Category Archives: Art History

Sculpture @ Melbourne University

There is an expectation of sculptures adoring the university’s buildings and gardens and Melbourne University’s collection provides a unique view of the history of sculpture in Melbourne. (Macquarie University established a Sculpture Park in 1992.) The removal of the iron fence around the grounds in 19th Century meant that grounds of Melbourne University were open to the public. However, although the sculptures are on public display they are in the separate space of the university and have a different history to that of the Melbourne’s public sculptures. This is not a guide to Melbourne University’s sculpture for that see Lorinda Cramer and Lisa Sulivan’s Sculpture on Campus.

Culture Rubble, 1993 by Christine O’Loughlin

Culture Rubble, 1993 by Christine O’Loughlin

Sculptures at Melbourne University have accrued over time – there has been no over all plan.  Brian Lewis (Foundation Professor of Architecture, 1947– 1971) was described by Ray Marginson as “an outstandingly successful ‘magpie’.” (“Impecunious magpies, or how to adorn a university with little ready cash – Ray Marginson, interviewed by Robyn Sloggett” University of Melbourne Collections, Issue 7, December 2010 Dr Ray Marginson was Vice-Principal of the University of Melbourne from 1965 to 1988.) This magpie aspect to the collection ties in with the earlier trend of ‘façadism’, as well as, Melbourne University’s outstanding collection of modern sculptures.

‘Façadism’ at Melbourne University is a struggle to accrue identity in the post-colonial new world, a kind of antiquarianism on a gigantic scale. It is a local version of the American multi-millionaires who moved whole European palaces across the Atlantic to feel more in touch with history.

The redevelopment of the city brought sculptures to Melbourne University. In 1890 the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the USA acquired northwest corner of Collins and Elizabeth Street. When Whelan the Wrecker demolished the building in 1959 and the group of bronze statuary that topped the entrance portico was donated to the University of Melbourne.

The sculpture depicts a sandal-shod Amazon giving succour to a widow with two children. It was modelled and cast in Vienna in 1893 and is similar to the sculpture that once stood at Equitable’s New York office. It was originally located at its new Architecture school at Mt. Martha but was relocated to the main campus in 1981.

In 1966 Whelan the Wrecker’s work provided more sculptures for Melbourne University when the Union Bank was demolished. Two figures meant to represent Great Britain and Australia, also known as Ada and Elsie. (Robyn Annear, A City Lost & Found, Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne, 2006)

The gateway to the underground car park with figures by Percival Ball (1845-1900) was also saved from demolition.

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The early appearance of abstract modern sculptures on the Melbourne University campus demonstrates the progressive university community compared to the rest of Melbourne. Inga King and Norma Redpath played a more important part in introducing modernist sculpture to Melbourne than Ron Robertson-Swann regardless of the brouhaha over Vault.

Inge King, Sun Ribbon 1980-82

Inge King, Sun Ribbon 1980-82

In 1980 Inge King‘s Sun Ribbon replaced a pond on the Union Lawn; it was what the university students wanted (Marginson p. 28). The sculpture is the gift of Mrs Eileen Kaye Fox in 1982 in memory of her parents Ernest and Fannie Kaye. In 1985 a group of students covered the sculpture in aluminium foil. Also by King on the campus is “Upward Surge” 1974–75 Steel Commissioned 1974 for the Institute of Early Childhood Development, Kew and installed in its current location in 2001.

Norma Redpath, Flying capital, 1970-74

Norma Redpath, Flying capital – Sydney Dattilo Rubbo Memorial, 1970-74

The Sydney Dattilo Rubbo Memorial by Norma Redpath 1970 (signed 1969-70) is a bronze capital on top of a black steel column. Prof. Sydney Dattilo Rubbo (1911-69) was the professor of Microbiology from 1945-69. Leading post-war sculptor Norma Redpath 69-73 studied sculpture at RMIT, 1953 was part of the ‘Group Four’ with Inge King, Julius Kane and Clifford Last. Other public sculptures by Redpath in Melbourne, the Facade Relief (1970–1972) at Victoria College of Pharmacy and the Victoria Coats of Arms (1968) on the front of the Arts Centre of Victoria.

Although Melbourne University has an good collection of sculptures featuring works by many notable sculptors and with examples from many different eras of sculpture, it is a peculiar collection that often picks up what others were casting aside.


Mushroom @ RMIT

Melbourne + Me at RMIT Gallery celebrates “40 years of Mushroom and Melbourne’s popular music culture”. This should be a great exhibition and I must tell all my friends.

