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Monthly Archives: September 2014

Antique Guide to the NGV

Cleaning up her piles of books that belonged to her aunt Catherine discovered a guide to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) from 1968, the year that it opened the St Kilda Road building. (Well, it is not yet an antique, but it soon will be.) This piece of ephemera is a portal to another time of art in Australia.

NGV Guide 1968

NGV Guide 1968

The guide is small booklet with a purple paper cover, stapled binding and 32 pages with black and white illustrations. Printed by the Aldine Press Pty Ltd., a commercial printer specialising in book and periodicals, still operating in Prahran. There is no price on the booklet but the cover does fold out to include a membership form for the Gallery Society.

The purple cover has the stylised image of the roof of the gallery with the three central courtyards. In the plan of the gallery the courtyards are named both by the architect and after the donors: the oriental courtyard, named ‘Coles Court’; the sculpture courtyard, named ‘Lindsay Court’ and the ‘playhouse courtyard’ named ‘Keith Murdoch Court’.

It starts with a dry introduction from Eric Westbrook, the then director of the NGV, mostly about the gallery’s benefactors. There are maps of the two floors of the gallery, showing the original layout of the exhibition space.

The rest of the publication is an introduction with illustrations to the main areas of the galleries collection. It is interesting to note what is missing from the text. The term ‘ethnic art’ is used instead of ‘aboriginal art’. Reading about the European art collection it is remarkable to notice how much is about English art and that France is not mentioned, although the Impressionists are.

“Highlights of the European twentieth century are works by Modigliani, Rouault, Delaunay, de Stael, Tapies, Soto and others.” (p.23)

The description of Australian art, then housed on the second floor of the St. Kilda Road gallery, clearly shows Australia’s ‘cultural cringe’.

“Australian Art is essentially a colonial art drawing its stylistic impetus from the metropolitan centres of the world. Originally English traditions were paramount while in the later nineteenth century, French influences predominated. To-day, the styles of Western European Art have become universal and interacting. American abstract expressionism and the kinetic experiments of the French Groupe de Recheche d’Art Visuel mingle with traditions of the School of Paris and have their influence there. However, the particular life of this country and the individual attire of its people, flavour the work of its artists creating a distinctive Australian art. Though the idiom has brome international, the accent remains Australian.” (p.27)

Many aspects of the NGV have changed but I did note that the galleries collection of William Blake drawings remains a consistent feature of the galleries exhibition of Prints and Drawings department; Blake’s “The Whirlwind (Angel Crossing Styx)” is illustrated on page 11 and his drawings were on exhibition again this year.

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Prohibited Signs

Signs prohibiting things from around the world.

No photo Greece II 065

Photography prohibted sign

Various No - Canterbury

No Durians

No's - Munich

No Golfing

No Graffiti - Brugge

DSC04961

No baby carriagesJPG

DSC04532

Smoking of any substance


Taxidermy Spectacular

Julia deVille: Phantasmagoria and Leslie Rice: Bacchanalia at Sophie Gannon Gallery.

Julia deVilla, Rocking Alpaca

Julia deVille, Rocking Alpaca

After the dining room theme of her installation, Degustation in Melbourne Now, deVille’s Phantasmagoria is more from the bedroom and the nursery. In Beatrix, a rabbit, wearing a black formal coat with tails, sits alert on an antique high chair. Rocking Alpaca has a white, baby alpaca standing on a rocking horse base. In other works a fawn and a rat lie in a crib and a piglet, decorated with antique lace, lies in an antique baby carriage. There are wind up keys in many of the taxidermy animals suggesting toys with a clockwork mechanism.

Julia deVille’s art is beautiful but it is the emotions that it causes, ranging from cloying sentimentality to mawkish horror, that amplify the charge this beauty. The spectacular sensationalism of her taxidermy installations give them a neo-baroque style. Her art makes it seem that aesthetics, like cute, horror, sentimental and nostalgia are more about emotions than beauty and that beauty is only another quality, added on top of an emotional response.

To concentrate on deVille’s taxidermy, especially the delicate work with the extremely tiny young animals, is to forget other aspects of the exhibition. The contemporary techniques of assemblage and installation, most notably in her jewellery work and the installation itself. Jewellery has always been a kind of assemblage technique, reusing old materials, resetting old stones but deVille makes it contemporary art. Her installation aspect combines with collecting antiques with contemporary art’s interest in the mechanics of display.

