Posts Tagged ‘Australian painting

09
Mar
18

Review: ‘Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco’ at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 17th November 2017 – 12th March 2018

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'I’m going through changes' 2016

 

Del Kathryn Barton
I’m going through changes
2016
Synthetic polymer paint and fibre-tipped pen on canvas
200.0 x 180.0 cm
Collection of the artist
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

 

Hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo

Meaningless talk or activity / a form of words used by a person performing conjuring tricks.
Language or ritual causing or intended to cause confusion or bewilderment.

 

I have never been convinced by the work Del Kathryn Barton and this medium-sized exhibition at NGV Australia does absolutely nothing to change my mind.

Replete with the artist’s usual cacophony of tits, vulva and penises, the works mine various forms: sculpture, drawing, painting, film and collage; have multiple influences: Louise Bourgeois, Max Ernst, Barbara Kruger to name a few; and investigate numerous concepts such as the fluidity of gender, the link between human and animal forms, women’s genitalia and the blooming of flowers, the ornate decoration of species, “the strength of women, the visceral power of female sexuality and … Barton’s multiple interests in feminism, nature and the maternal figure.” Too much she cried!

Barton has a certain facility in the drawing of line, but this is too often overwhelmed by her inability to let negative space speak for itself. Every work is filled to the brim with vacuous detail, then overlaid with multicoloured polka dots in both collages and paintings (see the detail of her work in the face of cosmic odds, 2016 below), as though this device will tie all the works together. Her signature paintings of women have surface presence, are “just so meticulously attractive”, but absolutely lack what Barton is seeking – “so inexplicably intimate, so beyond, so seemingly effortless that there can be no defence. In these moments there is an opening-up within the body, the mind, within all the senses …” I felt nothing of that when looking at these works – no connection to an inner self or ‘the vast ocean of the collective-consciousness’.

Barton’s inability to engage the viewer in an intimate dialogue of body and mind can be seen in both text and graphic.

“today my body is feeling love
you fell into my flesh…… and we are fresh…… again
the unflesh are so clean somehow….. and their stirrings inform our smallness….. so that we are still small”

You fell into my flesh and we are fresh again. Please.

Then you look at the line work in volcanic woman (2016, below) as “these women erupt upward, as molten liquid bodies of agency. They display their genitals as though it is from their vaginas that the Earth’s energy spills forth,” and note the caricaturesque drawings lack any sense of intimacy or sensuality despite the subject matter. I think about Barton’s hero Louise Bourgeois and her work “10 AM IS WHEN YOU COME TO ME” (2006, below). Both works are displayed in a grid and produced in the same colour but the difference could not be more stark: Bourgeois’ use of negative space, the quiet sensitivity, eroticism and the superb intimacy of the work is the antithesis of Barton’s sexual megalomania. So often in art, less is more but Barton never seems to understand the adage.

To use Christopher Allen’s turn of phrase about the NGV Triennial, Barton’s works are “frenetically busy, but inherently insipid,” despite the overabundance / reliance on the display of sexual organs and excretions. While the artist desperately wants the viewer to be drawn into an intimate embrace with the supposed psychological and spiritual meanings of the work, the lack of emotional, sensual or erotic sensation negates any feeling towards it. Barton’s meaninglessness talk using confusing iconographies lays a surface trap for the viewer, taken in by decoration and sexual abundance. But if you look beyond the psychedelic aesthetic and decorative surfaces it’s just a conjuring trick, ritual representation as pseudo-spiritual experience.

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.

 

The NGV presents a major solo exhibition of one of Australia’s most popular artists, Del Kathryn Barton. Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco reveals the artist’s imaginative and deeply sensuous world, where ornately decorated species – both human and animal – are rendered in seductive line and colour. Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco is a survey of new and recent work by the two times Archibald Portrait Prize winner that reveals the breadth of Barton’s practice. Featuring comprehensive displays of recent paintings and drawings for which she is arguably best known, the exhibition also includes collage, sculpture, textiles and film, all drawn together by the artist’s exuberant and psychedelic aesthetic.

 

 

“The creatures are so gorgeous. They’re just so meticulously attractive, I’m never repulsed. Without the darkness Barton seems to think is there, what is left? Passive psychedelia? I believe Barton feels intensely, but a second-hand trip, like a dream told to a friend, is never as emotional as the teller thinks it is.”

.
Victoria Perrin1

 

“I had a weak-at-the-knees, tingle-all-over moment when I saw Louise Bourgeois’ work for the first time about fifteen years ago in Los Angeles. Yes I am a CRAZY fan. And, yes, it’s true I lay under her big spider in Tokyo and cried…

These are the releases I hope for in our vast world of art. Encounters when the artwork is somehow so inexplicably intimate, so beyond, so seemingly effortless that there can be no defence. In these moments there is an opening-up within the body, the mind, within all the senses … an experience of recognition, relief and awe that informs one’s deeper creative makeup.”

.
Del Kathryn Barton

 

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation views of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring the inside another land series (2017, detail)
Photos: © Tom Ross

 

 

In this series of seventy-five montages that combine digital collage with hand painted details, Barton creates post-human visions in which women’s bodies are both human and plant. The Dadaists used collage to access the Freudian domain of the unconscious mind, and the great Dada artist Hannah Höch was a key proponent of photomontage in her exploration of the role of women in a changing world. Like the Surrealists, Barton uses collage as a method to critique the illusion of a defined and orderly world, in favour of absurdity. The visual delirium of these works induces a kind of hallucinatory experience in which new creatures seem possible.

It is widely understood that flowers symbolise female sexuality: their physical resemblance to women’s genitalia is coupled with an associative significance in their blooming, which invokes the creation of new life in birth. The history of floral representation strongly binds femininity and flowers, from the Greek nymph Chloris and her Roman counterpart Flora, who oversaw spring and flowers, to Sigmund Freud who was very clear on the matter: ‘Blossoms and flowers represent the female genitals, or more particularly, virginity. Do not forget that the blossoms are really the genitals of the plants’. (Wall text)

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'inside another land' 2017 (detail)

Del Kathryn Barton. 'inside another land' 2017 (detail)

Del Kathryn Barton. 'inside another land' 2017 (detail)

Del Kathryn Barton. 'inside another land' 2017 (detail)

Del Kathryn Barton. 'inside another land' 2017 (detail)

Del Kathryn Barton. 'inside another land' 2017 (detail)

 

Del Kathryn Barton
inside another land (details)
2017
Collection of the artist
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'you’re not a bit ashamed' 2017

 

Del Kathryn Barton
you’re not a bit ashamed
2017
Synthetic polymer paint and ink on paper
152.0 x 194.0 cm (image and sheet)
Collection of the artist
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'to speak of anger, I will take care' 2017

 

Del Kathryn Barton
to speak of anger, I will take care
2017
Synthetic polymer paint and ink on paper
152.0 x 194.0 cm (image and sheet)
Collection of the artist
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation views of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring the work briefly turned into dreams (2016)
Photos: © Tom Ross

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'briefly turned into dreams' 2016 (detail)

 

Del Kathryn Barton
briefly turned into dreams (detail)
2016
Collection of the artist
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Del Kathryn Barton
come home to me
2014-2017
Gouache and ink on hot pressed paper
Collection of the artist. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and A3

 

 

The flexibility of language is revealed in come home to me. Barton loves language but at the same time questions its ability to communicate. The floating words are a strategy for awakening us to the various, infinite and slippery meaning of words. Like poetry, Barton’s fiercely non-didactic texts are open to diverse understandings. There is no wrong or right interpretation of these texts. Without dictating the associations these words create in each of our minds, Barton evokes sensual delights and pleasures of the flesh. (Wall text)

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation view of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring a detail from the work come home to me (2014-2017)
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and National Gallery of Victoria

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'mud monster' 2014 (detail)

Del Kathryn Barton. 'mud monster' 2014 (detail)

 

Del Kathryn Barton
mud monster (details)
2014
Collection of the artist
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation views of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring the I am flesh again series (2008)
Photos: © Tom Ross

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation view of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring a detail from the I am flesh again series (2008)
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and National Gallery of Victoria

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'I am flesh again' 2008 (detail)

 

Del Kathryn Barton
I am flesh again (detail)
2008
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation views of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring the photogravure work the stars eat your body (2009) and the bronze up in this (2012) top; and the bronze i can grow you more, drunk on its own nectar (2017) bottom

 

 

Two-time Archibald prize-winner Del Kathryn Barton is being celebrated in the largest ever exhibition of her work to date at NGV Australia. Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco features 150 new and recent works by Barton, including her famed kaleidoscopic portraits, a never-before-seen large-scale sculpture in homage to her mother and Barton’s short film RED, starring Australian actress and Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett.

‘With a practice spanning art, fashion and film, Barton’s psychedelic images reveal her personal responses to the human experience. She is one of Australia’s most popular artists, renowned for her highly intricate and distinctive hybrid forms, that break down boundaries between humans and nature’, said Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV.

This show is deeply personal for Barton with the debut of her new sculpture, at the foot of your love, which has been created in response to her mother’s terminal illness. Completed in 2017 and comprised of printed silk and Huon pine, the sculpture is reflective of Barton’s reoccurring themes of motherhood and nature. Featuring a wooden conch shell and an enormous silk ‘handkerchief’, the work is symbolic of Barton’s grief for her own mother.

Comprised of five panels and over 10 metres in length, sing blood-wings sing is Barton’s newest and largest painting to date. The painting features a female-focused reimagining of the 1963 Peter, Paul and Mary coming-of-age song, Puff the Magic Dragon. Barton often listens to the folk tune whilst working in her studio as a symbolic reminder to maintain her childlike curiosity through her artistic practice. Barton’s interpretation of the song and its meaning is depicted by four breasted, rainbow coloured dragons. In her signature style, she blurs human, mythological and animal representations in art, encouraging her audience to see how imagination and desire can test traditional forms.

The exhibition also features Barton’s acclaimed film RED, where Cate Blanchett plays a mother re-enacting the redback spider’s deadly mating ritual, alongside actor Alex Russell, Sydney Dance Company’s Charmene Yap and Barton’s own daughter Arella. In RED Barton conveys the strength of women, the visceral power of female sexuality and encapsulates Barton’s multiple interests in feminism, nature and the maternal figure.

Born in Sydney in 1972, Barton graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney, in 1993. She won her first Archibald prize in 2008 for her self-portrait with her two children and then again in 2013 for her portrait of Australian actor Hugo Weaving.

Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco is one of five solo exhibitions by leading Australian artists for NGV Australia’s 2017-18 summer program. The exhibition is on display at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square, Melbourne from 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018.

Press release from the NGV

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

sing blood-wings sing (2017)

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation views of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018.
Photos: © Tom Ross

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'the highway is a disco' 2015

 

Del Kathryn Barton
the highway is a disco
2015
Synthetic polymer paint and fibre-tipped pen on canvas
Private collection, Austria
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'I want to love you' 2016

 

Del Kathryn Barton
I want to love you
2016
Collection of the artist
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation views of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring the work at the foot of your love (2017)
Photos: © Tom Ross

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation view of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring the work at the foot of your love (2017)
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and National Gallery of Victoria

 

 

at the foot of your love  (2017) was made by Barton as she prepared for her mother’s death. The fabric represents a handkerchief for the tears of all children who mourn their mother’s departure. The wooden conch shell is envisaged by the artist as a boat on which to sail into the darkness of eternity and ‘the vast ocean of the collective-consciousness’. It celebrates home and place, since the Huon Pine tree, from which the work is made, is a precious and endangered timber of Australia, subject to decay. (Wall text)

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'of pink planets' 2014

 

Del Kathryn Barton
of pink planets
2014
Collection of Boris Tosic, Sydney
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

 

In this work a creature with the head of a wallaby and the tail of a snake looks as though it might suckle from one of the woman’s five breasts. The breast is a dual organ, both of pleasure and sustenance, and multiple breasts suggest abundant life energy. Symbolically, the multi-breasted woman recalls the mythological icon Artemis of Ephesus, goddess of the wilderness, the hunt, wild animals and fertility. In some interpretations of the iconography, the nodes on Artemis’s chest are said to be the testes of bulls sacrificed to her. This fluidity of gender, human and animal forms is a strong current in Barton’s art. (Wall text)

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'openly song' 2014

 

Del Kathryn Barton
openly song
2014
Private collection, Melbourne
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'or fall again' 2014

 

Del Kathryn Barton
or fall again
2014
Collection of Leonard Warson, Melbourne
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

 

The tangled and lush floral decoration of Barton’s paintings recreates the millefleur (1000 flowers) technique of late Middle Ages to early Renaissance tapestries, distinguished by a lack of uniform pattern. The medieval period is sometimes perceived as a time of pagan superstition when the mysteries of nature and humanity were still full of wonder and darkness, and the unknown and unexplained were revered. Barton’s works evoke this period and direct viewers to a mysteriously interconnected world where spirit, psyche, natural cycles and the body are interconnected in intimate, unknowable relationships. (Wall text)

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation view of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring a detail from the work or fall again (2014)
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and National Gallery of Victoria

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation view of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring a detail from the work in the face of cosmic odds (2016)
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and National Gallery of Victoria

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'See ya mumma' 2016

 

Del Kathryn Barton
See ya mumma
2016
Synthetic polymer paint and fibre-tipped pen on canvas
140.0 x 160.0 cm
Collection of Brooke Horne, Sydney
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'is the energy' 2014

 

Del Kathryn Barton
is the energy
2014
Private collection, Melbourne
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'girl as sorcerery figure' 2005

 

Del Kathryn Barton
girl as sorcerery figure
2005
Collection of Jane Badler, Melbourne
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Del Kathryn Barton
girl #8 (installation view)
2004
Fibre-tipped pen, gouache, watercolour and synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Art Gallery of New South Wales
© Del Kathryn Barton
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and National Gallery of Victoria

 

Louise Bourgeois. '10 AM IS WHEN YOU COME TO ME' 2006  Louise Bourgeois. '10 AM IS WHEN YOU COME TO ME' 2006 Louise Bourgeois. '10 AM IS WHEN YOU COME TO ME' 2006

 

Louise Bourgeois
“10 AM IS WHEN YOU COME TO ME” (details)
2006
Etching, ink, watercolour, pencil and gouache on paper

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation view of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring the volcanic women series 2016-
Photo: © Tom Ross

 

 

‘I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst.’

HÉLÈNE CIXOUS, THE LAUGH OF THE MEDUSA (1975)

 

In this new series of works, entitled volcanic women, Barton coaxes and melts women into and out of the Earth’s larval core. Bodies flow from the ground, emerging as hot red lines of ink. These women erupt upward, as molten liquid bodies of agency. They display their genitals as though it is from their vaginas that the Earth’s energy spills forth. Barton here celebrates the abundance and generative necessity of women’s desire and sexual vigour. The suppression of women’s sexuality by a culture of fear is melted away in these volcanic works. (Wall text)

 

Del Kathryn Barton. 'volcanic woman' 2016

 

Del Kathryn Barton
volcanic woman
2016
From the volcanic women series 2016-
Collection of the artist
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

Installation view of 'Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco' at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation view of Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018 featuring a detail from the volcanic woman series (2016)
Photo: © Dr Marcus Bunyan and National Gallery of Victoria

 

 

 

“The film is split into sections titled MOTHER, FATHER, LIFE, DEATH and DAUGHTER. When it comes time for the father to feature, he is accompanied by a shot of a car revving. When the spider arrives (in a wonderful dance performed by Charmene Yap), she moves in an incredibly enthralling manner, but she’s writhing on a muscle car. The performance of gender isn’t twisted, it moves straight past the iconic and into the parodic. But it’s not supposed to be a parody of the deadly spider that eats its mate, it’s dead serious. Barton has no intimation of the taboo and genuinely titillating danger that Bourgeois could reproduce in spades. Then it hits me, everything in Barton’s world is conventionally beautiful, yet we’re supposed to find it shocking. I don’t see women reflected in her vision of “hyper-women”, I see great beauties, I see movie stars and high-fashion models.”

Victoria Perrin1

 

Del Kathryn Barton. Still from 'RED' 2016

Del Kathryn Barton. Still from 'RED' 2016

Del Kathryn Barton. Still from 'RED' 2016

Del Kathryn Barton. Still from 'RED' 2016

 

Del Kathryn Barton
Stills from RED
2016
Collection of the artist
© Del Kathryn Barton

 

 

‘Mother of otherness Eat me’

SYLVIA PLATH, POEMS FOR A BIRTHDAY (1960)

 

Sylvia Plath’s words open Barton’s first short film, RED. The human maternal figure at the heart of this work (played by Cate Blanchett) is interchangeable with a red-back spider. Alongside Blanchett, Barton’s daughter, Arella Plater, and actor Alex Russell portray the nuclear family, and Sydney Dance Company’s Charmene Yap is the arching, writhing spider. The film explores women’s desire and maternal experience. In the realm of recent art history, the mother-spider recalls American sculptor Louise Bourgeois’s massive, looming arachnids. Bourgeois is one of Barton’s greatest influences and represented spiders in a renowned series begun in 1994 and continued until the end of her life in 2010. Like Plath and Bourgeois before her, in this work Barton has rendered the overwhelming complexities and contradictions of motherhood. (Wall text)

 

 

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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08
Oct
17

Review: ‘Brave New World: Australia 1930s’ at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 14th July – 15th October 2017

 

Harold Cazneaux (New Zealand 1878 - Australia 1953, Australia from 1886) 'No title (Powerlines and chute)' c. 1935

 

Harold Cazneaux (New Zealand 1878 – Australia 1953, Australia from 1886)
No title (Powerlines and chute)
c. 1935
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of the H. J. Heinz II Charitable and Family Trust, Governor, 1993

 

 

In 1934 BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited) commissioned leading pictorialist photographer Harold Cazneaux to record their mining and steel operations for a special publication to mark their fiftieth anniversary in 1935. Cazneaux’s dramatic industrial images blended a soft, atmospheric focus with a modernist sense of space, form and geometry. In 1935-36 Australia exported close to 300,000 tonnes of iron ore to Japan; however, after Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 fear of its expansionist aims in the Pacific increased and soon afterwards the federal government announced a ban on the export of all iron ore to Japan.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

 

Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGV Australia, Melbourne is a small but stylishly designed exhibition that presents well in the gallery spaces. The look and feel of the exhibition is superb, and it was a joy to see so many works in so many disparate medium brought together to represent a decade in the history of Australia: photography, sculpture, painting, drawing, ceramic art, magazine art, travel posters, Art Deco radios, film, couture, culture, Aboriginal art, and furniture making, to name but a few.

The strong exhibition addresses most of the concerns of the 1930s – The Great Depression, beach and body culture, style, fashion, identity, culture, prelude to WW2, dystopian and utopian cities etc., – but it all felt a little cramped and truncated. Such a challenging time period needed a more expansive investigation. What there is was excellent but one display case on slums or magazine art was not substantive enough. The same can be said for most of the exhibition.

There needed to a lot more about the impact of the Great Depression and people living in poverty, for you get the feeling from this exhibition that everyone was living the Modernist high-life, wearing fashionable frocks and smoking cigarettes sitting around beautifully designed furniture surrounded by geometric textiles. The reality is that this paradigm was the exception rather than the rule. Many people struggled to even feed themselves due to The Great Depression, and it was a time of extreme hardship for people in Australia. Life for many, many people in Australia during the 1930s was a life of disenfranchisement, assimilation, oppression, social struggle, poverty, hunger and a hand to mouth existence.

