable international photograph to enter the collection was the 21.8 x 27.5 cm bromoil photograph Nude (1939) by the Czechoslovakian photographer Frantisek Drtikol in 1971 (Gift of C. Stuart Tompkins),32 an artist of which there remains only one work in the collection, and other early international acquisitions included twenty-seven documentary photographs taken during NASA missions to the moon in the years 1966 – 1969 (presented by Photimport in 1971)33 and work by French photographer M. Lucien Clergue in 1972, founder of the Arles Festival of Photography.34 Early international exhibitions included The Photographers Eye from the Museum of Modern Art in New York (facilitated through Albert Brown’s connections with photography curator John Szarkowski of MoMA).35

The purchasing of the Dritkol nude is understandable as he is an important photographer of people and nudes. “Drtikol made many portraits of very important people and nudes which show development from pictorialism and symbolism to modern composite pictures of the nude body with geometric decorations and thrown shadows, where it is possible to find a number of parallels with the avant-garde works of the period.”36 The acceptance of the set of twenty-seven NASA photographs is understandable but still problematic. Although some of the photographs are breathtakingly beautiful and they would have had some social significance at that time (the first lunar landing was in 1969), their relative ‘value’ as pinnacles of international documentary photography, both aesthetically and compositionally, must be questioned.37 One wonders on what grounds the Photographic Subcommittee recommended their acceptance at the very start of the collection of international photography for the Department of Photography when so many definitive photographs by outstanding masters of photography could have been requested as a donation instead. Similarly, the purchase by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1980 of over 108 space photographs by NASA, Washington, D.C. (manufacturer) for the international collection is equally mystifying when there was a wealth of European and American master photographers work being shown in exhibitions around Melbourne (and sold at very low prices, eg. $150 for a Paul Strand vintage print) that did not enter the collection.

In 1972 Jenny Boddington (with a twenty year background in documentary film)38 was appointed Assistant Curator of Photography. She was selected from fifty-three applicants,39 and was later to become the first full-time curator of photography at the NGV, the first in Australia and perhaps only the third ever full-time photography curator in the world. In 1973, the Melbourne photographer Athol Shmith, who sat on the Photographic Subcommittee, visited major galleries and dealers in London and Paris for five weeks and reserved small selections of non-vintage prints for purchase by Henri Lartigue, Bill Brandt, Paul Strand, Andre Kertesz, Edward Steichen and Margaret Bourke-White40 (non-contemporary ie. vintage work not being generally available at this time). Also in 1973 the corridor beside the Prints and Drawings Department opened as the first photography exhibition space, to be followed in 1975 by the opening of a larger photography gallery on the third floor.41

In 1975 Boddington made a six-week tour of Europe, London and America that included meeting photographers Andre Kertesz and Bill Brandt and the Director of the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski.42 Boddington also spent four weeks viewing photography at the MoMA, time that radically changed her ideas about running the department, including the decision that priority be given to the acquisition of important overseas material. She states:

“My ideas about the running of my department are radically changed … I believe that for some time in the future immediate priority and all possible energy should be given to the acquisition of important overseas material, remembering that ours is the only museum in Australia with a consistent policy of international collecting, and that effort in the initiation and mounting of exhibitions can be saved by showing some of the best work we have already purchased.”43

As Suzanne Tate notes in her Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, Boddington “was also determined to achieve autonomy from the Photographic Subcommittee, and to act on her own judgement, as other curators did.”44 Perhaps this understandable desire for autonomy and the resultant split and aversion (towards the Photographic Subcommittee) can be seen as the beginning of the problems that were to dog the nascent Photography department. In 1976 the Photographic Subcommittee was discontinued although Les Gray (who expressed a very ‘camera club’ aesthetic) continued to act as honorary advisor.45 The Photography department continued to collect both Australian and international photography in equal measure (but of equal value?) and held exhibitions of international photography from overseas institutions (including the early exhibition The Photographer’s Eye in 1968)46 and from the permanent collection (such as an exhibition of work by Andre Kertész, Bill Brandt and Paul Strand)47 in order to educate the public, not only in the history of the medium but how to ‘see’ photography and read ‘good’ photographic images from the mass of consumer images in the public domain.48

 

Paradigms and problems of international photography collecting at the National Gallery of Victoria

.
It does not do to be impatient in the business of collecting for an art museum. A public collection is a very permanent thing. It is really necessary to think in terms of the future and how our photographs and our century will appear in that future. We would like those in the future to inherit material that is intelligible both for itself and in relation to the other arts; at the same time there is the need to satisfy the present. A collection cannot be richer than the responses of its artists but it is hoped that it will represent a rich trawl of each historical period.”

.
Jenny Boddington 49

 

The current photography collection at The National Gallery of Victoria consists of over 15,000 photographs of which around 3,000 are by international artists (a ratio of 20% whereas the ratio between Australian/international photographers at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra is 60/40%).50 Dr Isobel Crombie, now Assistant Director, Curatorial and Collection Management and former Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria, notes in her catalogue introduction “Creating a Collection: International Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria,” from the exhibition Re_View: 170 years of Photography that several factors have affected the collection of international photographs at The National Gallery of Victoria. I have identified what I believe to be the three key factors:

  1. Lack of financial support
  2. The purchasing of non-vintage prints
  3. The dilemma of distance

 

Financial support

When the Department of Photography was set up at The National Gallery of Victoria the lack of adequate funds tempered the Photography Subcommittees purchasing aspirations. This situation continued after the appointment of Jenny Boddington and continues to this day. Athol Shmith noted that there were two options for building a collection: one was to spend substantial funds to acquire the work of a few key photographers, the other option (the one that was adopted) was a policy of acquiring a small number of works by a wide range of practitioners, a paradigm that still continues.51 “A broadly based collecting policy was established to purchase work by Australian and International practitioners from all periods of photographic history.”52

The majority of early acquisitions of the Department were overwhelmingly Australian but this collection policy broadened dramatically after the overseas travel of Athol Shmith and Jenny Boddington.53 Cultural cringe was prevalent with regard to Australian photography and it was rarely, if ever, talked about as art. Australian photography was still in the hands of the camera clubs and magazines and influenced by those aesthetics… but the ability to purchase the desired international work was severely curtailed due, in part, to the low exchange rate of the Australian dollar. In 1976 one Australian dollar was worth approximately US 40 cents. Another reason was the lack of money to purchase international work. In the early 1970s the Department had approximately $3,000 a year to purchase any work (international or Australian) that gradually built up to about $30,000 per annum in the mid 1970s. In 1981-82, this was reduced to almost zero because of the financial crisis and credit squeeze that enveloped Australia. This lack of funds to purchase work was compounded by sky rocketing prices for international photographs by renowned photographers in the early 1980s.

While generous help over eight years from Kodak (Australasia) Pty. Ltd had helped buy Australian works for the collection (a stipulation of the funds),54 money for international acquisitions had been less forthcoming. In a catalogue text from 1983 Boddington notes,

.
“… classic, well-known photographs are now very expensive indeed. One can only look back with sincere appreciation to the days when the department’s purchasing budget was $1000 a year and the trustees agreed to buy 27 Bill Brandts, whilst the National Gallery Society donated a further 13 from ‘Perspective of Nudes’, thus concluding out first major international purchase, happily before Brandt’s prices quintupled in a single blow early in 1975. Photography was then beginning to be a factor in the market place of art and a budget of $1000 a year was no longer adequate – even for the purchase of Australian work! Where funds are limited (as they are) a fairly basic decision has to be made as to the direction a collection will follow. Here in Melbourne we have on the whole focused on the purest uses of straight photography as it reflects broad cultural concerns …”
55

.
By 1976 the Felton Bequest purchased works by Julie Margaret-Cameron (one image!) and the NGV purchased thirty-four André Kertész, evidence that the status of the Photography department was rising. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s and early 1980s, eighty works were acquired by artists such as Imogen Cunningham (five images), Edward Muybridge (two images – the only two in the collection), Lois Conner (three images) and Man Ray (eleven images).56 In 1995 Isobel Crombie revised the collecting policy of the Department and she notes in “Collecting Policy for the Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (Revised October 1995),” Appendix 1 in Suzanne Tate’s Postgraduate Diploma Thesis under the heading ‘International Photography’57 that, “Given our financial resources extremely selective purchases are to be made in this area to fill those gaps in the collection of most concern to students and practicing photographers.”58 Crombie further notes that the contemporary collection is an area that needs much improvement whilst acknowledging the dramatic increases in prices asked and realised for prime photographs and the restricted gallery funds for purchases.59

While today the importance of philanthropy, fund raising and sponsorship is big business within the field of museum art collecting one cannot underestimate the difficulties faced by Boddington in collecting photographs by international artists during the formative years of the collection. As photography was liberated to become an art form in the early 1970s through the establishment of museum departments, through the emergence of photographic schools and commercial photographic galleries (such as the three commercial photography galleries showing Australian and international work in Melbourne: Brummels (Rennie Ellis), Church Street Photographic Centre (Joyce Evans) and The Photographers Gallery (Paul Cox, John Williams, William Heimerman and Ian Lobb), photography was given a place to exist, a place to breathe and become part of the establishment. But my feeling is that the status of photography as an art form, which was constantly having to be fought for, hindered the availability of funding both from within the National Gallery of Victoria itself and externally from corporate and philanthropic institutions and people.

To an extent I believe that this bunker mentally hindered the development of the photographic collection at the National Gallery of Victoria until much more recent times. Instead of photography being seen as just art and then going out and buying that art, the battle to define itself AS art and defend that position has had to be replayed again and again within the NGV, especially during the late 1970s-1980s and into the early 1990s.60 This is very strange position to be in, considering that the NGV had the prescience to set up one of the first ever photography departments in a museum in the world. Then to not support it fully or fund it, or to really understand what was needed to support an emergent art form within a museum setting so that the masterpieces vital for the collection could to be purchased, is perplexing to say the least. I also wonder whether more could not have been done to attract philanthropy and funds from personal and big business enterprises to support international acquisitions. I also wonder about the nature of some of the international purchases for the Department of Photography (the choice of photographer or photographs purchased) and the politics of how those works were acquired.

 

The purchasing of non-vintage prints

The paradigm for collecting international photographs early in the history of the Department of Photography was set by Athol Shmith in 1973 on his visit to Paris and London.

“Typically for the times, Shmith did not choose to acquire vintage prints, that is, photographs made shortly after the negative was taken. While vintage prints are most favoured by collectors today, in the 1970s vintage prints supervised by the artists were considered perfectly acceptable and are still regarded as a viable, if less impressive option now.”61

.
This assertion is debatable. While many museums including the NGV preferred to acquire portfolios of modern reprints as a speedy way of establishing a group of key images, Crombie notes in the catalogue essay to 2nd Sight: Australian Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria that the reason for preferring the vintage over the modern print “is evident when confronted with modern and original prints: differences in paper, scale and printing styles make the original preferable.”62 Crombie’s text postulates that this sensibility, the consciousness of these differences slowly evolved in the photographic world and, for most, the distinctions were not a matter of concern even though the quality of the original photograph was not always maintained.63 I believe that this statement is only a partial truth. While modern prints may have been acceptable there has always been a premium placed on the vintage print, a known value above and beyond that of modern prints, even at the very dawn of photography collecting in museums. I believe that price (which is never mentioned in this discussion) is the major reason for the purchase of non-vintage prints. In Crombie’s “Collecting Policy for the Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (Revised October 1995),” she notes under the heading ‘Past Collecting Policy’ Point 1 that “Many non-vintage photographs have been collected … Purchase of non-vintage prints should not continue though we may we accept such photographs as gifts on occasion.”64

I vividly remember seeing a retrospective of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh in 2005. One room consisted of small, jewel-like vintage prints that were amazing in their clarity of vision and intensity of the resolution of the print. In the other three rooms there were large blown-up photographs of the originals, authorised by the artist. Seen at mural size the images fell apart, the tension within the picture plane vanished and the meaning of the image was irrevocably changed. Even as the artist’s intentions change over time, even as the artist reprints the work at a later stage, the photograph is not an autonomous object – it becomes a post-structuralist textual site where the artist and curator (and writers, conservators, historians and viewers) become the editors of the document and where little appeal can be made to the original intentions of the author (if they are known).65 While change, alteration, editing, revision and restoration represent the true life of objects66 (and noting that the same re-inscription also happens with vintage photographs), the purchase of non-vintage prints eliminates the original intention of the artist. This is not to say that the modern printing, such as Bill Brandt’s high contrast version of People sheltering in the Tube; Elephant and Castle, underground station (1940 printed 1976, below) cannot become the famous version of the image, but that some acknowledgement of the history of the image must be made. Ignoring the negative/print split is problematic to say the least, especially if the original was printed with one intention and the modern print with an entirely different feeling. This is not a matter of refinement of the image but a total reinterpretation (as in the case of the Brandt). While all artists do this, a failure to acknowledge the original vision for a work of art and the context in which it was taken and printed – in Brandt’s case he was asked by the War Office to record the Blitz, in which Londoners sheltered from German air raids in Underground stations – can undermine the reconceptualisation of the modern print.