Although the installation of antique furniture that the work is displayed on does somewhat, alleviate the clinical white of the gallery. The paintings of Leslie Rice, dark bacchanal scenes painted in acrylic on black velvet, also help with the atmosphere. When I first saw Rice’s paintings I thought that they must have been bad ‘old master’ paintings with fugitive colours, that had been dug out as an accompaniment to deVille’s Degustation. Now that I am aware of them, I still have the same opinion; they seem stuck in the past and lack the contemporary sensibility that deVille brings to her assemblages of antiques.

It has been a couple of years since I have been to the galleries in Albert Street, East Richmond and things have changed. Where there were once half a dozen galleries now only two cling on (or three if we include the artist run space that was closed when I visited). Along with Sophie Gannon Gallery, Anita Traverso Gallery is still in Albert Street. It is not that they have all closed. John Buckley Gallery is now located in Prahran, Jenny Port Gallery is now in Collingwood and Karen Woodbury has moved to Flinders Lane.


Writing about Justice

Getting back to my visit to William Eicholtz’s studio a couple of weeks ago. The reason for the visit was to talk with William about his relief sculpture of Justice on the County Court Building in Melbourne. I had neglected to mention it in my rough survey of public art in my blog post on Melbourne’s west end.

I realised that I had neglected to write about the history of these sculptural features of architecture in my upcoming book, Melbourne’s Sculptures. I realised that classical crests had continued into modernism, for example Norma Redpath’s Victoria Coat of Arms, 1968, on the outer wall of the NGV on St. Kilda Road or her Facade Relief, 1970-72, for the Victorian College of Pharmacy, and then into contemporary art with Eicholtz’s Lady of Justice, 2002. Did they deserve a separate thematic chapter? Are there that many of these crests or allegorical goddesses? It is the kind of panicked thoughts that an author has after completing a book.

I ended up selling that story to Justinian, I thought that the best audience for the story would be lawyers. I seem to be writing a lot about matters of law lately.

There has been news about the model for Eicholtz’s figure of Justice, Hannah Russell, the then president of the Life Models Society. Two days before I visited William the Bayside Leader had story about Russell having her nude photographs ban from a local art exhibition.  Such are the puritanical times that we have to live through.


Melbourne’s Steampunk Sculptures

Strangers to Melbourne might think that the intersection of Flinders and Spencer Streets would be a central location in the city and this is one reason why there are so many hotels in the area. In reality it is a largely ignored part of the city that locals rarely visit, however the character of the area is changing to include a steampunk elements. The retrospective science fiction of steampunk can easily be imagined in Melbourne where much of the nineteenth century infrastructure remains.

David Bell, Raising the Rattler Pole – The Last of the Connies, 2013

David Bell, Raising the Rattler Pole – The Last of the Connies, 2013

Creating a landmark for the corner of Spencer and Flinders Street is David Bell’s Raising the Rattler Pole – The Last of the Connies, 2013. The 1:1 scale classic W class tram in stands at ten degree angle exposing what the Bell calls it “‘steam punk’ underbelly”. (More on the tram in Daniel Bowen’s Diary of an Average Australian.)  Bell has made other public sculptures including the Nest, 2012 in the Darebin Parklands.

Russell Anderson, Apparatus for Transtemporal Occurrence of Impending Space, 2014

Russell Anderson, Apparatus for Transtemporal Occurrence of Impending Space, 2014

Russell Anderson’s Apparatus for Transtemporal Occurrence of Impending Space 2014 stands on the boardwalk behind the World Trade Centre. The bronze, brass, steel and copper pseudo-scientific time machine offers a view through a porthole of the future. Part of the equipment is functional; crank the handle and look through the viewer like an antique flip card viewer on a pier. Anderson is a Queensland artist who specialises in interactive kinetic sculptures.

Mega Fun, Metal Fish, 2006

Mega Fun, Metal Fish, 2006

Not exactly steampunk but close both aesthetically and geographically are the giant metal fish in Wharf Lane. The fish were created by Mega Fun for the 2006 Commonwealth Games floating parade on the Yarra River. The spectacle becomes permanent; there were originally 71 large artworks depicting fish, there is another ell, split in two at  Kensington Community Recreation Centre.

Steampunk is not simply a fashion or a fad, the subject of shows like the Clockwork Butterfly (see my review) and not permanent public sculptures. The terms fashion and fad have been over-used, abused and have been miss applied to alternate aesthetics, like steampunk. Chris Reynolds, A History apparatus – Vessel Craft & Beacon, 1993 could be considered a proto-steampunk sculpture. Installed 1994-5 it is a twenty-four metre long series of aluminium and fibreglass forms, part of which is attached to some steel rails in the middle of Russell St., between Bourke and Lt. Collins Streets.


Dada and the start of WWI

On the September 15, 1914 the avant-garde film maker, Hans Richter was inducted into the German army. Two friends, Ferdinand Hardekopf, journalist, writer and shorthand prodigy and Albert Ehrenstein, a poet gave him a farewell party and they promised to meet in Zurich, in two years, if they were still alive. Was the reason for the Zurich meeting was that Hardekopf, a pacifist was around planning to go there? In Zurich Hardekopf was close to Hugo Ball.

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

A few months later Richter was seriously wounded at Vilna, Lithuania. One of his brothers was killed and another wounded that same year. After recovering from his wounds and being discharged from the army Richter did travel, as promised, to Zurich where he met with two friends. They introduced him to the artists Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck.

It is worth remembering that many of the future Dadaists were initial supporting the war and that a lot can change in a few years of war and the lives of young men and women. The theoretician of Dada, Hugo Ball was so enthusiastic that at the start of the war he boarded a troop train for Belgium. He got as far as Leige where he was arrested as a spy but released when the authorities realised that he was only an idealist. However, in Berlin, the Herzfeld brothers were anti-war and already publishing the left wing journal, Neu Jugend.

During WWI a small group of young pacifist artists gathering in Zurich to escape the war and created art that changed the art history. Dada was an anarchic anti-art movement that formed and spread to like minded individuals around the world, setting the ground work for the contemporary art. For as the last century has shown the world has not learnt the stupid futility of war anymore than they have learnt the stupid futility of Dada. In the words of Ferdinand Hardekopf: “Dada is dead. And you?”

Yesterday Australia committed troops to fight in the Middle East, yet again, as if the last three or four times improved the situation.

On my Black Mark Facebook I am reporting on the activities of the Dadaists a hundred years ago, on the day of their centenary.


Urban Murals & Brussels

Often public murals can look naff, too politically correct or otherwise too preaching they look like a school guidance councillor has designed them. Part of the grand socialist tradition of public murals promoted by the Mexican mural painters. Or simply decorative. But the comic book murals in Brussels escape these hazards because they are not propaganda for products nor ideas; they are just having fun with established comic book images. So the impact of these comic book murals is different from other public murals; there is no didactic function to them, they are simply fun.

Brussels wall 5

Belgium invented the comic book, along with French fries, shopping malls, art nouveau and a lot of other things that have made the modern world. Belgians are particularly proud of their comic books as demonstrated by the city’s many comic book shops, it’s statues of comic book characters and public murals of enlarge comic book panels around Brussels inner city.

Brussels wall1

The justification for these murals on the basis of Belgium nationalism is thin; the population and visitors to Brussels enjoy the comic books. The Brussels Comic Strip Route was created by the comic strip museum by Michel Van Roye, Brussels Councillor for Urban Development and the Environment, in 1991.  It is an on going project and new murals are being added, form posts on a “comic strip route” around Brussels.

Brussels wall 4

The murals are encountered as surprising, engaging and entertaining aspects of Brussels. One reason for the success of the murals is that the murals are not placed on urban eye-soars in an attempt to ameliorate their ugliness; rather they are placed on suitable walls around the city where they compliment the urban scene. Comic book images frequently depict the urban environment and comic book design works with the architecture of the city. Frequently the murals employ tromp l’oeil elements integrates the image with the building.

Brussels wall 3 Tintin

Public art tributes to Belgium comic books do not stop at these murals; there is a comic book museum, the Belgium Comic Strip Centre, in a fantastic art nouveau building designed by grand master of Art Nouveau, Victor Horta in 1906. There is also a very large sculpture of a duo of comic book characters making a colourful and light-hearted splash in the business district of Brussels.

Brussels wall 2


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