“After the crash unemployment in Australia more than doubled to twenty-one per cent in mid-1930, and reached its peak in mid-1932 when almost thirty-two per cent of Australians were out of work… The Great Depression’s impact on Australian society was devastating. Without work and a steady income many people lost their homes and were forced to live in makeshift dwellings with poor heating and sanitation.” (“The Great Depression,” on the Australian Government website)

New artists and designers may have been emerging, new skyscrapers being built and the new ‘Modern Woman’ may have made her appearance but the changes only affected white, middle and upper social classes. Migrants, particularly those from Italy and southern Europe, were resented because they worked for less wages than others; and only brief mention is made of the White Australia policy in the exhibition but not by name (see text under Indigenous art and culture below). This section was more interested in how white artists appropriated Aboriginal design during this period for their own ends.

With this in mind, it is instructive to read sections of the illustrated handbook (not in the exhibition) produced by the National Museum of Victoria (in part, the forerunner of the NGV) to accompany a special exhibition of objects illustrating Australian Aboriginal Art in 1929:
.

“The subject of aboriginal Art – in this case the Art of the Australian Aboriginal – has to be approached with the utmost caution, for, though it comes directly within the domain of anthropology, it is in an indirect way a very important question in psychology and pedagogies. We possess some knowledge of our own mentality through the kind of offices of psychology; but though we have some – many in certain classes – material relics of our primitive and prehistoric ancestor, the only evidence of evolution of thought and the development of his powers of abstract conception must be derived from his art…

Still it appears possible that the study of primitive man, as represented by our Australian black, will throw some new light on the subject, and even if not more important than the old world pictographs themselves, his art work will enable the efforts of the Aurignacian and Magdalenian artists [cultures of the Upper Paleolithic in western Europe] to be better comprehended, and their import understood. But, for that study to achieve even a modicum of success, it is essential that the inquiring psychologist divest his mind of all civilized conceptions and mentality and assume those of the prehistoric man – or of the infant of the present day.”1

.
This is the attitude towards Aboriginal art that pervaded major art institutions right across Australia well into the 1950s. That the white has to “divest his mind of all civilized conceptions and mentality and assume those of the prehistoric man” – in other words, he has to become a savage – in order to understand Aboriginal art. It says a lot that the Trustees of the National Museum of Victoria then decided to reprint the illustrated handbook in 1952 without amendment, reprinting the publication originally used for the Exhibition in 1929. Nothing had changed in 22 years!

 

Australian Aboriginal Art 1962

 

National Museum of Victoria
Australian Aboriginal Art (cover)
1952 (reprint of 1929 illustrated handbook)
Brown, Prior, Anderson Pty. Ltd., Melbourne (publishers)
Trustees of the National Museum of Victoria
39 pages

 

 

Other small things in the exhibition rankle. The preponderance of the work of photographer Max Dupain is so overwhelming that from this exhibition, it would seem that he was the only photographer of note working in Australia throughout the decade. While Dupain was the first Modernist photographer in Australia, and a superb artist, Modernist photography was very much on the outer during most of the 1930s… the main art form of photography being that of Pictorialism. None of this under appreciated style of photography makes an appearance in this exhibition because it does not fit the theme of “Brave New World”. This dismisses the work of such people as Cecil Bostock, Harold Cazneaux, Henri Mallard, John Eaton et al as not producing “brave”, or valuable, portraits of a country during this time frame. This is a perspective that needs to be corrected.

Highlights for me in this exhibition included an earthenware vase by Ethel Blundell; a painting by that most incredible of atmospheric painters, Clarice Beckett (how I long to own one of her paintings!); a wonderful portrait by the underrated Cybil Craig; two stunning Keast Burke photographs; two beautiful stained glass windows of a male and female lifesaver; the slum photographs of F. Oswald Barnett (more please!); and the graphic covers of mostly short-lived radical magazines.

These highlights are worth the price of admission alone. A must see before the exhibition closes.

Marcus

  1. A. S. Kenyon. “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal.” in Australian Aboriginal Art. Melbourne: Trustees of the National Museum of Victoria, (1929) reprinted 1952, p. 15.

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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.

 

The 1930s was a turbulent time in Australia’s history. During this decade major world events, including the Depression and the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe, shaped our nation’s evolving sense of identity. In the arts, progressive ideas jostled with reactionary positions, and artists brought substantial creative efforts to bear in articulating the pressing concerns of the period. Brave New World: Australia 1930s encompasses the multitude of artistic styles, both advanced and conservative, which were practised during the 1930s. Included are commercial art, architecture, fashion, industrial design, film and dance to present a complete picture of this dynamic time.

The exhibition charts the themes of celebrating technological progress and its antithesis in the nostalgia for pastoralism; the emergence of the ‘New Woman’ and consumerism; nationalism and the body culture movement; the increasing interest in Indigenous art against a backdrop of the government policy of assimilation and mounting calls for Indigenous rights; the devastating effects of the Depression and the rise of radical politics; and the arrival of European refugees and the increasing anxiety at the impending threat of the Second World War. Brave New World: Australia 1930s presents a fresh perspective on the extraordinary 1930s, revealing some of the social and political concerns that were pertinent then and remain so today.

Text from the NGV website

 

Fred Ward (designer) (Australia 1900-90)

 

Fred Ward (designer) (Australia 1900-90)
E. M. Vary, Fitzroy, Melbourne (attributed to) (manufacturer) active 1920s-40s

Sideboard
c. 1932
Mountain ash (Eucalyptus sp.), painted wood, painted plywood, steel
(a-e) 84.0 x 119.7 x 48.7 cm (overall)
Proposed acquisition

Side table
c. 1932
Mountain ash (Eucalyptus sp.), jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata), steel
55.7 x 66.0 x 49.2 cm
Proposed acquisition

Tray table
c. 1932
Mountain ash (Eucalyptus sp.), blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), steel
(a-b) 52.0 x 60.9 x 42.5 cm (overall)
Proposed acquisition

 

 

A new generation of artists and designers

While modern art was a source of debate and controversy throughout the 1930s, modernism in architecture, interior design, industrial design and advertising became highly fashionable. In Melbourne a small group of designers pioneered modern design in Australia. Furniture designer Fred Ward first designed and made furniture for his home in Eaglemont, where he had established a studio workshop. It was admired by friends and he was encouraged to produce furniture for sale. In 1932 Ward opened a shop in Collins Street, Melbourne. There he offered his furniture, as well as linens and Scandinavian glass. The fabrics for curtains and upholstery were printed by Australian designer Michael O’Connell with bold designs that shocked some but were favoured by a new generation looking to create modern interiors.

More than in most periods, in the 1930s art, design and architecture were closely integrated with the changing realities of contemporary life. It was a time when the last vestiges of the conservative art establishment were swept away by a new generation of artists and designers who were to drive Australian art in the second half of the twentieth century.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Max Dupain’s Illustration for Kelvinator advertisement at left and Ethel Blundell’s Vase centre on sidboard
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

 

Fred Ward was one of the first and most important designers of modern furniture in Australia. He began making furniture around 1930, and in 1932 opened a shop in Collins Street selling his furniture, as well as textiles by Michael O’Connell and other modern design pieces. In 1934 Ward went into partnership with Myer Emporium and established the Myer Design Unit, for which he designed a line of modular ‘unit’ furniture for commercial production. Ward’s simple, functional aesthetic and use of local timbers with a natural waxed finish was in contrast to the luxurious materials and decorative motifs of the contemporary Art Deco style.

The armchair, sideboard and occasional tables were designed by Fred Ward and purchased by Maie Casey in the early 1930s. The wife of R. G. Casey, federal treasurer in the Lyons Government, Maie was a prominent supporter of modern art and design. Moving to Canberra in 1932, she furnished her house at Duntroon in a modern style with furniture by Ward and textiles by Michael O’Connell. The design of Ward’s armchair closely resembles a 1920s armchair by German Bauhaus furniture designer Erich Dieckmann, who was known for his standardised wooden furniture based on geometric designs.

 

Michael O'Connell designer (England 1898-1976, Australia 1920-37) 'Textile' c. 1933

 

Michael O’Connell designer (England 1898-1976, Australia 1920-37)
Textile
c. 1933
Block printed linen
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1988

 

 

Michael O’Connell pioneered modernist textiles in Melbourne and was an influential advocate of modern design. Working with his wife Ella from his studio in Beaumaris, O’Connell used woodblocks and linocuts to hand print onto raw linens and silks, which were used for fashion garments and home furnishing. O’Connell’s boldly patterned and highly stylised designs were considered startlingly modern. Some of his early fabrics featured ‘jazz age’ scenes of nightclubs and dancing, while later motifs were based on Australian flora and fauna, or derived from Oceanic and Aboriginal art.

 

Sam Atyeo. 'Album of designs: tables' c. 1933 - c. 1936

 

Sam Atyeo
Album of designs: tables
c. 1933 – c. 1936
Album: watercolour, brush and coloured inks, coloured pencils, 14 designs tipped into an album of 16 grey pages, card covers, tape and stapled binding
30.0 x 19.2 cm (page) 30.0 x 20.8 x 0.8 cm (closed)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of the artist, 1988

 

 

Sam Atyeo was a leading figure in Melbourne’s emerging modernist circles in the early 1930s, the partner of artist Moya Dyring and lover of Sunday Reed. He had studied at the National Gallery School, where he was a brilliant and rebellious student. Around 1932 Atyeo became friendly with Cynthia Reed, who managed Fred Ward’s furniture shop and interior design consultancy on Collins Street. After she opened Cynthia Reed Modern Furnishings in Little Collins Street, Atyeo designed furniture for Reed, that was strongly influenced by Ward’s designs.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Illustration for Kelvinator advertisement' 1936

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Illustration for Kelvinator advertisement
1936
Gelatin silver photograph
32.8 x 25.3 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Collection Benefactors’ Program 2000

 

Ethel Blundell. 'Vase' 1936

 

Ethel Blundell
Vase
1936
Earthenware
17.6 x 16.8 cm diameter
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by Mrs Margaret Howie, Governor, 1999
© Ethel Blundell

 

 

Utopian cities

Modernity reflected what was new and progressive in Australian urban life. The image of the city became an allegory for this in art, and efficiency and speed became watchwords for modernity. Many artists celebrated the city and technological advancements in works utilising a modern style of hard-edged forms, flat colours and dynamic compositions. The engineering marvel of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which opened in 1932, was an ongoing source of fascination for artists, as were images of building the city, industry and modern modes of transport.

The skyscraper was also a powerful symbol of modern prosperity, especially when the Great Depression cast doubt on the inevitability of progress; hence the advent of tall buildings in Australian cities was hailed with relief and optimism. In 1932, at the peak of the Depression, the tallest building in Melbourne was opened: the Manchester Unity Building at the corner of Swanston and Collins streets. With its ornamental tower and spire taking its overall height to 64 metres, the building was welcomed by The Age newspaper as ‘a new symbol of enterprise and confidence, undaunted by the “temporary eclipse” of the country’s economic fortune’.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Seventh city of the Empire – Melbourne, Victoria at left; and Evening dress at right
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Percy Trompf (Australia 1902-64) 'Seventh city of the Empire - Melbourne, Victoria' 1930s

 

Percy Trompf (Australia 1902-64)
Seventh city of the Empire – Melbourne, Victoria
1930s
Colour lithograph printed by J. E. Hackett, Melbourne
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mr Grant Lee, 2007

 

 

Percy Trompf’s poster celebrates Melbourne’s first skyscraper, the iconic Manchester Unity Building on the corner of Swanston and Collins streets. Designed by architect Marcus Barlow in the Art Deco ‘Gothic’ style, it was built at high speed between 1930 and 1932, and provided much needed employment during the Depression. At twelve storeys high and topped with a decorative tower it was Melbourne’s tallest building and contained the city’s first escalators. A powerful symbol of the city’s modernity, it was often featured in images of Melbourne.

 

Unknown, Australia 'Evening dress' c. 1935

 

Unknown, Australia
Evening dress
c. 1935
Silk
144.0 cm (centre back), 36.0 cm (waist, flat)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Miss Irene Mitchell, 1975

 

Ethel Spowers (Australia 1890-1947, England and France 1921-24) 'The works, Yallourn' 1933

 

Ethel Spowers (Australia 1890-1947, England and France 1921-24)
The works, Yallourn
1933
Colour linocut, ed. 3/50
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The Joseph Brown Collection
Presented through the NGV Foundation by Dr Joseph Brown AO OBE, Honorary Life Benefactor, 2004

 

 

Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme were leading figures in modern art in Melbourne. In the 1920s they studied with modernist Claude Flight at the Grosvenor School in London, where they learnt to make colour linocuts that followed Flight’s principles of rhythmic design combined with flat colour. In April 1933 Spowers and Syme visited the Yallourn Power Station in Gippsland, which had been opened in 1928 and was the largest supplier of electricity to the state.

 

Vida Lahey (Australia 1882-1968) 'Sultry noon (Central Station Brisbane)' 1931

 

Vida Lahey (Australia 1882-1968)
Sultry noon (Central Station Brisbane)
1931
Oil on canvas on plywood
44.7 x 49.2 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane Purchased 1983
© QAGOMA

 

Clarice Beckett (Australia 1887-1935) 'Taxi rank' c. 1931

 

Clarice Beckett (Australia 1887-1935)
Taxi rank
c. 1931
Oil on canvas on board
Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth

 

Installation view of Herbert Badham's 'George Street, Sydney' (1934) from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Herbert Badham’s George Street, Sydney (1934) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

After serving in the Royal Australian Navy during the First World War, Herbert Badham studied at the Sydney Art School and began exhibiting in 1927. In his paintings he was a keen observer of everyday urban life: streets with shoppers, city workers on their lunch break and drinkers in the pub were painted in a contemporary, hard-edged realist style.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Rush hour in King's Cross' 1938, printed c. 1986

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Rush hour in King’s Cross
1938, printed c. 1986
Gelatin silver photograph
41.2 x 40.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Mr A.C. Goode, Fellow, 1987

 

 

During the 1930s the city provided a rich source of imagery for artists working in modern styles, who celebrated the speed and efficiency of modern transport technology and expanding road and rail networks. Yet as car ownership increased during the 1930s, larger cities began to suffer congestion and the rush hour became part of urban life. Throughout the decade the pace and stress of modern life became a topic of public debate, with conservative commentators decrying this transformation of the Australian lifestyle.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Max Dupain’s Rush hour in King’s Cross at right
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Grace Cossington Smith’s The Bridge in-curve at right
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Grace Cossington Smith. 'The Bridge in-curve' 1930

 

Grace Cossington Smith (Australia 1892-1984, England and Germany 1912-14, England and Italy 1949-51)
The Bridge in-curve
1930
Tempera on cardboard
83.6 x 111.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented by the National Gallery Society of Victoria, 1967
© Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

 

 

The slow rise of the Sydney Harbour Bridge above the city was recorded by numerous painters, printmakers and photographers, including Sydney modernist Grace Cossington Smith. Her iconic The Bridge-in-curve depicts the bridge just before its two arches were joined in August 1930, and conveys the sense of wonder, achievement and hope that was inspired by this engineering marvel. By painting the emerging, rather than the complete bridge, Cossington Smith also focuses our attention on the energy and ambition required to create it.

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34) 'Trains passing' 1940

 

Installation view of Frank Hinder’s Trains passing (1940) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34) 'Trains passing' 1940

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34)
Trains passing
1940
Oil on composition board
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1974

 

 

Frank Hinder was one of the first abstract artists in Australia. After living and studying in the United States, Hinder and his wife, the American sculptor Margel, returned to Sydney in 1934. There they became part of a small avant-garde group that included Grace Crowley, Rah Fizelle, Ralph Balson and the German sculptor and art historian Eleanore Lange, all of whom were interested in Cubist, Constructivist and Futurist art. Hinder later said that this work was inspired by seeing Lange, sitting next to him on a train, reflected in the windows of a passing train.

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34) 'Commuters' 1938

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34)
Commuters
1938
Tempera on paper on board
Private collection

 

Victorian Railways, Melbourne (publisher) Australia 1856-1976 'The Victorian Railways present The Spirit of Progress' 1937

 

Victorian Railways, Melbourne (publisher) Australia 1856-1976
The Victorian Railways present The Spirit of Progress
1937
Booklet: colour photolithographs and letterpress,
12 pages, cardboard cover
printed by Queen City Printers, Melbourne
20.8 x 26.8 cm (closed)
State Library Victoria, Melbourne

 

 

Launched in November 1937, The Spirit of Progress express passenger train was a source of immense pride to Victorians. Built in Newport, Victoria, the train featured many innovations, including all-steel carriages and full air-conditioning. Designed in the Art Deco, streamlined style by architectural firm Stephenson & Turner, the passenger carriages were fitted out to a level of comfort not previously seen in Australia, and included a full dining carriage. The train ran between Melbourne and the New South Wales state border at Albury, the longest non-stop train journey in Australia at that time, at an average speed of 84 kilometres per hour.

 

Installation view of Ivor Francis' 'Speed!' from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Ivor Francis’ Speed! from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Ivor Francis (England 1906-Australia 1993, Australia from 1924) 'Speed!' 1931

 

Ivor Francis (England 1906-Australia 1993, Australia from 1924)
Speed!
1931
Colour process block print
Art Gallery of South Australia
Adelaide South Australian Government Grant 1986

 

Randille, Melbourne (maker) active 1930s 'Night gown' c. 1938

 

Randille, Melbourne (maker) active 1930s
Night gown
c. 1938
Silk (a) 166.0 cm (centre back) 38.9 cm (waist, flat) (dress) (b) 121.0 cm (centre back) 38.0 cm (waist, flat) (slip)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented by Mrs A. G. Pringle, 1982

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Max Dupain’s Rush hour in King’s Cross left and Frank Hinder’s Jackhammer third from right and Margel Hinder’s Man with jackhammer second right
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Margel Hinder (United States 1906-Australia 1995, Australia from 1934) 'Man with jackhammer' 1939

 

Margel Hinder (United States 1906-Australia 1995, Australia from 1934)
Man with jackhammer
1939
Cedar
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through the NGV Foundation with the assistance of J. B. Were & Son, Governor, 2001

 

 

American-born Margel Hinder was one of Australia’s leading modernist sculptors. She had studied art in Boston, where she met and married Sydney artist Frank Hinder. In 1934 they moved to Australia and became an important part of Sydney’s small modern art scene. In Man with jackhammer Hinder has simplified and contained the figure within a square frame, the strong diagonal form of the jackhammer creating a sense of compressed energy and force. Man and machine have fused in this celebration of industry and progress.

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34) 'Jackhammer' 1936

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34)
Jackhammer
1936
Airbrush on black paper
52.0 x 38.0 cm
Private collection, Sydney
© Enid Hawkins

 

 

Modern Woman

In the 1930s the new ‘Modern Woman’ made her appearance as a more serious and emancipated version of the giddy 1920s ‘flapper’. A woman who worked, she often lived alone in one of the new city apartment buildings, visited nightclubs and showed less interest in traditional marriage and child rearing. A lean body type became fashionable and was enhanced by the lengthened hemlines and defined waists introduced by French couturier Jean Patou in 1929. This slender silhouette was supported by form-fitting foundation garments by manufacturers such as Berlei.

