Who cares about this pseudo-medieval influenced folly and what significance does it have to Melbourne’s culture? I have been to Montsalvat on a couple of occasions to see a concert or just to look around at the faux medieval architecture.

The idea of William Morris and the arts and crafts movement was that a return to traditional work practices would end the alienation of the worker by a creative anachronistic medievalism. Although the arts and crafts movement did produce some beautiful art it did not fulfil its utopian dreams and neither has Montsalvat. It is unique, an unsuccessful mutant that wasn’t viable, couldn’t adapt and didn’t reproduce any offspring.

Unlike Heide, the former house of art patrons John and Sunday Reed, Montsalvat is not significant in Australian art history. It has produced no significant artists as a look at their permanent exhibition of the resident’s paintings demonstrates. And unlike Heide, Montsalvat has been unable to adapt to the changing world because of its anachronistic ideal. While Heide can add a new gallery and sculptures; Montsalvat has become a quaint attractive setting for up market wedding receptions.

Another problem with Montsalvat’s cultural vision is that it is a bucolic rural vision and if there is a future for culture then it must be an urban vision. Suggesting that the solution to our cultural problems is to retreat from the urban environment is short-sighted and environmentally destructive however superficially attractive it might appear.

So who cares about Montsalvat and its financial problems? Nobody commented about my blog entry about Montsalvat’s financial problems but when I came to mention Betty Roland’s book about Montsalvat there were comments. As one correspondent wrote: “Montsalvat still stirs passions just as art does. Mention Meldrum or Jorgensen in certain circles and you will be shunned as some sort of leper.”

If one person can make a difference then Justus Jorgensen’s (1893-1975) contribution to Melbourne’s culture has to be negative. Melbourne’s artist colony at Montsalvat in Eltham by Betty Roland, The Eye of the Beholder, (Hale & Iremonger, 1986).

It is the history of a group of minor Melbourne artist, writers and hangers on, first centred on the painter, Max Meldrum but then the bullying personality of Justus Jorgensen takes over. Justus Jorgensen appears oblivious not just to the rest of the world, to history, to anyone who he does not dominate. “Jorg (Jorgensen) has a radio and listens to the news but does not discuss it. He is more interested in the love-life of his pupils than the fall of France.” (p.181)

Jorgensen, a student of Meldrum, copies both Meldrum’s personality cult and his artistic technique. Both Max Meldrum and Justus Jorgensen are conservative painters hanging on to 19th century tonal techniques. Jorgensen’s vision of an artist’s colony at Montsalvat is equally conservative as is his architecture. The extent that he and his followers archived letters and other documents, sure of their place in history, is unnerving and reminiscent of a cult. And Jorgensen’s ego is recorded in numerous self-portraits.

Montsalvat pseudo-medieval buildings were built with donated labour and money. Jorgensen appears to be a master at toadying to wealthy donors and exploiting his disciples. He appears to be more interested in controlling people than painting. His followers thought him a genius but he avoided contact with anyone who might damage this delusion. I felt no pity for those that he did manipulate, seduce or bully because they wanted it, they wanted someone to order them and give their lives meaning. If Jorgensen hadn’t controlled his or her lives somebody else would have.

Betty Roland is not a historian but one of the small circle that lived at Montsalvat. Her book is full of details of the infidelities and other love affairs of the group but becomes dull with all the details. It also suffers from being both an autobiography and a biography of Justus Jorgensen confusing the narrative. Ultimately the book it isn’t that interesting due to the group’s insularity and conservative artistic vision. It is hard to describe how boring, conservative and parochial this group of would be bohemians were; they were off to the pub at 5pm like everyone else in Melbourne.

(This blog entry is an edited version of two entries published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing.)

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

4 responses to “Montsalvat

  • Hels

    I don’t know enough about Montsalvat to make a comment, but I do want to examine the comment “that a return to traditional work practices would end the alienation of the worker by a creative anachronistic medievalism”.

    Morris, Ashbee and others did not come from impoverished families so I suppose their revolutionary socialism seemed a bit like playing at politics. But they believed that making individually designed, crafted and signed objects was the only way that society was going to give artisans the dignity, respect and income that they deserved. It may not have worked out that way but their goals were sound.

    In the Wiener Werkstättes, they concentrated on good design for a more select market. Hoffman said, “Since it is not possible to work for the whole market, we will concentrate on those who can afford it.” The Englishmen on the other hand were true socialists, I hope.

  • where2go

    What is Mark Holsworth’s favorite wine. ‘Montsalvat sucks! Boo hoo. Blah, blah, blah…’

    Didn’t this guy’s mother ever tell him before you say something bad you should try to find something nice to say? If one is relentlessly whining about a subject it becomes a moan not a critique. Regard the following…

    The reader can really get a sense of the vast sums of knowledge at work here to create an argument (something nice) unfortunately the author is unable to articulate his thesis in (something bad, Voila!).

    Case in point: “Both Max Meldrum and Justus Jorgensen are conservative painters hanging on to 19th century tonal techniques.” Huh?

  • Confidential

    I find personally the local aboriginal gallery is
    more up lifting and inspiring.

    I enjoyed that and their music.

    I have nothing against montsalvat
    and I am actually a fan of the arts and crafts movement
    but the best expression of the Arts and Crafts movement
    in Melbourne is all the beautiful bungalows in the 1920’s suburbs
    or Ardoch?

    The Layout of montsalvat just gives me the creeps
    there appears to be no philosophy in the architecture or design.
    But an obvious ulterior motive.

    I could not leave quicker the earlier settlers of Eltham
    (Before Montsalvat) had a more progressive inclusive philosophy.
    That included aboriginals as equals and that was well before
    montsalvat existed.

    There is greater Art throughout Victoria.

    From what I have seen always has been.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Well said, I hadn’t thought about the layout but I know that odd creepy feel that it has. Montsalvat had no interest in the local area or the local aborigines – it is entirely introspective and focused on the cult of Justus Jorgensen. The personality cult still persists but as you can see from their comments have not developed any more insight but continue with the bullying tactics. This said, I completely understand why you wish to remain anonymous while still contributing to the discussion.

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: