Category Archives: Art History

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.

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The Picasso Ransom

The Picasso Ransom – and other stories about art and crime in Australia, (available in paperback and e-book) my second book is a collection of forty-five true-crime stories about the visual arts in Australia: art theft, art forgery, art censorship, art vandalism, and protest art.

It is available at Brunswick Books, Avenue Bookstore, Readings Doncaster, Readings Carlton, Dymocks Nowra, Amazon and Booktopia. There was a book Launch: 3pm, 11th of March, The Woodlands Hotel, 84-88 Sydney Rd, Coburg. Q&A with author, book signings and book sales (see my blog post about it).

The title comes from the famous artnapping of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria. One of the artnapper’s demands was an art prize called “the Picasso Ransom”.

While that crime is famous, others stories of crimes, from the colonial to the contemporary, are not well known but equally intriguing. Amongst them is an entire exhibition of forged Pollocks, paintings stabbed, art prosecuted as pornography, decapitated statues, and more stolen art. 

I have long been interested in art crimes and have been building up a file of clippings and photocopies since I first heard Picasso’s Weeping woman was stolen from the NGV in 1986. That year I wrote a long essay on the aesthetic issues of art forgery as part of my undergraduate studies, but don’t worry, I won’t be quoting from it in the book. It is not an academic book, it is a true-crime book, and I now think I was wrong about almost everything I wrote in that essay.

However, my interest kept growing, as did my file on art crimes: newspaper clippings and photocopies about art forgers, iconoclastic vandals and graffiti writers. I read more and attended talks and seminars on forgery and iconoclasm.My interest in Melbourne’s public sculpture, the subject of my first book, introduced me to the theft of bronze sculptures for scrap metal.

Writing a blog is a good way of making contacts and gaining experience in an area. I found myself reporting on the accusations, first against Bill Henson and then, in more detail, against Paul Yore. As well as hanging around with Professor Alison Young, “Banksy’s favourite criminologist”, and graffiti writers and street artists.

When I started writing the book about five or six years ago, I had yet to learn how long it would take or how much work would be involved. I was sitting day after day in the Supreme Court. I conducted interviews and exchanged messages with various people, including convicted forgers, graffiti writers, defence lawyers and courtroom artists (the last two are great for name-dropping infamous criminals).

At first, I thought there might be enough crimes involving art in Melbourne alone to fill a book. From the attempted destruction of Serrano’s Piss Christ, the Liberto forgeries, art stolen from Albert Tucker’s home to the arrest of the American graffiti writer Ether, there was a wide variety of crimes. However, I soon learnt of crimes in other parts of Australia that were too fascinating to leave out. There are some intriguing art thefts in South Australia, the earliest attempt of prosecution for forgery in Sydney, an entire exhibition of fake Jackson Pollock in Perth and more. Adding up to over a century of stealing, forging, vandalising and censoring art around Australia.

So, I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing and researching it. And as a thank you to my regular readers the first three people who comment will get a copy sent to them, anywhere in the world.

The Picasso Ransom and other stories about art and crime in Australia

Mark S. Holsworth

ISBN 978-0-646-87307-7 / ISBN 978-0-646-87308-4 (ebook)

314 pages 216×140 (5.5×8.50”)


Open Source Art

“By combining grids with everyday materials – milk crates, twine, plastic cups and stickers – in public space, the works embodied an ‘open-source’ ethic, building on others’ designs and showing, rather than hiding, how they were made. Like open-source software and the open nature of the early internet, these artworks displayed their source code, inviting the viewer to copy and remake them.” (Off the Grid, p.23)

Thank you, Lachlan McDowall, for putting forward this concept because it explains much of 20th-century art. The trajectory of twentieth-century art history, starting with the Dadaist readymades, found objects, collages, chance art and cut-up poetry, shows an increase in open-source art. And it continued with Mail Art’s use of stickers, stamps and other open-source techniques. And Punk music with its open source code on the legendary t-shirt showing guitar tablature and words: “this is D, G, A now go out and form a band”. Or, to use McDowell’s examples, street artists like Invader or Sunfigo.

Open-source art, like open-source code, is where the code is evident in the product or readily accessible and free to use. It is not a technique that has to be taught and practised. The formula for cut-up poetry was first explained in 1920 by Tristan Tzara in his “Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love”. And cut-up poetry has influenced William Burroughs, David Bowie, and many others.

For there are enormous numbers of people participating in art in the 20th century doing open-source art. For it is an anarchist manifesto of propaganda by deed empowering others to participate. Open-source art is democratic as it is art by the people, art anyone can do. Why is this important? For it is a source of freedom, liberation and the pursuit of happiness, my friend. It is important because everyone can enjoy it and participate, regardless of their social status, age and ability. This utopian aspect is why many Dada and Surrealist art codes, like collage, are now used in primary school art classes.

Yet open-source art is often very unpopular; angry cries of “this is not art!” Many would be voted out if there was a popular vote on what art was. Well-known works of open-source art such as Duchamp’s Fountain or Cage’s 4’33” are frequently held up as objects for derision because they destroy art’s position of superiority. That art requires skill to preserve it for the wealthy who can afford to pay for the time.

Open-source art doesn’t require a talent for the media or training in prescribed skills, and its critics miss the point by decrying the lack of skill involved. They ignore the mental effort in creating an open source code, the elegance in coding, and the artist’s character. We must not forget that in explaining cut-up poetry, Tzara noted, “the poem will resemble you”, ironically equating personal identity with random actions. The identity of the poet or artist of open-source is more evident than the studied, trained and mediated actions of a traditional painter. Like gifts, the gift and identity of the giver are forever entangled; for something to be a gift, it has to have been given by someone. Just as a battle axe blade signed by notorious stand-over man Chopper Read means something different from one I signed.


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.


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