The Modern Woman became one of the most potent images of contemporary life, being celebrated in women’s magazines such as the ultra-stylish Home and the Australian Women’s Weekly, launched in 1933. While such magazines were congratulating her and promoting new consumer goods to the Modern Woman, at the same time she was criticised by conservative commentators. In 1937 photographer Max Dupain wrote: ‘There must be a great shattering of modern values if woman is to continue to perpetuate the race… In her shred of a dress and little helmet of a hat, her cropped hair, and stark bearing, the modern woman is a sort of a soldier… It is not her fault it is her doom’.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Peter Purves Smith’s Maisie left, Cybil Craig’s Peggy second left and Peter Purves Smith’s Lucile at  top right
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Cybil Craig’s Peggy second left and Lina Bryans The babe is wise at right
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Peter Purves Smith (Australia 1912-49, England 1935-36, England and France 1938-40) 'Maisie' 1938-39

 

Peter Purves Smith (Australia 1912-49, England 1935-36, England and France 1938-40)
Maisie
1938-39
Gouache
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Bequest of Lady Maisie Drysdale 2001

 

 

In 1937 the striking, auburn-haired Maisie Newbold was a student at the George Bell School in Melbourne, where she met fellow student Peter Purves Smith and his best friend Russell Drysdale. Maisie and Purves Smith were married in 1946, only three years before latter’s premature death from tuberculosis. Purves Smith painted this portrait at the start of their relationship. It depicts Maisie as a stylish woman wearing the latest fashion, the angularity of her features contrasted by the soft fur of her collar and feathers of her hat. Many years later Maisie married Drysdale.

 

Installation view of Sybil Craig's work 'Peggy' c. 1932

 

Installation view of Sybil Craig’s work Peggy c. 1932
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Sybil Craig (England 1901 - Australia 1909, Australia from 1902) 'Peggy' c. 1932

 

Sybil Craig (England 1901 – Australia 1909, Australia from 1902)
Peggy
c. 1932
Oil on canvas
40.4 x 30.4 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1978
© The Estate of Sybil Craig

 

Lina Bryans (Germany (of Australian parents) 1909-Australia 2000, Australia from 1910) 'The babe is wise' 1940

 

Lina Bryans (Germany (of Australian parents) 1909-Australia 2000, Australia from 1910)
The babe is wise
1940
Oil on cardboard
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Miss Jean Campbell, 1962

 

 

Lina Bryans’s portrait of author Jean Campbell is titled after Campbell’s 1939 novel The Babe is Wise, a contemporary story set in Melbourne and in which the main protagonists are European migrants. A well-known figure in Melbourne’s literary circles, Campbell was noted for her ‘quick and slightly audacious wit’. Bryans had begun painting in 1937 with the support of William Frater. In the late 1930s she lived at Darebin Bridge House, which became an informal artists’ colony and meeting place for writers associated with the journal Meanjin.

 

Peter Purves Smith (Australia 1912-49, England 1935-36, England and France 1938-40) 'Lucile' 1937

 

Peter Purves Smith (Australia 1912-49, England 1935-36, England and France 1938-40)
Lucile
1937
Oil on board
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2011 with funds raised through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Appeal

 

Nora Heysen (Australia 1911-2003, England and Italy 1934-37) 'Self-portrait' 1932

 

Nora Heysen (Australia 1911-2003, England and Italy 1934-37)
Self-portrait
1932
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Acquired with the assistance of the Masterpieces for the Nation Fund 2011

 

 

During the first decade of her life as a professional artist, Nora Heysen completed numerous self-portraits. In many of these she depicts herself in the act of drawing or painting, holding a palette and brush or with other accoutrements of the artist, and thereby asserting her professional identity. Yet these are also highly charged works in which Heysen scrutinises herself (and the viewer) with an unflinching and unsmiling gaze.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Arthur Challen’s Miss Moira Madden above chair
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Arthur Challen 'Miss Moira Madden' 1937

 

Arthur Challen
Miss Moira Madden
1937
oil on canvas
89.8 x 77.4 cm (framed)
State Library of Victoria
Gift of Mrs S. M. Challen, 1966
© The Estate of Arthur Challen

 

 

Body culture

The terrible physical losses and psychological traumas of the First World War changed Australian society and prompted anxious concerns about the direction of the nation. For some this meant an inward-looking isolationism, a desire that Australian culture should develop independently and untouched by the ‘degenerate’ influences of Europe.

The search for rejuvenation frequently involved explorations of the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the human body. In the hands of artists, corporeal forms came to symbolise nationhood, most often expressed through references to the art of Classical Greece and mythological subjects. The evolution of a new Australian ‘type’ was also proposed in the 1930s – a white Australian drawn from British stock, but with an athletic and streamlined shape honed by time spent swimming and surfing on local beaches.

This art often has a distinctive quality to it, which in the light of history can sometimes make for disquieting viewing. With the terrible knowledge of how the Nazi Party in Germany subsequently used eugenics in its systematic slaughter of those with so-called ‘bad blood’, the Australian enthusiasm for ‘body culture’ can now seem problematic. Images of muscular nationalism soon lost their cache in Australia following the Second World War, tainted by undesirable fascistic overtones.

 

Keast Burke (New Zealand 1896 - Australia 1974, Australia from 1904) 'Harvest' c. 1940

 

Keast Burke (New Zealand 1896 – Australia 1974, Australia from 1904)
Harvest
c. 1940
Gelatin silver photograph (25.6 x 30.5 cm)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gerstl Bequest, 2000

 

Keast Burke (New Zealand 1896 - Australia 1974, Australia from 1904) 'Husbandry 1' c. 1940

 

Keast Burke (New Zealand 1896 – Australia 1974, Australia from 1904)
Husbandry 1
c. 1940
Gelatin silver photograph
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Gift of Iris Burke 1989

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Discus thrower' 1937, printed (c. 1939)

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Discus thrower
1937, printed (c. 1939)
Gelatin silver photograph
38.5 x 37.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 2003

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Souvenir of Cronulla' 1937

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Souvenir of Cronulla
1937
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of National Australia Bank Limited, Honorary Life Benefactor, 1992

 

 

In the 1930s Max Dupain responded to Henri Bergson’s book Creative Evolution (1907) in which he considered creativity and intuition as central to the renewed development of society, and the artist as prime possessor of these powers. Vitalism, as this philosophy was termed, was believed to be expressed through polarised sexual energies. In this work Dupain focuses on the sexually differentiated ‘energies’ of men and women, associating women with the forces of nature.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Daphne Mayo’s A young Australian in foreground
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Daphne Mayo (Australia 1895-1982, England 1919-23, France 1923-25) 'A young Australian' 1930, cast 1931

 

Daphne Mayo (Australia 1895-1982, England 1919-23, France 1923-25)
A young Australian
1930, cast 1931
Bronze, marble
(a-b) 51.0 x 35.2 x 18.1 cm (overall)
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Purchased 1930
© 1982 by The Surf Life Saving Foundation and the Uniting Church in Australia Property Trust (Q.)

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Dorothy Thornhill’s Neo-classical nudes and Resting Diana at left; Tom Purvis’ Australia’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations (wall print) at centre rear; and Jean Broome-Norton’s Abundance on plinth at right
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Tom Purvis (England 1888-1959) 'Australia's 150th Anniversary Celebrations' c. 1938

 

Tom Purvis (England 1888-1959)
Australia’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations
c. 1938
Colour lithograph
Courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney

 

Installation view of Dorothy Thornhill's 'Neo-classical nudes' from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Dorothy Thornhill’s Neo-classical nudes from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Dorothy Thornhill (England 1910 - Australia 1987, New Zealand 1920-29, Australia from 1929) 'Resting Diana' 1931

 

Dorothy Thornhill (England 1910 – Australia 1987, New Zealand 1920-29, Australia from 1929)
Resting Diana
1931
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1977

 

 

The invocation of the Classical body as a modern prototype was a powerful idea in the 1930s. The Graeco- Roman goddess Diana, the virgin patron goddess of the hunt, was popularly invoked as an ideal of female perfection, and represented with a slender and athletic physique. Dorothy Thornhill’s Diana is a remarkable visualisation of such a ‘modern Diana’, her angular body and defined musculature reflecting the masculinisation of female bodies at this time. She is a formidable presence, the quiver of arrows slung nonchalantly across her shoulders a trophy of her victory over the male gender.

 

Jean Broome-Norton (Australia 1911-2002) 'Abundance' 1934

 

Jean Broome-Norton (Australia 1911-2002)
Abundance
1934
Plaster, bronze patination
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of ICI Australia Limited, Fellow, 1994

 

 

“High-rise buildings, fast trains and engineering feats such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge jostled against the Great Depression, conservatism and a looming Second World War during the 1930s, one of the most turbulent decades in Australian history. The major exhibition at the NGV, Brave New World: Australia 1930s, will explore the way artists and designers engaged with these major issues providing a fresh look at a period characterised by both optimism and despair. The exhibition will present a broad-ranging collection of more than 200 works spanning photography, painting, printmaking, sculpture and decorative arts as well as design, architecture, fashion, graphics, film and dance.

Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV, commented, “Brave New World explores an important period of Australian art history during which Abstraction, Surrealism and Expressionism first emerged, and women artists arose as trailblazers of the modern art movement. It will offer an immersive look at the full spectrum of visual and creative culture of the period, from Max Dupain’s iconic depictions of the Australian body and beach culture to a vast display of nearly 40 Art Deco radios, which were an indispensable item for the Australian home during the 1930s.”

Presented thematically, Brave New World will show how artists and designers responded to major social and political concerns of the 1930s. The Great Depression, which saw Australia’s unemployment rate rise to 32% by 1932, is seen through the eyes of photographer F. Oswald Barnett in his powerful images of poverty-stricken inner Melbourne suburbs such as Fitzroy, Collingwood and Carlton, and in the works of Danila Vassilieff, Yosl Bergner, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker who were among the first artists to depict Australia’s working class and destitute.

In contrast, many other artists at the time chose to focus upon the vibrant city streets, cafes and buildings of contemporary Australian cities, such as renowned modernist Grace Cossington Smith with her energetic canvasses of flat colours and abstracted forms. Other artists featured in Brave New World including Hilda Rix Nicholas and Elioth Gruner concentrated on more traditional scenes of the Australian bush, which was seen as a place of respite from the frenetic pace of modern city life.

The exhibition will explore artists’ responses to the growing calls for Indigenous rights during the 1930s, which was accompanied by a rising interest in Aboriginal art and particularly the work of Albert Namatjira, the first Indigenous artist of renown in Australia; and the rise of the ‘modern woman’, a female who favoured urban living, freedom and equality over marriage and child rearing.

The 1930s also saw the idea of the ‘Australian body’, a tanned, muscular archetype shaped by sand and surf, come to the fore of the Australian identity. Artists who engaged with this idea, including Max Dupain, Charles Meere and Olive Cotton, will be presented in Brave New World. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated, 212-page hardback publication, featuring essays by leading writers on each of the exhibition themes. A series of public programs will also be offered including a major symposium, an Art Deco walking tour of Melbourne and a dance performance, recreating Demon machine (1924) by the Bodenweiser company that toured Australia in the late 1930s as well as an original solo by the choreographer, Carol Brown (NZ).

Press release from the NGV

 

Nanette Kuehn (Germany 1911-Australia 1980, Australia from 1937) 'Borislav Runanine and Tamara Grigorieva in Jeux D'Enfants, original Ballets Russes, Australian tour' 1939-40

 

Nanette Kuehn (Germany 1911-Australia 1980, Australia from 1937)
Borislav Runanine and Tamara Grigorieva in Jeux D’Enfants, original Ballets Russes, Australian tour
1939-40
Gelatin silver photograph
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne
The Australian Ballet Collection. Gift of The Australian Ballet, 1998

 

 

The expressive body: dance in Australia

If modern art encapsulated the ideals and conflicting forces of the early twentieth century, then modern dance embodied its restless vitality and the quest for a different kind of subjectivity and expression. To many, modern dance is the pivotal art form for a mid twentieth century concerned with plasticity, the expressive body and tensions between the individual and its collective formation.

The decade of the 1930s is framed by the 1928-29 tour of Anna Pavlova’s dance company and the three tours of the remnant Ballets Russes companies (1936-37, 1938-39,1939-40) that excited many aspiring modernist artists. These tours sowed the seeds for subsequent ballet narratives in Australia, because the eruption of war in 1939 meant that Ballets Russes dancers, including Helene Kirsova and Edouard Borovansky, stayed in the country and established ballet companies. While trained in Russian dance technique, these artists were also influenced by the aesthetics of change in European art and dance that included new bodily techniques, dynamic movement patterns and modern technologies. It was the individual dancers of modern dance, however, including Louise Lightfoot and Sonia Revid, who produced the expressive intensity of a more autonomous art of movement.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA featuring a wall print of Sonia Revid dancing on Brighton beach c. 1935 by an unknown Australian photographer
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Australia, Unknown photographer. 'Sonia Revid dancing on Brighton beach' c. 1935

 

Australia, Unknown photographer
Sonia Revid dancing on Brighton beach
c. 1935
Courtesy of State Library Victoria, Melbourne

 

 

Sonia Revid was one of the leading proponents of modern interpretative dance in Melbourne. Born in Latvia, she studied with the great dancer Mary Wigman in Germany before coming to Australia in 1932. Revid is credited with introducing the ‘German Dance’ to Australian audiences, and in the mid 1930s established the Sonia Revid School of Art and Body Culture in Collins Street. She composed her own dances, one of the best known being Bushfire drama (1940), based on the 1939 Victoria Bushfires.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Ballet (Emmy Towsey and Evelyn Ippen, Bodenwieser Dancers performing Waterlilies)' 1937, printed (c. 1939)

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Ballet (Emmy Towsey and Evelyn Ippen, Bodenwieser Dancers performing Waterlilies)
1937, printed (c. 1939)
Gelatin silver photograph
44.5 x 33.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 2003

 

Jack Cato (Australia 1889-1971, England 1909-14, South Africa 1914-20) 'Helene Kirsova and Igor Youskevitch in Les Presages, Monte Carlo Russian Ballet' 1936-37

 

Jack Cato (Australia 1889-1971, England 1909-14, South Africa 1914-20)
Helene Kirsova and Igor Youskevitch in Les Presages, Monte Carlo Russian Ballet
1936-37
Gelatin silver photograph
24.8 x 19.4 cm
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne
The Australian Ballet Collection
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 1998

 

 

Choreographed by Léonide Massine in 1933, Les Presages (Destiny) was a popular and avant-garde work during the Ballets Russes tours to Australia in 1936-37. It was one of the first contemporary ballets to be choreographed to an existing musical score, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Portrayed in this picture are two principal dancers from the Monte Carlo Ballets Russes: Hélène Kirsova, who remained in Australia and formed her own ballet company in Sydney in the early 1940s, and Igor Youskevitch, who became a leading American ballet dancer, appearing here in the role of the Hero.

 

Evelyn Ippen designer and maker active in Australia 1930s 'Dress for Slavonic Dances' 1939

 

Evelyn Ippen designer and maker active in Australia 1930s
Dress for Slavonic Dances
1939
Cotton, silk (velvet) (appliqué), elastic, metal (zip) for a production of the Bodenwieser Ballet, choreographed by Gertrud Bodenwieser
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne
Bodenwieser Collection. Gift of Barbara Cuckson, 2000

 

 

The Slavonic Dances were choreographed by Gertrud Bodenwieser to represent what she described as the ‘vigour and passionate feelings of the Slavonic people’, and toured with her first company in Australia in 1939. Loosely using folk-dance motifs, this ensemble work would have been a stylish crowd-pleaser in contrast to more serious dances. The appliqué and colourful flower motifs on this dress are similar to designs by Natalia Goncharova for the Ballets Russes, although the simplified appeal of its ‘red bodice, long, swirling skirt, and gathered white sleeves’ were probably designed by one of the company dancers, Evelyn Ippen.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Tamara Tchinarova in Presages' 1937

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Tamara Tchinarova in Presages
Published in Art in Australia, February 15, 1937
National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne Shaw Research Library

 

 

Australia Tunes Into The World

These radios comprise a selection of Australian designed and manufactured tabletop models from the 1930s at a time when this new method of communication became an integral part of every home. They reflect the rapid spread of the streamlined style to Australia from the United States, England and Europe, where industrial designers applied machine-age styling to everyday household appliances. The use of new synthetic plastics (Bakelite) and mass production helped to make radios affordable for ordinary people, even in the depths of the Depression, and radio transmission brought the world into every Australian home. As cheap alternatives to the expensive wooden console in the lounge room, these small, portable radios allowed individual family members to listen to serials, quizzes and popular music in other rooms such as the kitchen, bedroom and verandah, as well as in the workplace.

Radios of the 1930s are now appreciated as quintessential examples of Art Deco styling, and one of the first expressions of art meeting industry. These colourful and elegant radio sets were one of the first pieces of modern styling in the Australian home. They were also a symbol of modern technology and a new future.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Australian Art Deco radios from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Airzone (1931) Ltd, Sydney (manufacturer) 'Mullard' 1938

 

Airzone (1931) Ltd, Sydney (manufacturer)
Mullard (white)
1938
Collection of Peter Sheridan and Jan Hatch

Airzone (1931) Ltd, Sydney (manufacturer)
Mullard (speckled green)
1938
Collection of Peter Sheridan and Jan Hatch

Airzone (1931) Ltd, Sydney (manufacturer)
Mullard (black)
1938
Collection of Peter Sheridan and Jan Hatch
Photo © Peter Sheridan

 

Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd., Sydney (manufacturer) est. 1913 'AWA 'Egg crate' (various colours)' 1938

 

Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd., Sydney (manufacturer) est. 1913
AWA ‘Egg crate’ (various colours)
1938
Bakelite
21.0 x 33.0 x 19.0 cm (each)
Collection of Peter Sheridan and Jan Hatch
Photo © Peter Sheridan

 

Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd., Sydney (manufacturer) est. 1913 'AWA Radiolette 'Empire State' and cigarette box (green)' 1934

 

Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd., Sydney (manufacturer) est. 1913
AWA Radiolette ‘Empire State’ and cigarette box (green)
1934
Bakelite
(a) 28.0 x 27.0 x 15.0 cm (radio) (b) 8.0 x 8.0 x 4.5 cm (cigarette box)
Collection of Peter Sheridan and Jan Hatch
Photo © Peter Sheridan

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation views of Australian Art Deco radios from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

 

Sun and surf

The beach was a complex location in the Australian creative imagination. It was a democratic site in which the trappings of wealth and position were abandoned as people stripped down to their bathers. It was a place of hedonistic pleasures that offered sensuous engagement with sun and surf, and a primitive landscape where natural forces restored the bodies of those depleted by modern life. It was a playground for the tourist that was considered distinctively Australian. As war loomed again in the late 1930s, it was also a pseudo-militaristic zone in which the lifesaver was honed for ‘battle’ in the surf.

The lifesavers that helped protect the beach-going public were regularly praised as physical exemplars who could build the eugenic stock of the nation. As the Second World War approached, the connection of these trained lifesavers to military servicemen also became painfully apparent.

Male lifesavers were used by artists in promoting Australia to tourists: a poster commemorating the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 positioned the lifesaver as the quintessential representative of Australian manhood. Douglas Annand and Arthur Whitmore’s virile lifesaver proudly gestures towards the new bridge, his muscles as strong and protective as the steel girders that span the harbour.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'On the beach. Man, woman, boy' 1938

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
On the beach. Man, woman, boy
1938
Gelatin silver photograph
39.2 x 47.2 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1982

 

 

Showing a naked family on the beach, Max Dupain’s work is a perfect illustration of social concerns of the times. As Australia moved closer to engagement in another world war, fears about the poor physical fitness of the population were debated, with a ‘national fitness’ campaign instituted by the government in 1938. Dupain’s father, George, was one of the country’s first physical educationalists, opening the Dupain Institute of Physical Education and Medical Gymnastics in 1900 and writing extensively on the subject of health and fitness. Max Dupain attended the gym and was well versed in contemporary concerns about fitness.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of 'Male lifesaver, window' and 'Female lifesaver, window' (both c. 1935)

 

Installation view of Male lifesaver, window and Female lifesaver, window (both c. 1935) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Unknown, Melbourne. 'Male lifesaver, window' c. 1935

 

Unknown, Melbourne
Male lifesaver, window
c. 1935
Stained glass, lead
47.5 x 40.8 cm
Williamstown Swimming and Life Saving Club, Williamstown
Donated by C. J Dennis

 

 

‘On golden and milky sands, bodily excellence is displayed the year round, clearly defined by the sun in an atmosphere as viewless and benign as the air of Hellas as described by Euripides.’

J. S. Macdonald, 1931

 

Unknown, Melbourne. 'Female lifesaver, window' c. 1935

 

Unknown, Melbourne
Female lifesaver, window
c. 1935
Stained glass, lead
47.0 x 40.9 cm
Williamstown Swimming and Life Saving Club, Williamstown
Donated by Councillor R. T. Bell

 

 

Although much was made of the ‘gods of the golden sand’, as one poet glowingly described lifesavers, lifesaving clubs were not entirely male in membership. Women lifesavers also made their mark, albeit in more limited numbers and with much less recognition. At the Williamstown Lifesaving Club in Melbourne a woman lifesaver was included in this fine and very rare stained glass window that, along with its counterpart featuring a male lifesaver, graced the newly established clubhouse around 1935.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with the male and female lifesavers (centre); Max Dupain’s The carnival at Bondi (fourth from right); Sydney Bridge celebrations (second right); and Douglas Annand and Max Dupain’s Australia (right)
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Max Dupain. 'Sunbaker' 1937

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Sunbaker
(1938), dated 1937, printed c. 1975
Gelatin silver photograph
38.0 x 43.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with the assistance of the Visual Arts Board, 1976

 

 

Taken on a camping trip near Culburra, on the Shoalhaven River in New South Wales, in January 1938, Max Dupain’s original version of the Sunbaker was a much darker image that existed at the time only in an album gifted to his friend Chris Van Dyke. Dupain lost the original negative and printed this variant version in 1975 for an exhibition. It is an image that is now considered an icon in Australian photography, and has come to represent key values of the interest in ‘body culture’, celebrating health and fitness in the context of the beach.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'The carnival at Bondi' 1938

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
The carnival at Bondi
1938
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1982

 

 

‘The lifesaving teams … are splendid examples of the physique, resourcefulness and vitality of our youth and manhood. They are typical of the outdoor life which Australians lead and they are living testimonies to the value of surfing and the vigor and stamina of our race.’

DAILY EXAMINER, July 1935

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Manly' 1938, printed c. 1986

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Manly
1938, printed c. 1986
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased from funds donated by Hallmark Cards Australia Pty Ltd, 1987

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926) 'The seaside calls - go by train - take a Kodak' 1930s

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926)
The seaside calls – go by train – take a Kodak
1930s
Colour lithograph
Printed by F. W. Niven, Melbourne
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mr Grant Lee

 

 

Gert Sellheim was born to German parents in Estonia, at that time part of the Russian Empire. After studying architecture in Europe he travelled to Western Australia in 1926, before settling in Melbourne in 1931, where he began working as an industrial and commercial designer. Working for the Australian National Travel Association, Sellheim created a series of posters promoting beach holidays, which incorporated Art Deco motifs and typography. His most famous design is the flying kangaroo logo for Qantas, which he created in 1947.

 

Douglas Annand (Australia 1903-76) Arthur Whitmore (Australia 1910-65) 'Sydney Bridge celebrations' 1932

 

Douglas Annand (Australia 1903-76)
Arthur Whitmore (Australia 1910-65)
Sydney Bridge celebrations
1932
Colour lithograph
47.6 x 63.6 cm (image and sheet)
Australian National Maritime Museum Purchased, 1991
© Courtesy of the artist’s estate

 

Douglas Annand (Australia 1903-76) Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Australia' c. 1937

 

Douglas Annand (Australia 1903-76)
Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Australia
c. 1937
Colour and process lithograph
105.3 x 68.4 cm (image and sheet)
Australian National Maritime Museum Purchased, 1991
© Courtesy of the artist’s estate

 

Douglas Annand (attributed to) (Australia 1903-76) 'Follow the sun - Australia's 150th Anniversary celebrations' 1938

 

Douglas Annand (attributed to) (Australia 1903-76)
Follow the sun – Australia’s 150th Anniversary celebrations
1938
Colour lithograph and photolithograph
Courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney

 

 

The 1930s were the heyday of the travel poster. Posters were commissioned by railway and tourism groups or shipping companies and airlines to promote Australian holiday destinations, both at home and overseas. The Australian National Travel Association was formed in 1929 to promote Australia to overseas markets. As part of its strategy it commissioned posters from leading graphic artists, such as Percy Trompf, James Northfield and Douglas Annand. From the late 1920s Australia began to actively promote itself to the world by using the beach, sun and surf as motifs.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with the work of John Rowell, Hilda Rix Nicholas, Gert Sellheim and Percy Trompf on the far wall, and Robert E. Coates Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World’s Fair (1939) on the projector screen at left
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

 

The Australian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair projected an image of Australia as a young and healthy nation, a place of industry, sport and tourism. Designed by John Oldham of Sydney architectural firm Stephenson & Turner, the modern design of the building was complemented by Douglas Annand’s interior displays featuring the latest graphic design, and audio-visual and photomontage techniques. These photographs of the Australian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair were taken by commercial photographer Robert E. Coates.

 

Installation view of Robert E. Coates' 'Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World's Fair' (1939)

Installation view of Robert E. Coates' 'Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World's Fair' (1939)

Installation view of Robert E. Coates' 'Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World's Fair' (1939)

Installation view of Robert E. Coates' 'Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World's Fair' (1939)

Installation view of Robert E. Coates' 'Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World's Fair' (1939)

 

Installation views of Robert E. Coates’ Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World’s Fair (1939) (digital images, looped)

 

 

Pastoral landscapes

Along with the beach, another national myth evolved around the Australian bush. Although most Australians lived in cities, in the years following the First World War the nation became increasingly informed by a mythology centred on the bush and the landscape. For those who considered the modern city a profoundly depleting force, the bush was a touchstone of traditional ‘values’. It was nostalgically conceived of as an idyllic natural realm whose soil, literally and metaphorically, sustained its people. Both the classical Pastoral ideal of a land in which only sheep and cattle roam, and the Georgic tradition, which celebrated the achievements of agriculture, became dominant themes in landscape art.

Pastoral landscapes were admired above all as representing the antithesis of ‘decadent’ modern life. As art critic and gallery director J. S. Macdonald wrote, such art would ‘point the way in which life should be lived in Australia, with the maximum of flocks and the minimum of factories’. With their emphasis on farming and pastoral industries, such works affirmed white landownership, with Indigenous people largely absent.

 

John Rowell (Australia 1894-1973) 'Blue hills' c. 1936

 

John Rowell (Australia 1894-1973)
Blue hills
c. 1936
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1936

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926) 'Spring in the Grampians' 1930s

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926)
Spring in the Grampians
1930s
Colour photolithograph
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased 2000

 

Hilda Rix Nicholas (Australia 1884-1961, Europe 1911-18) 'The fair musterer' c. 1935

 

Hilda Rix Nicholas (Australia 1884-1961, Europe 1911-18)
The fair musterer
c. 1935
Oil on canvas
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 1971

 

 

As a young artist Hilda Rix Nicholas had a successful career in France before returning to Australia after the First World War. In 1934, several years after the birth of her son, Rix Nicholas returned to painting and depicted her new life living on the family property Knockalong, on the Monaro Plains in New South Wales. Depicting the governess of her young son holding the reins of her horse, dog at her feet, and sheep in the distance, in The fair musterer Rix Nicholas claims for women an active role in the masculine world of pastoral Australia.

 

Hilda Rix Nicholas (Australia 1884-1961, Europe 1911-18) 'The shepherd of Knockalong' 1933

 

Hilda Rix Nicholas (Australia 1884-1961, Europe 1911-18)
The shepherd of Knockalong
1933
Oil on canvas
Collection of Peter Rix, Sydney
Courtesy of Deutscher & Hackett

 

 

Depicting the artist’s husband and young son, The shepherd of Knockalong is a reminder of the traditional importance of the wool industry to the nation’s economy. With his legs firmly connected to the ground and pictured as a large figure dominating the landscape setting, the farmer is the benign owner and ‘shepherd’ of the land spreading out behind him, the presence of his young son ensuring dynastic succession. At a time when Aboriginal people were confined to reservations and denied citizenship, Hilda Rix Nicholas’s painting can also be considered as an assertion of the British colonisers’ right to ownership of Australia.

 

Percy Trompf (Australia 1902-64) 'Western Australia' c. 1936

 

Percy Trompf (Australia 1902-64)
Western Australia
c. 1936
Colour lithograph
Courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney

 

 

Indigenous art and culture

During the 1930s Aboriginal people were often pejoratively referred to as a ‘dying race’. The Australian Government continued to enforce a ‘divide and rule’ assimilationist policy. Determined by eugenics, this entailed removing Aboriginal people of mixed descent from their families and reserves, and absorbing them into the dominant society, with consequent loss of their own language and customary ritual practices. Increasingly during this period, Aboriginal people formed their own organisations and agitated for full citizenship rights.

This was also a decade that saw increasing awareness of, and interest in, Indigenous art. Albert Namatjira astonished Melbourne audiences at his first solo exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery in 1938. Comprising forty-one watercolour paintings, all of his works sold within three days of the opening. The following year the Art Gallery of South Australia purchased one of Namatjira’s works. Indigenous art also inspired non-Indigenous artists, including Margaret Preston and Frances Derham who appropriated design elements in their works. The idea of ‘Aboriginalism’, in which settlers sought an Australian identity in the context of Britishness and the Empire, saw artists travelling to the outback to paint and sketch subjects they believed connected them to Indigenous history.

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894–1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08) Kangaroo and 'Aboriginal motifs' 1925-1940

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894–1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08)
Kangaroo and Aboriginal motifs
1925-1940
Linocut printed in brown ink on buff paper
4.6 x 7.3 cm (image) 12.6 x 10.3 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mr Richard Hodgson Derham, 1988
© Estate of Frances Derham

 

 

Best known as a progressive educator and advocate of children’s art, Frances Derham was also an active member of the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria, and with potter Allan Lowe shared Margaret Preston’s interest in the appropriation of Indigenous art. From the mid 1920s Derham began to incorporate Aboriginal motifs into her linocuts and in 1929, synchronous with the exhibition Australian Aboriginal Art at the Museum of Victoria, Derham presented a lecture to the Arts and Crafts Society, entitled ‘The Interest of Aboriginal Art to the Modern Designer’.

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894-1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08) 'Kangaroo (at the zoo)' c. 1931

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894-1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08)
Kangaroo (at the zoo)
c. 1931
Linocut printed in brown ink on Chinese paper
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mr Richard Hodgson Derham, 1988

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894-1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08) 'The Aboriginal artist' 1931

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894-1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08)
The Aboriginal artist
1931
Colour linocut on Japanese paper
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mr Richard Hodgson Derham, 1988

 

 

Margaret Preston (Australia 1875-1963, Germany and France 1904-07, France, England and Ireland 1912-19) 'Shoalhaven Gorge, New South Wales' 1940-1941

 

Margaret Preston (Australia 1875-1963, Germany and France 1904-07, France, England and Ireland 1912-19)
Shoalhaven Gorge, New South Wales
1940-1941
Oil and gouache on canvas
53.7 x 45.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated from the Estate of Dr Donald Wright, 2008
© Margaret Preston/Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

 

 

During the 1920s Margaret Preston considered Aboriginal art a source of good design in the decoration of household items. In the 1930s her study of Aboriginal culture intensified, as she developed a greater interest in its anthropological and cosmological elements. In 1940 Preston travelled to the Northern Territory to study Aboriginal art. On her return she developed a more explicit Aboriginal style in paintings featuring earthy tones, strong black outlines and patterns of dots and lines.

 

Unknown Walamangu active (1930s) 'Dhukurra dhaawu (Sacred clan story)' c. 1935

 

Unknown
Walamangu active (1930s)
Dhukurra dhaawu (Sacred clan story)
c. 1935
Earth pigments on Stringybark (Eucalyptus sp.), resin
128.3 x 63.9 cm
The Donald Thomson Collection
Donated by Mrs Dorita Thomson to the University of Melbourne and on loan to Museums Victoria, Melbourne

 

 

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, segregation was the main government policy regarding Aboriginal people. It was re-enforced by the 1909 Aborigines Protection Act, which gave the Aborigines Protection Board the power to control where Aboriginal people lived in New South Wales. In 1937 the Commonwealth Government adopted a policy of assimilation, whereby Aboriginal people of mixed descent were henceforth to be assimilated into white society, while others were confined to reserves. In 1931 Arnhem Land was declared an Aboriginal Reserve by the government and non-Indigenous entry into the region was restricted.

 

Tjam Yilkari Katani Liyagalawumirr active 1930s 'Wagilag dhaawu (Wagilag Sisters story)' 1937

 

Tjam Yilkari Katani
Liyagalawumirr active 1930s
Wagilag dhaawu (Wagilag Sisters story) (installation view)
1937
Earth pigments on Stringybark (Eucalyptus sp.)
The Donald Thomson Collection Donated by Mrs Dorita Thomson to the University of Melbourne and on loan to Museums Victoria, Melbourne
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

For Yolgnu people, painting on bark or objects is intimately connected with painting on the body, and the Yolgnu term barrawan means both ‘skin’ and ‘bark’. These paintings are transcriptions of the sacred designs that were painted onto men’s bodies and convey the power of the Yolgnu ancestors whose actions created their world. The Wagilag Sisters Dreaming story chronicles the creative acts of the sisters as they travelled across Arnhem Land. Such stories pass on important knowledge, cultural values and belief systems to later generations.

 

Arthur Murch (Australia 1902-89, Europe 1936-40) 'Walila, Pintupi tribe' 1934

 

Arthur Murch (Australia 1902-89, Europe 1936-40)
Walila, Pintupi tribe
1934
Pencil
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1934

 

 

In 1933, on the invitation of Professor H. Whitridge Davies, Sydney artist Arthur Murch accompanied a research team from Sydney University to Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, south-west of Alice Springs. Murch remained there for six weeks painting the landscapes and making portraits of Indigenous people. These were exhibited in Sydney soon after his return.

 

Percy Leason (Australia 1888-United States 1959, United States from 1938) 'Thomas Foster' (installation view) 1934

 

Percy Leason (Australia 1888-United States 1959, United States from 1938)
Thomas Foster (installation view)
1934
Oil on canvas
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mrs Isabelle Leason, 1969
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Thomas Foster was born at Coranderrk Station in 1882, the son of Edward Foster and Betsy Benfield. Foster’s was one of the last portraits painted by Leason as part of the unfortunately titled exhibition The Last of the Victorian Aborigines. These portraits were debuted on 11 September at the Athenaeum Gallery in Collins Street, Melbourne, to great public acclaim. Foster, like most of Leason’s subjects, appears shirtless, his arms folded behind his back, pushing forward his chest and clearly showing his scarification marks.

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926) 'Corroboree Australia' 1934

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926)
Corroboree Australia
1934
Colour lithograph printed by F. W. Niven, Melbourne
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of the Australian National Travel Association, 1934

 

 

Dystopian cities

Australia was hit hard by the Great Depression. The worst year was 1932, when unemployment reached nearly thirty-two per cent, and by the following year almost a third of all unemployed men had been without work for three years. With wages cut and unemployment rising, many families were left struggling to survive and this poverty was most evident in run-down, inner-city areas. Two émigrés, Danila Vassilieff and Yosl Bergner, were the first Australian artists to turn their attention to the plight of the urban poor and the disposed. Their powerful, expressive style was influential upon young artists, including Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker.

Economic hardship fostered bitterness and political unrest, and membership of radical groups on both the left and right increased. Boundaries between political agendas and art production became porous in this decade, and many artists believed, like Bergner, ‘that by painting we would change the world’. The complex enmeshment of the creative and political became a defining feature of the decade, and art in Australia became increasingly political, with the political realm involving itself with art.

By the end of the decade the worsening political situation overseas and a sense that another world war was inevitable contributed to a growing sense of unease. Many artists expressed this anxiety and foreboding in their works.

 

Laurence Le Guay (Australia 1917-90) 'No title (War montage with globe)' c. 1939

 

Laurence Le Guay (Australia 1917-90)
No title (War montage with globe)
c. 1939
Gelatin silver photograph
30.4 x 24.9 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through the NGV Foundation with the assistance of Mrs Mem Kirby, Fellow, 2001

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Hot rhythm!' 1936

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Hot rhythm!
1936
Silver gelatin photograph
24.7 x 17.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
William Kimpton Bequest, 2016

 

 

In this work, Max Dupain has the shadow of a slide trombone seemingly bisect the naked body of a woman in a photograph that, in the context of his known views, is less an erotic celebration of modern jazz culture and nightlife than a comment on the disruptive nature of modernity.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Doom of youth' 1937

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Doom of youth
1937
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1982

 

 

In Doom of youth – a title taken from Wyndham Lewis’s 1932 polemical book of the same name – Max Dupain creates an allegorical photograph in which a naked male body represents his vision of modern Australia. Using symbols that suggest disempowerment, Dupain implies that the flywheel of mechanisation has doomed youth (the representatives of a nation’s future) to a bleak fate.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Night with her train of stars and her gift of sleep' 1936-37

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Night with her train of stars and her gift of sleep
1936-37
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
William Kimpton Bequest, 2016

 

 

Referring to Edward Hughes’s 1912 Symbolist work of the same name, Max Dupain has replaced the painter’s dark-winged goddess of the night, who tries to calm the putti (or ‘stars’) that cling to her, with an updated modern version in which city lights replace starlight. The symbolism of the giant breast that towers over the electric lights of the urban landscape suggests an inversion of the natural for the man-made. The personification of night refers to the Greek goddess Nyx, a powerful force born of Chaos, and the mother of children including Sleep, Death and Pain. Given his often gloomy assessment of modernity, Dupain’s invocation of Nyx seems appropriate in the context.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Herbert Badham’s Paint and morning tea second left and Albert Tucker’s Self-portrait third from right
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Herbert Badham (Australia 1899-1961) 'Paint and morning tea' 1937

 

Herbert Badham (Australia 1899-1961)
Paint and morning tea
1937
Oil on cardboard
75.6 x 71.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1937
© The Estate of Herbert Badham

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Albert Tucker’s Self-portrait (1937) at left
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of Albert Tucker's 'Self-portrait' from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Albert Tucker’s Self-portrait (1937) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

In the late 1930s Albert Tucker’s contact with émigré artists Yosl Bergner and Danila Vassilieff was to provide important encouragement for him to pursue his artistic vocation and to make art that was responsive to the issues of his time. In 1938 Tucker was a founding member of the Contemporary Art Society, and he became one of the most articulate voices in the often bitter debates between modernists and conservatives. In the 1940s, together with his partner Joy Hester, Tucker was a key member of the group of artists and writers that formed around John and Sunday Reed at Heide.

