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Tom Roberts painted the romanticism of the manual shearing technology in 1890 when mechanical shearing had already been superseded in 1888 with the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine.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.

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

18 responses to “Capon needs a Spanking

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    I really love many Heidelberg paintings. But Capon annoyed me because his key theories was that a) nothing before the Heidelberg artists was truly Australian and b) all Heidelberg art was equally modern, talented and truly Australian. The first thesis might be wrong but the second is ridiulous. Some Heidelberg paintings he showed were neither modern nor talented. They were awful.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Yes, compared to the French Impressionists the Heidelberg paintings are so focus on the past and nobody claims that the French Impressionists were truly French so why make that claim for the Heidelberg artists except out of Australian nationalist necessity. As for talent every painter has a bad day, or several.

  • Fuster

    I’ve been re-watching Hughes’ Shock of the New so have been spoilt in terms of listening to someone articulate a thesis that, right of wrong, engages your mind. Capon failed to do so. (Unsuprisingly) it was the work of a curator, not a critic.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Good point, even though I don’t like Robert Hughes having an opinionated critic telling art history is obviously better than a curator going through the usual art. Obviously Australia needs many more art critics.

  • Andrew Harten (@arthunterofsa)

    As a documentary on Australian art, I thought “The Art of Australia” was excellent from an educational viewpoint. The national curriculum for Art is now in draft form (As a side point Mark, I would love to read your opinion concerning it)
    Though one can always argue semantics, I felt the history of Australian Art was presented in the first two episodes in a manner that engaged an audience that may not be familiar with Australian art. While the importance of Art in Australia to the average Australian was greatly embellished, Capon has still provided me, as an educator, with a base level resource that covers much of the requirements of the new National Art Curriculum.

    • Mark Holsworth

      I agree with your last statement and that’s why I gave it a pass mark – I’d go as high as 6/10. The idea that “The Art of Australia” might be representative of the national curriculum for the arts had crossed my mind but I don’t know much about current education policy. I was also aware that “The Art of Australia” was being presented as a landmark television event and that it was intended to serve as an introduction to the history. This is why it is important that it did more than get a 6/10. Capon sidestepping important issues in Australian art and cultural identity, failing to mention genocide and other negative issues, and failure to raise anything new in his history meant that he was never going to do any better. These failings are not simply issues of semantics (although I did take issue with Capon’s hyperbole) but are very important because every mistake in understanding our culture is a delay in improving it. The fact that Australia can’t do any better raises important questions: Why wasn’t it better? (I was hoping for a 7/10 score.) Why isn’t there a suitable art critic to present the history rather than a curator? Why is the national curriculum for arts so conservative (Japan leaving things out of its national history curriculum is a concern to Australia while Australia acts the hypocrite).

    • Fuster

      > While the importance of Art in Australia to the average Australian was greatly embellished
      That was the sort thesis I was hoping he’d proceed to illuminate but didn’t.
      I think art has defined how we see ourself in the same way Russians define themselves by their literature and Americans by their film. (I’m not saying these are the only ways these nations see themselves, just that they are the most significant cultural self definer)
      Australians might struggle to name who painited what, but show them Shearing the Rams, Nolan’s Kelly series, a Drysdale, Collins St 5pm, or Lavender Bay and they’ll instantly say they’d seen it before. That recognition of their local art isn’t true in many countries.

    • Mark Holsworth

      I’m not sure about the thesis that Australia defines itself through its art. Sport yes, obviously, but art?
      It is an interesting thesis about the arts in general as a tool for defining nationality but why the visual arts and not music? Literature defines Russia, Ireland for reasons other than just subject matter and origin, there are economic and political reasons, just as there are with films and the US. Landscape art has featured prominently in Australian art history but is this a confusion between the nation and the land. It would be interesting to see the results of an experiment in identifying those paintings with a suitable range of people and other appropriate test requirements.

  • cannielad

    Capon, with reference to the Darwin bombing, glibly stated words to the effect that Britain’abandoned’ Australia.he should take a look at what was happening in britain at the time, and try to get his his history of art right, and leave the military history to people who know what they are talking about. peter.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Good point, Capon needs to try and get his history right rather than fall back on cliches. It would help if Capon did look at Britain more often in the program and to have admitted that for most of the 20th Century Australian and British art establishment were basically the same. Australian art history can’t be told in isolation.

  • Urbanmonk

    I’m obviously not as educated as youse, but I think Capon hit the nail on the head re: Australian art is by its nature, has been a struggle to figure out its own identity and what that means. I think that struggle was his thesis. He highlighted in the first episode, the difference between Von Geurrads work and that of Streeton, Roberts etc. I dont know about you, but I thought Von Geurrards gum trees resembled something from the English country side, unlike Streeton, whose grasp of the Australian light was pretty breath taking though he ( and Roberts) still retained I thought it was abundantly clear that Streeton and Roberts SAW the AUSTRALIAN landscape as it really was. I think (obviously in a very abbreviated form) he charted the journey of art in Australia to find and assert itself.

