Does anyone else hate the murals around Melbourne? I hate them when they preach, or when they are out-dated community projects sadly painted by school children or some artist similarly out of their depth with such a large project. Most of these murals are band-aid solutions to ugly architecture. And even when they are painted by a competent artist they really need a “use by” or “best before” date stamp on them. The worst of all these murals is on the Eastern Hill Fire Station.
Harold Freedman’s mosaic “The Legend of Fire” 1982 covers one wall of the Eastern Hill Fire Brigade’s headquarters in Albert Street, East Melbourne. This huge mosaic mural is 5 floors high and boasts over one million glass mosaic tiles. The image in a conservative, neo-classical style complete with ancient Greek gods would have looked dated in comic books of the time; Freedman had worked as a cartoonist from 1936 – 1938. Uncertain that this didactic mural would be properly understood there is a large bronze plaque providing a detailed explanation for public edification. It was a huge investment in a work of public art two years after the removal of Ron Robertson-Swann’s sculpture “Vault” from the city square.
Harold Freedman (1915-1999) specialized in murals depicting the history of a subject like fire for the Fire Station. He painted murals on Australian aviation for the Australian War Memorial, Australian football for Waverly Park, Australian racing for Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne’s transport for the old Spencer Street Station (reinstalled in the new and renamed Southern Cross Station in 2006). Freedman’s enormous history murals incorporated multiple images with a bland illustrative realism that had all the artistry of a textbook, harking to his drawings of procedures for assembling weapons that were used in a training manual in WWII. Freedman’s art is the Australian equivalent of Soviet Realism. The conservative naturalism of Freedman’s murals and their pedantic histories are also an illustration of the conservative and patronizing nature of Australian society at the time.
In 1972 Harold was appointed as the “State Artist of Victoria”, a unique position with no previous or subsequent appointments. It was the only such position in Australia history and one he held for eleven years. I’m not sure how this is connected with the Arts Victoria Act that was also passed in 1972.
The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) was not so impressed with the art of Harold Freedman. There is only one work of his in the NGV’s collection: “Liberator interior” (c. 1940-1947) gouache and watercolour (38.0 x 32.0 cm) presented by the Royal Australian Air Force in 1947 and not currently on exhibition. However, this is also an indication of how unrepresentative the NGV’s collection is of Australian art history. And how the NGV massages and manipulates its exhibition of Australian art to create a false impression of the history. This raises the further question of should the NGV’s collection represent Australian art history or only contain works that “enhance the collection”?