Category Archives: Art History

Whitewashing Pentridge Prison History

I want to see Ronald Bull’s mural for myself, and I’m sure others do too. To physically look up at it, not just look at a photo of it, to be able to appreciate its size and the stone prison walls it’s painted on. Now that Pentridge is no longer a prison and is being developed as a housing estate, I don’t see why I can’t.

I enquired about the heritage-listed Ronald Bull mural in F Division to Pentridge Village, but there was no response. This is because Bull is not mentioned in the “Former HM Prison Pentridge Heritage Interpretation Masterplan” by Sue Hodges Productions. The masterplan makes almost no reference to Indigenous people, with a single reference to “Aboriginal troopers”. 

Ronald Bull is a significant Indigenous artist, and his mural in F Division is his most important work. The mural is on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register and protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 and the Heritage Act 1995 because it is on the Victorian Heritage Register as part of Pentridge Prison. The Office of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria liaised with the developers and their heritage consultants, Sue Hodges Productions. Box-ticking exercise over consultations ignored (I assume this is how the Indigenous voice to parliament will be treated, please correct me if I’m wrong about this).

Writing out Indigenous people from the Heritage, whitewashing history with the erasure of Indigenous people. The developers have been allowed to exploit the history for their profit. The interior bluestone walls were all cut by prison labour. Not to forget that prison labour is disproportionately Indigenous.

The historical interpretation of the site is inadequate. More than one room with photographs, texts and a few objects is required. Decorative motifs of the panopticon are one of the most grotesque pieces of carceral torture ever invented; solitary confinement combined with continuous observation. If the old bluestone walls, gates, and towers are selling points, then some sensitive historical interpretation is needed.

Sue Hodges Productions were approached to comment on the absence of Bull’s mural and the Indigenous people from their masterplan but hadn’t responded at the time of publication. They are still welcome to comment, just fill in the comment box.

For more about Bull and his mural see my post, the life and art of Ronald Bull.


Framed reviewed

One of the most mysterious art crimes is the theft and ransom of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in Melbourne. Not a lot is known about it apart from some ransom notes sent by the thieves. The painting was returned undamaged after being held by the Australian Cultural Terrorists. So SBS’s four-part documentary was always going to be a stretch.

The various commentators on Framed tell us many contradictory things. That the NGV was amongst the best art galleries in the world and then that it had aircon and security problems at the time. That staff loved that NGV Director, Patrick McCaughey, and that the docents went on strike after he took away their chairs. That Arts and Police Minister, Race Matthews, was good for the arts and that he was pompous. And many guesses at who did the crime while explaining how damaging this was to the people implicated. 

Framed frames people from perennial favourites to secret cabals of art insiders and other wild theories. It then looks at the damage that wild accusations cause. The program presented about five, including Ashley Crawford’s pure speculation, McCaughey’s biography and the anonymous letter sent to Virginia Trioli. And why do all these wild theories assume that it was a man who stole the painting? Why not a woman? If they wanted to go wild, they could have asked Trioli if she stole it; after all, she has written about being involved in stealing the bronze dog, Larry La Trobe.

Part of the mystery of the theft of the Weeping Woman is that it is a very different kind of crime. And it has become a genre of stories, very creative non-fiction in autobiographies and speculations from authoritative sources. As everybody wants to solve the mystery themselves.

Framed doesn’t frame the cubist painting regarding the politics in Australia’s historical relationship to modern art. What it symbolised to the NGV and a “philistine country” (to use McCaughey’s own words). TV is good at setting the scene, and the program includes lots of shots of Melbourne in the early 1980s and McCaughey in different coloured bow ties. Unfortunately, there is not the same background about the painting or Picasso.

Instead of presenting unprovable speculations, the program could have shown more details and context about art crimes. Although it briefly examines art forgery, it doesn’t look at art theft in any great detail and even less about art theft for ransom.

Would someone steal art to get better security for the gallery? Were there art thieves in Australia who could smuggle stolen paintings out of the country? What happens in other art for ransom theft in Australia? And why did the police drain the NGV’s moat in their search? I answer these questions that Framed doesn’t in my yet unpublished book on Australian art crimes. 

