Bohemian Melbourne

Looking at the Bohemian Melbourne exhibition at the State Library of Victoria brought several ideas that I had been thinking about into sharper focus. “Artist, rebel, hippie, hipster?” reads the subtitle of the exhibition, given that I have been some kind of bohemian in Melbourne for all my adult life and that I have encountered some of the subjects of this exhibition, I have a lot of thoughts and there are several hyperlinks to previous blog post.

Vali Myers in her studio in the Nicholas Building, Liz Ham, 1997

Vali Myers in her studio in the Nicholas Building, Liz Ham, 1997

Firstly, it is not necessary to be a bohemian to be an artist and I pity to fool that thinks that it is sufficient.

Whatever a bohemian is, it is definitely a biographical genre, frequently autobiographical, and often exists in a multimedia format, even before the idea of multimedia. It is a story about a person who is outside of conventional society.

In Richard Miller’s book Bohemia, the Protculture, Then and Now (Nelson-Hall, 1977, Chicago) Miller distinguishes between the wealth and the poverty models of bohemian life exemplified by Doyenné and Murger respectively. He also distinguishes between bohemians on the basis of class background and political attitudes, something that Bohemian Melbourne neglected to emphasise, mixing and right wing bohemians, Percy Grainger being the epitome of a right wing radical. (See my post on the Grainger Museum.)

I believe that understanding bohemians would be helped with a better understanding of demographics and the sociology of different sizes of populations. For if x% of the population are bohemians and the population of a city is 100,000 will bohemian behaviour change when it is 1,000,000? Will it change again when the population reaches 5,000,000?

Bohemian Melbourne reminded me that art styles are in reality clubs, exclusive groups based not so much on a logic of stylistic similarity but membership. Melbourne’s early art history was established around clubs. Some like Buonarotti Club, The Cannibal Club, Savages Club were bohemian. Others like, Stray Leaves, the Victorian Academy of Arts and the Contemporary Art Society of Victoria were not. The first of these was the Victoria Fine Arts Society established in 1853, it last four years until 1857. In 1874 the Victorian Artists Society was established and still continues today (see my post on Zombie Artists).

Like most gangs these clubs defend their members and their territory, be that territory intellectual, as in Surrealism or geographic, as in the Cabal of Naples. Artist colonies, residences or even restaurants, like Montsalvat or Heide, can be the nexus of the group’s activities. (see my post on Montsalvat)

In part, artist clubs replaced the artists workshops, the guilds and apprenticeships in trying to answered the question of who qualifies to be a called an artist. Membership of these clubs takes various forms but it is essential that other members of the club recognise each other as members of the club. Non-members are excluded from being authentic. For example, being an Australian Aboriginal artist is not dependent on ancestry but on being recognised as Aboriginal by the local aboriginal community. Likewise, if you are not known to paint illegal pieces on buildings or trains without permission then you will not be recognised as a graffiti writer by other graffiti artists.

The reduction of clubs in society in general as an aspect of Australian society, is reflected in the art world. Sure the Contemporary Art Society of Victoria and the Victorian Artists Club still exist, like antique reminders of the past. The reduced numbers and lack of influence is one reason why there are no clearly identifiable art styles in contemporary art. (See my post Happy 70th Anniversary CAS)

The most important arts clubs that still exist in Melbourne are in the form street art crews. Street art and graffiti are movements rather than styles, a movement is where multiple similar clubs/crews/organisations/etc exist. Movements are larger than clubs and are not defined by the artists/members but by historians.

I could go on about artistic lifestyles and living a bohemian life on social security payments but I will save that for future blog posts.

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

8 responses to “Bohemian Melbourne

  • Eucalypso

    Heide is an amazing place to visit with the mix of the history of the Reeds, the opportunity to view paintings from artists of the era, and contemporary art. On our first visit some years ago, nothing was said or available on the Reed’s connection with the place which was surprising, but the balance now must be an inspiration on how to value and run a historical bohemian establishment.

    I like your comments on street art in the modern scheme of things and look forward to future posts.

  • Mark Holsworth

    Thanks. Heide on my last visit had a lot more on the Reeds. What I find interesting about Heide is how it continues to reinvent itself over the years.

  • Josh

    Heide promotes the Angry Penguins circle of Artists that were a pretty big part of Melbourne Bohemia from the 30s through the 50’s and beyond as they gathered their own clique around rejection of the Contemporary Artists Society’s percieved “traditionalist” ideas. Boyds bride series (on show now at Heide) is/was a powereful contemporary statement of its time

    • Mark Holsworth

      Head always reminds me of how small Melbourne’s progressive art scene was in the 30s, 40s and 50s, basically it was a house party.

  • Josh

    Heide is almost becoming a museum of Melbourne Bohemia and modernist Melbourne in and of itself. Most of their big shows centre around this group now. Along side the brides show is a few photos of the dead horse Nolan took in the outback, and a very interesting show of work by a naive outsider artist of the 30’s that Tucker “discovered” and researched. I do have to get to the Bohemian melbourne show

  • James Lane

    Thx Mark. Good food for thought on something that is hard to define and pin down. This is especially the case when many people dislike labelling themselves with terms such as “bohemian”.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Self-labelling and externally labelled groups gets into demographic issues. There were clearly hippies, new agers and punks in pre-WWII Germany but there weren’t the labels yet, so they couldn’t be labelled or apply it to themselves. The State Library in their exhibition uses the word ‘punk’ to refer to Manning Clarke.

  • Eucalypso

    Arthur Boyd’s Brides exhibition at Heide is stunning, and worthy of touring the major galleries. I was told it took some years to get the paintings together so it may be a once in a lifetime opportunity. The catalogue is worth buying if you can’t make it to the exhibition.

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