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I have no argument with the proposition that popular music should be the subject of serious exhibitions. I have no argument with celebrating Australian music with the focus on Mushroom records. Rock music and art converged at the Velvet Underground gig at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in 1967. Now, decades later there is so much that needs to be remembered and preserved from the development of this important multi-media art form.

At the time it might have appeared ephemeral entertainment but now it is being exhibited in major institutional galleries, like this exhibition at RMIT and ACMI’s music video exhibition, Spectacle.

However, Melbourne + Me does raise the problem is how to display rock music in an art gallery. Lots and lots of photographs, posters, magazine covers, record covers and videos don’t make very exciting viewing. There were several technical issues going on with various videos and computers when I visited – technology is only part of the solution on how to present the multi-media spectacle of rock’n’roll. There is a huge public program of talks and film screenings to accompany the exhibition.

There are some spectacular costumes from Kylie, Skyhooks and Crowded House. However even the giant Skyhooks backdrop and Pegasus from Kylie’s Aphrodite Les Folies 2011 world tour didn’t really do it for me.

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There are attempts to make the exhibition more coherent with the sticky carpet room about the band venues (but without a carpet sticky with beer) and the imagery office of Michael Gudinski, the director of Mushroom records. Here there are trophies, records, autographed guitars, gold records and odd bits of paraphernalia. The crates of records to flip through was a good touch.

There is no outrage at the idea of an exhibition of Australian popular music, as there is with street art (see the comments on my post about a street culture centre); maybe, rock music always wanted to be part of the establishment. Maybe there should be more outrage as lack of context was the main problem with the exhibition. Sometimes it felt like a random display of stuff – why are Kylie’s costumes on the same platform as outfits worn by Skyhooks? Why are the international acts and local acts all mixed up? I feeling of being lost at the exhibition wasn’t helped by the layout of rooms at RMIT Gallery.

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Charlatans of the Art World

The accusation of charlatan is sometime levelled against some artists. Robert Hughes made this accusation to Jeff Koons. Koons replied to was to point out that if had put his talents to use in the business world he would have a bigger income.

Chelsea, NYC stickers, 2013

Chelsea, NYC, stickers, 2013

I smile sadly at the street artists who snigger about all the street art photographers, the artists who dislike collectors and the accusations of “toy” amongst the street artists. I understand the artists who hate critics, although I think that critics are misunderstood. For all of these people are all part of a system that creates and defines what street art is.

Artists, collectors, curators, critics, gallery visitors, gallery directors have many different ambitions, drives and desires; one artist may have many different ambitions, drives and desires. The game of art, if it resembled any game, is like a role-playing game; in these games the players are not directly competing against each other but playing characters in a story.

I regularly play tabletop role-playing games and the players have a variety of ambitions within the game: the power player, the character actor, the storyteller and the puzzle solver are the typical variations. Like any game there people playing it for a variety of reasons from the social to personal. In the game of art there are artists and other people playing with all kinds of ambitions within and outside of art.

There is early episode in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Tom and Huck are playing at highwaymen and Huck complains about the futility of playing at gentlemen highway robbers.

“He (Tom) said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called ‘Don Quixote’, I would know without asking… So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in all the A-rabs and the elephants, but for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday school.”

Tom Sawyer’s self-conscious play demonstrated awareness of the rules of genre whether it is highwaymen or pirates. He makes the painting of his aunt’s fence into an event, although the event lacking any authentic emotional or artistic quality it is very profitable one for Tom. (Read more in my forth-coming book, Tom Sawyer, Art Entrepreneur. Syndicated chapter from the early years about Tom getting the local street artists to paint his Aunts fence for nothing, they even brought their own paint. But I digress.)

One can always have doubts about Tom Sawyer’s true intentions or have doubts about Duchamp – serious, joke or both? Tom Sawyer chooses to play at being pirates or highwaymen just as Duchamp chooses to play at making art. However whereas Tom Sawyer slavish follows the conventions of the genre, to Huck Finn’s great consternation, Duchamp incorporates jokes about them into his games. Jokes were about being aware of the conventions of the art gallery and the art world. Duchamp did not change the conventions of art galleries and the art world, the changes had already been made.

Isn’t a charlatan just the opposition’s view of a magician? (Are we talking stage magician or someone like Gandalf?) I am referring to Jed Perls’s new book Magicians and Charlatans.

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Persons of Interest

Persons of Interest was a series of blog posts about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life and have continued to have an impact. I wanted to write a personal history of art, telling it from my own view, to examine how the art and biographical details have influenced my own critical judgements. It was not an easy process and the posts did not attract many readers; maybe it was too self-indulgent or my choose of persons too obvious. Maybe, the posts didn’t come with enough images; anyway, I don’t think that I will continue it.