    I think he ellucidated the struggle of art in Australia to free itself from the influence of its British roots, just like most other arenas of life in Australia.

    • Mark Holsworth

      The story that landscape art is central to Australian art is an old one as is the story of the Australia’s post-colonial identity crisis and I have many doubts about it. Landscape art has featured prominently in Australian art history but is this a confusion between the nation and the land; the Australian landscape is a matter of geography whereas Australia, the nation is a political invention in search of an identity. There is no necessary reason for a political invention to have an identity but as a nation state the Australian government felt it needed one. Landscape and then aboriginal art filled this purpose but it could also have been filled, and Capon never mentioned this, by Menzies Academy of Australian Art, his tax on importing modern art, his speech against abstract art given in the same year as Hitler’s speech about degenerate art… a right-wing, nationalist Australian art free of foreign influence. Landscape has a right-wing flavor to it, the primal, irrational, connection with the earth, and I distrust its primacy in the history of Australian art for that reason.

  • Urbanmonk

    I agree there are other areas of arts relation to Australian identity that are left out. But I disagree that the artists vision of the landscape and the national identity are separate; perhaps nowhere more so than Australia. For good or ill, there is a relationship between the white person (collective and individual – then and now) and the landscape. We dont belong here, we know we dont, but here we are.

    Maybe artists (black and white) merely highlight that relationship through their own struggle to reconcile with that identity crisis. I also thought that in last nights episode, Capon was spot on in suggesting (he did seem a little bias, I will admit) that Brett Whitely was one of the first “international” artist celebrities that was unambiguously Australian.

    I also dont understand how a person and peoples relationship to (the) landscape has a right wing flavour? Those in power may concoct and construct myths and propaganda for their own political, economic and idealogical agendas, (this has been going on from day dot in Australia) but the artist is an individual that often will rebel against that kind of dogma and in fact speak through their art against it. Offering a translation, or interpretation of the prevailing cultural myths that is different. All art is a product of its cultural paradigm. Tuckers view of Fitzroy in the 30’s, Brack’s view of Collins St in the 50s, and Whitely’s view of sydney harbour in the 70’s were all interpreting a relationship to the landscape just as Streetons view of Heidleburg was in the 1880’s or when ever it was painted. It gives us a view of the landscape as it is, but also hints at something deeper and broader. Its what that deeper and broader thing is, that is up for debate.

    • Mark Holsworth

      The concentration on landscape is about ownership and an irrational nationalist connection between geography and identity. This is a right wing myth subscribed to not just by the individual artists but also by their patrons, curators, government etc. when they buy and display the art. The idea that the nation of Australia has a unique identity simply on the basis its geography is also a right wing nationalist myth. Why is there Australian art and Australian artists rather than art in Australia and artists in Australia? Does Australia really have a unique identity or is it just another early British colony? The story of art in Australia (based on geography) would be very different to Australian art (based on national identity). The first international artist celebrities from Australia was Sir Bertram Mckennel but then he doesn’t look good in the story of Australian art because he spent a lot of his time sculpting British/ Australian royalty.

  • Fuster

    > Menzies … speech against abstract art

    I’m intrigued – I’d not heard of this before – do you have a link? I had a quick search and couldn’t find it, tho there are some amusing references.

    In 1943 he said:
    “The artist, if he is to live, must have a buyer … an artist is better helped by the man who sacrifices something to buy a picture he loves than by a rich patron who follows the fashion.”

    He was of course a man of his time:
    “To the applause of a public meeting in Sydney on January 28, 1944, artist Mary Edwards urged that children and pregnant women not be allowed into the National Gallery of New South Wales until it had removed William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith.”

    Back to Capon – I don’t recall him mentioning Smart or Friend. Do you think this was simply for brevity or did it portray a bias? Maybe they don’t fit neatly into his thesis?

    He does have one thing in common with Hughes – a love of name dropping … you might just have picked up that he hung out with Whitley and Nolan.

    • Mark Holsworth

      I read about Menzie’s speech, I haven’t been able to find the full text, in Elieen Chanin and Steven Miller, Degenerates and Perverts The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, (The Miegunyah Press, 2005, Carlton). There also mention of it amongst the history of the Melbourne Contemporary Art Society but it isn’t widely discussed. There are so many artists that Capon didn’t mention from Bertram Mckennel onwards. James Gleeson is another artist who wouldn’t fit into his thesis. I don’t think that he presented any artists who didn’t fit into his thesis. There was that Robert Hughes name dropping feature but at least it was mentioned clearly, unlike some journalists, so we can account for personal bias in a way that we can’t with the selection of the other artists.

    • artandarchitecturemainly

      More specific references to that speech and all his other art actions can be found in “Imaging a Nation: Australia’s Representation
      at the Venice Biennale, 1958”

      Click to access jas79_scott.pdf

      I had been interested in this topic myself in “1939 exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art”

      thanks for the link

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks Hels for the link. I must examine the Menzies influence more. I do know that he wanted Paul Montford to be the head of the his Academy of Australian art on the mistaken belief that Montford being an artistically conservative sculptor would also be a social conservative.

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