Category Archives: Art History

Antique Guide to the NGV

Cleaning up her piles of books that belonged to her aunt Catherine discovered a guide to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) from 1968, the year that it opened the St Kilda Road building. (Well, it is not yet an antique, but it soon will be.) This piece of ephemera is a portal to another time of art in Australia.

NGV Guide 1968

NGV Guide 1968

The guide is small booklet with a purple paper cover, stapled binding and 32 pages with black and white illustrations. Printed by the Aldine Press Pty Ltd., a commercial printer specialising in book and periodicals, still operating in Prahran. There is no price on the booklet but the cover does fold out to include a membership form for the Gallery Society.

The purple cover has the stylised image of the roof of the gallery with the three central courtyards. In the plan of the gallery the courtyards are named both by the architect and after the donors: the oriental courtyard, named ‘Coles Court’; the sculpture courtyard, named ‘Lindsay Court’ and the ‘playhouse courtyard’ named ‘Keith Murdoch Court’.

It starts with a dry introduction from Eric Westbrook, the then director of the NGV, mostly about the gallery’s benefactors. There are maps of the two floors of the gallery, showing the original layout of the exhibition space.

The rest of the publication is an introduction with illustrations to the main areas of the galleries collection. It is interesting to note what is missing from the text. The term ‘ethnic art’ is used instead of ‘aboriginal art’. Reading about the European art collection it is remarkable to notice how much is about English art and that France is not mentioned, although the Impressionists are.

“Highlights of the European twentieth century are works by Modigliani, Rouault, Delaunay, de Stael, Tapies, Soto and others.” (p.23)

The description of Australian art, then housed on the second floor of the St. Kilda Road gallery, clearly shows Australia’s ‘cultural cringe’.

“Australian Art is essentially a colonial art drawing its stylistic impetus from the metropolitan centres of the world. Originally English traditions were paramount while in the later nineteenth century, French influences predominated. To-day, the styles of Western European Art have become universal and interacting. American abstract expressionism and the kinetic experiments of the French Groupe de Recheche d’Art Visuel mingle with traditions of the School of Paris and have their influence there. However, the particular life of this country and the individual attire of its people, flavour the work of its artists creating a distinctive Australian art. Though the idiom has brome international, the accent remains Australian.” (p.27)

Many aspects of the NGV have changed but I did note that the galleries collection of William Blake drawings remains a consistent feature of the galleries exhibition of Prints and Drawings department; Blake’s “The Whirlwind (Angel Crossing Styx)” is illustrated on page 11 and his drawings were on exhibition again this year.


Dada and the start of WWI

On the September 15, 1914 the avant-garde film maker, Hans Richter was inducted into the German army. Two friends, Ferdinand Hardekopf, journalist, writer and shorthand prodigy and Albert Ehrenstein, a poet gave him a farewell party and they promised to meet in Zurich, in two years, if they were still alive. Was the reason for the Zurich meeting was that Hardekopf, a pacifist was around planning to go there? In Zurich Hardekopf was close to Hugo Ball.

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

A few months later Richter was seriously wounded at Vilna, Lithuania. One of his brothers was killed and another wounded that same year. After recovering from his wounds and being discharged from the army Richter did travel, as promised, to Zurich where he met with two friends. They introduced him to the artists Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck.

It is worth remembering that many of the future Dadaists were initial supporting the war and that a lot can change in a few years of war and the lives of young men and women. The theoretician of Dada, Hugo Ball was so enthusiastic that at the start of the war he boarded a troop train for Belgium. He got as far as Leige where he was arrested as a spy but released when the authorities realised that he was only an idealist. However, in Berlin, the Herzfeld brothers were anti-war and already publishing the left wing journal, Neu Jugend.

During WWI a small group of young pacifist artists gathering in Zurich to escape the war and created art that changed the art history. Dada was an anarchic anti-art movement that formed and spread to like minded individuals around the world, setting the ground work for the contemporary art. For as the last century has shown the world has not learnt the stupid futility of war anymore than they have learnt the stupid futility of Dada. In the words of Ferdinand Hardekopf: “Dada is dead. And you?”

Yesterday Australia committed troops to fight in the Middle East, yet again, as if the last three or four times improved the situation.

On my Black Mark Facebook I am reporting on the activities of the Dadaists a hundred years ago, on the day of their centenary.