Who to include and who to leave out? This is always the question in making such lists. Influences come and go in waves of interest by the public and at various times in your life you get caught up in that wave of general interest. As a kid I must have been reading Robert Hughes in Time Magazine as my parents subscribed to it but I wouldn’t want to count Hughes as an influence or a person of interest. I played on synthesisers and so I was interested in Brian Eno. I am not claiming that I am major fan of Eno but Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World has been on high rotation for decades.

Here are all my Persons of Interests posts. They were written roughly in the order that they started to influence me.

Jan #1 – Desmond Morris

Feb #2 – Andy Warhol

March #3 – Salvador Dali

April #4 – Marcel Duchamp

May #5 – Laurie Anderson

July #6 – Various, Notes from the Pop Underground 

July #7 – Keith Haring

August #8 – William Burroughs

September #9 – Philosophers

December #10  – Hunter S. Thompson

It is not surprising that I am interested in influences when the subject of my thesis was the influence of Max Stirner’s philosophy on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. I started reading Max Stirner because of one remark by Marcel Duchamp but as I was investigating his relationship to philosophy, both the influence on and the influence of, I felt I had to read him.

“When he (Duchamp) was asked later in life to identify a specific philosopher or philosophical theory that was of specific significance to his work, he cited Stirner’s  only major book – Der Einzige und sein Eignetum…” (Francis M. Naumann “Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation of Opposites”  p.29)

 


Hidden Gem in Cemetery

The Springthorpe Memorial, completed in 1901, is one of Melbourne’s hidden gems, not rhinestones but an over-the-top extravagant diamond from the late-Victorian era. In 1933 the Argus praised it as “the most beautiful work of its kind in Australia”.

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When in 1897 Annie Springthorpe died giving birth to her fourth child, her husband  Melbourne prominent doctor and art collector, John Sprinthorpe was grief stricken. They had only married for ten years; privately he poured his heart out in his diary. Publicly to commemorate her he commissioned the most impressive memorial in Melbourne at the Boroondara General Cemetery in Kew.

No expense was spared. Dr Springthorpe assembled the all star team of his time: architect Harold Desbrowe-Annear, sculptor Bertram Mackennal and landscape gardener William Guilfoyle. Harold Desbrowe-Annear (1865-1933) was an admirer of Ruskin and his most well known work in Melbourne is the Church Street bridge, Richmond (1924). William Guilfoyle (1840-1912) was a landscape gardener and botanist who, in 1873 became the first curator of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Sir Bertram Mackennal was Australia’s international superstar sculptor of his time. Although Mackennal was born in Fitzroy he was equally at home in England where he sculpted portraits of British royalty. Melbourne residents many know his friezes on Parliament house, his statue of Circe, 1893 in the NGV or his memorial to Edward VII in Queen Victoria Gardens.

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A gate with a shield creates an entrance way to the small landscaped area around the Springthorpe Memorial in the very crowded space of the cemetery. There is a small areas around the memorial with a few seats and some trees.

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The stain glass roof of the memorial gave the white marble statuary an unreal red glow. The large dome of red glass in a scale pattern reminded me that the snake as an ancient symbol of eternal life because the snake sheds its skin. The snake motif is repeated in the water spouts on the roof.

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There are so many loving words all over the memorial. On the tiled floor and bronze words in Ancient Greek around the inside of the entablature and English on around outside.

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Mackennal’s complex three figure group consists of a full length portrait of Annie Springthorpe laid out on a Roman style sarcophagus and surrounded by angles. The angel hovers over the tomb floating on a marble nimbus; the idea of carving a nimbus out of marble strikes me as absurd, trying to carving rock to look like vapour.

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There are a few other mausoleum worthy of architectural note at the Boroondara Cemetery including a gothic-revival chapel and an Egyptian-revival temple with fantastic detailing. And there are a few other tombstone carving worthy seeing including a tomb with a bonze dog on top reminiscent of the famous tomb in Highgate cemetery tomb of bare knuckle Tom Sayers, guarded by a carving of his faithful dog. But the Springthorpe memorial is over the top in its grief, opulence and luxury, it is a five handkerchief experience.

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Book Deal

I’m very happy to announce that my forthcoming book on the history Melbourne’s public sculpture will be published by Melbourne Books next year. It is the blogging dream – a book deal based on the blog.

