Category Archives: Art History

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.


Art Vs Reality Fail

Art Vs Reality is a six part YouTube series of videos. “The aim of the series is really to save art from the curse of luxury imposed by a corporatised artworld,” says Peter Drew, the presenter in the series. The words “save” and “curse” is an indication of the kind of magico-religious thinking about art behind this series.

Peter Drew posing as an art critic

Peter Drew posing as an art critic

There is plenty of this kind of fuzzy thinking in the series. In Episode 3 Peter Drew appears to claim that artists who sell art lack integrity and are basically guilty of simony for selling the sacred. This obsession with money is a popular take on the institutional theory of art and money features prominently in Art Vs Reality right in the graphics at the start of each episode.

The fixation of money is perhaps due because Peter Drew is a street artist from Adelaide and street art is the most commercial of art movements since the Surrealism. From Futura, Kaws and Os Gêmeos marketing Hennessy cognac, to the entrepreneurial street artists selling street fashion, to quasi religious idealists, like Drew, there has always been a focus on money in graffiti and street art. Not that there is anything wrong with that; I don’t begrudge any artist a single dollar that they make, or don’t make, but you might regard it differently if you have a fantasy about simony.

It is the word ‘reality’ in the title that is symbolic of the its simplistic fantasy of art; it continues to measure art on its Procrustean bed. A fantasy based on a rather simple understanding of a largely French focused version of European art history, ignoring art before the 19th century and most other cultures and countries. The ‘reality’ that Art Vs Reality is referring to is an imaginary popular idealised ‘reality’ that frequently has a tenuous relation to the facts.

Facts, like what happened in the creation of Duchamp’s Fountain that Drew blames for the starting conceptualism. Drew is unaware that the New York Independent Show that Fountain was excluded from had no jury (nor as Drew claims judges to “dismiss it out of hand”). How then was Fountain excluded from the exhibition and where the first edition of Fountain is far more complex than Drew’s ‘reality’.

Ironically it is the conceptual art of the Duchamp that Art Vs Reality, in Episode 2, blames for what it see as what is wrong with art. With a more complete reading of art history Drew might have been aware that the initial attacks on art institutions and the idea of great artists first launched by the Dadaists, followed by the conceptual artists in the 1960s, weren’t concerned about the influence of money but on the ideological support that the galleries gave to the state/war criminals.

Drew’s light-hearted approach lacks any subtly, depth or understanding of art or social history. He doesn’t take the audience to anything new or offer any new insights. Given the subject matter that he wants to deal with it is a shame that Drew does not appear to have read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing or, even the arch and sardonic Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (as Wolfe was at least informed about modern art history when he wrote it). For a much more detailed analysis of the contemporary art market I would recommend reading Judith Benhamou-Huet’s The Worth of Art – Pricing the Priceless (Assouline, 2001).

Unfortunately Art vs Reality is just another jeremiad, posing as a comedic commentary, a general complaint about how art has lost its way, declined and become decadent.


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 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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