Incidentally, presenter Marc Fennell asked the questions when I was a contestant on Mastermind.

Picasso, The Weeping Woman

Australian Art Terrorists

A few Australian groups have acted or threatened to take action outside of the law to achieve artistic and cultural objectives. Most are right-wing conservatives — so much for the so-called ‘cancel culture’ of the left.

A.C.T. target Picasso’s Weeping Woman

In 2003 the Revolutionary Council for the Removal of Bad Art in Public Places threatened to destroy a number of pieces of public art. That the “spokesman, Dave Jarvoo, told The Australian newspaper” about the threat speaks to the conservative taste of this so-called Revolutionary Council. The fact is that they were all talk and no action, and the spuriously named, Dave Jarvoo appears to be the only member of this organisation. 

Their targets were modern sculptures Fairfield Industrial Dog Object and in Sydney; Ken Unsworth’s Stones Against the Sky ‘poo sticks’ in Kings Cross and Brett Whiteley’s Almost Once giant matches behind the Art Gallery of NSW. David Fickling for The Guardian came up with several more deserving targets in Sydney (see his article), and I could do the same for Melbourne (perhaps in another post). (Thanks to Vetti Live in Northcote for drawing my attention to the Revolutionary Council for the Removal of Bad Art in Public Places.)

The Australian Cultural Terrorists (aka A.C.T.) stole Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV, held it to ransom and then returned it undamaged. They seem to have twice as many members as Dave Jarvoo’s Revolutionary Council; at least one man and, maybe, one woman. They were more successful than the Revolutionary Council but, perhaps, no more radical given their demands for more art prizes for local artists. They had no follow up aside from stories that the following year they also wrote some  libellous letters about people in Australia’s art world. The A.C.T. wrote lots of jeering, satirical letters, several of them attacking state Arts Minister, Race Mathews.

To this list, we could add the Catholic Church for their attack on Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ in the NGV. Graffiti writers, like Pork, that cap and tag as a form of conquest and censorship. And BUGA-UP, graffiti to stop tobacco advertising, vigilantes with a specific type of art, selling a particular message in mind, not exactly the artistic kind but still ‘art’ in the advertising copy sense.

Revolutionary Council target Fairfield Industrial Dog Object


Edgelords of Art

‘Edgelord’ is a mock honorific of penultimate edginess, typically given to a Nazi fanboy on Reddit, 4chan, or Tumblr. For more about Edgelords, see this definition. Another thing that screams Edgelord is owning a subterranean art gallery full of art with dark, controversial and morbid themes. Unlike buying a black trench coat, few people can afford to do this — one person who can is David Walsh.

The gambler from Tasmania who collects edgy art is a clear example of an Edgelord. Even though he doesn’t, as far as I know, have an online presence on Reddit or 4chan. Art and antiquities with themes of death are the domain of the Edgelord. I have long had my reservations about MONA (Museum of Old and New Art); see my blog post for my initial impressions.

What drew attention to this was the controversy over the now cancelled Union Flag by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra. It was to be part of the Dark Mofo festival at MONA. Asking Indigenous people to donate their blood so that a flag can be soaked in it to serve as a festival attraction might have raised some warning flags but didn’t because Dark Mofo was focused on being edgy. More than enough Indigenous blood has already been spilt. So, no one should be surprised that some Indigenous people are calling for MONA’s Edgelord and his crew to have cultural sensitivity training. See ABC news report on the subject.

Blood and flag are conservative symbols; by creating controversies, Edgelords foster conservatism because it emphasises their edgy qualities. After all, what makes things edgy is the strictures that define their perimeter.

At this point, I would like to acknowledge how close I am to being an Edgelord. The name Black Mark does suggest that, as does my habit of dressing in black and painting neo-Baroque still life. And having explored this territory, I can point out differences in its geography.

Consider the stratigraphy defining Dada and Surrealism. Both are nihilistic, utopian and progressive. Yet, there is a marked increase of sexism and homophobia in the Surrealist layer almost absent in Dada. Surrealism is advertising’s wet dream; it is so commercial and exploitable. The corresponding increase of Edgelords in Surrealism exposes one cause of this increase.