The Many Faces of Dada

The Many Faces of George Grosz (Degenerate Comix) is a graphic novel by Keith McDougall about the life of the German artist, George Grosz, adapted from the writings of Weiland Herzfelde. (See my review of The Many Faces of George Grosz #1)

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In #2 the narrative has changed from Herzfelde being the narrator to Grosz being the central character and Herzfelde’s brother becomes John Hartfield. For like George Grosz’s costume changes the Dadaists were often changing their names, working under different names or living under false names; their identities were mutating.

Who were the Dadaist exactly? Avant-garde cabaret act, radical artists, publishers, medical students every time you look they change into something else. If the Dadaists were alive today what would they be doing? Bands, zines… would they even be together at all? Given that the Dadaists appear to be a disparate bunch of hippies (Hans Arp & Hugo Ball), punks (Richard Hulsenbeck), new agers, goths, head-bangers (Max Ernst’s nickname was “Metal Head”) and other, perhaps, yet unclassified freaks. Back at the beginning of the 20th century there was still too few of any of them to bother with such classifications. However in retrospect the classifications appear clearer. “Freaks” that  very 60s word, comes from back in a time when they were still working out the identity of some of these youth tribes. In The Many Faces of George Grosz Grosz is presented as an unclassifiable freak, a proto-Dadaist.

McDougall has done his research both historically and graphically, at the beginning of Chapter 5 in Grosz autobiography there is a small illustration of a smiling man dressed up as an American Indian. In #2 Grosz takes the two Herzfelde brothers to see the Berlin’s Café Oranienburger Tor. The band at the Café Oranienburger Tor is described by Grosz in his autobiography: “the band leader known as “Mister Meshugge” carried on like a lunatic. He pretended to be quiet out of control and kept breaking his baton or hitting the poor fiddler over the head with violin.” (George Grosz, A Small Yes and A Big No, Zenith Books, 1982 p.75)

Dada history was made for comic books, the conjunction of text and images. What I dislike about many comics, including this graphic novel, is the way that story is drawn out, it worse than watching a TV series because the wait is longer. Now two years later #2 has arrived – will #3 be finished in time for the centenary of Dada? A century later it is worth re-examining Dada and the Dadaists.


Three Sided Football

“It appears that the first person to come up with the idea of three-sided football was Asger Jorn, who saw it as a means of conveying the notion of dialectics. We are still trying to discover if there any actual games organised by him. Before the LPA organised its first game at the Glasgow Anarchist Summer School in 1993, there is little evidence of any games being played.”

“There is, of course, the rumour that Luther Blissett organised an informal league…”

“Luther Blissett Three-Sided Football League”, Stewart Home, Mind Invaders (Serpent’s Tail, 1997, London, p.56)

I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism any more than I am claiming that any of the information in the quotes is accurate. Even though Gabrielle de Vietri’s Three teams 2013 has no reference to earlier three-sided football games in her extensive artist’s statement but Neoists like Stewart Home were kicking lots of ideas around, hoping that some would catch one of them and run with it. A further complication to any accusations of plagiarism is that: “Anyone can be Luther Blissett simply by adopting the name.” (Home, Mind Invaders p. 44)

Gabrielle de Vietri Three teams 2013 is part of the Basil Seller Art Prize 2014 at the Ian Potter Museum of Art. There are many differences in football codes, media and the expression of the idea, but both have the intent to refute the dualism of the game of football and thereby, through Neoist reasoning, refute the dualism in life.

Gabrielle de Vietri realised the idea of three sided football recording the development of the game. “The game was played on the oval of the Taylors Lake Football & Netball Club in October 2013 between the Horsham RSL Diggers, Noradjuha-Quantong and Taylors Lake teams.” Her dual-channel HD video in 16:9 ratio with sound is 30:07 minutes long. It is interesting to watch because all of the participants are enthusiastic and thinking deeply about how a game based on Australian rules football would work with three teams. If you can’t imagine footballers taking conceptual art seriously you must watch this video. It is really the integration of art and life, or at least football, which to many Australians is the equivalent.

The historicism of the what was once considered underground art means that it is time to reconsider Neoism. Neoism, the art movement to end all art movements, was just another Neo-Dada movement. The word that reverberated around the art world since it was first spoken in Zurich in 1916 is still echoing the echoes.

Was Neoism the art movement that ended all art movements? Since Neoism there really hasn’t been another art movement, just geographic clusters of artists (unless we count Stuckism as an art movement). I remember reading somewhere that Stewart Homes was criticised for taking Neoism seriously; now the whole art world (except for Stuckists) takes Dada and some of its off spring seriously.