 

Bill Brandt. 'People sheltering in the Tube; Elephant and Castle, underground station' 1940

 

Bill Brandt
People sheltering in the Tube; Elephant and Castle, underground station
1940
Silver gelatin print
© Bill Brandt Archive © IWM Non-Commercial License
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

Civilians sheltering in Elephant and Castle London Underground Station during an air raid in November 1940. Elephant and Castle London Underground Station Shelter: People sleeping on the crowded platform of Elephant and Castle tube station while taking shelter from German air raids during the London Blitz.

 

Bill Brandt. 'People sheltering in the Tube; Elephant and Castle, underground station' 1940 printed 1976

 

Bill Brandt
People sheltering in the Tube; Elephant and Castle, underground station
1940 printed 1976
Silver gelatin print
34.4 x 29.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1974

© Bill Brandt Archive
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

NB. Note the removal of the man sitting up at right in mid-foreground

 

 

The dilemma of distance

While the dilemma of distance is cited as an obstacle to the collection of international photographs by the Department of Photography in the early 1970s by Isobel Crombie,67 this observation becomes less applicable by the middle of the decade. Master prints from major international photographers were available for purchase in Australia by The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra (which had been collecting photography since the early 1970s),68 The Art Gallery of New South Wales (which established a Department of Photography in 1974),69 and The National Gallery of Victoria, through exhibitions at newly opened commercial galleries in both Melbourne and Sydney. Public touring exhibitions were held of the work of international photographers, most notably British Council exhibition of Bill Brandt in 1971, and the French Foreign Ministry’s major exhibition of Cartier-Bresson in 1974.70

In Melbourne commercial galleries specialising in photography and photographer run galleries had emerged, namely Brummels established by Rennie Ellis in 1972, The Photographers Gallery and Workshop founded by Paul Cox, Ingeborg Tyssen, John F. Williams and Rod McNicoll in 1973 (the Gallery was taken over in late 1974 by Ian Lobb, his first exhibition as director being at the beginning of 1975; Bill Heimerman joined as joint director at the beginning of 1976), and Church Street Gallery established by Joyce Evans in 1977.71 At the commercial galleries the main influence was overwhelmingly American:

“The impact of exhibitions held by the NGV was reinforced by exhibitions of the work of Ralph Gibson, William Clift, Paul Caponigro, Duane Michals and Harry Callahan at The Photographers Gallery and by the series of lectures and workshops that the artists conducted during those exhibitions. Joyce Evans also organised important exhibitions during this period but again the focus was American with work by Minor White, Jerry Uelsmann, Les Krims and others.”72

Shows of American photography, many of which toured extensively, became relatively commonplace and it was the first time Australian photographers and the general public had access to such a concentration of international photography in a variety of styles.73 Ian Lobb, who took over the running of the Photographers Gallery in late 1974 with Bill Heimerman), notes that the first exhibition of international photography at the gallery was that of Paul Caponigro in 1975.74

“We sold 22 prints which he told us was the second highest sale he had made to that point. With the success of the Caponigro show, we closed the gallery for a few months while the gallery was rebuilt. I took Bill as a business partner, and he made a trip to the USA to set-up some shows. From 1975, every second show was an international show.”75

Lobb observes that,

“The initial philosophy was simply to let people see the physical difference between the production of prints overseas and locally. After a while this moved from the Fine Print to other concerns both aesthetic and conceptual. The gallery at best, just paid for itself. During international shows the attendance at the gallery was high. During Australian shows the attendance was low.”76

.
From 1975 – 1981 The Photographers Gallery held exhibitions of August Sander (German – arranged by Bill Heimerman), Edouard Boubat (France), Emmet Gowin (USA – twice), Paul Caponigro (USA – twice), Ralph Gibson (UK – twice, once of his colour work), William Eggelston (USA), Eliot Porter (USA), Wynn Bullock (USA), William Clift (USA), Harry Callahan (USA), Aaron Siskind (USA – twice, once with a show hung at Ohnetitel) Jerry Uelsmann (USA), Brett Weston (USA). There was also an exhibition of Japanese artist Eikoh Hosoe (Japan) and his Ordeal by Roses series in 1986. These exhibitions comprise approximately 60% of all international exhibitions at The Photographers Gallery during this time, others being lost to the vagaries of memory and the mists of time. Prices ranged from $100 per print (yes, only $100 for these masterpieces!!) in the early years rising to $1500 for a print by Wyn Bullock towards the end of the decade.77 At Church Street Photographic Centre the focus was predominantly on Australian and American artists, with some British influence. Artists exhibited other than those noted above included Athol Shmith, Rennie Ellis, Wes Placek, Fiona Hall, Herbert Ponting, Julia Margaret Cameron, Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jack Cato, Norman Deck, Jan Saudek, Robert Frank, Edouard Boubat, Jerry Uelsmann and Albert Renger-Patzsch to name just a few.78

The purchasing of vintage prints by major international artists from these galleries by the National Gallery of Victoria was not helped by the allegedly strained relationships that Boddington had with the directors of these galleries. The feeling I get from undertaking the research is that one of the problems with Boddington’s desire to achieve autonomy and make her own decisions about what to purchase for the Photography Department (being strong willed) was that she ignored opportunities that we right here in Melbourne – because of the aforesaid relationships and lack of money (a lack of support from the hierarchy of the National Gallery of Victoria).

 

Conclusion

It would be a great pity if the oral history of the early exhibition of international photographers in Melbourne was lost, for it is a subject worthy of additional research. It would also be interesting to undertake further research in order to cross-reference the purchases of the Department of Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria in the years 1975-1981 with the independent international exhibitions that were taking place at commercial galleries in Melbourne during this time. What international photographs were purchased from local galleries, what choices were made to purchase or not purchase works, what works were actually purchased for the collection and what were the politics of these decisions?

For example, during 1976 nine photographs by the Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli (1925-2000) entered the collection as well as nineteen photographs by German photographer Hedda Morrison; in 1977 twelve photographs entered the collection by a photographer name Helmut Schmidt (a photographer whose name doesn’t even appear when doing a Google search). Under what circumstances did these photographs come into the collection? While these people might be good artists they are not in the same league as the stellar names listed above that exhibited at The Photographers Gallery and Church Street Photographic Centre. Questions need to be asked about the Department of Photography acquisitions policy and the independent choices of the curator Jennie Boddington, especially as the international prints were here in Melbourne, on our doorstep and not liable to the tyranny of distance.

Dr Isobel Crombie notes that the acquisitions policies were altered so that there was no major duplication between collections within Australia79 but it seems strange that, with so many holes in so many collections around the nation at this early stage, major opportunities that existed to purchase world class masterpieces during the period 1975-81 were missed by the Department of Photography at the NGV.

While Crombie acknowledges the preponderance of American works in the collection over European and Asian works she also notes that major 20th century photographers that you would expect to be in the collection are not, and blames this lack “on the massive increases in prices for international photography that began in the 1980s and which largely excluded the NGV from the market at this critical time.”80 Crombie further observes that major contemporary photographers work can cost over a million dollars a print and the cost of vintage historical prints are also prohibitively high,81 so the ability to fill gaps in the collection is negligible, especially since the photography acquisitions budget is approximately 0.5-1 million dollars a year.82

Crombie’s time scale seems a little late for as we have seen in this essay, opportunities existed locally to purchase world class prints from master international photographers before prices rose to an exorbitant level. Put simply, the NGV passed up the opportunity to purchase these masterworks at reasonable prices for a variety of reasons (personal, political and financial) before the huge price rises of the early 1980s. They simply missed the boat.

I believe that this subject is worthy of further in-depth research undertaken without fear nor favour. While it is understandable that the NGV would want to protect it’s established reputation, the NGV is a partial public institution that should not be afraid to open up to public scrutiny the formative period in the history of the international collection of photography, in order to better understand the decisions, processes and photographic prints now held in it’s care.

.
Dr Marcus Bunyan
May 2015

Word count: 5,594

 

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. 1936

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Shocken, 1969

Boddington, Jennie. International Photography: 100 images from the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Adelaide: The Art Gallery of South Australia, 1983

Boddington, Jennie. Overseas Travel by Assistant Curator of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976

Boddington, Jennie. Modern Australian Photographs. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976

Cox, Leonard B. The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861-1968: The Search for a Collection. Melbourne: The National Gallery of Victoria; Brown Prior Anderson Pty Ltd, 1971

Crombie, Isobel. Re_View: 170 years of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009

Crombie, Isobel. Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002

Downer, Christine. “Photographs,” in Galbally, Ann [et al]. The first collections: the Public Library and the National Gallery of Victoria in the 1850s and the 1860s. Parkville, Vic.,: The University of Melbourne Museum of Art, 1992, pp. 73-79

Frank, Robert. The Americans. Washington: Steidl/National Gallery of Art, Revised edition, May 30, 2008

Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery, Collins, 1988

Tate, Suzanne. Photographic Collections in Victoria: Waverley City Gallery, Horsham Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria: An Analysis of Past History and Future Directions. The University of Melbourne: Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, 1998

 

 

George Baron Goodman, d. 1851. [Dr William Bland, ca. 1845 - portrait] c. 1845

 

George Baron Goodman, d. 1851
[Dr William Bland]
c. 1845
Daguerreotype (ninth plate daguerreotype in Wharton case)
7.5 x 6.3 cm
© State Library of New South Wales collection
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

This daguerreotype is the earliest known surviving photograph taken in Australia. It is probably that mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald 14/1/1845, page 2, top column 5… It would appear to be a product of Goodman’s new studio at 49 Hunter Street, Sydney (see SMH 5/8/1844), before the introduction of hand colouring (see SMH 9/1/1845) and before the introduction of decorative backgrounds (see SMH 25/4/1846). It was probably produced between November 1844 and early January 1845 – Alan Davies, Curator of Photographs, State Library of NSW, 1993. (Image used for research under fair use conditions).

 

Front cover of John Szarkowski's book 'The Photographers Eye'

 

Front cover of John Szarkowski’s book The Photographers Eye, originally published by The Museum of Modern Art in 1966

 

André Kertész. 'A Bistro at Les Halles, Paris' 1927

 

André Kertész
A Bistro at Les Halles, Paris
1927
Gelatin silver photograph
17.7 x 24.7 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1976
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

Julia Margaret Cameron. 'Mrs Herbert Duckworth, her son George, Florence Fisher and H. A. L. Fisher' c. 1871

 

Julia Margaret Cameron
Mrs Herbert Duckworth, her son George, Florence Fisher and H. A. L. Fisher
c. 1871
Albumen silver photograph
31.0 x 22.7 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of the Herald & Weekly Times Limited, Fellow, 1979
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

Imogen Cunningham. 'Leaf pattern' c. 1929; printed 1979

 

Imogen Cunningham
Leaf pattern
c. 1929; printed 1979
Gelatin silver photograph
33.0 x 26.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased 1979
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

NASA, Washington, D.C. (manufacturer) 'Instrument called Gnomon to determine size and distance of objects on moon' 1969

 

NASA, Washington, D.C. (manufacturer)
Instrument called Gnomon to determine size and distance of objects on moon
1969
Gelatin silver photograph on aluminium
49.0 x 39.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented by Photimport, 1971
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

Neil Armstrong. 'Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the Moon near the leg of the Lunar Module (LM)' 1969

 

Neil Armstrong / NASA, Washington, D.C. (manufacturer)
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the Moon near the leg of the Lunar Module (LM)
1969
Colour transparency
50.8 x 40.6 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased 1980
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

 