Bruce Armstrong and Geoffrey Bartlett, “Constellation”

Bruce Armstrong and Geoffrey Bartlett, “Constellation”

As regular readers of this blog would know one of the topics that I regularly write about is public sculpture. Not that the book will be exactly what I’ve written in my blog, far from it, there have been many additions, revisions and corrections and there are still many to do.

Which public sculpture represents the identity of Melbourne? I started thinking about this question and so I wrote a blog post about it (see Melbourne’s Sculpture). The question is still haunting me and now I have to choose an image for the book’s front cover.

As I wrote more and more blog posts about public sculpture I became more interested. I noticed that very few people were writing about public sculpture, it is considered a dull topic by art critics and art historians dismissing it as the work of second rate artists working on commissions. However the public want to know about these sculptures I was finding some interesting stories about public sculptures politics, crime and the history of the city. Putting all these blog posts together I found that I was writing a history about a major change in public sculptures; a true story with a beginning, middle and end.

Although it is every blogger’s dream to write a book, it took prompting from my wife, my inspiration, Catherine, for the idea to form. I also needed the copy editing skills of Sue Wind and the advice of many people to get the manuscript to this stage – I’ve already added getting a proper thank you list together to my ever growing 2Do list… write, edit, sort and label jpg files, the front cover image…. ?

La Pok's guerilla gardening Melbourne

La Pok’s guerilla gardening Melbourne

Hester, "a world, fully accessible by no living being", 2011

Hester, “a world, fully accessible by no living being”, 2011

Paul Montford, Adam Lindsay Gordon, 1931

Paul Montford, Adam Lindsay Gordon, 1931

Charles Web Gilbert, Matthew Flinders Memorial, Melbourne

Charles Web Gilbert, Matthew Flinders Memorial, Melbourne

John Kelly, “Cow Up a Tree”, bonze, 1999, Docklands

John Kelly, “Cow Up a Tree”, bonze, 1999, Docklands


What is an Artist?

What is art? Answer: something that an artist calls art. This raises the next question: what is an artist? The obvious and almost circular answer to this question is someone who makes art. This can lead on to discussions about how to make art (including by an artist calling it art) but for this blog post I will stay with the question of what is an artist.

Debs painting in Croft Alley, 2009

Debs painting in Croft Alley, 2009

After many years of paying attention to the institutional theory of art I want to look more closely at the artist rather than gallery. I am becoming aware of some of the inadequacies of the theory. Is the institutional theory of art basically Marxist in declaring that the material reality makes art? In that case so much for Duchamp’s cerebral approach and the individual psychology of artists.

There is the idea of the artistic temperament; that artists are born and not trained. There was also the idea that artists were inspired by the spirits; hence the word ‘inspiration’. But we can’t have faith in the ghosts of words. Are artists really different from the statistical norm in any measurable way? Considering that Asbergers syndrome and ADHD are no longer clinically assessed, it is time to point out that an artistic personality or temperament has never been clinically assessed.

Rather than an artistic personality perhaps artistic work is the product of a scholarly temperament? Describing the very first modern artists in Korea Youngna Kim

“Rather than thinking of themselves as artists trying to make a living, they seemed to regard themselves they seemed to consider themselves the literati from the Joseon dynasty. They considered painting a hobby and did not produce much work.” [Youngna Kim Modern And Contemporary Art in Korea (Hollym, 2005, New Jersey) p.11-12]

Gallery La Mer in Seoul

Gallery La Mer in Seoul

Youngna Kim’s history of Korean modern art drew my attention to this traditional where scholars produces ink paintings, poetry and music because of their temperament and the contrary idea of professional modern artist. This tradition exists in Europe but because of Korea’s compressed art history it is more clearly expressed. These two contrary ideas about why a person makes art influences subsequent interpretations of the art produced. What we expect an artist to be; these two ideas about who is an artist helps makes sense of a great deal of debate about what is art and what is good art.

The modern artist produces art as a professional, educated and trained in how to make and sell art. The professional artist is trained in techniques and is an insider in the art world. Professional artist is exploiting a market for their talents and produce the bulk of the art in circulation; Salvator Rosi became the first artists to paint speculatively rather than for commissions. As professionals they have a degree of reliability and consistency in the art they produce.

Contrasted to the person with a scholarly temperament may turn their attention to art from time to time as part of variety of interests. They are not so narrowly focused and generally work in an unrelated occupation; Desmond Morris painting, Brian Cox played in a 80s band, or Lenny Lipton, the man who wrote Puff the Magic Dragon and programmed the 3D navigation on the Mars Rover. Although the quality of the individual works of art can be as good as the professionals the quantity of the work is not sufficient to satisfy the market.

What kind of artist do you aspire to be?


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