On the subject of open identities, another open identity like Luther Blissett, Monty Cantsin has been in the news attacking a Jeff Koons exhibition with a blood X and marker pen a signature. There is something wrong attacking the authenticity of Koons when you are also attacking the authenticity of identity by adopting the open identity of Monty Cantsin. Splashing blood around just further confuses any message and, or metaphor. (Cries of: “No, I’m Monty Cantsin” continue to be heard off stage.)


The Court Favourite

Paul Montford’s sculpture, The Court Favourite (also known as: The Prince) captures the action of a lithe young man playing with a boisterous pet leopard cub. In his right hand the youth, Montford described him as a “Young Indian”, clasps a decorated baton with a carved elephant head handle is. The cub crouches low and tugs fiercely at the youth’s cloak.

Paul Montford, Court Favourite, c.1906

Paul Montford, Court Favourite, c.1906

The leopard was modelled on a leopard at London Zoo, this would not be the last time that Montford used zoo animals as models using a goat and lion from Melbourne Zoo as models for his architectural decorations on the Shrine of Remembrance.

The Court Favourite was first exhibited in 1906 at the Royal Academy in London but not in a bronze edition that would have to wait until Montford and his family had immigrated to Australia in 1923. The sculpture was not cast locally as there were no specialist sculpture foundry in Australia at the time and the model was sent back to Europe to be cast. (He is a well travelled lad with a touch of Orientalism.) Montford believed that the heavy casting of the sculpture made it less likely to be vandalised, still he imagined that young men might want to break parts off especially the baton. It was cast by Foundry A.B. Burton, cast 1929, a foundry notable for casting large sculptures for notable 19th century sculptures. Montford in a letter (June, 1929) to his brother, Louis Montford notes that he sent Burton £90 for the casting and complaining that he couldn’t get an advance from Baron Marks.

In 1930 Councillor Baron Marks presented Montford’s The Court Favourite to the Melbourne City Council in memory of his brother, Jacob Marks. (Was this Alderman Jacob Marks, President of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation from 1897 to 1901 and 1907 to 1908?) Baron Marks was a keen amateur sportsman and the President of the St. Kilda Sports Club. He had purchased the sculpture a few years earlier for £400; £100 less than the price paid by the Melbourne City Council for Montford’s The Water Nymph.

Paul Montford, The Water Nypmh, 1910

Paul Montford, The Water Nypmh, 1910

Wednesday 5th Feb 1930 Montford, in another letter to his brother Louis, records the unveiling. “Today is a hot day… I had no waistcoat on which same is not done in best circles. They didn’t know it, but they were lucky I didn’t show up in pyjamas – Oh! the occasion was the unveiling of the The Court Favourite in Flagstaff gardens just the other side of the city. Marian & I went over by car and enjoyed it all very much. Everybody patted everybody’s back, including mine, and in return I patted my own. When all was over we retired to the Mayors Room at the Town Hall where we did it all again, only more so. Now I hope I shall get paid – I haven’t had a penny yet.”

“Which is the favourite, the slave-boy or panther?” asked the Herald (Thursday 6 Feb 1930) and then narrates: “Spoiled, pampered and flattered, the panther rules the Court, symbol of the human master as fierce, as ruthless, as cruel as itself. The slave dare not use his whip, his smile is as sycophantic as that of the rest, as the patter has his will, today in play, tomorrow – in what sort?”

I want to describe this sculpture as ‘high camp’ but the Edwardian minds for which it was created for now seem utterly alien in their attitudes. Montford’s The Court Favourite still stands in the shade of mature elm trees in Melbourne’s oldest public gardens, Flagstaff Gardens established in 1862. There are many sculpture by Montford around Melbourne for more see my post Montford in Melbourne or Catherine Moriarty Making Melbourne’s Monuments – the sculpture of Paul Mondford (Australian Scholarly, 2013) where I have sourced all the quotes in this post.


Scandal Shock!

“… as a protest against the niggardly funding of the fine arts in this hick State and against the clumsy unimaginative stupidity of the administration and distribution of that funding.” Australian Cultural Terrorists claim of responsibility for the theft of Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in 1986.

Melbourne love an art scandal. This is assisted by having some top rate scandals, for example, the unsolved theft of the Weeping Woman. Although sometimes these scandals seem to be borrowed from US culture wars, as in the case of the vandalism of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ in 1997.