Endnotes

  • 1. Anon. “Photography in Australia,” on Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 01/08/2014.
  • 2. “Daguerreotype Portrait of Dr William Bland circa 1845,” on the State Library of New South Wales website [Online] Cited 27/07/2014.
  • 3. Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery, Collins, 1988 [Online] Cited 02/06/2014.
  • 4. Fennessy, Kathleen. “For ‘Love of Art’: The Museum of Art and Picture Gallery at the Melbourne Public library 1860 – 1870,” in The La Trobe Journal 75, Autumn, 2005, p. 5 [Online] Cited 27/07/2014.
  • 5. Anon. “Pictures,” on the State Library of Victoria website [Online] Cited 02/09/2010. No longer available.
  • 6. Fox, Paul. “Stretching the Australian Imagination: Melbourne as a Conservative City,” in The La Trobe Journal 80, Spring, 2007, p. 124 [Online] Cited 27/07/2014.
  • 7. Tsara, Olga. “Linnaeus Tripe’s ‘Views of Burma’,” in The La Trobe Journal 79, Autumn, 2007, p. 55 [Online] Cited 27/07/2014.
  • 8. Crombie, Isobel. “Likenesses as if by magic: The early years 1840s – 1850s,” in Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002, p. 15.
  • 9. Fox, Paul Op. cit., p. 124.
  • 10. Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery, Collins, 1988 [Online] Cited 02/07/2014. Chapter 11 “Live in the Year 1929” and Chapter 12 “Commerce and Commitment.”
  • 11. Crombie, Isobel. Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002. See chapters “In a new light: Pictorialist photography 1900s – 1930s” (p.38), “New Photography: Modernism in Australia 1930s – 1940s” (p.50) and “Clear statements of actuality: Documentary photography 1940s – 1960s” (p.64).
  • 12. Anon. “The Family of Man,” on Wikipedia [Online] Cited 02/09/2014
  • 13. Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery, Collins, 1988 [Online] Cited 02/06/2010. Chapter 13 “Photographic Illustrators: The Family of Man and the 1960s – an end and a beginning” and Footnote 13.
  • 14. Ibid., See also the layout and size of the photographic murals on the Musuem THE FAMILY OF MAN, Chateau de Clervaux / Luxembourg website, the only permanent display of the exhibition left in the world. [Online] Cited 02/09/2014.
  • 15. “Benjamin’s work balances, often with paradoxical results, tensions between aspects of experience: the experiences simultaneously of being too late and too early (too soon) in the temporal dimension (c.f. Hamlet’s “the time is out of joint”) and being both distant and close (in the spatial dimension), and anyway of being both temporal and spatial. The concept of “aura,” which is one of Benjamin’s most influential contributions, is best understood in terms of these tensions or oscillations. He says that “aura” is a “strange web of space and time” or “a distance as close as it can be.” The main idea is of something inaccessible and elusive, something highly valued but which is deceptive and out of reach. Aura, in this sense, is associated with the nineteenth century notions of the artwork and is thus lost, Benjamin argues, with the onset of photography. At first photographs attempted to imitate painting but very quickly and because of the nature of the technology photography took its own direction contributing to the destruction of all traditional notions of the fine arts.”
    Phillips, John. On Walter Benjamin. [Online] Cited 02/06/2014.
    “One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”
    Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. 1936, Section 2. [Online] Cited 02/06/2014.
  • 16. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Shocken, 1969, p. 236.
  • 17. Frank, Robert. The Americans. Washington: Steidl/National Gallery of Art, Revised edition, May 30, 2008.
  • 18. Newton, op.cit., Chapter 13.
  • 19. Anon. “A chronology of events in the history of the State Library of Victoria,” on the State Library of Victoria website. [Online] Cited 03/06/2010. No longer available.
  • 20. See Cox, Leonard B. The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861 – 1968: The Search for a Collection. Melbourne: The National Gallery of Victoria; Brown Prior Anderson Pty Ltd, 1971.
  • 21. Ibid., p. 378.
  • 22. Crombie, Isobel. op cit., Introduction p. 7.
  • 23. Crombie, Isobel. op cit., Introduction p. 7.
  • 24. Westbrook, Eric. “Minutes of the Photographic Subcommittee” 22/07/1970 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. Photographic Collections in Victoria: Waverley City Gallery, Horsham Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria: An Analysis of Past History and Future Directions. The University of Melbourne: Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, Chapter One, 1998, pp. 12-13. Other institutions included the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, Berlin Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • 25. Crombie, Isobel. op. cit., Introduction p. 6.
  • 26. Westbrook, Eric and Brown, Albert. “Establishment of Photography at the Victorian Arts Centre,” in Minutes of Trustees Reports, NGV, 4th April, 1967, p. 886 quoted in Crombie, Isobel. op cit., Introduction p. 6. Footnote 2.
  • 27. See Crombie, Isobel. op cit., Introduction p. 8 and Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 14-15.
  • 28. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1969 – 70. Melbourne, 1970, np quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 14-15.
  • 29. NGV Photographic Subcommittee. Report. Melbourne, 1970, p. 2 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. p. 16.
  • 30. Crombie, Isobel. op cit., Introduction p. 8.
  • 31. Crombie, Isobel. “Creating a Collection: International Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria,” in Re_View: 170 years of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009, p. 7.
  • 32. Ibid.,
  • 33. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1971-72. Melbourne, 1970, np quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. p. 16.
  • 34. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1972-73. Melbourne, 1970, np quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. p. 16.
  • 35. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1969-70. Melbourne, 1970, np quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. p. 16.
  • 36. Anon. “Frantisek Drtikol,” on Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 06/10/2014.
  • 37. Some of these images have been shown for the first time in over twenty years in the 2009 exhibition Light Years: Photography and Space in the third floor photography gallery at NGV International.
  • 38. “After Eureka Stockade Boddington went to work at Film Australia and in 1950 worked for the GPO Film Unit. With the introduction of television she went to work at the ABC as an editor. She and her second husband cameraman Adrian Boddington would then set up their own company Zanthus Films. After his death she became the curator of photography at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1971.”
    Allen, J. “Australian Visions. The films of Dahl and Geoffrey Collings,” in Eras Journal Edition 4, December 2002, Footnote 33 [Online] Cited 14/10/2014
  • 39. Minutes of the NGV Photographic Subcommittee. Melbourne, 16/05/1972 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 17-18.
  • 40. Crombie, Isobel. “Creating a Collection: International Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria,” in Re_View: 170 years of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009, p. 9.
  • 41. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1974-75. Melbourne, 1975, p. 24 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 17-18.
  • 42. Boddington, J. Overseas Travel by Assistant Curator of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976, pp. 1-3 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 18-19.
  • 43. Boddington, J. quoted in Crombie, Isobel. “Creating a Collection: International Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria,” in Re_View: 170 years of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009, p. 9.
    See also Boddington, J. quoted in quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 18-19.
  • 44. Boddington, J. Overseas Travel by Assistant Curator of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976, pp. 1-3 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 18-19.
  • 45. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1975-76. Melbourne, 1976, p. 26 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 18-19.
  • 46. See Crombie, Isobel. “Creating a Collection: International Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria,” in Re_View: 170 years of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009, p. 9.
  • 47. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1975-76. Melbourne, 1976, p. 27 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 18-19.
  • 48. See Crombie, Op. cit., p. 9.
  • 49. Boddington, Jenny. Modern Australian Photographs. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976. Catalogue essay.
  • 50. See Crombie, Op. cit., p. 7.
    “The first formulation of policy in the Gallery’s annual report of 1976/77 stated the aim was to ‘develop a department of photography which will include both Australian and overseas works. The Australian collection will be historically comprehensive, while the collection of overseas photographers will aim to represent the work of the major artists in the history of photography’. Since that statement of intent thirty years ago, the collection has grown to include over 16,000 works. There are approximately sixty per cent Australian to forty per cent international photographs, a ratio that has remained constant over the years.”
    O’Hehir, Anne. “VIP: very important photographs from the European, American and Australian photography collection 1840s – 1940s” exhibition 26 May – 19 August 2007 on the National Gallery of Australia website [Online] Cited 12/10/2014.
  • 51. See Crombie, Op. cit., p. 9.
  • 52. Crombie, Isobel. “Collecting Policy for the Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (Revised October 1995),” in Tate, Suzanne. Photographic Collections in Victoria: Waverley City Gallery, Horsham Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria: An Analysis of Past History and Future Directions. The University of Melbourne: Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, 1998, p. 73. Appendix 1
  • 53. Crombie, Isobel. Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002, p. 9
  • 54. Boddington, Jennie. Modern Australian Photographs. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976. Catalogue essay.
  • 55. Boddington, Jennie. International Photography: 100 images from the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Adelaide: The Art Gallery of South Australia, 1983. Catalogue essay.
    Here we must acknowledge the contradiction between the quotations at footnotes 52 and 55, where the former proposes a broad based collecting policy from all eras both internationally and locally and, a few years later, the other proposes a focus on the purest uses of straight photography (in other words pure documentary photography) as it reflects broad cultural concerns.
  • 56. Tate, Suzanne. Photographic Collections in Victoria: Waverley City Gallery, Horsham Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria: An Analysis of Past History and Future Directions. The University of Melbourne: Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, 1998, pp. 19-20
  • 57. Crombie, Isobel. “Collecting Policy for the Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (Revised October 1995),” cited in Tate, Suzanne. Ibid., Appendix 1 ‘International Photography’ Point 2, 1900 – 1980,  p. 73
  • 58. Ibid.,
  • 59. Ibid.,
  • 60. This battle is still being fought even in 2014. See Jones, Jonathan. “The $6.5m canyon: it’s the most expensive photograph ever – but it’s like a hackneyed poster in a posh hotel,” on The Guardian website 11/12/2014 [Online] Cited 15/11/2014
  • 61. Crombie, Isobel. “Creating a Collection: International Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria,” in Re_View: 170 years of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009, p. 9
  • 62. Crombie, Isobel. Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002, p. 10
  • 63. Ibid., p. 10
  • 64. Crombie, Isobel. “Collecting Policy for the Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (Revised October 1995),” in Tate, Suzanne. Photographic Collections in Victoria: Waverley City Gallery, Horsham Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria: An Analysis of Past History and Future Directions. The University of Melbourne: Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, 1998, p. 73. Appendix 1
  • 65. McCaughy, Patrick. Review of ‘Securing the Past: Conservation in Art, Architecture and Literature’ by Paul Eggert on The Australian newspaper website [Online] December 2nd, 2009. Cited 01/01/2015
  • 66. Ibid.,
  • 67. Crombie, Isobel. “Creating a Collection: International Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria,” in Re_View: 170 years of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009, p. 9
  • 68. O’Hehir, Anne. op.cit.
  • 69. Dean, Robert. “Foreign Influences in Australian Photography 1930 – 80.” Lecture delivered at Australian Photographic Society Conference (APSCON), Canberra, 2000, p. 10. [Online] Cited 01/01/2015 Download the lecture (40kb pdf)
  • 70. Ibid.,
  • 71. Ibid., See also footnote 28
  • 72. Ibid., p. 11
  • 73. Ibid.,
  • 74. Lobb, Ian. Text from an email to the author, 20th May, 2014
  • 75. Ibid.,
  • 76. Ibid.,
  • 77. Ibid.,
  • 78. Evans, Joyce. Text from an email to the author, 6th September 2014
  • 79. Crombie, op. cit., p. 10
  • 80. Ibid.,
  • 81. Ibid.,
  • 82. Vaughan, Gerard. Lecture to Master of Art Curatorship students by the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne, 30/03/2010.

 

 

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27
Oct
14

Exhibition: ‘Bushido: Way of the Samurai’ at NGV International, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 4th July – 4th November 2014

 

This is a most beautiful and refined exhibition. Despite the ferocity of the samurai, their armour is exquisite. The golden screens, the horse trappings, the swords and the pistols are all fabulously detailed. Walking into the darkened exhibition space is like entering another world. A must see exhibition before it closes!

Marcus

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Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Japanese 'Saddle and stirrups with crane and turtle design' Edo period 1665 Japan

 

Japanese
Saddle and stirrups with crane and turtle design
Edo period 1665 Japan
Lacquer on wood (maki-e), gold foil, silver, pigment, plant fibre (cord), dyes, metal, leather, (other materials)
28.2 x 41.0 x 39.0 cm (saddle)
Acquired, 1889

 

Utagawa Yoshitsuya. 'The death of Kusunoki Masatsura' 19th century

 

Utagawa Yoshitsuya
The death of Kusunoki Masatsura
19th century
Colour woodblock (triptych)
(a-c) 35.9 x 74.0 cm (image) (overall) (a-c) 36.4 x 74.0 cm (sheet) (overall)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1993

 

Utagawa Yoshitsuya. 'The death of Kusunoki Masatsura' (detail) 19th century

 

Utagawa Yoshitsuya
The death of Kusunoki Masatsura (detail)
19th century
Colour woodblock (triptych)
(a-c) 35.9 x 74.0 cm (image) (overall) (a-c) 36.4 x 74.0 cm (sheet) (overall)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1993

 

Felice Beato (attributed to) 'No title (Samurai warrior)' 1860s-1870s

 

Felice Beato (attributed to)
No title (Samurai warrior)
1860s-1870s
Albumen silver photograph, colour dyes
24.2 x 19.6 cm (image and sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented through the NGV Foundation by Thomas Dixon, Member, 2001

 

Baron Raimund von Stillfried. 'No title (Samurai in armour)' c. 1875

 

Baron Raimund von Stillfried
No title (Samurai in armour)
c. 1875; (c. 1877-1880) {printed}
Albumen silver photograph, colour dyes
24.4 x 19.6 cm (image and sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through the NGV Foundation with the assistance of The Herald & Weekly Times Limited, Fellow, 2001

 

 

“Exquisite 300-year-old battle armour will bring the epic tales of Japanese history to life in a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Bushido: Way of the Samurai, which explores the fascinating world of the samurai; the warriors, rulers and aristocratic elite of Japanese society for more than 800 years.

