Monthly Archives: September 2020

Nineteenth Century Fantasies

The front of the State Library of Victoria looks like something out of Dungeons and Dragons. A male warrior attacks a dragon and a female paladin advances; Joseph Edgar Boehm’s St. George and the Dragon and Emmanuel Frémiet’s Jeanne D’Arc.

Many people can’t stand European nineteenth-century academic sculpture. Other people think that it was the last stand of a noble aesthetic tradition. I don’t agree with either; for me, it is like Frank Frazetta or the Brothers Hildebrandt’s fantasy illustrations, it is art about make-believe world. It is about men who wanted their statues of colonial explorers, generals, and other leaders like a boy wants superhero figurines. By making these escapist fantasies figurative art, they were trying to make their meaning more tangible.

The messages in some of these fantasy art can be horrible, racist and sexist (this is not a defence or an apology for these statues). Others make their creators look like an obvious client for future Freudian therapy – man’s eternal struggle with monsters of the deep. They can also be intensely sentimental, or overtly sexy.

Springthorpe Memorial

There are many examples of this academic fantasy art sculpture in Melbourne from the statues of St. George and Joan of Arc, to the angels by Bertrand Mackennal in the Springthorpe Memorial, or Paul Montford’s The Court Favourite and Water Nymph and, the incredibly racist, (and fortunately rarely on public display in the NGV) Emmanuel Frémiet’s Gorille enlevant une femme (gorilla carrying off a woman).

Not since the Baroque has there been art as theatrical. The theatricality of the academic fantasy art is the same as the CGI imagery of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings. And it was just as popular, with the painter John Martin showing blockbuster exhibitions in London in the late nineteenth century.

The nineteenth-century academic artist was portraying the world, not as it was, or is, but as they thought it should have been; a bucolic, mythic, existence. They used everything as a symbol, retreating from the world in search for a meaning that would justify their beliefs. For the world and its facts were increasingly at odds with the values and ideals springing from European religion, myths and legends. What Europeans were discovering was that they were just another great ape of a common species found around the world and not the chosen ones.

The high art of today is about reality and not fantasy. Today fantasy is rarely shown in state galleries or installed in front of state buildings but widely available in prints and posters. But there is still plenty of fantasy art available, it is just curated for a different market and the statues of dragons and warriors are made in a 25mm scale.

(Some people might note that what I am calling ‘nineteenth-century academic sculpture’ includes works made in the early twentieth century. This is the difference between dates and styles and that some styles will in places continue for generations after their significant period.)

Paul Montford, Court Favourite, c.1906

Lockdown Psychogeography in Coburg

Reports of various psychogeographical walks around my neighbourhood in Coburg. I don’t know how many times I’ve been around these streets during this lockdown or even what day it is. Of course, I saw some fresh street art, some other stuff and cogitated on the conundrums of Coburg’s street design. I don’t know if it is valid psychogeographical if you aren’t drunk or stoned, but I could write a book about what I don’t know.

The streets of Coburg, laid out in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are a grab bag of experiments in suburban road design. Wide nature-strips, no nature strips, broad central road division with a park area dividing a street. There is a single road with the backs of houses on one side and the fronts of houses on another. There is no uniformity to even the width of the streets, one even suddenly narrowing by about half a metre at one point.

Spotted the first COVID-19 street art, a sticker, a virus grenade, I’ve seen. And more of the work of the UBM Crew; the UBM crew includes Luna who alternates between graffiti and street art. (I should write a blog post about the artists who do both street art and graffiti because there are a few; Stanley is another example. I like artists who change style because it shows that they are developing.)

In case anyone was wondering graffiti artists do paint their own fences when they can.  One aspect that is worth mentioning about street art is that it is incredibly satisfying for the amateur part-time participants. Unlike other art forms where amateurs and professionals have different venues, audiences and public awareness, they meet on the street like masked pedestrians. There are many successful, amateur, part-time artists in street art; no doubt more than any other area of visual arts. Perhaps a subject for another post.

I could write a blog post about all ideas I’ve had to write blog posts. You will know that I am getting desperate when I write one about the murals of Coburg. There is this terrible painting of Marilyn Monroe, with her skirt blowing up of course, on the side of some restaurant that I never want to see again.

Aside from street art and graffiti, what else have I seen on the suburban streets of Coburg? A few pleasant front gardens, a strange sculpture and a lot of tasteless, late-capitalist stuff. (Who was that masked man?)


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