Monthly Archives: August 2022

The Woman Who Stole Vermeer

“We are looking for either a master thief or a madman.” Scotland Yard incorrectly assumed. For it was a woman, Rose Dugdale, who was the mastermind behind art thefts and one attempt at an aerial bombing of a police station. The book could have been titled: “the woman who stole Vermeers” because she probably stole two.

This biography of Rose Dugdale follows a strictly chronological narrative. Consequently, it has a prolonged start with her childhood and education, including her PhD. Followed by the development of her earnest politics. And then more chapters on the background of the Irish Troubles, Bloody Sunday and other revolutionary politics of the 1960s. 

There are 262 pages in the book, including the author’s note, bibliography, endnotes and acknowledgements. It is only on p. 99 that any art is stolen, and then they are unnamed paintings from Dugdale’s family home. And not until p.147 that a Vermeer is stolen.

Not that it takes the police long to arrest her and recover the stolen art. Famous stolen art might not be able to be sold, but there are often political motivations for art theft. And Dugdale was all about politics.

Despite defending Dugdale’s autonomy and leadership in his introduction, author, Anthony M. Amore fails to provide evidence that anyone ever suggested otherwise.

Amore, the Director of Security and Chief Investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, has written two other books about art crimes Stealing Rembrandt and The Art of the Con. However, his “investigator and security practitioner” background was a problem because his subject, Dugdale, wouldn’t talk to him for fear her interview could be used to convict former IRA members. Not that his background in security seems to give him any insights into the three art thefts. Unfortunately, this means that he can’t examine Dugdale’s intellectual life, nor does it provide any insight into Irish politics.

From my background in Melbourne, I could see how Dugdale’s attempted ransom of the Vermeer could have influenced the Australian Cultural Terrorists to ransom Picasso’s Weeping Woman and their choice of the word ‘terrorist’. 

Furthermore, my own research shows that although there are less than forty authentic paintings by Vermeer, it is remarkable that at least five were stolen in the 1970s (something Amore fails to mention). Even more notable of those five, at least three were stolen for political reasons (to aid the IRA and Bengali refugees of East Pakistan). The small size of his paintings made Vermeer the perfect target for art theft.

Anthony M. Amore The Woman Who Stole Vermeer (Pegasus Crime, 2020)


Where walls are wild

Alchemical calligraphy that turns walls to gold. Pieces that slant, inter-connect, curve and bubble, with eye-popping colours (how did they get brown to look fabulous?). Along with some great supporting characters (who remembers Alf?).

One hot spot for graffiti in Brunswick is an area bounded by Sydney Road, Moreland Road, Albion Street and the railroad tracks. It has a network of laneways in the light industrial area around the Brunswick tram depot. There are other locations for seeing quality graffiti in Brunswick – like the land of Sunshine

This is not an example of Melbourne’s laneway culture, with cafes and bars. Although that is developing with Red Betty’s, a bar run by artist and extreme printmaker Joel Gailer, hidden in Houdini Lane. Mostly it is repurposed car infrastructure surrounded by brick and concrete walls. Some of the bluestone paved lanes are the more disgusting rubbish-filled lanes I’ve seen. Someone needs to get a recycling bin for all the aerosol cans and beer bottles (graffiti is sign-writing partying).

The car park, off Sydney Road, has long been a location for great graffiti. For about a decade, a mural of a train with old-school graffiti on carriages ran along the opposite wall, the colours slowly washing out with the weather. Now Paris and Peril have returned to paint the other wall (covering up the work of a prolific and irritating street artist). Paris and Peril are veterans of Melbourne’s graffiti. Love the way that they have shaded around some of the actual bricks bringing the whole wall into their piece.

Ilham Lane has a bit of quality street art, including a large mural by Civil and some small pieces by Phoenix; however, most of the work in the area is graffiti. 

Graffiti thrives in liminal zones like this area in transition, where multi-storey apartments are replacing factories and the light industry. Not all light industrial buildings in the area are currently being used for industrial purposes. There are artists’ studios scattered amongst them, or in clusters like at Tinning Street, and a commercial art gallery, Neon Parc. Where walls are wild.


Enjoying the absence of Batman

In the light of the removal of the statue of James Cook in Cooktown earlier this year and the Hobart City Council’s decision to remove the statue of the racist head-hunter and state premier William Crowther earlier this month, I look at the absence of two others. And find out what happens when statues of the city’s founders are removed.

At 433 Collins Street, on a block bounded by Collins, William and Market Streets, and Flinders Lane, amidst Melbourne’s cathedrals of commerce, the gothic revival banks, with their carved stone and stained glass windows, there once stood an icon of modernism. Built in 1964, the National Mutual Building had 20 floors of office space, a retail area and a rooftop restaurant.