The exhibition brings together over 200 objects from the NGV and Australian collections including many rediscovered and rarely seen treasures that were acquired by the NGV in the 1880s and 1920s, such as beautifully crafted armour, helmets, lacquered saddles and a full set of horse trappings. An exquisite group of 16th Century matchlock guns – weaponry used on the battlefield which irrevocably changed warfare and the ethics of the samurai in battle – and an elaborate suit of armour that has no record of being exhibited since its acquisition in 1889 will take center stage in the exhibition.

Wayne Crothers, Curator, Asian Art, NGV said that Japanese armour, swords and guns are celebrated as refined artworks and are appreciated for their unsurpassed craftsmanship and beauty. “Such dramatic and visually foreboding attire worn by a fierce sword wielding warrior thundering into battle on horseback must have created an image of heart stopping ferocity embodying the spirit and the age of the samurai. It is extraordinary that we have these pieces from key historical periods in Japanese history to share today,” Mr Crothers said.

Bushido: Way of the Samurai also includes three golden screens that would adorn the villas and castles of the samurai elite, one of which is a magnificent seven metre panoramic view of the twelfth century battle of Ichinotani, and a group of dramatic woodblock prints depicting stories of legendary samurai and their super human feats of bravery.

The art and culture of the samurai encompasses over 800 years of Japan’s history and creative past. From the twelfth century through to the modernisation of Japan in 1868, the Shogun, or the military elite, ruled the country and lived to a rigorous code of ethics. This military aristocracy aspired to a life of spiritual harmony that not only perfected the art of war, but also embodied an appreciation of the fine arts that established their life as an art form itself. The refined cultural pursuits of the samurai are exhibited in the form of exquisite Noh theatre costumes and dramatic Noh masks, tea ceremony utensils, lacquered personal items, formal clothing and studio photographs from the 1860s-70s that capture these noble warriors during the closing years of feudal Japan.

“Samurai virtues of honesty, courage, benevolence, respect, self-sacrifice, self-control, duty, and loyalty combined with a cultivated lifestyle established social stability and a legacy of art and culture in Japanese society that continues to this day,” Mr Crothers said.”

Press release from the NGV

 

Utagawa Yoshiiku (Japanese 1833-1904) 'Fukushima Masanori, from the Heroic stories of the Taiheiki' Edo period 1867

 

Utagawa Yoshiiku (Japanese 1833-1904)
Fukushima Masanori, from the Heroic stories of the Taiheiki
Edo period 1867 Japan
Colour woodblock
25.5 x 19.0 cm (image and sheet)
Purchased, NGV Supporters of Asian Art, 2014

 

Utagawa Yoshiiku (Japanese 1833-1904) 'Gamō Ujisato from the Heroic stories of the Taiheiki' Edo period 1867 Japan

 

Utagawa Yoshiiku (Japanese 1833-1904)
Gamō Ujisato, from the Heroic stories of the Taiheiki
Edo period 1867 Japan
Colour woodblock
25.5 x 19.0 cm (image and sheet)
Purchased, NGV Supporters of Asian Art, 2014

 

Japanese 'Ceremonial helmet with octopus and Genji cart wheel crest' 19th century

 

Japanese
Ceremonial helmet with octopus and Genji cart wheel crest
19th century
Edo period 1600-15-1868 Japan
Lacquer on (leather) (maki-e), wood, gold, pigment, glass, metal (nails), silk and cotton (thread), (other materials)
28.0 x 35.5 x 38.0 cm
Felton Bequest, 1927

 

Japanese Armour 18th century

 

Japanese
Armour
18th century
Metal, wood, pigment, lacquer, gold paint, silk, cotton, leather, metal thread
(a-k) 136.0 x 56.0 x 45.0 cm (overall) (installation)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mrs Henry Darlot, 1888

 

Japanese Armour Edo period

 

Japanese
Armour
Edo period 1600-15-1868 Japan
Lacquer, leather, metal, silk, cotton, hemp, gold pigment, coloured dyes
144.0 x 71.0 x 53.0 cm (overall) (installation)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Acquired, 1889

 

Japanese Armour Edo period (detail)

 

Japanese
Armour
Edo period 1600-15-1868 Japan
Lacquer, leather, metal, silk, cotton, hemp, gold pigment, coloured dyes
144.0 x 71.0 x 53.0 cm (overall) (installation)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Acquired, 1889

 

 

NGV International
180 St Kilda Road

Opening hours
10am – 5pm. Closed Tuesdays.

National Gallery of Victoria website

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19
Aug
14

Review / Interview: Simon Maidment, co-curator of the exhibition ‘David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me’ at NGV Australia, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 9th May – 31st August 2014

 

Here’s winking at you, sweetie…

My apologies for the slightly out of focus nature of some of the installation photographs, but I had to take them quickly as I walked through the gallery with co-curator Simon Maidment. If you relied on the nine press images supplied by the NGV (bottom of the posting), you would have no idea of the complexity of this artists work nor would you possess an understanding of the scale, intimacy, brashness, beauty and confrontational visibility of the art. You would also have no idea what a stunning installation the NGV has produced to display the work.

Simply put, this is the best exhibition I have seen in Melbourne this year.

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David McDiarmid (1952-95) – activist (the first gay person ever to be arrested in Australia) and multi-dimensional artist – proves the personal IS political AND influential. His work moves from early personal narratives through decorative to visually commanding and confrontational art. As homosexual identity transits from camp to gay to queer, McDiarmid deconstructs and redefines this identity using context as a FOIL for his art making. As Robert Nelson in his excellent review of the exhibition in The Age newspaper observes, “McDiarmid’s expression of the erotic is an act of protest as well as festivity. When McDiarmid began in full fervour, gay sex was not only reviled but illegal; and as he ended his career, homosexuality seemed to pass from the police to the undertaker. He began his expose of gay eroticism in the spirit of a demonstration and ended it as an act of compassion.”1

Well said. Homosexuality was illegal were McDairmid started making art and was deathly when he himself succumbed to the Grim Reaper. But during the journey that he took the key thing to remember is that McDiarmid never “passed” as something he was not. He was always up front, out there, doing his thing since he was first arrested in 1971. He was always pushing the boundaries, offering a wider perspective on social histories and political contexts. He questioned the marginalization of minorities (Secret Love, 1976), the boundaries of self and society and examined taboo and transgression in a conservative society. He lived at the cutting edge of culture. Later, he waged a life and death struggle for HIV/AIDS funding, awareness and compassion with a fierce determination combined with sparkling wit, humour and sardonic aphorisms. Sexual politics and safe sex campaigns went hand in hand.

Of course, sexuality and sexual identity were at the core of his creativity. He explored the urban gay male world and the struggle for gay rights, sexual and emotional sensibilities and the cultural politics of HIV/AIDS. Early work was influenced by time spent in New York (where he knew Keith Haring) and San Francisco, where he experienced the development of the clone scene and the music of the clubs. His mode of construction has a lot in common with folk and women’s art (in particular patchwork and quilting) coupled with the use of contemporary materials (such as holographic foil).

McDiarmid’s later work becomes more symbolic and universal but still contains that cutting edge of the personal (DEMENTED QUEEN REMEMBERS HER NAME – forgets to die; POSITIVE QUEEN FEELS NEGATIVE – goes shopping). In the most amazing room of art I have seen this year, McDiarmid uses reflective cut and tiled holographic foils to create moving tribute and biting comment on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In this darkened room the viewer is surrounded by tiles that “scintillate in spectral transience, changing their colours holographically according to your movement. The image is blunt and horny but also melancholy and scary; and similarly the medium impenetrable, deflecting the gaze and forcing you to change perspective.” (Robert Nelson)

But it’s more than that. You are surrounded by metallic flesh and embedded amongst the iridescence is both love and hate, life and death, winking eyes and holographic rainbow coloured skulls. Body language (1990, below) contains the names of McDairmid’s dead lovers woven into its fabric, a Swastika with the word AIDS for a head and the desire for the anus as a man pulls his arse cheeks apart. But here’s the rub – the tiny, puckered hole contains a holographic image of a winking eye, inviting you in, sharing the death/life joke with you. It’s a classic. In this room it feels as though you are surrounded by the fires of hell as the opalescence of the work changes from footstep to footstep, from positive to negative, from love to hate – and the pure beauty of the work is overwhelming. These are absolutely stunning works of art by any mark of the imagination, up there with the very best art ever made in Australia. His famous Rainbow Aphorisms series 1994 (below) are strong but they are are not a patch on the silver foil works. Less successful are the textile and costume designs, the weakest part of the exhibition.

One question springs to mind. Would his art have been as strong without the impetus of “death art” behind it? What would it have looked like?

I wonder which direction his art would have taken after his initial investigation of gay male identity had he not contracted HIV/AIDS and started making art about the disease. This strong focus gives the work the impetus and grunt it needed to move from the purely decorative and graphic, ney camp in some cases, to work with serious gravitas. In these later works McDiarmid lays it all on the line and just goes for it. I am so glad he did. They are powerful, concise, confrontational, beautiful, shimmering renditions of a soul living life to the full while he still had time.

It’s a pity the NGV has not advertised and promoted this exhibition more extensively. With a stunning catalogue, insightful research, amazing installation and world class art this is one exhibition you shouldn’t miss in Melbourne this winter.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

ART BLART: THE ONLY PLACE TO SEE INSTALLATION PHOTOGRAPHS OF THIS EXHIBITION ON THE WEB.

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Many thankx to Simon for allowing me to take the installation photographs during our discussion and to the NGV for allowing me to publish them, along with the nine press images at the bottom of the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Unidentified photographer. 'David McDiarmid at his first one-man show 'Secret Love', Hogarth Gallery, Sydney, 1976' 1976

 

Unidentified photographer
David McDiarmid at his first one-man show ‘Secret Love’, Hogarth Gallery, Sydney, 1976
1976
Silver gelatin photograph
Dennis Altman Collection, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA)

 

David McDiarmid Installation photograph of early works

David McDiarmid Installation photograph of early works

 

David McDiarmid
Installation photograph of early works including, in the case, Vest (c. 1972), hand-embroidered by McDiarmid with the words ‘sydney gay liberation’ as a gift for John Lee with photographs of McDiarmid and artist Peter Tully used as a wallpaper on the wall behind at the exhibition David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me at NGV Australia, Melbourne

 

David McDiarmid Installation photograph of early works including 'Secret Love art show, poster' (1976, far left), 'Secret Love' (1976, top centre left), 'Ken's Karate Klub' (1976, centre below left) and 'Tube of joy' (1976, above right) - all from the 'Secret Love' series, 1976 except KKK

 

David McDiarmid
Installation photograph of early works including Secret Love art show, poster (1976, far left), Secret Love (1976, top centre left), Ken’s Karate Klub (1976, centre below left) and Tube of joy (1976, above right) – all from the Secret Love series, 1976 except KKK – at the exhibition David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me at NGV Australia, Melbourne

 

David McDiarmid. 'Secret Love' 1976

 

David McDiarmid
Secret Love
1976
From the Secret Love series, 1976
Metallic paint, red fibre-tipped pen, coloured pencil, collage of cut photo-offset lithograph and red and black ink on graph paper
78 x 66 cm
Collection of Paul Menotti and Bryce Kerr, Sydney

 

David McDiarmid. 'Secret Love' 1978

 

 

David McDiarmid
Secret Love
1978
Collage of cut colour photo-offset lithographs on plastic, metal and plastic
135 x 142.8 cm
Collection of Bernard Fitzgerald, Sydney

 

David McDiarmid. 'Secret Love' 1978 (detail)

 

David McDiarmid
Secret Love (detail)
1978
Collage of cut colour photo-offset lithographs on plastic, metal and plastic
135 x 142.8 cm
Collection of Bernard Fitzgerald, Sydney

 

David McDiarmid Various artworks from 1978

 

 

David McDiarmid
Various artworks from 1978 including Strangers in the night (top second left), Mardi Gras (top fourth left), Juicy fruit (top second right) and Real confessions (bottom second left)
All National Gallery of Victoria

 

Bush Couture, Sydney (fashion house) Linda Jackson (designer) David McDiarmid (painter) 'Paua kimono' 1984

 

Bush Couture, Sydney (fashion house) (front)
Linda Jackson (designer)
David McDiarmid (painter)
Paua kimono
1984
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

 

 

Interview with co-curator Simon Maidment

MB: First of all Simon, can I ask how long have you been at the National Gallery of Victoria and what brought you to the institution?