From 1936 until the early 1940s Albert Tucker chronicled himself with numerous painted and drawn self-portraits. In these works we witness a harrowing disintegration of his physical self, which mirrored the artist’s overwrought emotional state. He recalled: ‘It was a period when the whole world, and all the people I knew, seemed to be seething with ideas and energies and experiences; and my own mind was a seething mess … The highly emotional, overwrought expressionist paintings suited my state at the time’.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with work by Danila Vassilieff on the centre black wall including Street scene with graffiti (left), Truth, Woolloomooloo (second left) and Young girl (Shirley) the large painting at right; and F. Oswald Barnett’s photographs of Melbourne slums in the display cabinet
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Danila Vassilieff (Russia 1897-Australia 1958, Australia from 1923, Central and South America, Europe, England 1929-34) 'Street scene with graffiti' 1938

 

Installation view of Danila Vassilieff ‘s Street scene with graffiti (1938) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Danila Vassilieff (Russia 1897-Australia 1958, Australia from 1923, Central and South America, Europe, England 1929-34) 'Truth, Woolloomooloo' 1936

 

Danila Vassilieff (Russia 1897-Australia 1958, Australia from 1923, Central and South America, Europe, England 1929-34)
Truth, Woolloomooloo
1936
Oil on canvas
Private collection

 

 

It is notable that the first artists to depict the poverty of inner-city slums were two recently arrived émigrés, Danila Vassilieff and Yosl Bergner. Russian-born Vassilieff, who had fought with the white Russian army, first arrived in Australia in 1923 before leaving again in 1929. On his return in 1935 he painted a series of dark streetscapes, depicting the inner suburban areas of Woolloomooloo and Surry Hills in Sydney. Moving to Melbourne, Vassilieff’s expressionist style influenced many young artists, including Lina Bryans, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan.

 

Danila Vassilieff (Russia 1897-Australia 1958, Australia from 1923, Central and South America, Europe, England 1929-34) 'Young girl (Shirley)' 1937

 

Danila Vassilieff (Russia 1897-Australia 1958, Australia from 1923, Central and South America, Europe, England 1929-34)
Young girl (Shirley)
1937
Oil on canvas on composition board
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
National Gallery Society of Victoria Century Fund, 1984

 

F. Oswald Barnett. 'Fitzroy. View from the Brotherhood of St Lawrence'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'Fitzroy. Rear view of house'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'North Melbourne. Group of children in Erskine Place'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'West Melbourne. A Dudley Mansion'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'Carlton. Wash-house and bath-room 48 Palmerston Street'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'North Melbourne. No. 19 Byron Street'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'West Melbourne rubbish tip'

 

F. Oswald Barnett (Australia 1883–1972)

Fitzroy. View from the Brotherhood of St Lawrence
Fitzroy. Rear view of house
North Melbourne. Group of children in Erskine Place
West Melbourne. A Dudley Mansion
Carlton. Wash-house and bath-room, 48 Palmerston Street
North Melbourne. No. 19 Byron Street
West Melbourne rubbish tip

c. 1930-c. 1935
Gelatin silver photograph and typewriting on card
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
F. Oswald Barnett Collection
Gift of Department of Human Services, Victoria 2001

 

 

One of the most visible and lasting effects of the Great Depression was the housing crisis in the poor working class areas of Melbourne and Sydney. Many of the nineteenth-century houses had fallen into disrepair, overcrowding was endemic and a great number of families lived in squalid and unhealthy conditions. Throughout the decade ‘slum’ abolition movements in Melbourne and Sydney ran public campaigns to place public housing on the political agenda, leading to the creation of the first state Housing Commissions.

In Melbourne, Methodist layman F. Oswald Barnett led a campaign calling for slum demolition and the rehousing of residents in government-financed housing. He took hundreds of photographs that were used in public lectures and to illustrate the 1937 report of the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board. This led to the creation of the Housing Commission of Victoria in 1938, with its first major project being the Garden City estate at Fishermans Bend. In Sydney a similar campaign led to the Housing Improvement Act of 1936 and the construction of the first fifty-six home units at Erskineville. (NGV)

The photographs in the F. Oswald Barnett Collection were taken by Barnett and other unidentified photographers in the 1930s. Many of them were used to illustrate a government report on slum housing and/or made into lantern slides for lectures in a public campaign.  F. Oswald Barnett was born in Brunswick, Victoria. A committed Methodist and housing reformer, he led a crusade against Melbourne’s inner city slums. In 1936 he was appointed to the Slum Abolition Board and from 1938-1948 he was the vice-chair of the Housing Commission. In this position he attempted to shape compassionate public housing policy. He later protested vigorously against proposed high-rise housing (Monash Biographical Dictionary of 20th century Australia).

 

 

Scenes from Melbourne during the depression (extract)
c. 1935
Black and white film transferred to media player
1 min. 51 sec. silent (looped)
Courtesy of National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Canberra

 

 

While there is an abundance of newspaper and documentary photographs which document the 1930s shanty towns, slums, relief and charity works, there is very little moving image recordings available. Instead, the moving image medium at the time was primarily focused on providing entertainment that would allow the audience temporary relief from the Depression. This rare footage depicts slum areas of inner Melbourne, and provides great insight into the horrible living conditions that many Australian families experienced.

 

Ola Cohn (Australia 1892-1964, England 1926-30) 'The sundowner' 1932

 

Ola Cohn (Australia 1892-1964, England 1926-30)
The sundowner
1932
Painted plaster
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Jack and Zena Cohn, 2016

 

 

Ola Cohn studied sculpture with Henry Moore at the Royal College of Art in London in the 1920s. She returned to Melbourne in 1930, where the following year her solo exhibition established her as a leading proponent of modern sculpture. During the Depression the sight of ‘swagmen’ or ‘sundowners’ became commonplace as unemployed men travelled across the country in order to find work. In 1932 Cohn submitted this maquette of a sundowner to a competition for a full-scale sculpture to be erected in Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne: unsurprisingly it was not chosen as the winning entry.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Bernard Smith’s The advance of Lot and his Brethren at centre and Albert Tucker’s The futile city at right
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of Bernard Smith's 'The advance of Lot and his Brethren' from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Bernard Smith’s The advance of Lot and his Brethren from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Bernard Smith (Australia 1916-2011, England and Europe 1948-51) 'The advance of Lot and his Brethren' 1940

 

Bernard Smith (Australia 1916-2011, England and Europe 1948-51)
The advance of Lot and his Brethren
1940
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of the artist, 2008

 

 

In the early 1930s, artists depicted the city as a modern utopia, a place of triumphant progress and aspiration later in the decades, a new radical iconography of the city as a place of moral decay and corruption appeared. Painted at the start of the Second World War, Lot and his brethren expresses Bernard Smith’s despair at the conflagration that the world had been plunged into. Based on the biblical story of Lot, who fled from God’s destruction of Sodom, Smith depicts Karl Marx as the saviour who leads his people from the burning city.

 

Albert Tucker (Australia 1914-99, Europe and United States 1947-60) 'The futile city' 1940

 

Albert Tucker (Australia 1914-99, Europe and United States 1947-60)
The futile city
1940
Oil on cardboard
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, Melbourne
Purchased from John and Sunday Reed, 1980

 

 

At the start of the Second World War Surrealism was an important influence upon Albert Tucker, as were the writings of T. S. Eliot. The futile city was inspired by Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land (1922): ‘I came on T. S. Eliot, and instantly I recognised a twin soul because here was horror, outrage, despair, futility, and all the images that went with them. He confirmed my own feelings and also became a source … because of the images that would involuntarily form while I was reading the poetry’.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Yosl Bergner’s Citizen (c. 1940) at left
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of Yosl Bergner's 'Citizen' from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Yosl Bergner’s Citizen (c. 1940) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Yosl Bergner was one of approximately 7000-8000 Jewish people, mainly from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, who arrived in Australia between 1933 and 1939 fleeing Nazi persecution. This number included many artists, musicians, architects, writers and intellectuals who were to contribute greatly to Australia’s cultural life. However, government policy remained opposed to large-scale intake of Jewish refugees, and some were met with anti-Semitic sentiments upon their arrival.

 

Yvonne Atkinson (Australia 1918-99) 'The tram stop' 1937

 

Installation view of Yvonne Atkinson The tram stop (1937) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Brave New World' 1938

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Brave New World
1938
Gelatin silver photograph
29.0 x 20.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
William Kimpton Bequest, 2017

 

 

In 1935 Max Dupain referred to Aldous Huxley’s book Brave New World (1932) in his photograph of a woman trapped by technology. Dupain was attracted to this biting satire on the ethical dilemmas of social engineering because it appeared to endorse his own fervently held ideas of how modernity was affecting the individual and national body. At the time his choice to directly reference this book was surprisingly provocative: Brave New World had been banned by the Australian customs department, with existing copies rounded up and burned. Dupain returned again to the theme in 1938, producing this variant version.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Max Dupain’s Brave New World (wall print) at centre rear with Sideboard and Chest of drawers at right
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Sideboard and Chest of drawers from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Eugene Hyland

Unknown, Australia
Sideboard
1920s-40s
Painted wood, wood, tin
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

Unknown, Australia
Chest of drawers
1920s-40s
Painted wood, wood, tin
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

 

Unknown, Australia. 'Sideboard' 1920s-40s

 

Unknown, Australia
Sideboard
1920s-40s
Painted wood, wood, tin
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

 

Unknown, Australia. 'Chest of drawers' 1920s-40s

 

Unknown, Australia
Chest of drawers
1920s-40s
Painted wood, wood, tin
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

 

 

Working-class people were the most affected by the high levels of unemployment during the Depression. By 1932 more than 60,000 men, women and children were dependent on the susso, a state-based sustenance payment that enabled families to buy only the bare minimum of food. Many families unable to pay their rent were evicted from their homes. For those suffering economic hardship, ‘making do’ became a way of life, and furniture would be constructed from found items such as kerosene tins and packing crates.

 

J. M. Harcourt (writer) John Long (publisher) 'Upsurge' 1934

 

J. M. Harcourt (writer)
John Long (publisher)
Upsurge
1934
London, March 1934
State Library Victoria, Melbourne

 

 

Censorship of books was vigorously pursued by federal and state governments during the 1930s. Australia was one of only two countries in the world to ban Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when it was first published in 1932. Australian author J. M. Harcourt’s novel Upsurge (1934) was the first book to be banned following a recommendation by the newly established Book Censorship Board in 1934. Portraying the lives of Western Australia’s working class during the Depression, it was described by one customs official as ‘thinly disguised propaganda on behalf of Communism and social revolution’.

 

Activism

During the 1930s a small number of artists became active in the militant working-class struggle through their involvement in social and cultural organisations affiliated with the Communist Party, such as the Friends of the Soviet Union, the Workers’ Art Club and the Workers’ Theatre Group, which were formed in Sydney, Melbourne and other metropolitan centres. A number of these artists were also involved with a variety of mostly short-lived radical magazines, helping with their production, as well as providing covers and illustrations. Linocuts were a preferred medium for these artists, as the materials were inexpensive and the images reproduced well.

 

Jack Maughan illustrator (Australia 1897-1980) 'Masses' 1932

 

Jack Maughan illustrator (Australia 1897-1980)
Masses
Cover illustration for Masses, vol. 1, no. 1, printed by Bright Printing Services, published by the Workers’ Art Club, Melbourne, November 1932
1932
Linocut printed in red and black ink
State Library Victoria, Melbourne

 

Installation view of Herbert McClintock's cover illustration for 'Strife', vol. 1, no. 1

 

Installation view of Herbert McClintock’s cover illustration for Strife, vol. 1, no. 1 (1930) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Edited by eighteen-year-old communist Judah Waten, with Herbert McClintock as art editor, Strife declared itself ‘an organ of the new culture, destructive and constructive’. The first issue was due for release in October 1930; however, a blasphemous poem by Brian Fitzpatrick published in the magazine prompted a police raid on the Strife office and the editor’s hasty destruction of (most) copies of the issue.

 

Installation view of cover illustration for 'Proletariat', vol. 2, no. 1 (1933) by an unknown illustrator

 

Installation view of cover illustration for Proletariat, vol. 2, no. 1 (1933) by an unknown illustrator from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

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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06
Jun
16

Exhibition: ‘Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination’ at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 18th March – 12th June 2016

 

You only have five days left to catch what I consider to be one of the best exhibitions I have seen this year in Melbourne.

If ever there was a man deserving of a large retrospective, it is Jan Senbergs. This wondrous, intelligent, immersive exhibition by this iconic Australian artist is a joy. Particularly so as you witness the gestation of the artist, the journey from very first exhibition to latest work.

Witness is a particularly apt metaphor for Senbergs – he is a witness to the world who uses his imagination to create, as he says, “maybe something architectonic or machine-like, but not quite: and ambiguous … I was trying to create something irrational, something out of the imagination but belonging to the world.” He belongs to the world but creates things not of the world as we know it. It is a twisted world n/visioned in multiple forms. Twisted labyrinthine structures – mechanistic, naturalistic, humanistic – swirling around in his head, put down as marks on paper, synthetic polymer paint on canvas.

Mark making is important to this man. He maps mechanistic and biomorphic elements, always intelligently informed by sources as diverse as “literature, history, architecture and non-Western art, and finds imagery within obscure technical journals, ancient mythology and illustrated encyclopedias.” His influences are various – German Expressionism, Max Beckmann, Neo-Expressionist painting of the early 1980s, Brutalism, Eduardo Paolozzi, Pop Art and the writing of American postmodernist author Donald Bartheme – to name but a few. And his perspective is unique, as John Olsen insightfully observes, “not often on the vanishing point, but … more related to the spatial  orientation in Chinese or Islamic art. This kind of perspective gives weight to an object; the sensation is abrupt and very blunt, ideally related to his vision.”

Standing in front of the huge six painting wall of Senbergs’ Antarctic paintings you feel the power of that (topographical? analytical? cut-away) vision. I dare you not to.

There are downsides. When they do appear in his paintings, his literal figures and landscapes (such as people, boats and bays), are weak. But that’s not what this artist is about. His screen print work of the mid to late 1970s lead him into a formally stylistic dead end. But he was an intelligent enough artist to recognise it as such and returned to mark making: “But it was a period when I was getting too confident. It was time to leave it alone, go back to the mark.” And his popularist map paintings of Sydney and Melbourne, painted in a brighter colour palette, don’t have the depth of feeling and response to the world that other works possess.

His limited colour palette – all blacks and subdued colours in the early enamel work; green and browns in the 1970s work; greys, blacks and beiges in the early 1980s; blues and greens with splashes of colour for the Antarctic and mining paintings; through to the more colourful map paintings of the 1990s and the recent oranges of the bushfire paintings – has always given weight to the object, weight to his constructed upside-down world, weight to his vision of a place where anything might happen. And frequently does.

Irrational, perhaps (but the irrational can only exist if there is the rational).
Something out of the imagination but belonging to the world, indubitably.
A world that is neither dysfunctional in vision nor balance.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

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

 

This is the first comprehensive retrospective of renowned Melbourne artist Jan Senbergs. Throughout his long career, Senbergs’ work has been characterised by a fundamental humanist vision, a finely-honed sense of the absurd, and a rigorous studio practice spanning printmaking, drawing and painting. He is considered to be amongst Australia’s leading painters and his large-scale expressive drawings are highly regarded. More recently Senbergs has created labyrinthine views of cities, employing aerial perspectives to present a bird’s eye view of humankind’s endeavours. The exhibition includes paintings, drawings and prints from his first exhibition in 1960 until the present day, borrowed from public and private collections around Australia.

Jan Senbergs is one of Australia’s most distinctive artists. He is both an acute observer and a creator of fantastical imagery. Since his first exhibition in 1960, Senbergs’s work has undergone many transformations of style, technique and subject, yet there have also been recurring themes and motifs. Elements from his very first works have reappeared, reworked and reinterpreted, throughout his career.

Senbergs’s artistic imagination has been fed by many sources, including his love of literature and poetry; his interest in no-Western artistic traditions and the work of outsider artists; journeys to distant locales as well as familiar places close to home. The artist has often referred to himself as a ‘visual scavenger’ of images – photographs, scientific diagrams, maps – which he transforms and incorporates into his own work. Above all, Senbergs’s art reflects his essential humanism, humour and wide-ranging curiosity.

 

 

“I was always interested in painting buildings and things and I tried to make them half human, trying to put figures into them, in the end they blended together as one, the figures, the buildings and the people.”

.
Jan Senbergs, 1965

 

“I was always trying to invent new forms, different forms, shapes which were recognisable – maybe something architectonic or machine-like, but not quite: and ambiguous … I was trying to create something irrational, something out of the imagination but belonging to the world.”

.
Jan Senbergs, 2008

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation view of the opening room of the exhibition Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Alan Kilner. 'Jan Senbergs, Melbourne' c. 1959

 

Alan Kilner
Jan Senbergs, Melbourne
c. 1959
Image courtesy Jan Senbergs

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'The whipper' 1961

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
The whipper
1961
Enamel paint on composition board
183.0 x 122.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne
© Jan Senbergs

 

Literature has always been an important source of imagery for Senbergs. This work, one of his earliest, is based upon an episode in The Trial (1925) by Czech writer Franz Kafka. In the painting two figures cower beneath ‘the whipper’, who metes out a brutal punishment to them. This work was included in Senbergs’s second solo exhibition at the Argus Gallery, Melbourne, in 1962.

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Two heads' 1961

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Two heads
1961
Enamel paint on composition board
Private collection, Melbourne

 

“I was always interested in painting buildings and things and I tried to make them half-human, trying to put the figures into them; in the end they blended together as one, the figures and the buildings and the people.” – Jan Senbergs, 1965

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Head' 1963

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Head
1963
Colour screenprint on paper, artist’s proof, edition of 10
42.4 x 35.2 cm (image and sheet)
Courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne
© Jan Senbergs

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'The night parade' 1966

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'The night parade' 1966

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
The night parade
1966
Enamel paint on composition board
Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery
Gift of the artist, 1977

 

At the time of its creation, this was Senbergs’s largest and most ambitious painting to date, and it formed the centrepiece of his 1966 exhibition at Georges Gallery in Melbourne. The triptych format recalls the work of German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann, one of Senbergs’s earliest and ongoing artistic heroes. In his review of the exhibition, critic Allan McCulloch wrote: “Instead of simply looking at abstract pictures we have the feeling of standing on the perimeter of a vast industrial landscape in which hills and slagheaps, factories and cities are relentlessly pushed and jostled by an omni-present parade of silent watchers. The huge triptych “The night parade’ … illustrates the point.”

