Monthly Archives: April 2023

Barry Humphries & Dada in Australia

“Big: Barry Humphries: Dada Artist”, at the National Gallery of Australia in 1993. I remember seeing the small exhibition in the foyer as I stood in the long line for tickets to the blockbuster exhibition “Surrealism: Revolution by Night.” Behind me, in the line, there was a mother with her pre-literate daughter. The girl asked her mother to read each gallery card that went with Humphries’s works. 

“Pus in Boots, 1953, reconstructed 1993 ‘custard’, leather workman’s boots, flies”

After each one, the girl would say, “Yuk!” and then move on to the next piece. She was definitely getting her yuks. The exhibition now strikes me as little more than prop comedy and a shitload of dreadful puns.

The cosmic convergence of ANZAC day and the death of the comedian Barry Humphries brought these memories back and created more context for Humphries as a Dadaist artist. An examination of which strikes at the heart of Australia’s imaginal national character.

Dada was an anti-art movement created by Germans and Romanians escaping military service in Switzerland. It rejected all logic, civilisation and artistic conventions that had led to such a massive and senseless slaughter of people. In the aftermath of the war, it quickly spread to Europe, the Americas and even Japan, but not Australia.

Australia was not just behind the times; Dada was antithetical to the Australian national character. As an anti-war movement, Dada is deeply abhorrent to Australian culture and national identity, with its foundations in the Australians fighting and dying in World War One. For Australian nationalism, the slaughter of the war made mythic sense as a sacrifice.

Humphries had read Dada Poets and Painters, edited by Robert Motherwell, in high school. Then as a first-year student at Melbourne University, he held “The First Pan-Australian Dada Exhibition” in 1952. After this first exhibition, Dada became a one-man show for Humphries; there was no movement, group or imitators. The other artists were Clifton Pugh and Germaine Greer, but there is no detail of what either contributed. Pugh, who exhibited under an assumed name, would later recant his involvement.

Although this was the “First Pan-Australian Dada Exhibition”, it happened while neo-Dadaists were emerging in Japan and the USA. And it was very different to both Dada and neo-Dadaism.

This was not the anti-war Dada; Australia’s participation in the Korean War was not mentioned. Nor that Humphries was a private in the Melbourne University Regiment. Nor was this the anti-art Dada, with Humphries claiming to be part of art history with the first “Dada exhibition”, the pop art painting (Wheaties cereal box image) and experimental music recording in Australia.

“Wobboism” or “Wubboism”, with its comedy routine explanation of taking its name from a garbage collector or a pseudo-Aboriginal word, does have elements of Hugo Ball’s anti-semitism and Richard Huelsenbeck’s “negro poetry”. But these are not the celebrated aspects of Dada.

Humphries’s fascination with Dada led to him incorporating aspects into his early performances. What Humphries took from Dada was its superficial form, shock value, and use of random, absurd humour. Rejecting the nihilism at its core. Dada was just an act he took on and off like Dame Edna’s dress, not an existential statement.

One startling conclusion from examining Barry Humphries’s Dadaist art is that it indicates that Australia is more militaristic and conservative and less accepting of dissent, change and nihilism than Japan. Australians will tolerate the absurd, but only if they find it funny, and Humphries was.


Manda Lane and Melbourne Lanes

Very little grows in the laneways of Melbourne. The sun refuses to shine there, and the granite, concrete, and brick offer little room for plants. Yet paint and paper foliage climbs the walls from flower pots or springs forth full of life — the creations of Melbourne street artist Manda Lane.

Full disclosure (words few art critics write) I commissioned Manda Lane to do a piece in my backyard. The professionalism that Manda Lane brought to the commission rivalled the architects. Showing the client what the finished work will look like is a winner.

Her work looks great against the black Weathertex panels of a new minimalist construction by DiMase Architects. The new garden has yet to be planted. It is on the east wall, so it will be out of the sun and partially sheltered from the rain. So it is expected to last for years. Having watched many a paste-up slowly decay on laneway walls in Melbourne, I am looking forward to the effects of time on it. 

Paste-ups are meant to be quick to install. Produced in the artist’s studio, they are then glued to a wall. However, Manda Lane’s intricate hand-cut work took hours to glue to the wall. Usually, this is faster because she can work from the top down and have gravity assist the process, but it is still time-consuming. Paste-up paper cuts are like the reverse of cutting out a stencil, and Manda Lane is not the first of Melbourne’s street artists to do them; Miso was doing them years ago.

Manda Lane also paints her foliage designs with a brush on walls, another slow process she has used on a wall in Hosier Lane and the Temple of Boom at the NGV. (See my earlier post.)

Manda Lane is one of the Ninjas of Street Art. Some of them might appear as suburbanites or hipsters by day, but then they transform into street artists. Rumours they foiled a far-right terror plot using stealth, subterfuge and artistry are, unfortunately, unconfirmed; the Ninjas are just a group of artists who get together to socialise and put up street art. They are currently responsible for much of the street art in Presgrave Place and other lanes in Melbourne.

Art Crime Books

I’ve been reading Simon Houpt’s Museum of the Missing, an attractive coffee table book about stolen art (thanks, Victor). It is the first book I’ve read about art crimes since finishing my own book, The Picasso Ransom. I read several others before and during writing. Submitting a manuscript to publishers involves reviewing similar books. Publishers will always ask what books are similar. If your book or art is unique, it isn’t marketable; what people want is its unique aspects not a unique product.

Most often, I would mention Gabriella Coslovich Whiteley On Trial (Melbourne University Press, 2017), which will be the basis of a soon-to-be-released, two-part documentary to be shown on the ABC. Coslovich’s unique aspect is her focus on one recent art forgery trial.

Houpt’s unique aspect is plenty of images of stolen art. Finding images, getting copyright permission, and labelling them is a difficult job in itself. One I found so stressful with my first book, Sculptures of Melbourne, was that I was determined my next book would be without any pictures.

Houpt starts with the driving factors for crime in the development art market and war before getting down to the messy business of art theft. The problem with writing about art theft is that stories are only complete if the theft has been solved, and most art thefts aren’t. Searching for a satisfying conclusion drives Houpt to the messier business of art detectives and private investigators and the non-reveal of current museum security systems. If only he had stuck to his war and pillage thesis, he could have moved on to the FBI’s art crimes unit (established after the looting during the criminal Iraq War), Tamil Nadu state’s Idol Wing (established post-colonial) and the academics and bloggers working to repatriate stolen gods from national galleries and museums.

Although Houpt is primarily focused on Europe and North America, it is worth remembering that India and Asia have been the primary sites for looting antiquities in the later half of the 20th Century.

Some of Houpt’s stories are well known, and two have been turned into Hollywood movies, The General (1998) and American Animals. The General is about Dublin criminal Martin Cahill, played by Brendan Gleeson, who stole seventeen old masters. And American Animals is about four university students’ theft of rare books. Another story that Houpt tells is that of Rose Dugdale, which is covered in depth by Anthony M. Amore in The Woman Who Stole Vermeer (Pegasus Crime, 2020).

Other books on art and crime that I reviewed and posted on this blog include:

Gideon Haigh A Scandal in Bohemia, the life and death of Mollie Dean (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)

Riah Pryor Crime and the Art Market (Lund Humphries, 2016)

Noah Charney’s The Art of Forgery (Phaidon, 2015) has many true crime stories of art forgeries. Forgers are examined and grouped in chapters by motivation: genius, pride, revenge, fame, crime, opportunism, money and power. This works well. However, it is the usual lineup of art forgers: Lothar Malskat, Alceo Dossena, Han Van Meegeren, Elmyr de Hory, Eric Hebborn, Tom Keating etc.

I’ve also read Eric Hebborn’s The Art Forgers Handbook (1997) and Tom Keeating’s The Fakes Progress (1977). The Art Forgers Handbook is a charming book with many recipes and advice, enough to understand why someone would want Eric Hebborn dead in an alley in Rome in 1996. The Fakes Progress is the authorised biography of Tom Keating, who enjoys portraying himself as a loveable Cockney rogue.

As well as I’ve also reviewed Marc Fennell’s tv series about the Picasso theft, Framed. Fennell’s other series, Stuff the British Stole, is also relevant, even though the British stole more than just art and antiquities.

Street Comedy

The culture of the street includes politics and promotion, commerce and transport, romance and comedy. My unofficial entry to this year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival.

There is comedy behind a lot of street art; artists like Cel One, the late Sime Thornton and others specialise in that comic images. There are joke posters and other pranks. 

However, it is a humourless mistake to analyse a joke unless you are Sigmund Freud, whose book Humour and Jokes is a surprisingly good read, although the section on black humour is far too brief. So I will post and not comment.

Melbourne Then and Now

Back in 2013, the Director of the NGV, Tony Ellwood, promised that the vast exhibition of the art and design of the metropolis Melbourne Now would return in a decade. Now it has.

Installation view of Design Wall on display as part of the Melbourne Now. Photo: Peter Bennetts

Back then, the exhibition included both spaces in NGV Australia and the temporary exhibition space at NGV International. Now it is only in the NGV Australia at Fed Square.

Back then, I was invited to the opening of Melbourne Now 2013 (see my post). Now, although about a thousand people were at the official launch on Thursday 24th, I’ve been left off such invitation lists for years.

Back then, it was desperate to make the exhibition interactive. It seemed like every artist in the show had been asked if they could make their work interactive, from sticking on birds to a Juan Ford landscape or sketching Julia Deville’s taxidermy creations. Now there are still sketching areas and other viewer interactions in the exhibition, but it is more restrained.

Back then, I was concerned with how street art and graffiti would be represented in the exhibition and how Melbourne’s demographics were represented. Now I’m interested in the curators’ interpretation of what has changed in the last decade.

Back then, it was all living artists. Now it includes some of the artists who have died in the last decade. This appears to go against the exhibition’s meaning, for if ‘now’ mean anything, it does not mean ‘not now’. However, for the NGV, “Melbourne Now” is just a series of letters with no intrinsic meaning, just a title for a series of exhibitions. But this only raises the question of why include only some of the artists that have died and not all. (A similar degree of curatorial linguistic flexibility was applied by the “Gallery of Victoria” to the location of “Melbourne” in both exhibitions.)

Back then, I might have been one of a few online voices writing about the arts in Melbourne. Now I have to wonder what to write when there are already six reviews of it in Memo. Cameron Hurst points out the supersize of the works in the show designed to fill the white spaces. Chelsea Hopper examines the sound and music and complains about how it leaks in the gallery., Which leads neatly to Giles Fielke pleading for the NGV to have a proper cinema. Amelia Winata writes about the artists in the exhibition hoping to get into the NGV’s permanent collection. (In her examination of the free market aspects, she could have included the emails from the usual commercial galleries boasting about the inclusion of artists they represent. If there was a conflict of interest statement anywhere, I missed it.) Paris Lettau looks at some of the young artists in the exhibition. And Tristen Harwood presents Calia O’Rourke and Indi Jennings’s “younger/fresher/more energetic take”. 

So that was Melbourne Now. Back then and now.

Kait James, The KLF (Koori Liberation Front). Photo: Black Mark

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