Not all controversies or nihilists are edgy; Dada’s nihilism comes with a smile, a laugh, and liberation. It celebrated and enjoyed the random, meaningless nature of the world. For if all things mean nothing to you, then you are free to enjoy the world.

This world does not need more Edgelords; it requires fewer Batmen, lone wolves, and brooding übermensch hanging around in the dark hoarsely whispering edgy things. It does not need another treasure horde of antiquities and high priced art. What the art world needs instead is to show others the possibilities in this world.


Mamas of Dada

Dada was the first gender inclusive avant-garde art movement in Europe. It is impossible to understand its history without knowing something about the many women in Dada. However, the structure of art history led to the men acting as if they were being written about and writing much of the group’s history. So it was not until recently that these women artists and writers have been studied.

Mamas of Dada is a scholarly examination the lives of six women involved with Dada: Emmy Hennings, Gabrielle Buffet, Germaine Everling, Céline Arnauld, Juliette Roche, and Hannah Höch. They come from variety of backgrounds, working class to upper class, and gives a perspective on the lives of avant-garde European women. Some of these Mamas of Dada were actual mothers (someone should write Children of Dada).

Emmy Hennings was obviously the star of the Cabaret Voltaire but before this book all I had were a series of contradictory impressions — the Berlin cabaret singer, the Dada puppeteer and the devoted Catholic convert. The only child of work-class parents Hennings had been a maid, cleaner, washer woman, actress, nightclub singer, part-time prostitute, thief, poet, and later in life, a novelist.

Although neither Gabrielle Buffet and Germaine Everling were exactly participants because of their relationship with Picabia both provide a view of Dada in New York, Barcelona, Zurich, and Paris. Although Buffet’s music career ended when she marries Picabia she continued to write and lecture about avant-garde art. Everling, Picabia’s lover, provides more critical views of the Dadaists along with her hat and arms for Man Ray’s photo of Duchamp as Rrose Selavy.

Before Kamenish’s book I knew nothing about Céline Arnauld, the one woman poet and publisher amongst the Paris Dada. Aside from her name appearing in lists of contributors to many Dada publications and her face in photographs, the one woman amongst all the men.

Likewise I was ignorant of the painter and poet, Juliette Roche. Kamenish explains Roche’s privileged background: “everything converged to make the daughter of Jules Roche the most perfect of snobs, she was saved by painting.”

Hannah Höch the mother of photomontage is the best known of all the women in Dada. She preserved an archive of Dada material from the Nazis by burying it in her Berlin garden. In this chapter Kamenish’s interest in literature rather than visual arts is clear as she even examines a poem by Höch; Kamenish is an associate professor of Enblish at the University of North Caroline Wilmington.

Kamenish exposes the sexism in Dada – Francis Picabia and Raoul Hausmann the whole of Berlin Dada club. Their famous nihilism did not extend to male chauvinism. Who amongst all the men in European Dada who could act towards women as a colleague (and was not as a sexist pig)? Hannah Höch’s  list is Kurt Schwitters and Hans Arp.

In the final chapter Kamenish provides brief biographies on seventeen other women involved with Dada including Sophie Täuber, Susanna Duchamp and some of the women in the Von Laben School of Dance in Zurich. There is much more to the story of these women that needs to be researched and written especially on their influence on textile and performing arts. Then there are women involved in New York Dada: Mina Loy, Beatrice Wood, and Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven. More needs to be written about these women but Paula K. Kamenish’s Mama of Dada is an important step.

Paula K. Kamenish Mamas of Dada – Women of the European avant-garde (The University of South Carolina Press, 2015)


Brunswick – March 2021

My rough plan was to start at Jewell Station, walk north to Sparta Place, visit some art galleries, and search for street art or graffiti in Brunswick. I wasn’t sure what I would find; there is only so much research that you can do online before exploring the facts on the ground.