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Observation post 2' 1968

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Observation post 2
1968
Synthetic polymer paint, oil screenprint on canvas
246.0 x 185.0 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1971
© Jan Senbergs

 

On his return to Melbourne in late 1967, Senbergs’ work changed dramatically. He ceased painting with enamel on Masonite composition boards, and instead started working with oil or acrylic on canvas and began to incorporate screenprinted elements into his paintings. Of his year in Europe he later recalled, “I got a lot out of it, it completely made me revise and rethink a whole lot of things regarding my painting, my work, my attitudes and so on … I felt very refreshed and confident when I came back.”

By the mid 1960s Senbergs’ imagery was becoming increasingly sculptural, merging mechanistic and biomorphic elements, in part stimulated by his interest in the work of Scottish Pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi. Senbergs entered what he refers to as his ‘axle-grease’ period, when his colours became darker and more sombre, which he considered would enhance form in his work.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation views of the exhibition Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia with, at right, Column and still objects 1 (1968)

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Column and still objects 1' (detail) 1968

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Column and still objects 1 (detail)
1968
The Edith Cowan University Art Collection
Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Mr Timothy James Bernadt

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Black garden' (detail) 1972

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Black garden (detail)
1972
Synthetic polymer paint, oil screenprint on canvas plywood
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1973

 

In 1972 Senbergs exhibition sixteen new paintings at Melbourne’s Gallery A, including Black garden, in which he created ambiguous cityscapes from surrealistic combinations of screen printed fragments of images. With their absurdist sensibility and disjointed fragmentary images, these paintings emulate the writing of American postmodernist author Donald Bartheme, whose short stories Senbergs admired greatly and whom he credits with being a major influence upon him.

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Fort 2' 1973

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Fort 2
1973
Synthetic polymer paint, oil screenprint on canvas
243.7 x 197.8 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1974
© Jan Senbergs

 

The paintings Senbergs created in 1973 in response to his selection to represent Australia at the 12th São Paolo Biennial in Brazil were larger and more imposing than his 1972 paintings, and often incorporated an image of a ramp to suggest entry into the foms. With their realistic modelling of architectural forms set against a horizon line, these works evoke the real world, yet remain defiantly resistant to interpretation.

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Structure, cloud' 1975

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Structure, cloud
1975
Colour screenprint, ed. 19/25
55.6 x 81.2 cm (image), 71.0 x 100.2 cm (sheet)
Courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne
© Jan Senbergs

 

 

“The printing technique was very important to me because I was a kind of scavenger of odd sorts of images. I mean a lot of those sort of shapes and forms were things that one saw perhaps in an old engraving book, a little detail of a section of some background somewhere and I’d look into it and see certain sorts of forms there … I was a collector, a scavenger. I used to go to libraries and collect these images and I’d buy a lot of books.” – Jan Senbergs

“When I was doing these prints and as I was coming to a conclusion to them, I also realised I was handling it in a more sophisticated way. The prints were becoming more refined, more in control … But it was a period when I was getting too confident. It was time to leave it alone, go back to the mark.” – Jan Senbergs 2008

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation views of the exhibition Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'The flyer' 1975

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
The flyer
1975
Synthetic polymer paint, oil silkscreen on canvas
167.0 x 244.0 cm
Collection of Paul Guest, Melbourne
© Jan Senbergs

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Altered Parliament House 1' 1976

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Altered Parliament House 1
1976
Synthetic polymer paint, oil silkscreen on canvas
182.5 x 243.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented by Mrs Adrian Gibson as the winner of the 1976 Sir William Angliss Memorial Art Prize, 1977
© Jan Senbergs

 

While living in Canberra, on his walk home Senbergs would see Parliament House: “I’d see this white glowing dreadnought in the distance … that’s the way it appeared, sort of floating, just this whiteness because it was lit up … This form fascinated me. But also, and on another level, I was there in ’75 when all the political things happened and [after that] it didn’t have that sort of purity and whiteness that it appeared to have beforehand. In a way that gave me more liberty to change the imagery of the building.”

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Observatory of hard edges' (detail) 1976

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Observatory of hard edges (detail)
1976
Synthetic polymer paint, oil screenprint on canvas
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1976

 

This is one of Senbergs’ most architectonic images; its massing of asymmetrical forms, pronounced geometry and pale colours bring to mind the contemporaneous style of Brutalist architecture.

 

Jan Senbergs drawings late 1970s - early 1980s

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)

Port piers and overpass (top left)
1979
Pastel on paper
Courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

Port structure (bottom left)
1979
Pastel on paper
Courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

Station Pier (top right)
1980
Pastel on paper
Courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

Port signals (bottom right)
1980
Pastel on paper
Courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

 

“Yesterday I visited Jan Senbergs at his studio in Port Melbourne … I was greatly impressed by what I saw: he has moved away from a photo image to observation, perhaps with [Max] Beckmann as his distant father. His line is slow and sullen and he creates a feeling of junk-heap menace … His perspective is not often on the vanishing point, but is more related to the spatial  orientation in Chinese or Islamic art. This kind of perspective gives weight to an object; the sensation is abrupt and very blunt, ideally related to his vision.” – John Olsen 1980

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Port Liardet' 2 1981

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Port Liardet 2
1981
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
183.0 x 244.0 cm
Latrobe Regional Gallery Collection.
Acquired with assistance from the Caltex Victorian Government Art Fund and the Shire of Morwell
© Jan Senbergs

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation views of the exhibition Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia with Sticht’s view to the smelters 1 at right

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Sticht's view to the smelters 1' 1982

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Sticht’s view to the smelters 1
1982
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart
Purchase with funds presented by Renison Goldfields Consolidated, 1983

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Sticht's view to the smelters 1' (detail) 1982

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Sticht’s view to the smelters 1 (detail)
1982
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart
Purchase with funds presented by Renison Goldfields Consolidated, 1983

 

 

Robert Carl Sticht was an American metallurgist who in 1897 became general manager of the copper mine at Mount Lyell on the remote and rugged west coast of Tasmania. There he introduced a new technique of smelting which released large amounts of deadly sulphur into the air, one of the principal agents of destruction of the natural environment of the region.

In the Copperopolis – Mt Lyell series, Senbergs moved away from the smooth surfaces and clearly articulated forms of his Port Liardet paintings to a more gestural, painterly mode, in accord with the style of Neo-Expressionist painting of the early 1980s.

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Broadening the mind in Italy' 1986, 1991

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Broadening the mind in Italy
1986, 1991
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas 167.0 x 243.0 cm
Private collection, Melbourne
© Jan Senbergs

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Broadening the mind in Italy' (detail) 1986, 1991

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Broadening the mind in Italy (detail)
1986, 1991
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas 167.0 x 243.0 cm
Private collection, Melbourne
© Jan Senbergs

 

Predrag Cancar/NGV Photographic Services. 'Jan Senbergs in his studio' 2015

 

Predrag Cancar/NGV Photographic Services
Jan Senbergs in his studio
2015

 

 

“From the vast expanses of Antarctica to labyrinthine Melbourne cityscapes, more than five decades of artist Jan Senbergs’ prolific oeuvre will be revealed in the major retrospective Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination.

The exhibition, Senbergs’ first-ever comprehensive survey, will feature over 120 works including large-scale paintings, drawings and prints which depict sprawling aerial views of Australian cities, dystopic industrial landscapes, raging bushfires in the Victorian Otways, the remote deserts of north-Western Australia and more. The exhibition spans Senbergs’ first exhibition in 1960 through to the present day, representing all periods of his career. Recognised for his sheer visual inventiveness and sitting outside any defined artistic trend, Senbergs draws inspiration from a remarkably diverse range of influences; literature, history, architecture and non-Western art, and finds imagery within obscure technical journals, ancient mythology and illustrated encyclopedias.

Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV, said, “As one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, Jan Senbergs is an extraordinary inventor of his own visual language, at once simple and bold. From lush landscapes to barren urban spaces, his body of work signifies an artist who has continually experimented with shape, form and motif, and one who to this day continues to push his art in new and unexpected directions. The NGV is pleased to present the first major retrospective of Jan Senbergs’ work and offer visitors the opportunity to experience the full spectrum and constant evolution of his career.”

Senbergs, born in 1939 in Latvia, moved to Melbourne in 1950 following the end of World War II. Among other honours, he represented Australia at the prestigious 12th São Paolo Biennial in 1973 and was appointed to the Visiting Chair in Australian Studies at Harvard University in 1989, the first artist to hold this illustrious post. Observation – Imagination will include key works from Senbergs’ most important and critically acclaimed series including his 1973 São Paolo Biennial paintings, the Copperopolis – Mt Lyell mining landscape series, 1983, and his immense multi-panelled studio drawings of 1993-95.

Senbergs’ Antarctica series is considered one of the most significant artistic responses to the continent. In 1987, Senbergs spent six weeks with the Australian Antarctic Division, travelling with fellow artists Bea Maddock and John Caldwell, on an annual resupply mission. Observation – Imagination will include key works such as his epic landscapes Mawson and Davis. The exhibition will also present Senbergs’ epic, 4.6 metre long Pulaski Skyway painting, which reflects the post-industrial landscape of the five and a half kilometre freeway that crosses the wasteland of western New Jersey from Newark to Jersey City. In this, Senbergs found a metaphor for the American experience and its splendour and decay.

More recently Senbergs has produced intricate labyrinthine views of cities, combining memory and imagination, and the exhibition will include map-like images of Melbourne, Sydney, Geelong, Wollongong and Port KemblaThe exhibition will also feature works from Senbergs’ recent 2014 Victorian bushfire series, which burst with visual drama and chromatic brilliance. Senbergs often refers to himself as a scavenger and collector of imagery taken from a wide variety of sources, and Observation – Imagination will include an enormous showcase, created by the artist, filled with cut-outs, photographs and personal artefacts that reference the people, places and artworks which have fuelled his visual imagination.”

Press release from the National Gallery of Victoria

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation views of the exhibition Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia with Blue angel of Wittenoom (top left) and Otway night (bottom right)

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Blue angel of Wittenoom' 1988

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Blue angel of Wittenoom
1988
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
197.5 x 305.0 cm
State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth
Purchased 1989
© Jan Senbergs
Photo: Eva Fernandez

 

 

The blue angel in the painting refers to the dangers of asbestos in the mining town of Wittenoom.

Wittenoom is a ghost town 1,106 kilometres (687 mi) north-north-east of Perth in the Hamersley Range in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The area around Wittenoom was mainly pastoral until the 1930s when mining began in the area. By 1939, major mining had begun in Yampire Gorge, which was subsequently closed in 1943 when mining began in Wittenoom Gorge. In 1947 a company town was built, and by the 1950s it was Pilbara’s largest town. During the 1950s and early 1960s Wittenoom was Australia’s only supplier of blue asbestos. The town was shut down in 1966 due to unprofitability and growing health concerns from asbestos mining in the area.

Today, six residents still live in the town, which receives no government services. In December 2006, the Government of Western Australia announced that the town’s official status would be removed, and in June 2007, Jon Ford, the Minister for Regional Development, announced that the townsite had officially been degazetted. The town’s name was removed from official maps and road signs and the Shire of Ashburton is able to close roads that lead to contaminated areas.

The Wittenoom steering committee met in April 2013 to finalise closure of the town, limit access to the area and raise awareness of the risks. Details of how that would be achieved were to be determined but it would likely necessitate removing the town’s remaining residents, converting freehold land to crown land, demolishing houses and closing or rerouting roads. by 2015 six residents remained.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Otway night' (detail) 1994

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Otway night (detail)
1994
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Purchase with assistance from Ruth Komon, 1994

 

After purchasing a holiday house at Aireys Inlet, Senbergs became interested in the history of Victoria’s west coast and the story of escaped convict William Buckley, ‘the wild white man’ who lived with the local Wathaurung people from 1803 until 1835 before being integrated back into colonial society.

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Mawson' (detail) 1987

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Mawson (detail)
1987
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Private collection, Melbourne

 

“As in previous settlements in history, in Antarctica we are again squatting on the edge of yet another continent and bringing our cultural baggage with us. Already there is a sense of history there: architectural, social and visual.” – Jan Senbergs, 2002

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation views of the exhibition Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia with Bea Maddock being lifted onto the Icebird – Heard Island (top left), Antarctic night (top middle), Mawson (bottom left), and Platcha (bottom middle)

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Bea Maddock being lifted onto the Icebird - Heard Island' 1987

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Bea Maddock being lifted onto the Icebird – Heard Island
1987
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
197.2 x 274.1cm
State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth
Purchased 1987
© Jan Senbergs

 

Senbergs was one of three artists invited by the Australian Antractic Division to take part in the resupply Voyage Six to Antarctica as observers. Leaving Hobart in early January 1987, during their six‐week journey the artists visited Heard Island, Scullin Monolith, Law Base, Davis, Mawson and the Russian base at Mirny. This painting depicts fellow artist Bea Maddock who broke her leg while disembarking at Heard Island and needed to be winched back on board. Unfortunately, she was incapacitated for the remainder of the trip.

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Antarctic night' 1989

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Antarctic night
1989
Synthetic polymer paint and collage on canvas
202.0 x 292.0 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1990
© Jan Senbergs

 

“In a “cut-away” view, [Antarctic night] shows the interior of a winterer’s hut with its wall covered in a “tapestry” of pin-up images – from the earliest “pin‐up”, the Venus of Willendorf, to the Playboy centrefolds of the 1950s and 1960s … The more you saw of it, the more it seemed like an Antarctic Pop Art movement.”

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Platcha' 1987

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Platcha
1987
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
224.0 x 355.0 cm
Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Trust Collection
© Jan Senbergs

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation view of the exhibition Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Jan Senbergs. Installation view of 'New Guinea sheilas triptych' (centre row) and 'New Guinea male triptych' (bottom row) both 1993

 

Installation view of New Guinea sheilas triptych (centre row) and New Guinea male triptych (bottom row) both 1993
Pastel on paper
Courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

 

Jan Senbergs. Detail view of 'New Guinea sheilas triptych' (centre row) and 'New Guinea male triptych' (bottom row) both 1993

 

Detail view of New Guinea sheilas triptych (centre row) and New Guinea male triptych (bottom row) both 1993
Pastel on paper
Courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'New Guinea male triptych' (detail) 1993

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
New Guinea male triptych (detail) 
1993
pastel on paper
(a-c) 160.0 x 366.0 cm (overall)
Courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne
© Jan Senbergs

 

 

“I enjoy the freedom of drawing, the directness of what I call my “Long Arm Drawing” with a black pastel or an oil stick, where there’s no room for corrections or embellishments – dancing in front of a sheet of paper, keeping a spontaneous line, and if you hesitate, it shows. It’s “unforgiving” drawing and if you’re out of form you lose, and sheets of paper end up in the bin. Like an athlete or a dancer, you’ve got to put in the hours to make the confident mark.”

.
Jan Senbergs, 2016

 

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Melbourne' 1998-99

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Melbourne
1998-99
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
183.0 x 274.0 cm
State Library of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of the Gualtiero Vaccari Foundation in recognition of services provided by the State Library to the Italian Community, 1999
© Jan Senbergs

 

 

“[The] map-like images of the city that I’ve developed – of Melbourne, Sydney, Wollongong, Barcelona – they come out of a fascination with map-making, particularly early map-making … I started to look for an imagined way of painting and drawing actual places like Melbourne or Sydney: not exactly what you see in front of you but what you know to be there … It’s like those early maps, imaginary maps where people were drawing what they knew, not what they saw or measured.”

.
Jan Senbergs, 2006

 

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Sydney' 1998

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Sydney
1998
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
174.0 x 344.0 (framed)
Collection of McDonald’s Australia Limited
© Jan Senbergs
Photo: Felicity Jenkins

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'The elated city' 2009

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
The elated city
2009
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
239.0 x 196.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne
© Jan Senbergs

 

Figures and heads made from mechanistic and architectural elements was one of Senbergs’s earliest subjects. He returned to this motif recently in several monumental paintings, including Paolozzi’s city, 2010, and The elated city, 2009.

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Coastal settlement' 2009

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Coastal settlement
2009
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
169.0 x 216.0 cm
Private collection, Melbourne
© Jan Senbergs

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Melbourne capriccio 3' 2009

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Melbourne capriccio 3
2009
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
195.2 x 184.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by The Hugh D. T. Williamson Foundation, 2009
© Jan Senbergs

 

In the history of painting, a capriccio refers to an architectural fantasy where buildings and other architectural elements and places come together in imaginary settings. Senbergs’ Melbourne capriccio offers the viewer the pleasure of a bird’s-eye view of familiar landmarks, seen through a rich blend of memory and imagination.

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Paolozzi's city' 2010

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Paolozzi’s city
2010
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
200.5 x 193.2 cm
TarraWarra Museum of Art Collection
Acquired 2011
© Jan Senbergs

 

As a young artist in the 1960s, Senbergs greatly admired Scottish Pop artist Edouardo Paolozzi’s strange fusions of machine and organic forms, and explored similar ideas in his own paintings and screenprints. In Paolozzi’s city Senbergs has created a fantastical head out of buildings and roads, and pays homage to one of his first artistic heroes.

 

senbergs-paolozzi-detail

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Paolozzi’s city (detail)
2010
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
200.5 x 193.2 cm
TarraWarra Museum of Art Collection
Acquired 2011
© Jan Senbergs

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Geelong capriccio (if Geelong were settled instead of Melbourne)' 2010

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Geelong capriccio (if Geelong were settled instead of Melbourne)
2010
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
197.0 x 255.0 cm
Deakin University Art Collection
© Jan Senbergs
Image courtesy Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

 

 

“One of the rarest qualities in contemporary painting is wit … Jan Senberg’s ‘Geelong capriccio’ is in every way a painting of wit, its single and absurd proposition as to what the world would look like if Geelong had become the capital and the site of Melbourne remained open paddocks … It seems to be a very Antipodean painting: the upside-down world, which Europe imagined Australia to be, a place where anything might happen.”

.
Patrick McCaughey, 2010

 

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Extended Melbourne labyrinth' 2013

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Extended Melbourne labyrinth
2013
Oil stick, synthetic polymer paint wash
(a-d) 162.5 x 497.4 cm (framed) (overall)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Yvonne Pettengell Bequest, 2014
© Jan Senbergs

 

Installation view of the exhibition Jan Senbergs: Observation - Imagination at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

 

Installation view of the opening room of the exhibition Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia with, at top, Extended Melbourne labyrinth and, at left, Geelong capriccio (if Geelong were settled instead of Melbourne); at right Melbourne capriccio 3

 

installation-r

installation-s

 

Installation views of the opening room of the exhibition Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia with, at left, The elated city followed by Paolozzi’s city

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950) 'Fire and smoke' 1 2014

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Fire and smoke 1
2014
Synthetic polymer paint on paper
48.0 x 70.0 cm (sheet)
Private collection, Melbourne
© Jan Senbergs
Image courtesy Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

 

 

In contrast to the enclosed, almost claustrophobic spaces of the studio interiors, by the end of the 1990s Senbergs had embarked upon a new series of map-like paintings, sprawling bird’s-eye view of cities, which continue to occupy him to the present day. Initially inspired by seeing Melbourne from a high-rise building, these works reflect the artist’s long fascination with early and non-Western map-making traditions. Like these maps, Senbergs’ views are not scientifically measured recordings; rather they are imaginative constructions of place based on observation and memory.

At the same time Senbergs began his most extensive group of landscapes, painting the rugged terrain of the Victorian west coast, an area that he knew well. While some of these works depict untouched wilderness, others include roads and townships and employ multiple perspectives to convey the experience of travelling through the landscape. Senbergs’ recent Heat – Fire – Smoke series is a response to the 2014 bushfires in Victoria, a new subject for the artist, in which he reflects on the cycle of destruction and regeneration. (Wall text from the exhibition)

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)' Code Red day 1' 2014

 

Jan Senbergs (born Latvia 1939, arrived Australia 1950)
Code Red day 1
2014
Synthetic polymer paint on paper
119.0 x 145.0 cm
Private collection, Melbourne
© Jan Senbergs

 

 

“In January 2014 in Melbourne we had four days of forty-plus degrees of intense heat – with bushfires raging in the countryside casting a pall of acrid smoke over the extended city and all around ominous skies that seemed to portend an inferno that would be all engulfing. That oppressive atmosphere and that sense of threat at the edges of the extended city seemed as if an overwhelming and merciless force was at the gates and ready to break down the barricades.”

Jan Senbergs, 2015

 

 

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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29
Mar
16

Review: ‘Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan’ at the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum

Exhibition dates: 15th January – 15th April 2016

 

This is the most profound exhibition that I have seen so far this year. Simply put, the exhibition is magnificent … a must see for any human being with an ounce of understanding and compassion in their body.

While I am vehemently anti-war, and believe that we should have never have been in Afghanistan in the first place, these sensual and skeletal paintings represent the danger that these soldiers exposed themselves to in the line of duty. The sensuousness and vulnerability of their solitary, contorted poses – poses which they themselves chose to for Quilty to paint – reflect an actual event, such as taking cover to engage insurgents. That these naked poses then turn out to have a quiet eroticism embedded in them confirms the link between eroticism, death and sensuality as proposed by Georges Bataille. The three forms of eroticism (physical, emotional, religious) try to substitute continuity (life) for discontinuity (death). In these paintings the soldiers lay bare their inner self. They bring forth experiences that have been buried – their dissociation from the reality of what occurred, the experiences they have repressed, the post-traumatic stress – brought to the surface and examined in these paintings through the re-presentation of suppressed emotions, through a form of emotional eroticism, a primordial rising of eroticism, death and sensuality. An affirming act of life over death.

As an artist, Quilty intimately understands this process. I think a strong element of this exhbition is the feeling that there is something missing, that the range of concerns is lacking something. I suspect this is deliberate. Something is being withheld. And what is being withheld in the paintings is, I believe, narrative.

While there is an overarching text narrative – soldiers painted “after Afghanistan” – and individual paintings have titles such as Sergeant P, Troy Park, Trooper M and Trooper Daniel Westcott, these paintings could almost be of any human being who has been a soldier. Other than the specific triptych of Air Commodore John Oddie (and even then the portraits remind me of the ambiguity of Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953), these paintings could be of any soldier. As Gerhard Ricther observes, “You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that.” After Richter, you might say that “there is no plan”, there is only feeling in the work of Ben Quilty, embodied through his brush. Here, I see links to the work of that great British painter, Francis Bacon.

“Bacon was deeply suspicious of narrative. For him, narrative seems to be the natural enemy of vision; it blinds… Bacon seems to propose an opposition between narrative as a product that can be endlessly reproduced, as re-presentation – the ‘boredom’ is inspired by the deja vu of repetition – and narrative as process, as sensation. Conveying a story implies that a pre-existing story, fictional or not, is transferred to an addressee. Narrative is then reduced to a kind of transferable message. Opposed to this ‘conveying of story’, ‘telling a story’ focuses on the activity or process of narrative. This process is not repeatable; it cannot be iterative because it takes place, it happens, whenever ‘story’ happens… Bacon’s hostility toward narrative is directed against narrative as product, as re-presentation, not against narrative as process.
(Bacon) does not paint characters, but figures. Figures, unlike characters, do not imply a relationship between an object outside the painting and the figure in the painting that supposedly illustrates that object. The figure is, and refers only to itself.”1

The figure is, and refers only to itself, and it is up to the viewer to actively interpret this telling of the story each time they view one of Quilty’s paintings. There is no transferable message.

Further, much like Bacon’s triptychs, Quilty’s paintings depict isolated figures or figural events on the panels. The figures are isolated in their space and their is never any clear interaction between the figures. “Bacon explains the use of the triptych as follows: ‘It helps to avoid storytelling if the figures are painted on three different canvases’ … The figures never fully become characters, while the figural events are never explained by being embedded in a sequence of events. The figures interact neither with each other nor with their environment. Although Bacon’s paintings display many signs which traditionally signify narrativity, by the same token any attempt to postulate narratives based on the paintings is countered.”2

In these paintings, Quilty does not turn away from the evidence of the soldiers before him who express through their bodies that life is violent. He does not attempt to save the viewer from such unpleasantries. As Bacon comments, “The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.” Quilty stretches his sensibility as an artist and as a human being by getting down and dirty with his subject matter, both physically and emotionally. In fact, I would say Quilty becomes his subject, so close does the artist get to the object of his attention (after all, this is also Quilty’s experience of Afghanistan, as much as it is the soldiers who he is painting. The artist is always present in the work). The closer you get to one of his paintings, the more the detail vanishes and the more the paint becomes like blood and guts. The artist presses up against his subject which dissolves into abstraction. A bravura tour de force of painting that it so confident in its intent… [that there are] huge stretches of bare white canvas as flesh, with these striking gestures for throat and nipple executed without fear in one stroke of the brush. The black hole appearing out of the side of the soldiers head reminds me of Carl Jung’s ambivalent feelings toward his unconscious shadow; and at one end of the gallery you have a black hole (Trooper Luke Korman, Tarin Kot, 2012, below) and at the other a white hole (Trooper Luke Korman, 2012, below), such are the energies of yin yang that flow through the lighter of the gallery spaces.

Using what the photographer Imogen Cunningham termed the ‘paradox of expansion via reduction’ – closing in on subject (either physically and/or mentally), the intensity and focus attendant to a clear way of seeing – allows Quilty’s work to be flooded with sensuality and reductive power. The horror of the body, of how fragile we are (Damien Hirst) is expressed through the visceral paint. The viewer’s mind tells the story, creates the horror, the closer you get to the work. As I said earlier, there is no transferable message, no actual interpretation but universal triggers that impinge on the viewer’s mind. Quilty plays with the flow of time and space, memory and war by disassociating himself from traditional narrative. As the quotation below from Peter Handke’s novel Across eloquently expresses it, it is a sense of “being-empty” (Zen), an empty form that is also full at the same time. Every object in Quilty’s opus moves into place and we pass over, quietly, into a place we have never been before, through paintings that picture the unknowable. Something we have never seen or felt before. In painting, I don’t think there are many artists that could have achieved what Quilty has with this body of work.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Word count: 1,125

.
Many thankx to Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

  1. Ernst Van Alphen. Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, 1992 quoted in “Francis Bacon and ‘Narrative’, the Natural Enemy of Vision,” on the ASX website, June 27 2013 [Online] Cited 29/03/2016.
  2. Ibid.,

 

 

“With the light of that moment, silence fell. The warming emptiness that I need so badly spread. My forehead no longer needed a supporting hand. It wasn’t exactly a warmth, but a radiance; it welled up rather than spread; not an emptiness, but a being-empty; not so much my being-empty as an empty form. And the empty form meant: story. But it also meant that nothing happened. When the story began, my trail was lost. Blurred. This emptiness was no mystery; but what made it effective remained a mystery. It was as tyrannical as it was appeasing; and its peace meant: I must not speak. Under its implosion, everything (every object) moved into place. “Emptiness!” The word was equivalent to the invocation of the Muse at the beginning of an epic. It provoked not a shudder but lightness and joy, and presented itself as a law: As it is now, so shall it be. In terms of image, it was a shallow river crossing.”

.
Peter Handke. Across. Ralph Manheim (translator). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000, p. 5.

 

“I do not want to avoid telling a story, but I want very, very much to do the thing that Valery said – to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.”

.
Francis Bacon

 

 

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Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery with, from left to right, Sergeant P, after Afghanistan (2012); Trooper Daniel Westcott, after Afghanistan (2012); and Troy Park, after Afghanistan (2012)

 

 

Sergeant P, a Special Operations Task Group soldier, is a survivor of a Black Hawk helicopter crash that claimed the lives of three Australians. Some of the soldiers depicted in the other portraits witnessed the crash and were first on the scene to provide assistance. The memory of this experience, and the friends who did not make it, will stay with these men for a long time.

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper Daniel Westcott, after Afghanistan' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper Daniel Westcott, after Afghanistan
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'Troy Park, after Afghanistan' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Troy Park, after Afghanistan
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

 

Installation views of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery with, from left to right, Troy Park, after Afghanistan, no. 2 (2012); Trooper M, after Afghanistan (2012); and Trooper M, after Afghanistan, no. 2 (2012)

 

Ben Quilty. 'Troy Park, after Afghanistan, no. 2' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Troy Park, after Afghanistan, no. 2
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

Quilty asked the soldiers to suggest a post that encapsulated some of the emotions that surrounded their experience in Afghanistan. Often the pose is quite contorted, as it reflects an actual event, such as taking cover to engage insurgents.

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper M, after Afghanistan' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper M, after Afghanistan
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

“You can’t really stop out there. You have to keep doing your job and keep moving forward … There is no time, until you get home, to stop and think about it.”

Trooper M

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper M, after Afghanistan, no. 2' 2012 (detail)

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper M, after Afghanistan, no. 2 (detail)
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

“Sitting for Ben is therapeutic; it does get a lot of stuff off your chest. And actually seeing your portrait on canvas, I think for me it’s definitely a chapter that I can close and leave there.”

Trooper M

 

Ben Quilty. 'Bushmaster' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Bushmaster
2012
Aerosol and oil on linen
Donated by Ben Quilty through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program in 2013

 

 

Portraiture for Quilty can also take a vehicle as its subject. This destroyed Bushmaster reflects the soldiers’ identity and is a vestige of their physical experience. They risk their lives while carrying out their duties in these versatile military vehicles.

“I met a young man who’d been in the back of a Bushmaster that had blown up. The Bushmaster is the big armoured four-wheel-drive vehicle that’s saving a lot of Australian lives, but even so the explosion caused every single you man inside that vehicle to suffer from concussion and one of them was blown out of the gun turret and landed in front of the vehicle among possibly more hidden explosive devices.”

Ben Quilty

 

Ben Quilty. 'Captain S, after Afghanistan' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Captain S, after Afghanistan
2012
Oil on linen
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

 

“I think when Ben paints, he’s not looking for what’s on the outside … He’s more after what they’re feeling o what they’ve been through … He’s looking at the inner instead of just the outer.”

Captain S

 

Ben Quilty. 'Lance Corporal M, after Afghanistan' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Lance Corporal M, after Afghanistan
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'Lance Corporal M, after Afghanistan' 2012 (detail)

 

Ben Quilty
Lance Corporal M, after Afghanistan (detail)
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

The naked portraits have a sensuousness and vulnerability in their solitary, contorted poses. The rough surface signifies the uniform and body armour that have been stripped away in front of us, and them. We and they recognise what they have endured and achieved.

“I wanted [this soldier] to be naked, showing not only his physical strength but also the frailty of human skin and the darkness of the emotional weight of the war.”

Ben Quilty

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of drawings from the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery including, at bottom left, Captain M II, Tarin Kot (October 2011, below) and third from left top, Waiting, Tarin Kot (October 2011, below)

 

 

“This very wild place”

Sitting and talking with the Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, Quilty became intrigued by their experiences. He came to feel responsible for telling the stories of these young men and women.

“I started doing drawings of the soldiers, and hearing their stories about their experiences of being in this very wild place. I realised that I needed to just sit with them … making portraits of these guys in Tarin Kot or wherever I was … getting them to sit still and talk to me about their experience. Those little drawings are a reminder to me of the time that I spent with those people. I hoped that there’d be some remnant of that experience that I could then draw out … to put into the paintings when I returned to Australia.”

Ben Quilty

The trust that Quilty developed with these soldiers in Afghanistan was strong enough to continue at home in Quilty’s studio, where he invited some to sit for larger portraits.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

(top row, first three from left)

Ben Quilty
Private C, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured felt tip pen on paper
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

Ben Quilty
Trooper M, Special Forces, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured felt tip pen, pencil and ink wash on paper
Collection of the artist

Ben Quilty
Captain Kate Porter
27 October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured pencil and ink wash on paper
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

(bottom row, first three from left)

Ben Quilty
Sergeant M II, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Pencil and ink wash on paper
Collection of the artist

Ben Quilty
Chinook pilot, Kandahar Airfield
October 2011
Drawn at Kandahar Airfield, Kandahar province, Afghanistan
Pencil and ink wash on paper
Collection of the artist

Ben Quilty
Brigadier General Noorullah, Afghan National Army, Tarin Kot
22 October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured felt tip pen on paper
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

 

While in Tarin Kot, Quilty attended a marching out parade of 400 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers who had completed training under the Australian Mentoring Task Fore. There he met a senior ANA commander, Brigadier General Noorullah. Just days later, three Australian soldiers were killed at a similar training parade being held at Forward Operating Base Sorkh Bed (aka Pacemaker). Quilty learnt of the incident the day after he left Afghanistan, giving him an even greater sense of the dangers that the soldiers he met face daily.

 

Ben Quilty. 'Captain Kate Porter' 27 October 2011

 

Ben Quilty
Captain Kate Porter
27 October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured pencil and ink wash on paper
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

 

Quilty wanted to meet a cross-section of people serving in Afghanistan – soldiers driving Bushmasters, Chinook pilots, Special Forces soldiers, and both men and women of all ranks – to try to understand who makes up the Australian Defence Force. He met Captain Kate Porter at Tarin Kot. There he spoke to her about her experiences as female in the very masculine community of the Special Operations Task Group, as well as her general experience as a soldier in Afghanistan.

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper M, Special Forces, Tarin Kot' October 2011

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper M, Special Forces, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured felt tip pen, pencil and ink wash on paper
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'Waiting, Tarin Kot' October 2011

 

Ben Quilty
Waiting, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Coloured felt tip pen on paper
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

Ben Quilty. 'Captain M II, Tarin Kot' October 2011

 

Ben Quilty
Captain M II, Tarin Kot
October 2011
Drawn at Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan
Pencil and ink wash on paper
Collection of the artist

 

 

“Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan is an extraordinary Australian War Memorial Touring Exhibition by one of the nation’s most incisive artists, and is of great relevance to all Australians. The exhibition officially opens at Castlemaine Art Gallery on Friday 15 January 2016.

The exhibition itself was the result of the Archibald Prize-winning artist’s three-week tour across Afghanistan in October 2011. Engaged as an Official War Artist, his purpose was to record and interpret the experiences of Australians deployed as part of Operation Slipper in Kabul, Kandahar, and Tarin Kot in Afghanistan and at Al Minhad Airbase in the United Arab Emirates. In fulfilling his brief, Quilty spoke with many Australian servicemen and women, gaining an insight into their experiences whilst serving in the region, and ultimately leaving with an overwhelming need to tell their stories.

Quilty recently spoke on ANZAC Day 2015 and paid tribute not only to those who did not return from Afghanistan and their grieving families, but also to “the young men and women who live amongst us who have paid so dearly and will quietly wear the thick cloak of trauma for many years to come, after Afghanistan.”

The exhibition is a must see as Quilty is arguably one of Australia’s greatest living painters, and this exhibition, with its intense and emotional subject matter is particularly important to Castlemaine, a town with a history of young men and women serving their country far from home. The exhibition has been very well received across the country with over 70,000 visitors attending the works when on display most recently in Darwin. Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial believes Quilty should be considered one of Australia’s great official war artists.

“Ben Quilty’s works follows a truly great tradition at the Australian War Memorial of appointing artists to record and interpret the Australian experience of war.”

“Ben brought to this task all his brilliance, sensitivity and compassion. The works he produced will leave Australians a legacy which informs them not only about the impact of war on our country, but even more importantly, about the effects on the men and women he has depicted,” said Dr Nelson.

Dr Jan Savage, President of the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum Committee of Management said the exhibition, “was significant in understanding the impact of war on serving members of the Australian armed forces and I encourage visitors to attend this most important exhibition.”

Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan is on display at Castlemaine Art Gallery from 15 January until 15 April 2016.

An Australian War Memorial Touring Exhibition, proudly sponsored by Thales.”

Text from the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum website

 

Ben Quilty. 'Tarin Kot, Hilux' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Tarin Kot, Hilux
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'Kandahar' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Kandahar
2012
Oil on linen
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

Ben Quilty. 'Kandahar' 2012 (detail)

 

Ben Quilty
Kandahar (detail)
2012
Oil on linen
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

 

Kandahar Airfield is a multinational vase with approximately 35,000 people from the International Security Assistance Fore, aid organisations, and a pool of local civilian staff. Weapons are carried at all times by both military and civilian personnel, creating a tense atmosphere with a violent undercurrent. Quilty described Kandahar as being a cross between the worlds of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Catch 22, a surreal, dusty, and violent place. “For the first week in Kandahar, I basically felt like I was dodging rockets. The first night we landed there, two or three rockets landed inside the compound.”

This painting was Quilty’s first visceral response on his return from Afghanistan and i sums up his emotions, particularly his personal experience of Kandahar and being a part of the maelstrom of war.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery with, at centre, Tarin Kot, Hilux (2012) and, at right, Kandahar (2012)

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation views of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

 

Returning from war

“You can’t take the experiences out of your head.
You can’t take the damages out of your head.”

John Oddie

 

On his return to Australia, Ben Quilty contacted Air Commodore John Oddie (Ret’d), whom he had met during his Afghanistan deployment, to invite him to sit for a portrait in his studio. From February to October 2011, Oddie had been the Deputy Commander of Australian forces in the Middle east, a position of immense responsibility.

Quilty eventually produced three portraits over five months. These works reveal a man returning from war and its burden of responsibility, exhausted emotionally and mentally, and his progress towards a more positive view of life and of himself as a survivor.

 

Ben Quilty. 'Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 3' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 3
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 3' 2012 (detail)

 

Ben Quilty
Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 3 (detail)
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

“I don’t necessarily see beauty, I see insight in what Ben does. That’s reflected in the way he paints … I think his later portraits, done after he’s got to know us better, are different from the raw emotion of the first ones.”

John Oddie

 

Ben Quilty. 'Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 1' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 1
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

“With through a lack of insight or through an unwillingness … I wasn’t always admitting the truth to myself about my life. Ben really took that out and put it on a table in front of me like a three-course dinner and said, well, how about that? And you know, I sort of thought well, I’m not going to come to this restaurant again in a hurry!”