SM: I’ve been at the NGV since June 2013 and I joined because of a new vision for the gallery which is making contemporary art a priority, both in collecting practices in the exhibitions that the NGV holds. Recently, there has been a real push for change, precipitated by the appointment of Max Delany who is a friend and colleague I respect a lot and who has been really supportive of my career.

MB: So what was your background in terms of training?

SM: I studied as an artist and immediately before coming to the NGV I was undertaking my PhD at The University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts Centre for Ideas with Elizabeth Presa as one of my supervisors.

MB: And what new knowledge was your PhD based around?

SM: It investigated curatorial practices that could be thought of as context responsive, looking at artists who seek to enact some sort of social and/or political change.

MB: So this exhibition would be perfect to fit into that…

SM: Yes, indeed… so largely my background has been working with living artists. I have done a few shows in which I have worked with existing bodies of work, but I have done a lot of shows where I have been facilitating artists works. I started as an artist working in media arts – sound, video, projection and digital technologies – and often worked as a studio assistant for more senior artists, people like Sue Ford, Susan Fereday, Ian de Gruchy and my role with them became more and more about facilitation. Then the directorship of Westspace came up and I got that, and my focus turned more from collaboration and working as a studio assistant to facilitation. I became a curator because basically that is what I was doing.

MB: So can you tell me Simon, what was the lead in time for this exhibition? I know it was postponed and delayed at various times, what were the reasons for that?

SM: It was kind of before my time so I am not really sure, but there have been different curators at different times from the NGV involved with the project. So Ted Gott was involved with the exhibition, even before he began work at the NGV. Ted was involved with David’s estate with Sally Gray, my co-curator, right from the start, so he’s been an advisor to Sally right from the start of this long journey. I think the initial discussion about the show was with Ted, and then when Jason Smith was in my position he was involved in this project. When I was talking with Sally the very first discussions about holding the exhibition at the NGV was maybe 15 years ago…

MB: So to finally get it here and up on the walls…

SM: So when I started 11 months ago there was really very little in place. So Max Delany and Sally started a conversation about working towards this show probably about 14 months ago. When Tony Ellwood started he was like, “We’re doing this show.” He’s a big fan of David McDiarmid. He was very familiar with his work so I think that helped speed things along and he really facilitated getting this exhibition done. It was scheduled for 2011.

MB: To get it together from start to finish in 14 months is pretty amazing really…

SM: It was a lot of work but bearing in mind how familiar Sally is with the material we kind of had a real head start.

MB: But then you have to pull it all together from lenders and institutions that hold works and that would have been very intensive. Then to design it all and to make it look like it does. It looks fantastic! Everyone at the opening was just smiling and having a good time, looking at the work, remembering.

SM: I knew the work en masse would blow people away.

MB: Reading the catalogue, you can see that David comes from a period where there was a ground swell of social movements, which was almost like one movement. Everybody went to everyone else’s rallies and they all protested together. David McDiarmid was the very first gay person to get arrested in Australia and at the moment I am digitally restoring the image of him being marched away by two policemen at the ABC protest in Sydney. It is so degraded it will take a long time to restore but it is a really important image. Out of that there comes a real social conscience, fighting for your rights and freedom. So leading on from that, when you think about having this exhibition here now (after Ted Gott’s seminal exhibition Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS at the National Gallery of Australia in 1994), you observe that marginalised voices rarely enter institutional centres of art, rarely enter the mainstream art. It’s usually ARI’s or small public galleries. Not that the artist is gay (because they are just artists) but that the CONTENT addresses gay issues – which is why it’s so fantastic to see this exhibition here at the NGV.

So were there any barriers here to doing David’s show?

SM: No, not really. I think one of the really important things to note is that they show would not have really happened without the large gift from the estate. Becoming the key holder and custodian of David McDiarmid’s work added extra emphasis and responsibility about doing the right thing. At that point the organisation is implicated in that legacy and somehow we have to disseminate the work out into the community.

MB: It is quite a confronting show, how do you think the general public will respond to it?

SM: I have done a couple of tours of people through the exhibition, members and other, and one of the things that has been surprising to me, in a way, which has only become apparent when I have been describing the show in which David makes work in response to particular social and political conditions and contexts… is how different things are. AIDS is now not a terminal illness. To speak to a younger generation than even myself, they have no idea about dying from lack of a viable treatment, of AIDS being a death sentence.

MB: Last night I had a cry for all the people I had loved and lost. But it’s not just the public coming in to see this exhibition, it’s young gay men who don’t ever see anybody ill, don’t understand about the side effects of taking the medication, about what living with HIV is like. They don’t understand the struggle that went on for them to live as they do now. Do you think they will engage with that?

SM: We have structured the show in a way that teases those things out. One of the aspects of McDiarmid as a figure that I find very interesting is that, in 20 short years of practice, he spanned incredible key moments and periods of change in broader society and also within gay society. The legal, medical, institutional change… and really looking at that 20 years is looking at a period of immense social change. The narrative of the exhibition is then to reflect on that broader cultural shift through the biography of one person.

MB: It’s interesting when I looked at the show, when you start making work as an artist it’s always about personal narratives – lovers, friends, places – which then widens out into more universal concerns. You can see in David’s early work him scribbling, writing and really intimately notating his world, investigating his self and his relations to the world around him. And then to take that insight and then to mould it into these reflective images into the Rainbow Aphorisms at the end is an incredible journey. Stephen Alkins was saying to be last night that even the last works were still grounded in this humorous, ironic look at life. He as a really important multimedia artist when you actually study the work.

SM: Just to pick up on one aspect that you are mentioning, and going back into my own background, one of things that Max Delany and I have been talking about that has in some ways illuminated this project is that, in the 1970s and 80s that saying ‘The personal is political’, is very important. David’s work is talking very much about the political as his own biography. Perhaps there is a shift in his later work to a more symbolic realm, and I would argue that nowadays artists working in a political and social context and to affect social change is not so much now as a personal identity – a woman, a black man, a gay man – it’s not necessarily about individual identities anymore, in some ways those battles seem to have been won within Western society. Actually for artists now in this context it’s more about neo-liberalism or capitalism. So it tends to be more on an institutional level and people tackling that in a much more symbolic realm. For instance I am thinking of such people as Jeremy Deller, an English artist who engages with British history and in particular his Battle of Orgreave, a reenactment of the actual Battle of Orgreave which occurred during the UK miners’ strike in 1984.

MB: People like Tom Nicholson in Australia, then, who did the Monument for the flooding of Royal Park (2008-2010), a proposition for the scattering of nardoo sporocarp throughout Royal Park, a vast Park in Melbourne’s inner north which was Burke and Wills departure point, now commemorated by a small cairn.

SM: Exactly. Artists like Tom are working in very propositional ways about memory, social imagination, monuments and memorialisation. All those kind of things are very much within a symbolic realm now. McDiarmid’s work fills the personal and then moves into the symbolic.

MB: But then Stephen Alkins said it was always personal to David, still based in the personal. He was very loyal to his friends, he was a very quiet person, very loving person with great energy. But he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and I think that this comes out of that culture of standing up for yourself and being strong because of the stuff we had to go through to where we are today. Seeing this exhibition actually shows you that difference and what we had to fight for.

SM: There’s a real drive there in that last room. He made so much work, across so much media, at the end of his life – that impending death drive was the source of so much creativity.

MB: McDiarmid was heavily influenced by international artists such as Keith Haring but he never really showed overseas. What do you think about that diaspora, that going overseas and then returning home to then begin exhibiting?

SM: Well the earlier work is, as you say, heavily influenced by the New York scene, the clone scene that was prevalent in the 80s – San Francisco, New York – so he’s definitely channelling those places… Interestingly, unlike many other artists, his art practice is nearly all Australian.

MB: Finally, what do you think is is his legacy in terms of his standing as an artist?

SM: In the last ten years of his life he was heavily involved as a community artist. He was incredibly busy and incredibly involved with things like the organisation of the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras and the design of the posters and floats. He was director of Mardi Gras from 1988-90 and he worked up float designs for various groups. You really get a sense of, as you said, of the solitary work of an artist and a real commitment to that work. In terms of his legacy as an artist, I don’t think that we will know until the exhibition is over. His work, such as the Rainbow Aphorisms, has been distributed widely but not really in an art context, and certainly not in a museum show such as this. People have not had the opportunity to visualise his work as a whole body of work until now.

MB: That brings me to the international context. The Keith Haring Foundation relentlessly promotes his work through books, exhibitions and conferences throughout the world. Do you think that you will start promoting his work overseas to other galleries and getting it into international exhibitions?

SM: I think the book will open a lot of doors. Because his work reproduces so well, because his writing is so interesting there is a broad range of voices for the scholars to investigate. But I think because the work reproduces so beautifully that will be hugely important. One of the aspects that the book will hopefully communicate to a younger audience is that of an infected muscular, sexually active, virile man not an emaciated artist… but to understand that and where that came from, and how radical that was at the time. I think that is one of the legacies that people will take away from David’s work. He is one of the artists that has been really instrumental in redefining that imaginary representation of a dying gay man.

MB: I remember seeing those + and – posters in gay sex venues, and thinking to myself, wow those are so amazing, who did those!

SM: Yes, those posters are about not closing down, about always been open to possibilities.

MB: Thank you so much Simon for taking the time to talk to me, it’s been great.

SM: Always a pleasure.

 

Dr Marcus Bunyan with Simon Maidment for the Art Blart blog June 2014

Simon Maidment is Curator of Contemporary Art at the NGV.

 

David McDiarmid Installation views of various Sydney party posters with a black and white background wallpaper of David and the HIV Living group's 'Day of the dead skeleton for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 1992'

David McDiarmid Installation views of various Sydney party posters with a black and white background wallpaper of David and the HIV Living group's 'Day of the dead skeleton for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 1992'

 

David McDiarmid
Installation views of various Sydney party posters with a black and white background wallpaper of David and the HIV Living group’s Day of the dead skeleton for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 1992 (commissioned by the AIDS Council of NSW) at the exhibition David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me at NGV Australia, Melbourne

 

David McDiarmid. 'Sleaze Ball, Horden Pavilion, 12 October 1985' 1985

 

David McDiarmid
Sleaze Ball, Horden Pavilion, 12 October 1985
1985
Screenprint printed in black and gold ink
91.2 x 65 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of the artist, 1991

 

dm-o-WEB

 

 

David McDiarmid
So I walked into the theatre
1984-85
Synthetic polymer paint, iron-on transfer, and cotton thread on cotton
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne
Gift of the Estate of David McDiarmid, 1998

 

dm-p-WEB

 

David McDiarmid
So I walked into the theatre (detail)
1984-85
Synthetic polymer paint, iron-on transfer, and cotton thread on cotton
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne
Gift of the Estate of David McDiarmid, 1998

 

So I walked into the

theatre and lit a cigarette

I looked around. Then I

saw Tony. He lives in

Brooklyn and has a nice

beard and greasy hair.

He didn’t acknowledge

me, but I expected that.