In front of it, the modernist architecture continued with a wide forecourt, with steps, concrete paver, and planters. Symbolic of the capitalism of the area, the Melbourne pub-rock band, Painters and Dockers, played “Die Yuppie! Die!” in the plaza. Also in the plaza, symbolic of implicit greed, were two statues celebrating the colonial establishment of Melbourne. The two figures were distanced, for neither were friends: John Batman and William Fawkner.

Gary Foley was decades ahead of the Black Lives Matter when he put the statue of Batman on trial in 1991. Foley and fellow activist Robbie Thorpe put the figure of Batman on trial for his genocide against the Indigenous population of Tasmania, rape, theft and trespass. Of course,  Batman was found guilty, anyone who looks at the evidence would know that, but there was a desperate Australian nationalism that wanted to ignore it.

Its end came in 2012 when a slab smashed onto the forecourt. The ‘experimental’ architecture attaching the skin to the building was failing. The building sat empty, waiting for demolition. The statue of Batman by Stanley Hammond was removed without any bullshit by the site’s developers. The two statues are currently in storage, there are no plans for them, and it is unlikely they will ever return to public view. And for those concerned, Melbourne still has more than enough Batman memorials.

What has been put in place of Batman and Fawkner is more engaging. The seventies were severe, hard-edge geometric. You could sit around the raised garden beds and statues, but it wouldn’t be comfortable. Around the new building, there is a native, drought-resistant garden flowing down the hill. Instead of a bronze figure, there is a bronze fountain in the shape of a Banksia seed pod. A water feature that uses very little water. It wanders playfully between rocks and can be opened and closed with a sluice gate. Nearby a water wall flows down the side of the building.

There has been no evidence of any loss of knowledge of history nor any sanitisation of history. Nor was there any other disaster predictions made about removing statues in recent years because they were uninformed brainfarts from conservative commentators. Instead, it appears that people are enjoying the absence of Batman.


Religious violence against art

Following the stabbing of Salman Rushdie, do we need reminding that declaring that art is blasphemous directly incites violence? Blasphemy is not a metaphor and has never meant something must be tolerated within the bounds of secular law. No, declarations of blasphemy always encourage violence.

The two sixth-century Buddhas carved into the high sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan of Afghanistan were spectacular survivors from a civilisation that at long passed. They were the tallest standing Buddhas in the world; the first was 55 m, and the second was only an awesome 37 m high.

In March 2001, the Taliban government declared that they were idols, even though they had not been any Buddhists in the area for centuries. They had a plan, a budget and nothing more important to do. When rocket launchers, tank and artillery shells failed to destroy them, they had to do it the hard way, scaling the sculptures and attaching explosives. It took 25 days of work, planting explosives to demolish the statues. Anti-tank mines were laid around the feet to increase the damage the falling stone did.

Mullah Mohammed Omar stated, “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them.”

George Pell (aka Cardinal Pell Pot), Jean-Pierre Cattenoz (aka Archbishop of Vaucluse) and others encouraged the destruction of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ by declaring it blasphemous. But Pell is not the only senior member of the Vatican to have encouraged the destruction of art by calling it blasphemous. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) also used the word when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. 

In 2004, Bergoglio demanded a retrospective exhibition of the work of the contemporary Argentinian artist Leon Ferrari, close to end what he called a ‘blasphemous affront’. Bergoglio declared it was blasphemous because of Ferrari’s sculptures of the Virgin Mary in a blender, Jesus crucified on an American bomber, saints in frying pans and other images. Ferrari had long been critical of the Catholic church conniving with the murderous Argentina junta. 

Like Pell, Bergoglio also objected to public money being used for the exhibition in a public art gallery. Bergoglio was a tiny bit more successful than Pell. Unlike Pell, he initially got a judge to agree with him and obtained an order for the exhibition to close. However, this was overturned on appeal, and the exhibition was reopened. A mob of the faithful then destroyed several works of art at the exhibition, shouting: “Long live Christ the King!” The artist forgave Bergoglio because he got great free publicity; it is unknown if Bergoglio has forgiven Ferrari.

Forgiveness aside, the question remains should we tolerate religious organisations that call things blasphemous? My long answer is only if they tolerate the arbitrary use of violence against them. So, the short answer is no.


From Counihan to Camp

Three exhibitions with very different objectives at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. Modern and contemporary art, with aesthetics ranging from realist to camp, and goals as diverse as to activate, educate and entertain. (So, watch me do the critical equivalent of a high dive with triple summersault to tie this review up.)

When the Counihan Gallery was established in 1999, it was named after the artist Noel Counihan (1913-1986). The inspiration came from the proximity of Counihan’s anti-fascist protest/performance, his ironic free speech in a cage on a busy Sydney Road, Friday evening, 19 May 1933. Remembering that Victoria Police was run by fascists in 1933 and it is doubtful that they have ever relinquished control of the force that “upholds the right.” 

The Counihan Gallery has acquired a collection of Noel Counihan’s paintings, drawings, lithographs, linocuts and other prints, primarily through donations. “Counihan Collection – Noel Counihan works from the Moreland Art Collection” is the first time exhibition from this collection. This is possibly the first retrospective exhibition of his work since the one at the NGV in 1973.

Counihan’s art was intended as political consciousness-raising when it wasn’t a portrait or the head of an attractive woman. Amongst the heads, I am caught by the mad stare, the simple graphic eye that Counihan gives to both Jesus and the Collingwood supporter in The Barracker.

The next exhibition, “Leftovers of a Ghost”, is a science experiment of an exhibition by Melbourne-based artists Emme Orbach and Noah Spivak. Chemical reactions as visual arts, part of National Science Week 2022. Spectacular crystal growths of monoammonium phosphate and huge blue copper sulphate crystals (British artist Roger Hiorns used copper sulphate with stunning effect in Seizure, 2011). The chance and natural forms suggest that they could be the work of anyone, with only the elegance and formal qualities of Orbach’s and Spivak’s work saying otherwise. I only wish there was about how the images were made, but that could have made the exhibition more didactic than artistic. Spivak has a background in photography, an art that relied on chemistry until it was replaced by digital technology.

In the third gallery, there is work by Mark Smith, an Arts Project Australia artist who works in ceramics, video and soft sculpture. His exhibition “Malleability” has a camp aesthetic of inverted commas (ref. Susan Sontag “notes on camp”). Smith’s soft letters, wall-works and ceramic words have the quality of ironic inverted commas. His graffiti bubble letters had odd, naive calligraphy with letters acquiring a base rather than simply sides. Soft sculpture has been around since Oldenburg only with Smith, the material used is over-the-top. “Choice” in stripy fur with green sides, but given society (Counihan), chemistry ( Orbach and Spivak), and disability (Smith), what choice do we have?


Light and public art

On Thursday night, there was a panel discussion, “Light: Between Art, Architecture and Public Spaces”, at Mars Gallery in Windsor. On my way, I passed a piece of public art in the forecourt above Windsor Station, an antique electric pole with conductors lit like a Xmas tree. Light and shadow as part of public art, as elements themselves or covering architecture with a skin of colours or projections. Due to cool LED lights and powerful digital projectors light in public art is an every night occurrence. There is so much light art around currently (as I write this, a friend is tweeting her photos of Lightscape @royalbotanicgardensvic).

Appropriately, the exhibitions at Mars Gallery were all light art. “This Space of Vibration” by Meagan Streader is in the main gallery space on the ground floor. Her wall-mounted and free-standing sculpture used geometric and architectural forms. There are so many different light-influencing materials in her show, different types of frosted glass, coloured frosted and clear acrylic, neon lights, LED neon flex, and COB LEDs.

In the other gallery spaces on Mars’s different levels, there was “Light Show” with four other artists, including Jason Sims working with light. Sims’ work varied from the elegant geometry, optics and infinite space of his reflective glass and mirror pyramid, Nexus (Iridescent). To the cool poetic neon letters on the top of the three-storey concrete gallery, which read: 

bending, as 

tides into rivers

It was odd to hear light artists talking about natural light on a dark Melbourne night. But, the dark is also a natural lighting effect from the earth’s shadow. Jason Sims and Meagan Streader were both on the panel, and Sarah Box, an associate at Rothelowman. The latter represented the architectural side of the discussion. 

British-based light artist Bruce Munro zoomed in on a large computer screen. Munro is best known for his Field of Light installation. Field of Light has been installed in 17 locations from Ularu, which inspired it, to Simbionte Festival, Mexico City. Munro’s art is currently on exhibition both inside and outside at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. 

It was Bruce Munro who made the most salient point of the discussion. That light is the most cost-effective way of changing a space. Changing the way the place makes you feel, the emotional impact of light.

Light is temporary, ephemeral, changing, illusionary, a wave and a particle depending on how you look at it. I have been in the dark about how to approach this subject, and after the panel discussion, I am only a little better off. You would think that a visual art critic would have often written about light. I only have a high school science class understanding of light and optics. Of course, something as familiar as light often goes unnoticed and unexamined until it isn’t there.

Installation view of part of Meagan Streader’s exhibition “This Space of Vibration”

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