Tāne Te Manu McRoberts, Te Heketanga a Rangi – Heavenly Origins, installation view

Avoiding the busy Sydney Road and navigating all the parallel streets and lanes. The location of all the galleries that I wanted to visit.This is where I thought I had the best chance of seeing some eye-popping graffiti. Much of the area used to light industrial but is now being replaced with multi-storey apartments, so my route included detours around various construction projects. There were knots of rope and green x marking trees spray-painted on the pavement around Jewell Station. Part of community consultation about the redesign of that end of Wilson Avenue.

The first gallery was Blak Dot. Blak Dot has an exhibition by Indigenous people from around the world. Tāne Te Manu McRoberts mixes traditional and contemporary textile art in “Te Heketanga a Rangi – Heavenly Origins”, keeping his culture charged with spectacular feather cloaks and other textile art. A must-see for anyone in Melbourne who is a poi enthusiast.

TCB had two exhibitions that had just opened on Wednesday night; “Medicine Walls” by Fergus Binns and “Cat toys & paperweights” by Brayden van Meurs. Binns five paintings are crazy fun with a fully sick paint technique and references to Dali and William Blake. Van Meurs’ five cat toys & paperweights are sculptures, in other words. Many are titled “lofi cityscape to scratch”, and “scratchable fabric” is included in the long list of materials. Having started the day with a conversation with my cat when I was still trying to sleep, I felt sympathy for van Meurs enterprise. My cat was trying to tell me that she had thrown up on the couch.

TCB on Wilkinson Street is a small, L shaped gallery space in front of the partitions of artist’s studios. This long-running artist-run-gallery that started in 1998 is now in its third location. I remember seeing one of Juan Ford’s first exhibitions at TCB at its first site in Port Phillips Arcade in the city.

I had seen some fresh graffiti pieces north of Jewell, but off the narrowing lane that runs through Bunnings, I saw a wall of graffiti writers of the avant-garde. Modernism, two meters high, as if it was written by graffers and not Greenberg. Pushing letterform  as far as it will go in all directions.

Finally, in Sparta Place, I found the empty former location of Beinart Gallery. Jon is now selling NFT art. Further removing the fantastic art that his gallery stocks from the actual world. At this point, my stomach seized control and directed my legs towards the nearest Lebanese bakery.


Megan Evans and murals in Northcote

There was an earlier phase of mural painting in Melbourne before the current aerosol art. Influenced by the Mexican muralists rather than any hip hop elements. They took a far more social, historical, and educational approach. One of the most important of these is the 44.27 metres long Northcote Koori Mural (aka the Aboriginal Mural, the St Georges Road Mural).

Designed by Megan Evans in 1985 with an additional three metres designed by Gary Saunders in 2013, to bring its history of Indigenous Australia up to date. The mural now faces St Georges Road in Thornbury, backing onto the Sir Douglas Nicholls Sporting Complex. It was initially on a wall opposite the Northcote Town Hall on High Street it was and moved to its current location in 1992. In 2013 it was dismantled and replaced with a refreshed, digital version, printed on vinyl.

Painted by Megan Evans, Ray Thomas (Gunnai/Barlijan), Ian Johnson, Millie Yarran (Noongar), Les Griggs (Gunditjmara/Kerup Marra), Elaine Trott and along with Aboriginal, African and European volunteers. Megan Evans would work with several of these artists again on other public art projects. She worked with Ray Thomas on Another View Walking Trail for the City of Melbourne in 1995. Later Ray Thomas painted the Northcote Civic Square Mural and was one of the artists who carved a pole for Scar – A Stolen Vision in Enterprise Park along the Yarra River.

For three years, Evans was painting a mural a year in the Northcote area. These murals are based on research, interviews, and consultation with local people that she undertook before starting the design. In 1986 Evans and Eve Glenn completed the Women’s Mural: Bomboniere to Barbed Wire on the wall Gas & Fuel Office on Smith Street, Fitzroy. Capped by the notorious graffiti writer Nost in 2016, the wall was demolished in 2019. The mural can still be viewed as a digital version online. And, in 1987 Evans painted Northcote Youth Mural, with Les Griggs and Marina Baker.

All of Evans original murals are gone due to land sales and building demolitions. Darebin Council has opted for digital preservation for all of these murals. For more on preserving and conserving murals, see my post on the conservation of street art.


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