I’d already made it with

him several times before

and each time, he pretended

was the first. He had

even told me his name

once, and that he lived

with a lover. We always

have great sex, but he doesn’t

want me to do anything

but stand there. He has

an incredible mouth…

 

David McDiarmid. 'Disco kwilt' c. 1980

 

David McDiarmid
Disco kwilt
c. 1980
Artbank collection

 

David McDiarmid Installation view of works, mainly from the series 'Kiss of Light', 1990-92 including at left 'Mighty real' 1991

 

 

David McDiarmid
Installation view of works from the series Kiss of Light, 1990-92 including at left Mighty real 1991 with Kiss of Light 1990 right at the exhibition David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me at NGV Australia, Melbourne
Collage of cut self-adhesive holographic film on enamel paint on plywood

 

David McDiarmid. 'Mighty real' (detail) 1991

 

 

David McDiarmid
Mighty real (detail)
1991
From the Kiss of light series 1990-92
Collage of cut self-adhesive holographic film on enamel paint on plywood
144.5 x 123.6 cm
Collection of Bernard Fitzgerald, Sydney

 

dm-r-WEB

 

Detail of one of David McDiarmid’s holographic film art works showing the winking eyes

 

David McDiarmid. 'Body language' 1990

 

David McDiarmid
Body language
1990
From the Kiss of light series 1990-92
Collage of cut self-adhesive holographic film on enamel paint on plywood
152.4 x 121.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

.
There is a holographic winking eye in the arsehole of this work

 

dm-v-WEB

 

 

David McDiarmid
Thinking of you (detail)
1990
Collage of cut self-adhesive holographic film on enamel paint on plywood
140 x 120 cm
Collection of Steven Alkins, Mullumbimby, New South Wales

 

Installation photograph of the last room showing, at left on the wall, work from the 'Rainbow Aphorisms' series 1994 with in front 'Totem works' 1992-95

 

 

Installation photograph of the last room showing, at left on the wall, work from the Rainbow Aphorisms series 1994 with in front Totem works 1992-95 at the exhibition David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me at NGV Australia, Melbourne

 

David McDiarmid. 'Standard bold condensed' 1994

 

David McDiarmid
Standard bold condensed
1994
Screenprint on mylar on colour laser print
255.7 x 242.3 cm (overall)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of the Estate of David McDiarmid, 1998

 

Peter Tully (1947-1992) David McDiarmid Australia 1952-1995 Lived in United States 1979-1987 Ron Smith born Australia (1950s) 'Totem works' 1992-95

Peter Tully (1947-1992) David McDiarmid Australia 1952-1995 Lived in United States 1979-1987 Ron Smith born Australia (1950s) 'Totem works' 1992-95

 

David McDiarmid
Works from the Rainbow Aphorisms series
1994, printed 2014
Computer generated colour inkjet prints
149.1 x 110 cm (image and sheet each)
Collection of the McDiarmid Estate, Sydney

 

Peter Tully (1947-1992)

David McDiarmid
Australia 1952-1995
Lived in United States 1979-1987

Ron Smith
born Australia (1950s)
Totem works
1992-95
Anodised aluminium, found objects (installation)
Dimensions variable
Collection of Ron Smith, Woonona, New South Wales

 

Installation photograph of the last room showing, at right on the wall, work from the 'Rainbow Aphorisms' series 1994 with in front 'Totem works' 1992-95, then at left on the wall 'Pictograms' 1995

 

Installation photograph of the last room showing, at right on the wall, work from the Rainbow Aphorisms series 1994 with in front Totem works 1992-95, then at left on the wall Pictograms 1995 at the exhibition David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me at NGV Australia, Melbourne

 

 David McDiarmid. 'Pictograms' 1995

 

David McDiarmid
Pictograms
1995
Vinyl and reflective plastic on aluminium

 

 

“I never saw art as being a safe thing. I know that exists but that’s not something that involves me.”

David McDiarmid, 1993

 

The vibrant, provocative and pioneering work of leading Australian artist, designer and gay activist David McDiarmid will be presented in a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. Defying classification, McDiarmid’s work encompasses the complex and interconnected histories of art, craft, fashion, music, sex, gay liberation and identity politics.

David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Mewill bring together more than 200 works, including the artist’s early gay liberation work; New York graffiti and disco quilts; fashion collaborations with Linda Jackson; his pioneering Rainbow aphorisms andGothic aphorisms digital work; material he produced as Sydney Mardi Gras Artistic Director; posters created for the AIDS Council of NSW; and, his significant and highly influential international campaigns developed in the context of AIDS, sexual politics and safe sex in the 1990s.

Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV, said, “The NGV is pleased to be staging this retrospective of an artist whose work had enormous impact on both the gay liberation movement and the international dialogue around AIDS, and whose clear messages of liberation, equality and emancipation continue to resonate today. David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me explores the social history, as well as political and art historical context, that informed McDiarmid’s work, which inspires through its courage, poetry, exuberance and cultural impact.”

Defying classification, the work of David McDiarmid encompasses the complex and interconnected histories of art, craft, fashion, music, sex, gay liberation and identity politics; happily residing in the spaces between high and low art, popular culture and community engagement. At once kaleidoscopic, celebratory and darkly humorous in tone, the artist’s idiosyncratic, highly personal and at times, confessional work highlights the redefinition and deconstruction of identities – “from camp to gay to queer” – drawing on the experiences of a life intensely lived in Melbourne, Sydney and New York. Charting the shifts in politics and individual and community expression that unfold across the decades of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, this exhibition also reveals McDiarmid’s artistic and grassroots political response to the impact of HIV / AIDS during the 1980s and beyond, for which he is best known internationally.

Recognising the cultural climate in which the artist worked, including the burgeoning of the gay rights movement, and a decade later, the advent of the AIDS crisis, the playful and provocative nature of McDiarmid’s work was critically related to changes that were occurring throughout this time to sexual identity and politics in Australia.

Dr Sally Gray, Guest Curator, said, “McDiarmid’s work speaks so eloquently of its time yet its importance and relevance endures today. David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me is the first exhibition in which the full scope of McDiarmid’s creative oeuvre is on display and is the culmination of painstaking research, with the support of many of his collaborators, friends and fans.”

David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me will coincide with the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne in July 2014.

This exhibition includes coarse language and sexual content. Press release from the NGV website

 

William Yang. 'Artist David McDiarmid' May 1995

 

William Yang
Artist David McDiarmid photographed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales adjacent to his giant artwork on the gallery’s facade for Perspecta May, 1995
1995
© Reproduced with permission of William Yang

 

David McDiarmid (Australian 1952-1995, worked in United States 1979-87) 'Judy' 1976

 

David McDiarmid (Australian 1952-1995, worked in United States 1979-87)
Judy
1976
from the Secret love series 1976
Metallic paint, red fibre-tipped pen, cut photo-offset lithograph and red and black ink on graph paper
78.0 x 66.0 cm
Collection of Paul Menotti and Bryce Kerr, Sydney
© Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

 

David McDiarmid (Australian 1952-1995, worked in United States 1979-87) 'Strangers in the night' 1978

 

David McDiarmid (Australian 1952-1995, worked in United States 1979-87)
Strangers in the night
1978
Collage of cut coloured paper and photocopy on mulberry paper
62.6 x 50.7 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Proposed acquisition
© Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

 

David McDiarmid (Australian 1952-1995, worked in United States 1979-87) 'Hand and heart' 1984

 

David McDiarmid (Australian 1952-1995, worked in United States 1979-87)
Hand and heart
1984
Synthetic polymer paint on cotton
250.0 x 230.0 cm
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Gift of the Estate of the late David McDiarmid, 1998
© Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

 

David McDiarmid. 'Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, poster' 1989-90

 

David McDiarmid (Australian 1952-1995, worked in United States 1979-87)
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, poster
1989-90
Colour photo-offset lithograph
69.0 x 49.0 cm
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Gift of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Limited, 1995
© Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

 

David McDiarmid. 'Untitled' 1990-95

 

David McDiarmid (Australian 1952-1995, worked in United States 1979-87)
Untitled
1990-95
Self-adhesive holographic film and self-adhesive colour plastic on plastic
122.7 x 122.7 cm
Collection of Bernard Fitzgerald, Sydney
© Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

 

David McDiarmid. 'Discard after use' 1990

 

David McDiarmid (Australian 1952-1995, worked in United States 1979-87)
Discard after use
1990
from the Kiss of light series 1990-92
Collage of self-adhesive holographic film on enamel paint on plywood
61.2 x 61.2 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift from the Estate of David McDiarmid, 1998
© Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

 

David McDiarmid. 'I want a future that lives up to my past'  From the 'Rainbow aphorisms' series 1994, printed 2014

 

David McDiarmid (Australian 1952-1995, worked in United States 1979-87)
I want a future that lives up to my past
From the Rainbow aphorisms series 1994, printed 2014
computer generated colour inkjet prints
149.1 x 110.0 cm
Collection of the McDiarmid Estate, Sydney
© Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

 

David McDiarmid. 'Q' From the 'Rainbow aphorisms' series 1994, printed 2014

 

David McDiarmid (Australian 1952-1995, worked in United States 1979-87)
Q
From the Rainbow aphorisms series 1994, printed 2014
Computer generated colour inkjet prints
149.1 x 110.0 cm
Collection of the McDiarmid Estate, Sydney
© Reproduced with the permission of the David McDiarmid estate

 

 

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Federation Square
Corner of Russell and 
Flinders Streets, Melbourne

Opening hours:
10am – 5pm
Closed Mondays

National Gallery of Victoria website

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15
Aug
14

Review: ‘Sue Ford’ at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 17th April – 24th August 2014

 

This is hugely disappointing exhibition of the work of Sue Ford at NGV Australia, Melbourne. The artist deserved better.

There is no doubting the importance of Ford’s early black and white photographs. Images of this type had not been seen in Australia before, and looking back now it is hard to appreciate the impact that the Time series (1962-74),  Self-portrait with camera (1960-2006) and images of women had on the photographic scene at the time. These muscular, robust photographs, while not possessing great technical skill, are rightly acknowledged as seminal images in the history of photography in Australia. I cannot praise them highly enough.

However, this exhibition and the important series in it have been ruined by a disastrous hang. The first room is spoiled by an ugly, cheap looking round central installation which is covered by pinned images from the much later series Somewhere in France, 1917 (1995, below) inside of which is projected the video Faces 1976-96 (below). This huge installation simply destroys the sensitivity, size and presence of the small silver gelatin works, overpowering them with repetitive images of a much larger scale.

The second room features a haphazard disposition of Ford’s important portraits of women from her book A Sixtieth of a Second: Portraits of Women 1961-1981, the arrangement of which seems to have no rhyme or reason. It’s all downhill from there. It doesn’t help that Ford’s work looses focus after the initial succinct statements as she begins to work with experimental photographic techniques – photograms, multiple exposures and mirroring of negatives – and, starting in the mid-1980s, branches out into research of Indigenous histories which only results in serviceable photographs at best. What is more disturbing is how later work such as the powerful series Shadow portraits (1994, below) are displayed. I remember seeing this series many years ago at the NGV in St Kilda Road and being bowled over by their size and formal presence; here in a darkened room they are displayed piecemeal and all impact and import is lost. The whole room should have been dedicated to this series, surrounding you with scans of nineteenth-century cartes-de-visite, the empty silhouettes filled with magical photograms of indigenous Australian fauna. That would have been something.

Finally, the exhibition shows 1990s works such as Bima, Brenda and the Madonna (1992-93), Video land (Kakadu river tour) (1994) and Yellowcake (1991) which continue Ford’s interest in social and political issues relating to the Australian landscape. Featuring still images of video shot from a tv screen these fractured, distorted and oversaturated images are printed as colour photocopies and then displayed as fragmented images in a rigid grid system pinned to the wall. These are ugly works. They contain too many elements, the colour, distortion, and bounding box of the tv screen playing badly against the too rigid grid system of the colour photocopies. Ford’s work seems to tail off into something unnatural, a dissolution of identity that really has nothing constructive to say. Perhaps these works do parallel the physical, ecological and spiritual gulf that Ford felt existed between many non-indigenous urban Australians but I don’t really feel that connection in the work and her investigation doesn’t lead to good art. If you want to see the most excellent use of colour, collage, montage, weaving and layering you only have to go up a level at NGV Australia to look at the David McDairmid exhibition to see how it should be done… it’s like night and day, one artist experimenting for abstraction’s sake, and the other really knowing their medium, what they are doing and what narrative/message they want to communicate.

What we cannot take away from Sue Ford is the utmost importance of those feminist images of strong, independent women and the precious, jewel-like, time travelling portrait works. For Ford the process of taking, looking at and using photographs was implicitly connected to a sense of time, time in flux in which the faces of a doubled past (1962-74, 1976-96) are reanimated in the present allowing for a consideration of the effects of ageing and change. Ultimately, these are conceptual works that have great power and integrity.

Unfortunately, the itsy bitsy design of this exhibition doesn’t allow any of the work to shine. It is not up to scratch and not worthy of the artist. Did the NGV run out of time, money and inspiration or where there other factors going on behind the scenes, such as access to the work? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but when you put this exhibition side by side with the 2011 Time Machine: Sue Ford at the Monash Gallery of Art, there is no comparison as to which better conveys the importance of Ford’s work in the history of Australian photography.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

.
Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

For some time I have been thinking about the camera itself. Trying to explore its particular UNIQUENESS, coming to terms with the fact that I had been trying to ignore for some years, that the camera is actually a MACHINE. The machine has an enormous power easily abused. Man seems to misuse his machines continuously, with disastrous results for this century. In Time series I tried to use the camera as objectively as possible. It was a time machine. For me it was an amazing experience. It wasn’t until I placed the photograph of the younger face beside the recent photograph that I could fully appreciate the change. The camera showed me with absolute clarity something I could only just perceive with my naked eye.