John Oddie

 

Ben Quilty. 'Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 2' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, no. 2
2012
Oil on linen
Collection of the artist

 

 

“He’s got this one little gash of paint and it brings out this wry smile that I didn’t even know I had … When I stood back and had a look, I was just stunned at the honesty of the painting – until then I hadn’t really been fully honest with myself about what I was feeling.”

John Oddie

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Introductory text from the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Introductory titles and text for the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper Daniel Spain, Tarin Kot' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper Daniel Spain, Tarin Kot
2012
Oil on linen diptych
Collection of the artist

 

 

In some of the works, Quilty has used dramatic symbols to represent the emotional weight and the sense of emptiness he felt some soldiers brought home with them after Afghanistan. The black hole motif also reflects his own feelings of anxiety and uncertainty during his time there.

“I had such extreme feelings about the smell, sound, emotions of being in Afghanistan … I wanted to convey this.”

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper Luke Korman' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper Luke Korman
2012
Aerosol and oil on linen
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan' at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan at the Castlemaine Art Gallery with, on the far wall, Trooper Luke Korman, Tarin Kot (2012, left) and SOTG, after Afghanistan (2011, right)

 

Ben Quilty. 'Trooper Luke Korman, Tarin Kot' 2012

 

Ben Quilty
Trooper Luke Korman, Tarin Kot
2012
Aerosol and oil on linen diptych
Collection of the artist

 

Ben Quilty. 'SOTG, after Afghanistan' 2011

 

Ben Quilty
SOTG, after Afghanistan
2011
Oil on linen diptych
Acquired under the official art scheme 2012

 

 

As part of his initial idea for the war artist commission, Quilty photographed soldiers of the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan in the same pose. He asked each of them to face the sun with their eyes closed, then open them and stare into the blinding light. At that instant Quilty would take the photograph. “To me, this symbolises what they’re facing, something immense, overwhelming.”

Back in Australia, Quilty attempted to work from these photographs, and created a handful of portraits. He was dissatisfied with the results. Determined to re-establish a personal connection with his subjects, he invited some of them to sit for portraits in his studio.

 

 

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21
Feb
16

Review: ‘On the beach’ at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery, Mornington

Exhibition dates: 11th December 2015 – 28th February 2016

Curator: Wendy Garden

 

 

This is another solid thematic group exhibition at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery (curator Wendy Garden), following on from their recent success, Storm in a teacup.

The exhibition is not as successful as Storm in a teacup, mainly because most of the works are based on the monolithic, monosyllabic representation of beach culture, and its figuration, during the early decades of the twentieth century (White Australia policy, Australian stereotypes of the interwar period) and the re-staging of these ideas in the contemporary art presented through a diachronic (through/time), performative discourse.

There is so much re-staging in this exhibition I was left to wonder whether there was any original art work being produced that does not quote sources of history, memory, identity, representation and art from past generations. Daniel Boyd re-stages Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay with said hero as a pirate. Stephen Bowers replicates the Minton willow pattern motif and early paintings of kangaroos. Leanne Tobin re-stages Bungaree’s disrobing on the beach during his journey with Matthew Flinders. Diane Jones re-stages Max Dupain’s Sunbaker replacing the anonymous prostrate man with her head looking into the camera, or Dupain’s Form at Bondi with her head turned towards the camera. Worst offender is Anne Zahalka who re-states Dupain’s Sunbaker (again!) as a red-headed white women on the beach; or re-presents Charles Meere’s Australian beach pattern (1940, below) not once but twice – the first time in The bathers (1989) broadening the racial background of people to depict multicultural Australia in the 1980s, the second time in The new bathers (2013) broadening the mix even further. Most successful of these re-stagings is Michael Cook’s series of photographs Undiscovered in which the artist subverts deeply ingrained understandings of settlement, that of terra nullius, by depicting Captain Cook as black and positioning him in high-key, grey photographs of impressive beauty and power, surveying the land he has ‘discovered’ while perched upon an invisibly balanced ladder.

But with all of the works that quote from the past there is a sense that, even as the artists are critiquing the culture, they are also buying into the system of patriarchy, racism and control that they seek to comment on. They do not subvert the situation, merely (and locally) extrapolate from it. The idealised, iconic representation of early 20th century Australia culture in the paintings from the 1920-30s and the photographs from the 1940s-70s – specimens of perfect physical beauty – are simply shifted to a new demographic – that of iconic, individual figures in the same poses as the 1940s but of a different ethnicity. The colour of the figure and the clothing might have changed, but the underlying structure remains the same. And if you disturb one of the foundation elements, such as the base figure in one of George Caddy’s balancing beachobatics photographs, the whole rotten edifice of a racism free, multicultural Australia will come tumbling down, just as it did during the Cronulla Riot.

What I would have liked to have seen in this exhibition was a greater breadth of subject matter. Where are the homeless people living near the beach, the sex (for example, as portrayed in Tracey Moffat’s voyeuristic home video Heaven which shows footage of male surfers changing out of their wetsuits in car parks – “shot by Moffatt and a number of other women as if they were making a birdwatching documentary” – which challenges the masculinity of Australian surf culture and the ability of women to stare at men, instead of the other way around), death (drownings on beaches, the heartbreak of loss), and debauchery (the fluxus of Schoolies, that Neo-Dada performance of noise and movement), the abstract nature of Pictorialist photographs of the beach, not to mention erosion and environmental loss due to global warming. The works presented seem to have a too narrowly defined conceptual base, and a present narrative constructed on a coterie of earlier works representing what it is to be Australian at the beach. The contemporary narrative does not address the fluidity of the landscape in present time (in works such as Narelle Autio’s series Watercolours or The place in between).

The dark underside of the beach, its abstract fluidity, its constant movement is least well represented in this exhibition. Although I felt engaged as a viewer the constant re-quoting and rehashing of familiar forms left me a little bored. I wanted more inventiveness, more insight into the conditions and phenomena of beach culture in contemporary Australia. An interesting exhibition but an opportunity missed.

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Many thankx to the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery for allowing me to publish most of the photographs in the posting. Other photographs come from Art Blart’s archive and those freely available online. Thankx also go to Manuela Furci, Director of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive for allowing me to publish his photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. All text comes from the wall labels to the exhibition.

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation views of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with Daniel Boyd’s We call them pirates out here (2006, below)

 

Daniel Boyd (b. 1982) 'We call them pirates out here' 2006

 

Daniel Boyd (b. 1982)
We call them pirates out here
2006
Museum of Contemporary Art
Purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006

 

 

“The landing of Captain Cook in Botany Bay, 1770 by E. Phillips Fox is such an iconic and important image relating to the birth of Australia. Shifting the proposed view of Fox’s painting to something that was an indigenous person’s perspective allowed for me to challenge the subjective history that has been created.” – Daniel Boyd, 2008

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In this painting Daniel Boyd parodies E. Phillips Fox’s celebrated painting which was commissioned in 1902 by the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria to commemorate federation. No longer an image valorising colonial achievement, Boyd recasts the scene as one of theft and invasion. Captain Cook is depicted as a pirate to contest his heroic status in Australia’s foundation narratives. Smoke in the distance is evidence of human occupation and is a direct retort to the declaration that Australia was ‘terra nullius’ – land belonging to no-one, which was used to justify British possession.

 

Stephen Bowers (b. 1952) Peter Walker (board maker) (b. 1961) 'Antipodean willow surfboard' 2012 'Antipodean willow surfboard (Mini Simmons)' 2012

 

Stephen Bowers (b. 1952)
Peter Walker (board maker) (b. 1961)
Antipodean willow surfboard
2012
Antipodean willow surfboard (Mini Simmons)
2012
Hollow core surfboard, Paulownia wood, fibreglass, synthetic polymer paint
Courtesy of the artist and Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, Caulfield

 

Stephen Bowers (b. 1952) Peter Walker (board maker) (b. 1961) 'Antipodean willow surfboard (Mini Simmons)' (detail) 2012

 

Stephen Bowers (b. 1952)
Peter Walker (board maker) (b. 1961)
Antipodean willow surfboard (Mini Simmons) (detail)
2012
Hollow core surfboard, Paulownia wood, fibreglass, synthetic polymer paint
Courtesy of the artist and Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, Caulfield

 

 

In these works Bowers combines the willow pattern motif, a ready-made metaphor of hybridity, with an image of a kangaroo as envisioned by George Stubbs in 1772. The willow pattern as an English invention, created by Thomas Minton in 1790. It is an imaginative geography and, like the first known European painting of a kangaroo, considers other lands as strange, exotic places. In this work the imagery of colonial occupation is visualised as a fusion of cultures underpinned by half-truths, fantasy and desire.

 

Installation view of Leanne Tobin's 'Clothes don't always maketh the man' (2012) (detail)

Installation view of Leanne Tobin's 'Clothes don't always maketh the man' (2012) (detail)

 

Installation views of Leanne Tobin’s Clothes don’t always maketh the man (2012)

 

Leanne Tobin (b, 1961)
Clothes don’t always maketh the man (detail)
2012
Sand, textile, wood
Collection of the artist

 

 

Bungaree (c. 1755-1830) was a Garigal man who circumnavigated the continent of Australia with Matthew Flinders on the H.M.S. Investigator between 1802-03. Unlike Bennelong, who attempted to assimilate with British ways and Pemulwuy, who resisted, Bungaree made the decision to navigate a relationship with the British while still maintaining his cultural traditions. He played an important role as an envoy on Flinder’s voyages, negotiating with the different Aboriginal groups they encountered. A skilled mediator, Bungaree was adept at living between both worlds. When coming ashore he would shed his white man’s clothes so that he could conduct protocol relevant to the local elders. In this respect the beach became a zone of transformation and exchange.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation views of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with in the foreground, Leanne Tobin’s Clothes don’t always maketh the man (2012), and in the background photographs from Michael Cook’s Undiscovered series (2010, below)

 

Michael Cook (b. 1968) 'Undiscovered 4' 2010

 

Michael Cook (b. 1968)
Undiscovered 4
2010
inkjet print on Hahnemuhle paper
124.0 x 100.0 cm
Australian National Maritime Museum

 

 

A selection of works from a series of ten photographs in which Michael Cook contests the idea of ‘discovery’ that underpins narratives of the British settlement of Australia… Cook depicts the historic Cook as an Aboriginal man replete in his British naval officers attire. His ship, the famed Endeavour, is anchored in the sea behind him. By mimicking the moment of first discovery Cook subverts deeply ingrained understandings of settlement and asks us to consider what type of national Australia would be if the British had acknowledged Aboriginal people’s prior ownership.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery showing, at top left, Max Dupain’s Form at Bondi (1939); to the right of that Dupain’s At Newport (1952, below); to the right upper is George Caddy’s Chest strength and breathing exercise, 20 February 1937 (below); followed at far right by Rennie Ellis’ St Kilda Lifesavers (1968, top) and David Moore’s Lifesavers at Manly (1959, bottom)

 

Max Dupain. 'At Newport' 1952, Sydney

 

Max Dupain (1911-1992)
At Newport
1952, Sydney
Silver gelatin photograph

 

George Caddy (1914-1983) 'Chest strength and breathing exercise, 20 February 1937' 1937

 

George Caddy (1914-1983)
Chest strength and breathing exercise, 20 February 1937
1937
Digital print on paper
Paul Caddy collection
Courtesy of Paul Caddy

 

 

Like Max Dupain, who was three years his senior, Caddy was interested in the new modernist approach to photography. During 1936 he read magazines such as Popular Photography from New York and US Camera rather than Australasian Photo-Review which continued to champion soft-focus pictorialism. This photograph was taken the same year as Dupain’s famous Sunbather photograph. The framing and angle is similar reflecting their common interest in sharp focus, unusual vantage points and cold composition.

 

George Caddy (1914-1983) 'Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club reel team march past, 3 April 1938' 1938

 

George Caddy (1914-1983)
Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club reel team march past, 3 April 1938
1938
Digital print
Collection of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Purchased from Paul Caddy, 2008

 

 

This photograph was taken only months after an infamous rescue at Bondi. On 6 February 1938 a sand bar collapsed sweeping two hundred people out to sea. 80 lifesavers rescued all but 5 people in a day subsequently described as Black Sunday. By 1938 the Surf Life Saving Association, which incorporated clubs from around Australia, had rescued 39,149 lives in its 30 year history. In 1938 alone there were 3,442 rescues. Up until the events of Black Sunday no one had drowned while lifesavers were on duty at Australian beaches. In comparison 2,000 people drowned in England each year.1

  1. Alan Davies, Bondi Jitterbug: George Caddy and his amera, Sydney: State Library of New South Wales, p. 13.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, at far left, Anne Zahalka’s The sunbather #2 (1989, below) and, at right, a selection of George Caddy’s beachobatics photographs.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, at far left, Max Dupain’s Sunbaker (1937, top) with Diane Jones Sunbaker (2003, below); in the centre Anne Zahalka’s The sunbather #2 (1989, below); then Max Dupain’s Form at Bondi (1939, top) with Diane Jones Bondi (2003) underneath.

 

Anne Zahalka. 'The sunbather #2' 1989

 

Anne Zahalka (b. 1957)
The sunbather #2
1989
From the series Bondi: playground of the Pacific 1989
Type C photograph

 

Installation photograph of Charles Meere's 'Australian beach pattern' (1940, below) and Anne Zahalka's 'The bathers' (1989)

 

Installation photograph of Charles Meere’s painting Australian beach pattern (1940, below) and Anne Zahalka’s photograph The bathers (1989) from the series Bondi: playground of the Pacific 1989, in which Zahalka restates Charles Meere’s painting to subvert the narrow stereotype of the Australian ideal… In this work Zahalka broadens the racial background of people depicted to create a more representative image of multicultural Australia in the 1980s.

 

Charles Meere (1890-1961) 'Australian beach pattern' 1940 (detail)

 

Charles Meere (1890-1961)
Australian beach pattern (detail)
1940
Oil and wax on canvas
Collection of Joy Chambers-Grundy and Reg Grundy AC OBE

 

 

A now iconic representation of early 20th century Australia culture… The scene is dominated by a mass of suntanned bodies: muscular, square-jawed white Australians – specimens of perfect physical beauty – enjoying the strenuous physical activities of the beach. A glorification of the strong, healthy, racially pure Australian ideal of the 1930s, it is eerily reminiscent of Nazi German Aryan propaganda between the wars.

Notably, the figures themselves all appear anonymous and disconnected, with indistinct facial features that show no acknowledgement of their fellow beach-goers. Their identities are overwhelmed by Meere’s obsession with arrangement. Rather than reflect real life, the figures are placed to create an idealised work of perfect balance. It is fascinating to consider that this iconic representation of Australian beach culture actually came from the imagination of an Englishman, who had only lived in Australia since the mid-1930s and who, according to his apprentice, ‘never went to the beach’ and ‘made up most of the figures’.1

  1. Freda Robertshaw quoted in Linda Slutzkin, Charles Meere 1890-1961. Sydney: S. H. Ervin Gallery, 1987, p. 6.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, at far left, George Caddy’s beachobatic photographs, and on the far wall Sidney Nolan’s Bathers (1943, below) and Jeffrey Smart’s Surfers Bondi (1963, below)

 

Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) 'Bathers' 1943

 

Sidney Nolan (1917-1992)
Bathers
1943
Ripolin enamel on canvas
Headed Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne
Bequest of John and Sunday Reed, 1982

 

Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013) 'Surfers Bondi' 1963

 

Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013)
Surfers Bondi
1963
Oil on board
Private collection

 

 

“When bans on daylight bathing were lifted in 1902, the beach became a prime leisure destination. The beach became not only as a public space of recreation but also as a place where the Australian identity was developing, for many epitomizing the liberties of Australia’s society. On the beach brings together 76 outstanding and iconic paintings, photographs and installations to consider the defining relationship we have to the shore.

Works by artists including Vernon Ah Kee, Arthur Boyd, Gordon Bennett, Daniel Boyd, Max Dupain, Charles Meere, Tracey Moffatt, David Moore, Sidney Nolan, Polixeni Papapetrou, John Perceval, Scott Redford, Jeffrey Smart, Albert Tucker, Guan Wei and Anne Zahalka, as well as outstanding recently discovered works by George Caddy (see above). A champion jitterbug dancer, Caddy’s photographs of ‘beachobatics’ were kept undisturbed in a shoebox for 60 years until they were ‘discovered’ by his son after his death. They capture the exuberance and optimism of Australian society between the wars.

The beach first became a prime leisure destination in the early decades of the twentieth century. Up to Federation many artists had looked to the bush to galvanise a fledging nationalism, but during the interwar years this shifted and increasingly the beach became the site of Australian identity. Already by 1908 one Melbourne newspaper commented upon the ‘vast throng of holidaymakers all along the coast.’ In the years following the First World War, against a backdrop of a growing interest in physical fitness, the beach was seen as a place for creating ‘a fine healthy race of men.’ Understandings of the beach as an Australian way of life emerged during this period and increasingly the Australian type was associated with bronzed athletic bodies on the beach.

On the beach looks at artists’ responses to the stereotype of the interwar period and juxtaposes modernist works with contemporary artists’ responses to include a more culturally diverse mix of people. Other artists in the exhibition challenge understandings of the beach as a benign space and consider the history of violence that is latent.”

Press release from the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Photographer Joyce Evans looking at two colour photographs by Rennie Ellis in the exhibition.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, on the far wall left hand side, photographs by Rennie Ellis.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'On the beach' at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition On the beach at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Art Gallery with, on the far wall right hand side, photographs by Rennie Ellis and, at right, Fiona Foley’s Nulla 4 eva IV (2009)

 

Rennie Ellis. 'Union Jack, Lorne' c. 1968

 

Rennie Ellis (1940-2003)
Union Jack, Lorne
c. 1968
Silver gelatin selenium toned fibre-based print
Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive

 

Rennie Ellis. 'Four Sunbathers, Lorne' c. 1968

 

Rennie Ellis (1940-2003)
Four Sunbathers, Lorne
c. 1968
Type C photograph (ed. AP)
Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive

 

Rennie Ellis. 'Bondi, New South Wales' 1997

 

Rennie Ellis (1940-2003)
Bondi, New South Wales
1997

 

“On the beach we chuck away our clothes, our status and our inhibitions and engage in rituals of sun worship and baptism. It’s a retreat to our primal needs.” – Rennie Ellis

 

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

Installation view of Vernon Ah Kee. 'cantchant' 2007-09 (detail)

 

Installation views of Vernon Ah Kee’s cantchant 2007-09

 

Vernon Ah Kee (b. 1967)
cantchant
2007-09
Synthetic polymer paint and resin over digital print on roamer, vinyl
Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane

 

 

Vernon Ah Kee’s response to the events at Cronulla (the Cronulla Riot) us a powerful retort to the racists and their mantra ‘we grew here, you flew here’ chanted on the beach during the riots. Ah Kee takes issue pointing out the hypocrisy in their statement.

We grew here, you flew here is an insincere statement and they were chanting it over and over again. It’s a way to exercise racism. I’m like ‘WE’ grew here, say what you want, but we’re the fellas that grew here.

The surfboards are printed with Yidinji shield designs and the portraits are members of the artists family. The work was exhibited in the Australian Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale.