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Category Archives: Art History

Anti-Modern Art Ideological Idiocy

It is hard to believe that the Australian Communist Party and Catholic Church in Australia in the 1950s and 60s shared a position on anything. But, as I discovered when I was searching through old newspapers, they both hated modern art.

Newcastle Sun ran the article: “Vatican Slams Modern Art” on Thursday 11 March 1954. Quoting the Vatican magazine, Faith and Art, Cardinal Celso Constantini said that abstract art “is dying out. Why should the church accept such a repulsive near-corpse?” Cardinal Constantini also declared that Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Gaugin, Roualt and Corbusier produced “blasphemous religious works.” (Chagall was Jewish and many of the other artists now have work in the Vatican Museum.)

Eleven years later, in the Tribune (the official newspaper of the Australian communist party) on Wednesday 15 December 1965, the Australian social-realist artist, Noel Counihan declared that abstract art, Pop Art and Op Art were over. According to Counihan Australian artists were “reacting against the recent spate of mediocre imitations of overseas fashions.” Aside from trend following Counihan’s main warning about abstract art was that “the newly rich achieve social status with an abstract on their walls.”

“Op Art I feel will prove the most ephemeral of the latest fashions despite its immediate appeal to novelty mined youth.” wrote the communist Counihan advocating a reactionary nationalist position.

It is probably pointless to further unpacking these two short articles to point out errors and inconsistencies. It is clear from both articles that neither had a coherent argument and were simply appealing to the predefined reactionary prejudices of their groups.

I find the confluence of prejudices expressed by these ideologically opposed groups a proof of the lack of both group’s ability to reason. The intensity of both writers commitment to their ideology reduced their ability to critically think about their subject. If both writers had put aside their ideological based, rhetorical dog whistles and actually thought, and researched abstract art, they probably could have come up with better reasons to explain their dislikes. Unfortunately these reasons may not have appealed to their readers as much as their prejudices did. These reasons may have simply exposed them for only wanting art that expressed their ideology.

Would Australian Catholics and Communists today be interested in reading warnings about zombie formalism? 

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The Culture Club

Craig Schuftan’s The Culture Club explores the nexus of twentieth century ideas, art and rock’n’roll. His thesis is spelt out clearly in the conclusion of his introduction: “Far from simply functioning as a bit of arty window-dressing for dilettante Rock stars, the isms of the twentieth century have become the founding principles of Pop music in the twenty-first.”

Schuftan first presented “The Culture Club” on Triple J’s Monday morning program and the book grew out of these radio segments. (These are now available on podcasts.) So it is an introduction to a large number of important contemporary art ideas in easily digestible breakfast portions.

How the minimalist music of contemporary composer, Steve Reich and Moby’s beats are related, Pierre Schaeffer’s ‘musique concrete’ and Grandmaster Flash, the madness of Antonin Artaud and The Doors, and many other connections. Schuftan does this in a balanced way; looking at the different value of popular tastes between Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, or between the energy and incoherence of madness and the meditative boredom of minimalism. Sometimes his references to rock’n’roll work like when he comparing Brian Ferry and Blondie’s cover versions to Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building with its “Chippendale” roof line. Sometimes he takes an odd turn; in the history of the cut-up from Dada to William Burroughs Schuftan then goes to Dylan, rather than, Bowie or Throbbing Gristle. Others are over played, so what if the album cover designer knows the history modern art, you expect that a trained designer would.

There is a more radical thesis that Schuftan could have pursued; not about the artists and musicians but about their audience. That the audience of avant-garde art employed in pop music is a revolutionary break from the traditional plutocratic system of art patronage. That mass market and mass production replace the unique valuable object based art with conceptual elements that can be reproduced for all. That contemporary art is not for the elites (political, financial or artistic) with time to cultivate their tastes it is accessible to everyone. Contemporary art has an audience larger than any visual art movement ever before; evidence that is contrary to the claim that post-modernism is problematic for people.

Although Schuftan is no Greil Marcus and The Culture Club is not Lipstick Traces, he is not presenting a secret history of traces but another angle on a now familiar story. My twenty-something year old self would have loved this book, I once wanted to be the heir to La Monte Young’s drone music compositions; my adult self is grumbling about having read most it before.

Craig Schuftan The Culture Club (Australian Broadcasting Commission, 2007)


Bushrangers in Australian Art

During the gold rush colonial artists, including S. T. Gill, Frederick Grosse and George Lacy, were depicting bushrangers in ink sketches, watercolours and engravings. Bushrangers soon became an enduring theme in Australian art.

Patrick Marony, Death of Ben Hall, 1894

Another attempt to capture the bushranger theme was made by the artist and cartoonist, Patrick William Marony, aka Nick O’Tine. Marony was born in Curragh, Ireland in 1858 and after studying at a seminary he arrived in Australia around 1883. In 1884 he exhibited sixteen large oil paintings and a number of smaller paintings of bushrangers in the cities of Orange and Sydney.

On Thursday 29 March 1984 the National Advocate, reported on Marony’s exhibition in Orange and praised the accuracy of his landscapes, noting that Marony visited the location for the Death of Captain Starlight.

Reporting on Marony’s exhibition at the Strand Arcade in Sydney Freeman’s Journal, Saturday 30 June 1984, noted: “Apart from the technical merits of the pictures they should be of interest to Australians, as being the first attempts to show the condition of the colony during the reign of terror.”

Marony lived between the end of history paintings in oils and the beginning of cinematic versions of history. Around 1911 he wrote the story for the silent film, Ben Hall, Notorious Bush Ranger, also known as A Tale of the Australian Bush.

In 1887 William Strutt painted Bushrangers on the St Kilda Road. His large oil painting was based on a robbery that had taken place thirty-five years earlier when four men stopped, bailed-up and robbed seventeen travellers on the St Kilda to Brighton Road. Strutt’s painting is like a Charles Dickens’ novel, full of engaging characters; however his bare, flat, desert landscape looks nothing like the scrubby, rolling hills of St Kilda that existed at the time.

In 1895, Tom Roberts painted two bushranger paintings: In a corner on the Macintyre (Thunderbolt in an encounter with police at Paradise Creek) and an epic painting of a stage coach being robbed, Bailed up when he was staying at Newstead, a station near Inverell in New South Wales. Roberts was more interested in combining the romance of crime with the rugged beauty of the Australian landscape than in accurately depicting events that had taken place thirty years earlier; although the model for the stagecoach driver, ‘Silent Bob Bates’ had been held up by Captain Thunderbolt, aka Frederick Wordsworth Ward.

Marony’s transition from painting to cinema highlights the similar aesthetics of 19th century painting and 20th century movies. Marony’s “accuracy of landscape”, Strutt’s cast of characters and Robert’s romance of crime and landscape are all familiar features of movies.

Although depictions of bushrangers diminished one particular bushranger, Ned Kelly, continued to be depicted in modern, contemporary and street art in Australia; from Sidney Nolan to Adam Cullen to HaHa.

Ha Ha Ned Kelly 2017



Post-Art

What is the difference between artists and poets? What does the nuances, the trace elements, of these two different words mean for the way that culture workers understand their work? I’m not sure and I have lived in shared houses with both. I have called myself an artist and a philosopher but I draw the line at being called a ‘poet’.

Will Coles, Pussy Riot mask, Hosier Lane

A century ago I would have still been talking about poetry with the Dadaists in Berlin but by 1919 Hugo Ball had already distance himself from Dada.

“Conclusion: that the political action in Switzerland no longer makes sense, and that it is childish to insist on morality in the face of these activities. I am thoroughly cured of politics too, having already given up aestheticism. It is necessary to have a closer and more exclusive recourse on the individual basis: to live only on one’s own integrity, and to renounce completely every corporate activity.” Hugo Ball 24/5/1919

Avant-garde art, poetry, political action or social practice; the emptiness of Dadaist nihilism is such that each interpreter’s transfers their own desires and expectations on to it. From Johannes Baader, the Berlin Dadaist who in 1919 showered the inauguration of the first German Republic with his home-printed leaflets, Das grün Pferd (The Green Horse), to Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk prayer’ performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012, many people have taken a creative approach to politics.

However, I have growing doubts about this whole art thing. Why would anyone want to be an artist? I admire the people who quite art: Marcel Duchamp and that minor Renaissance painter, I forget his name, who tired of all the talk about perspective gave up art to become an innkeeper. (I’d like to drink to him.)

Why should artist be regarded as some kind of panicle of human achievement? The romantic middle class self-indulgent masturbation fantasy believing that they are expressing some vital essence for the good of humanity.

Art, the great appropriator comes into the room, and tells you that your stuff is part of its grandiose definition. It is the kind of blatant theft that it would make Jeff Koons and Richard Price blush with shame that they had been so modest. It is so colonial; items of cultural and religious significance are appropriated. From prehistoric cave paintings to religious material; every artefact becomes art. Anything that fits the current idea of art becomes the property of the Republic of Art; for “Art” like “God” is eternal, universal and vaguely defined. At the very least the word ‘art’ is over extended and is a poor model for culture workers.


Art Crimes in Australia (in progress)

Avant in Procession by Vincent Jean-Baptiste Chevillard was the first painting  to be stolen in Australia; the small painting was taken in 1885 but fortunately it is still in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. I am still working on my book on art crimes.

Avant in Procession by Vincent Jean-Baptiste Chevillard
(image courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia)

At first the book was just going to be about Melbourne’s art crimes but I have since expanded it to cover art crimes in Australia. I did’t want to buy into the old interstate rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney and I had already written about several art crimes that involved interstate and international elements. There are also several interstate true crime stories that were too tempting for me not to write about including the fake Pollock exhibition that toured Australia. Then I got a scoop about Picasso’s La belle Hollandaise taken from the Queensland Art Gallery and I’ll leave that as a teaser.  

So as part of my seemly endless research for this book, please contact me if you can help with any of the following.

Can anyone suggest any politically motivated crimes involving art outside of Melbourne, apart from the decapitation of statues (see my post about Australia’s most controversial sculptures).

Any interesting crimes involving graffiti that are not from Melbourne, aside from Buga-up.

Any art crime in Tasmania, as it is one state or territory where I haven’t heard of even a stolen painting.

Any of the relatives of Constantin Celli, an artist who trained in Florence, who was residing in Paddington in 1906 when he was exploited by some crooked antique dealers, because I’d like to find out what happened to him later in his life.

The current owners of a miniature, ‘Wings, Ancient and Modern,’ depicting a boy, with birds flying around him and aeroplanes in the sky by the English painter, Dora Webb because it would be fascinating to know where it has ended up.

A serving or former police officer in Australia who has investigated any art theft, art forgery or the vandalism of art and wants to discuss the crime.

For more information about my investigation of art crimes see my previous blog post about my art and crime book.


Perth’s Fake Pollock Exhibition

Considering that there was an entire fake Kusama and Murakami exhibitions in China earlier this year; remember there was a fake Jackson Pollock exhibition that toured Australian in 1978. 

Bohdan Ledwij from Alfred Cove in Perth claimed to be an entrepreneur and art dealer who had amassed a collection of Pollock paintings alleged insured for $4.1 million.  Lewdij presented an exhibition called Paintings by Jackson Pollock in Perth. The exhibition was opened by Elwyn Lynn, the then Curator of the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art at Sydney University. Many other people were taken in by the exhibition including Andrew Saw, The Australian art critic in Perth, who reviewed it for the paper.

It is hard to comprehend that people were taken in by the exhibition, but remember, the people of Perth were amongst the last Europeans to encounter modern art and that the first exhibition of actual modern art in Perth had only been a few years earlier. The name of the American painting Jackson Pollock, if not his paintings, were familiar because of the massive publicity in 1973 when the Australian National Gallery purchase of Blue Poles (Jackson Pollock’s Number 11, 1952).

However, the exhibition didn’t just fool the hicks of Western Australia.  Lewdij then offered Ken Reinhard, principal of Alexander Mackie College of Arts, a teacher training college in Sydney to transport the exhibition to Sydney. Ken Reinhard later told reporters: “I have to admit I wouldn’t have known an original Pollock from a bull’s foot in 1978 but to get a chance to put on a free exhibition of Pollocks seemed too good to pass up.” 

It was only when the Sydney exhibition about to open that Sydney critics express doubts about the authenticity of the decoratively paint dripped canvases. Terry Ingram the arts correspondent for The Australian Financial Review was one who doubted “surely are not those of the great Jackson Pollock, we have come to know, the untidy, neurotic genius who lived in a pigsty and painted Blue Poles.” 

New York Experts were contacted; an incredulous Clement Greenberg and Lee Krasner were shown photographs of the fake Pollocks. The Sydney exhibition cancelled and Bohdan Ledwij claiming that they were going to the US for authentication. It is hard to know what was going on, was it a practical joke or a scam. Unlike the fake exhibitions in China there was no attempt to scam the public or venues and the exhibition appears but it would have been an expensive joke considering the transport, venues and materials.

P.S. The following year, on Wednesday 3 May, 1979 Bohdan Ledwij was sentenced to six years jail, with a minimum of fours years before parole. He had been found guilty of seven charges of stealing $436,156 from Bunbury radiologist Dr. Peter Frederick Pratten. Ledwij was pretending to be buying paintings for Dr Pratten  instead Ledwij was using the money himself. 


Marcel Duchamp’s Christmas

How to display and decorate your Christmas tree in the style of Marcel Duchamp: he did do this one Christmas at Teeny’s house. First, hang the Christmas tree upside down from the ceiling. There a strategic advantage to this way of displaying a Christmas tree, as Duchamp pointed out – there is more room for presents underneath it. On the subject of presents, in keeping with theme of Dadaist readymades, they should be wrapped à la Man Ray.

Marcel Duchamp enjoyed Christmas. In 1907 he held a two day Christmas party that was so wild that he was evicted from his apartment at 65 rue Caulaincourt in Paris. He was twenty years old and had done very little that year but hang around in Paris and go to the seaside in the summer. The menu for this riotous party survives, exhibiting some early Duchamp word play and a drawing of a naked woman sitting in a giant champagne glass drinking from a bottle. Note the English “Plump Pudding”: “Rebellion Menu / Ituitus / Hors d’ouavres / Divedi truffée / Salood / Pâtés / Plump Pudding / Desserts / Vino / Liquors / Champagne / M.D. 24 Dis. 1907” 

There is a further art historical connection between this infamous Christmas party and Duchamp’s later art; leiris202 claims that photo of Duchamp’s draftsman’s stool used as a stand for a Christmas tree 1907. The stool looks similar to the one used, five years later, for Bicycle Wheel, the first of Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ but even if it isn’t the idea of a Christmas tree is good way to introduce the idea of ‘readymades’. 

The common claim of not to be able to understand Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ is odd because people annually make Christmas trees which are by definition an assisted (decorated) readymade. The Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme defines the readymade as “an everyday object elevated to the more dignified level of an artistic object at the mere whim of the artist”. Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (1938; Rennes, 1969) Ordinary objects regularly transcend the commonplace in religion, as well as, art.

The tree decorated with its lights is connecting with the ancient Roman rituals and the god Mithras. Mithras is a god who was also man, born on December 25th; his birth also announced by a star and witnessed by shepherds. Art, like religion and culture, is the recombination, reuse and reinterpretation of pre-existing ‘readymade’ parts.


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