.
Sue Ford 1974

 

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Discussions between Bob Hawke and Galarrwuy Yunupingu' 1988, printed 2014

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Discussions between Bob Hawke and Galarrwuy Yunupingu
1988, printed 2014
Gelatin silver photograph
51 x 61 cm
Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Ross', 1964; 'Ross', 1974 1964-74, printed 1974

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Ross, 1964; Ross, 1974
1964-74, printed 1974
From the Time series 1962-74
Gelatin silver photograph
(a-b) 11.1 x 20.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with the assistance of the Visual Arts Board and the KODAK (Australasia) PTY LTD Fund, 1974 (PH171.a-b-1974)
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Annette', 1962; 'Annette', 1974 1962-1974, printed 1974

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Annette, 1962; Annette, 1974
1962-1974, printed 1974
From the Time series 1962-74
Gelatin silver photograph
11.1 x 20.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased with the assistance of the Visual Arts Board and the KODAK (Australasia) Pty Ltd Fund, 1974 (PH170.a-b-1974)
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'No title (Photogram of two hands and garden path)' c. 1970

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
No title (Photogram of two hands and garden path)
c. 1970
Gelatin silver photogram
27.6 x 34.7 cm irreg. (image and sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gerstl Bequest, 2000 (2000.60)
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Vietnam: the six o'clock news' c. 1970

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Vietnam: the six o’clock news
c. 1970
Collage of cut gelatin silver photograph on offset-photo lithograph
19.1 x 24.3 cm (image and sheet)
Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Lyn and Carol' 1961, printed 1988

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Lyn and Carol
1961, printed 1988
Gelatin silver photograph
34.1 x 34.2 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Purchased 1988 (372.1988)
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

 

“The ground-breaking work of Australian photographer and filmmaker Sue Ford will be explored in a major retrospective opening at the National Gallery of Victoria on 17 April. One of the most important practitioners to emerge in the wave of 1970s feminist photographers, Ford is recognised for her inventive and unique approaches to the medium and passionate engagement with feminism and gender issues, contemporary politics and the histories of Australia and its Indigenous people.

The exhibition will bring together more than 150 photographs, digital prints, collages and films spanning the five decades of Ford’s career, as well as important archival materials and, poignantly, several unseen works that the artist was working on at the time of her death in 2009.

Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV, said, “Sue Ford has a long and significant history with the National Gallery of Victoria; she was the first Australian photographer to hold a solo exhibition at the Gallery with her renowned Time Series in 1974, and we have been honoured to present her work many times since. It is appropriate, then, that the NGV presents this retrospective exhibition surveying and celebrating her artistic work and life.”

Ford’s Time Series 1962-74 is regarded as a key moment in Australian photography. In this work, black-and-white double portraits of Ford’s friends and associates were taken around ten years apart and displayed side by side. Some sitters were photographed for a third and even fourth time, producing a remarkable dialogue on the passage of time, identity and personal histories. The entirety of the Time Series will be on display in the exhibition, along with Ford’s long-term project Self-portrait with camera, an extraordinary series of 47 self-portraits taken between 1960 and 2006.

The exhibition will feature Ford’s social documentary and portraiture work; both political and personal, these images reveal intimate depictions of life in inner-city Melbourne along with powerful records of critical political and social milestones including the 1988 Barunga Festival in the Northern Territory. Her prolific output also allows for the exhibition to survey the development of her experimentation with photographic, film, printing and multimedia techniques since the 1960s, such as the photogram, multiple exposures and mirroring of negatives.”

Press release from the NGV website

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Somewhere in France, 1917' 1999

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Somewhere in France, 1917
1999
Digital plan prints on paper
(1-54) 219.6 x 901.8 cm (overall) (installation)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1999 (1999.96.1-54)
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Shadow portraits' 1994

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Shadow portraits
1994
Colour photocopies (a-bbbb)
166.5 x 594.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1995 (1995.614.a-bbbb)
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Jim', 1964; 'Jim', 1969; 'Jim' 1974; 'Jim' 1979 1964-79, printed 2014

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Jim, 1964; Jim, 1969; Jim 1974; Jim 1979
1964-79, printed 2014
From the Time series II 1962-82
Gelatin silver photographs
(a-d) 11.1 x 8.2 cm (each)
Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Fabian', 1966; 'Fabian', 1974; 'Fabian', 1980 1966-80, printed 1982

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Fabian, 1966; Fabian, 1974; Fabian, 1980
1966-80, printed 1982
From the Time series II 1962–82
Gelatin silver photographs
(a) 11.0 x 7.6 cm, (b) 11.8 x 8.4 cm, (c) 11.3 x 8.2 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Purchased with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales Contempo Group 2013 (265.1996)
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Self-portrait 1961' 1961, printed 2011

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Self-portrait 1961
1961, printed 2011
Type C photograph
26.0 x 19.9 cm
Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Self-portrait 1974' 1974, printed 2011

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Self-portrait 1974
1974, printed 2011
Selenium-toned gelatin silver photograph
19.9 x 18.0 cm
Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Self-portrait 1986' 1986

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Self-portrait 1986
1986
Gelatin silver photograph
8.4 x 6.5 cm
Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Dissolution' 2007

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Dissolution
2007
From the Last Light series 2007
Colour lightjet print
112.0 x 142.0 cm
Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne
© Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Bima, Brenda and the Madonna' 1992-93

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Bima, Brenda and the Madonna
1992-93
Colour laser prints
Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009) 'Video land (Kakadu river tour)' (detail) 1992-93

 

Sue Ford (Australia 1943-2009)
Video land (Kakadu river tour) (detail)
1992-93
Colour laser prints
Sue Ford Archive, Melbourne

 

 

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Federation Square
Corner of Russell and 
Flinders Streets, Melbourne

Opening hours:
10am – 5pm
Closed Mondays

National Gallery of Victoria website

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16
Feb
14

Review / Text: ‘Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion’ at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 18th October 2013 – 2nd March 2014

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This is a sublime exhibition, teaming as it does fabulous frocks and beautiful, classical, evanescent photographs. The exhibition was in my top nine magnificent Melbourne exhibitions that featured on Art Blart last year. Elegant, sophisticated and oozing quality, this exhibition has been a sure fire winner for the NGV. This review will concentrate on the photographs by Edward Steichen. See my previous posting on the exhibition including installation photographs.

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model-dinarzade-in-a-dress-by-poiret-edward-steichen

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Edward Steichen (1879-1973)
Model Dinarzade in a Dress by Poiret
1924
Gelatin silver photograph

Image used under fair use for the purpose of art criticism

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steichen-clara-bow-WEB

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Edward Steichen (1879-1973)
Actress Clara Bow for Vanity Fair
1928
Vintage silver gelatin print
Block Museum, Gift of the Hollander Family in Honor of Morton and Mimi Schapiro
Steichen / Condé Nast Archive; © Condé Nast

Image used under fair use for the purpose of art criticism

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High Society

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Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was a painter and champion of art photography who initially worked in the soft focus, Pictorialist style prevalent at the beginning of the 20th century. He was an artist who worked closely with Alfred Stieglitz on the influential quarterly art journal Camera Work, designing the cover and the Art Nouveau-style typeface especially for the internationally focused publication. Stieglitz, and by extension Camera Work, lived to promote photography as an art form and to challenge the norms of how art may be defined.1 In the early years Camera Work only published photography, but in later years the journal increasingly featured reproductions of and articles on modern painting, drawing and aesthetics.

“This change was brought about by a similar transformation at Stieglitz’s New York gallery, which had been known as the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession until 1908. That year he changed the name of the gallery to “291”, and he began showing avant-garde modern artists such as Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse along with photographers. The positive responses he received at the gallery encouraged Stieglitz to broaden the scope of Camera Work as well, although he decided against any name change for the journal.”2

Steichen was heavily associated with Gallery 291 (291 Fifth Avenue, New York City) which ran from 1905 to 1917. The gallery exhibited European artists such as Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Brancussi, Cézanne and Rodin and soon to be famous American artists such as John MarinMax WeberArthur DoveMarsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe. Virtually no other gallery in the United States was showing modern art works with such abstract and dynamic content at this time.3 Both the gallery and the journal ran hand in hand; both closed in 1917. The journal closed due to a downturn in interest in Pictorial photography, a lack of subscribers, cultural changes and the economic effects of the First World War, which saw both the costs and even the availability of the paper on which it was printed become challenging.4 In the penultimate issue 48 (October 1916) Stieglitz,

” …introduced the work of a young photographer, Paul Strand, whose photographic vision was indicative of the aesthetic changes now at the heart of Camera Work’s demise. Strand shunned the soft focus and symbolic content of the Pictorialists and instead strived to create a new vision that found beauty in the clear lines and forms of ordinary objects. By publishing Strand’s work Stieglitz was hastening the end of the aesthetic vision he had championed for so long. Nine months later, in June 1917, what was to be the final issue of Camera Work appeared. It was devoted almost entirely to Strand’s photographs.”5

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Edward Steichen felt the change in the air. When he accepted the job as chief photographer for Condé Nast publications in 1923 his early fashion photographs for Vogue and Vanity Fair were seen as innovative and ground breaking, even as his former art colleagues saw shooting fashion and celebrities was a way of selling-out. Steichen bought to fashion and portrait photography an aesthetic of clear lines and forms that simply had not been present before, coupled with a Pictorialist sensibility for light and the use of low depth of field. John McDonald in his excellent review of the exhibition observes, “Steichen has claims to having invented fashion photography with a series of pictures he took in Paris in 1911, for couturier, Paul Poiret; but the genre had found its first true professional in Baron Adolphe de Meyer, who left Vogue for Harper’s Bazaar, opening the door for Steichen’s appointment. De Meyer was an incurable mannerist who remained true to the Pictorialist aesthetic, but his successor would prove himself an innovator.”6

Steichen’s photographs from 1923-1924 are pared back, Modernist photographs that evidence the beginning of his later photographic style. Madame Nadine Vera wearing a crêpe evening gown by Chanel (1924) has a plain background of some wooden studio panels; Model Dinarzade in a Dress by Poiret (1924, above) has fabric hanging behind while Crêpe de chine dress by Lanvin (1924) has three doors casually put together to form the backdrop to the model. All three photographs show beautiful tonality and lighting in the full length capture of the models with hints of browns and yellows in the prints. The figure is isolated in the studio space simply and elegantly. The model is being studied. Steichen’s models are immersed in suffused light but the form of the photograph is different from that of Pictorialism, for the models themselves are pin sharp, as though stepping out into the world. These early photographs are fascinating to study, for they lay the ground work for what is to follow. These three images inform the viewer as to the experimentation that Steichen was undertaking to get to a starting point for the complex and atmospheric studio lighting that he would later employ.

Gradually, Steichen’s images become more confident and assured and take on a patina of beauty, style and grace. In his close-up portraits there is an isolation of the face against out of focus backgrounds with the use of profiles, arms and elbows as framing devices, for example Actress Sylvia Sidney (1929) and Actress Clara Bow (1928, above). In his longer-length portraits there is an isolation of figures against a white or black ground, as in Marion Morehouse in a dress by Louise Boulanger (1929) and Actresses Norma and Constance Talmadge (1927). Males usually have a heavy darkness to them while the females are more luminously lit. In the male portraits the hands dominate. The hands in the male photographs belong to the male as part of the portrait whereas in the early photographs of women they are only models, there at his command, and the hands are almost invisible. Only in the later photographs of high society women are the hands of females fully represented. What can be observed is that the figure is usually isolated against an out of focus background, with deep, dark shadows and soft luxurious light, low depth of field and feminine profiles.

In commercial terms (and we must remember that this is how the artist made his living for these photographs were seen as his commercial work at the time), Steichen’s photographs fulfilled his brief: the portrayal of shimmer and sparkle, geometric Art Deco style, the drama and theatrical lighting of the talkies, and the spectacle of the liberated modern women. She in turn was influenced by the prevalent cultural conditions: smoking, jazz, prohibition, automobiles, trains, dancing, fast living, gold (King Tuts tomb was discovered in 1922) and African and Japanese art. Appealing to the new leisure classes, publications such as Vogue and Vanity Fair offered a glimpse of a longed for paradise to the burgeoning middle-classes with their photographs of the rich and famous, the glamour and the costumes – the social groups that hold the most power actually exposing their own status on paper through these magazines.

As John McDonald notes, “Steichen uses every trick at his disposal to convey a particular kind of image,”7 an image that uses increasingly elaborate studio lighting and disparate indoor and outdoor locations. But by the early 1930s the work becomes quite formulaic with its use of low depth of field, profiles, angles of arms or chairs and geometric shapes. The figure is tightly controlled – either cropped close in or set amongst ambiguously filled sets and shaped backgrounds. There is a sameness and repetitiveness about the work as one image bleeds into another. In fact, after that early period of experimentation, there is basically no change to his mature style from the years 1925-1937 and this makes for a long twelve years for an artist of his talent. He found his mother load and he stuck to it.

