Category Archives: Art History

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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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?


Jericho to Jerusalem

There is always an exhibition of classical antiquities on the first floor of the Ian Potter Museum of Art and it forms a significant part of the museum’s character. The current exhibition, “Jericho to Jerusalem” is of Bronze and Iron Age pottery from excavations by Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978) in Jericho and Jerusalem. The artefacts are all from the Melbourne University’s Classics and Archaeology Department’s collection that is used for hands on teaching and research.

Biblical archaeology has a bad reputation connected with the religious mania of evangelical Christians and political justification of Zionism but the work of Kathleen Kenyon is not of that kind of archaeologist. Kenyon, one of the most influential archaeologists of the 20th Century, is notable for refining archaeological techniques, in particular her stratigraphy of the Middle East. Her stratigraphy has subsequently been largely backed up by radiocarbon dating. You might have heard of Jericho and Jerusalem from the Bible but there are no Biblical references in this exhibition.

This is an exhibition of ordinary domestic pottery from the Bronze and Iron Age. There are no masterpieces, the antiquity of the exhibits are the main attraction. Although this is just plain pottery I was particularly taken by a small gypsum (alabaster) juglet from Bronze Age Jericho 2200-1750 BCE and three jar handles from Iron Age Jerusalem 100-586 BCE stamped with the maker’s flying eagle stamp on them. The maker’s eagle stamp is a trademark that any modern company would be proud to have as their logo.

The didactic panels accompanying the exhibits are clear, informative without being too technical or over burdening the visitor with excessive information. A reproduction of Kathleen Kenyon’s hand drawn stratigraphy from one of her Jericho trenches makes a great backdrop to one of the display cases.

The archaeological interest of the pottery is in shapes, surface treatments, attachments and evidence of use, for example the carbon burn marks on the lamps. The existence of ceramics indicates social aspects: established settlement, specialized skills and trade.

I normally don’t write about ceramics or ancient art so I was pleased that I went to the exhibition opening by my old friend and archaeologist, Geoff Irvin who gave me a great deal of background on Kenyon’s work and the archaeology of the Middle East.


Capon needs a Spanking

“The Art of Australia” is a three-part series television documentary by ABC presented by Edmund Capon. Part one, “Strangers In A Strange Land”, was a disappointing start presenting the same old story of 19th Century Australian colonial art. The couple of references to some contemporary art in an attempt to freshen this stale history didn’t help or hinder. There was too much about landscape art emphasizing the traditional view of Australian art as all about the landscape. Capon’s narrative is full of too much hyperbole, clichéd metaphors (describing Australia as “coming of age” as if a country is a person with a body, heart and head) and contradictions.

Australia can’t be defined as Capon tries as “a unique and diverse culture” because one (unique) cannot be many (diverse). The assumption of the documentary is that Australia has an Australia art, when in the 19th Century the British and Australian art world was basically the same. Capon only examines the art of Melbourne, Sydney and Tasmania as if the history of the SE corner of Australia is representative of the rest of Australia. How art and artists helped to shape Australia’s national identity is assumed rather than demonstrated; if art in anyway shaped Australia’s national identity it played a very minor role.

Capon avoids saying anything negative; he avoids the using the word ‘genocide’ to describe the attempted extermination of Tasmanian aboriginals and he avoids the mentioning the Australian banking crisis of 1893.

To describe the Heidelberg School as painting “Australia as it was” ignores the fact that Tom Roberts painted the romanticism of the manual shearing technology in 1890 when mechanical shearing had already been superseded in 1888 with the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine. Although Roberts rebelled against Eugene Von Guérard at the National Gallery Art School he apparently absorbed romanticism from his former teacher. Capon’s description of Robert’s Shearing the Rams as an “icon” is made apparently oblivious to the religious meaning of the word.

Edmund Capon was Director of the Art Gallery of NSW and his expertise is in Chinese art. Capon needs a spanking as an embarrassing punishment for his sloppy thinking in this glib and very ordinary history of art in Australia.

Two and a half stars.


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