Art scandals have been ruined careers and lives, some of them were crimes and art has been destroyed. Melbourne never gave Vault a fair go. Juan Davila sighs at yet another repetition of the cry of ‘obscenity!’ Some of the unfortunate victims of these scandals and some naive realists might be thinking: “what has this got to do with art?” but this discourse is part of what defines art.

In the wake of an art scandal, even people who have not been to an art gallery in decades will express an opinion. The media is full of the story and more comments and from the informed comments to the mad ignorant rants it is this discourse that, in part, defines art. The year of debate about Ron Robertson-Swann’s modernist sculpture Vault in 1980, although driven by local city council politics, inspired the next generation artists to think hard about art and express their ideas not just in their art but in public forums.

This love of art scandals has created its own artists, CDH and Van Rudd for example, who create their own mass media interactive art works by provoking police, politicians or the public. These artists and their art are well known, although not exactly popular. Creating a scandal that goes viral is not the easiest thing to do and not every attempt succeeds in being both a scandal and art.

It has also helped create the environment that fostered Melbourne’s street art and graffiti scene by giving their contentious and audacious actions a wider public eager to discuss them and collect them.

These accidental and deliberate scandals are interesting because they expose the cracks in the facade of our culture and deep divisions in the airbrushed idea of a united society. These scandals raises more questions than they answers prompting further thought, action and creation.


Memories of the Museo Del Prado

Visiting the Museo Del Prado was an all day marathon event for me – I was close to the front of the line gained entry just after it opened at 9 am. I had been told that it was impossible to see the Prado in one day but I was determined to prove them wrong. I systematically ticked off room after room on my map. I ate like a marathon runner, lots of carbohydrates and sugar.

That day in Prado I fell in love with the Baroque that day, especially Ribalta, Ribera, Valazeques and Meléndez. Ribera’s paintings of people are so human, wrinkles and all and he paints it all with so much feeling.

I had prepared for this visit by reading Visionary Experience in the Golden Age of Spanish Art by Victor I. Stoichita (Reaktion Books, 1995). The portrayal of internal private experiences, such as visions, in a visual media creates a complex visual grammar distinguishing between the real and the imagined.

An American tourist was laughing out loud at Alonso Cano’s Lactation of St Bernard (c.1658-60). He couldn’t believe what he was seeing the clarity of this lactation porn looks crazy to modern eyes. It is not St Bernard who is lactating but a painting of the Virgin Mary. The American has to point out to me – “She is shooting a jet right into his mouth!”

It was not the craziest painting in the Prado created from the fermented and distilled Catholic thought of the 17th century. That honour has to go to Francesco Rossi Salvaiati’s Sacred Family with Parrot presented by an Angel (1543) – what’s next the teenage Jesus presented with a Playstation by presented by an Angel?

Situated in a couple of the galleries there were coin operated machines, like those old chocolate machines on English train stations, selling little Gallery Guide books for major artists available in English, French, Spanish and German. I bought the guides to Velázquez and Bosch (the Prado is the place to see Bosch).

Pieter Brueghal the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562

Pieter Brueghal the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562

I am particularly taken by Pieter Brueghal’s The Triumph of Death but I wonder what would happen to this zombie apocalypse now that the living out number the dead?

There is a 16th century copy of La Gioconda (aka Mona Lisa) sans the background landscape.

I was disappointed with seeing Goya’s work for the first time, his big brushstrokes were much better in reproduction, but then he did start his career painting the designs for tapestries so they were always, in a way, intended to be reproduced in another media.

By the end of the day my feet were sore, particularly my big toes, something about the way that you move in a gallery – walk, stand, walk… Checking my watch I had twenty minutes to see the last four or five small rooms on the second floor but I was sure that now my eye was well tuned and that I could spot the paintings that were worth looking at. I would look around the room and select one or two paintings for a closer look and then move to the next room.

At 6pm the Prado was shutting but I had completed every gallery and I was exhausted, dizzy and disorientated with a bit Stendhal syndrome. I’d had Stendhal syndrome before so I wasn’t surprised by it. I staggering into a bar and ordered a whiskey. I could remember all the paintings but the wet streets of Madrid were almost unrecognisable.

The next day at 9 am I was back in the Prado again, it was free entry on that day and I walked around looking again at my favourite works. Maybe you can’t see the whole Prado in one day.


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