Steichen’s photographs of the rich and famous are “pictures” taken by one who mingled with the elite, one who enjoyed the trappings of fame and high society. As Robert Nelson notes in his review of the exhibition, “Steichen’s talents were never incompatible with the conspicuous snobbery of his age, for which it would never have occurred to him to proffer an apology. Having arrived himself, he naturally admires gentry-by-ambition and crowns it with the smugness that it enjoys.”8 Ouch! Nelson goes on to observe, “Much of the work is statuesque and formidable in its composition, lighting and symbolic rigour,” while at the same time portraying a world that is completely artificial in which nothing is real and everything is a pose.9 And we, the viewer and reader, are voyeurs of this hedonistic world.

On close reading, the photographs flatten out into a studied set of stylistic maneuvers, a form where style stands in for a quality of visual perception.10 As Steichen seeks to “clinch the image” the syntax of his photographs (the system of organisation used in putting lines together to form pictures) becomes imitative. This leads to evanescent photographs, images that soon pass out of sight, memory, or existence; images that slip for the mind as quickly as one sees them. There is little sense of dislocation in the images, only “in his ability to distance himself from a subject, analysing his or her foibles with a cool, practiced eye,”11 and in the distance of the scene from the reality of everyday life. Each photograph becomes a microcosm of vanity, celebrity and fashion. Steichen ticks all the boxes (and he made all the boxes that he ticked) but the photographs usually don’t fulfil any new demands that the situation generates. He restricts his field of view to one that he creates and controls within certain narrowly defined boundaries, usually using passive people who are at his command. In his orientation to the world the photographs are not ‘things as they are’ but things as they are constructed to be (seen) – a form of social capital, social fascism, even.12

Only when Steichen is challenged by an active “personality” does he raise his game. This is when the modernist, emotive, visually rhapsodic AND MEMORABLE photographs take hold in this exhibition. The great breakthrough with Greta Garbo (1929, below), mass of black with face surmounting, hair pulled back by hands “the woman came out full beauty on her magnificent face” Steichen said; Actress Gloria Swanson (1924, below) like some prowling, wide-eyed animal hidden behind a black lace veil, “a predatory femme fatale concealing her ambitions behind a mask of beauty”13; Marlene Dietrich (1934, below) nestled into the glorious curve of an armchair, lace-covered hand open, inviting; and Actress Loretta Young (1931) active, not passive, in which Steichen humanises his sitter. For me, these are the glorious images – not the men, not the fashion photographs, but these strong, independent women.

“An interested image-maker takes available resources for meaning (visual grammars, fabrication techniques and focal points of attention), undertakes an act of designing (the process of image-making), and in so doing re-images the world in a way that it has never quite been seen before.”14 Initially, in the early experimentation, this is what Steichen did; he achieves it again in the photographs of Garbo, Swanson, Dietrich and Young. As for the other photographs we feel an overall suffused glow of beauty and glamour – we admire their scale and intensity, the deep blacks and velvety whites, and wonder at the light and assemblage of elements – but they do not have the power and engagement of the best, most challenging work. In these photographs of vibrant women the viewer finally starts to feel the spirit of the face, the spirit of the person captured in an instant. And that is a rare and beautiful thing.

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Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

Word count: 1,883

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Endnotes

1. Whelan, Richard. Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography. NY: Little, Brown, 1995, pp. 189-223
2. Anon. “Camera Work,” on Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 15/02/2014
3. Anon. “291,” on Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 15/02/2014
4. “Camera Work,” op. cit.,
5. Hoffman, Katherine. Stieglitz : A Beginning Light. New Haven: Yale University Press Studio, 2004,  pp. 213–222 cited in “Camera Work,” op. cit.,
6. McDonald, John. “Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion” on John McDonald website February 1, 2014 [Online] Cited 15/02/2014
7. Ibid.,
8. Nelson, Robert. “An age of elegance captured forever,” in The Age newspaper Wednesday November 6th, 2013, p. 54
9. Ibid.,
10. Rewording of a sentence by Sleigh, Tom. “Too Much of the Air: Tomas Tranströmer,” 2005, on the Poets.org website [Online] Cited 15/02/2014
11. McDonald, op. cit.,
12. “In sociology, social capital is the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups. Although different social sciences emphasise different aspects of social capital, they tend to share the core idea “that social networks have value”.”
Anon. “Social capital,” on Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 15/02/2014
“Social fascism was a theory supported by the Communist International (Comintern) during the early 1930s, which held that social democracy was a variant of fascism because, in addition to a shared corporatist economic model, it stood in the way of a complete and final transition to communism.”
Anon. “Social fascism,” on Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 15/02/2014
13. McDonald, op. cit.,
14. Anon. “The Image of Transformation: Properties of Consequence,” on The Image website [Online] Cited 15/02/2014

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Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23  Actress 'Gloria Swanson' 1924

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Actress Gloria Swanson
1924
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Steichen’s portrait of Gloria Swanson has taken on iconic masterpiece status overtime. Created in 1924, just as the first feature-length sound movies were emerging – effectively truncating the actress’s brilliant silent-film career – this image caught the essential Gloria Swanson: haunting and inscrutable, forever veiled in the whisper of a distant era. Steichen’s photograph has elements of turn-of-the-century pictorialism (moody and delicate, the subject seeming to peer from the darkness, as if from jungle foliage), yet it also projects modernist boldness, with its pin-sharp precision and graphic severity. (Text from Iconic Photos website)

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'Dancers Leonore Hughes and Maurice Mouvet' 1924

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Dancers Leonore Hughes and Maurice Mouvet
1924
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Maurice Mouvet was one of the most famous and successful dance teams around the early 1910’s and lead the way for many performers that would follow… Maurice was born in New York but as a young lad moved to Paris with his father and knew he wanted to be a dancer as a young boy. He had his first professional dance at the Noveau Cirque in Paris, France at age 15. Mouvet’s best partners were Florence Walton and Leonora (Leona) Hughes.

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'Actress Paula Negri' 1925

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Actress Paula Negri
1925
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Pola Negri (née Apolonia Chałupiec, January 3, 1897 – 1 August 1987) was a Polish stage and film actress who achieved worldwide fame during the silent and golden eras of Hollywood and European film for her tragedienne and femme fatale roles. She was the first European film star to be invited to Hollywood, and become one of the most popular actresses in American silent film. She also started several important women’s fashion trends that are still staples of the women’s fashion industry. Her varied career included work as an actress in theater and vaudeville; as a singer and recording artist; as an author; and as a ballerina. (Text from the Wikipedia website)

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'Tamaris with a large Art Deco scarf' 1925

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Tamaris with a large Art Deco scarf
1925
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'Model wearing a black tulle headdress by Suzanne Talbot and a brocade coat with black fox collar' 1925

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Model wearing a black tulle headdress by Suzanne Talbot and a brocade coat with black fox collar
1925
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'Actor Gary Cooper' 1930

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Actor Gary Cooper
1930
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'Marion Morehouse and unidentified model wearing dresses by Vionnet' 1930

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Marion Morehouse and unidentified model wearing dresses by Vionnet
1930
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Marion Morehouse (1906-1969), was a fashion model who rose to prominance in the late 20s and early 30s, sitting for Vanity Fair and Vogue photographer Edward Steichen. The pair created some strikingly modernist photographs. According to Steichen Morehouse was:

“The greatest fashion model I ever photographed …. When she put on the clothes that were to be photographed, she transformed herself into a woman who really would wear that gown … whatever the outfit was.”

She was also a favorite of Cecil Beaton and French Vogue’s Baron George Hoyningen-Huene. Morehouse was of Choctaw Indian ancestry, with brown eyes and an angular frame. After her modeling career ended, she took up photography herself. Later she became the third wife of author and painter E.E Cummings. When Cummings met Marion Morehouse in 1932, he was in the middle of a painful split from his second wife, Anne Barton. Although it is not clear whether the two were ever formally married, Morehouse lived with Cummings in a common-law marriage until his death in 1962. Morehouse died on May 18, 1969. (Text from the Photographs, film, literature & quotes from the bygone era website)

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'Olympic diver Katherine Rawls' 1931

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Olympic diver Katherine Rawls
1931
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Katherine Louise Rawls (June 14, 1917 – April 8, 1982) was a multiple United States national champion in swimming and diving in the 1930s.

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 Model 'Dorothy Smart wearing a black velvet hat by Madame Agnès' 1926

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Model Dorothy Smart wearing a black velvet hat by Madame Agnès
1926
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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France’s most popular milliner Madame Agnes was born in France in the late 1800’s, she retired in 1949, and died a short while later. She was famous for cutting the brims of her hats while they were worn by her customers. Madame Agnes styled hats which were both abstract and unique. An illustration from 1927 depicts Madame Agnes’ Congo inspired hats with a model wearing a slave collar. As the 20’s moved into the 30’s, the hats became smaller and away from the face. In December 1935 she introduced hats with large straw brims which were mounted on flowered madras handkerchiefs. Madame Agnes was inspired by a matador’s hat when she created a small dinner hat for Spring 1936. It was sewn of black maline with heavy white silk fringe. The fringe was mounted on each side of the hat’s top. In mid-1946 she created a soft beige beret of felt which featured a line that was broken just above the right eyebrow, where a soft quill was inserted. (Text from the Photographs, film, literature & quotes from the bygone era website)

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'On George Baher's yacht' 1928

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
On George Baher’s yacht. June Cox wearing unidentified fashion; E. Vogt wearing fashion by Chanel and a hat by Reboux; Lee Miller wearing a dress by Mae and Hattie Green and a scarf by Chanel; Hanna-Lee Sherman wearing unidentified fashion
1928
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Elizabeth “Lee” Miller, Lady Penrose (April 23, 1907 – July 21, 1977) was an American photographer. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, she was a successful fashion model in New York City in the 1920s before going to Paris, where she became an established fashion and fine art photographer. During the Second World War, she became an acclaimed war correspondent for Vogue, covering events such as the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau.

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'Marlene Dietrich' 1934

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Marlene Dietrich
1934
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'Greta Garbo' 1929

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Greta Garbo
1929
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 Actress 'Joan Crawford in a dress by Schiaparelli' 1932

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Actress Joan Crawford in a dress by Schiaparelli
1932
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) was an Italian fashion designer. Along with Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, she is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the two World Wars. Starting with knitwear, Schiaparelli’s designs were heavily influenced by Surrealists like her collaborators Salvador Dalí and Alberto Giacometti. Her clients included the heiress Daisy Fellowes and actress Mae West.

Perhaps Schiaparelli’s most important legacy was in bringing to fashion the playfulness and sense of “anything goes” of the Dada and Surrealist movements. She loved to play with juxtapositions of colours, shapes and textures, and embraced the new technologies and materials of the time. With Charles Colcombet she experimented with acrylic, cellophane, a rayon jersey called “Jersela” and a rayon with metal threads called “Fildifer” – the first time synthetic materials were used in couture. Some of these innovations were not pursued further, like her 1934 “glass” cape made from Rhodophane, a transparent plastic related to cellophane. But there were more lasting innovations; Schiaparelli created wraparound dresses decades before Diane von Furstenberg and crumpled up rayon 50 years before Issey Miyake’s pleats and crinkles. In 1930 alone she created the first evening-dress with a jacket, and the first clothes with visible zippers. In fact fastenings were something of a speciality, from a jacket buttoned with silver tambourines to one with silk-covered carrots and cauliflowers. Schiaparelli did not adapt to the changes in fashion following World War II and her business closed in 1954. (Text from the Wikipedia website)

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'White (center Gwili André)' 1935

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
White (center Gwili André)
1935
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Gwili Andre (4 February 1908 – 5 February 1959) was a Danish actress who had a brief career in Hollywood films. Andre came to Hollywood in the early 1930s with the intention of establishing herself as a film star. She appeared in the 1932 RKO Studio films Roar of the Dragon and Secrets of the French Police and began to attract attention for her striking good looks. These films provided her with starring roles playing against such established actors as Richard Dix, ZaSu Pitts and Frank Morgan, and RKO began using her glamorous looks to promote her.

A widespread publicity campaign ensured that her name and face became well known to the American public, but her next role in No Other Woman (1933), opposite Irene Dunne, was not the success the studio expected. Over the next few years she was relegated to supporting roles which included the Joan Crawford picture A Woman’s Face (1941). Her final role was a minor part in one of the popular Falcon series, The Falcon’s Brother in 1942. (Text from the Wikipedia website)

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'Actress Mary Heberden' 1935

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Actress Mary Heberden
1935
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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American actress Mary Heberden made her first New York stage appearance in 1925 and performed regulary on Broadway in the 1930s.

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23 'Charlie Chaplin' 1934

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Edward Steichen American 1879-1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906-23
Charlie Chaplin
1934
Gelatin silver photograph
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1924 Condé Nast Publications

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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