Category Archives: Book Reviews

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)


The Anna Schwartz Gallery book

Present Tense is a big beige book thick as a house brick but not as heavy. The subtitle, Anna Schwartz Gallery and thirty-five years of contemporary art describe the contents, text and photographs, accurately. Anna Schwartz Gallery is amongst Melbourne’s most influential commercial art galleries. Since 1986 it has represented some of Melbourne’s best contemporary artists, including Mike Parr, Emily Floyd, Callum Morton and Shaun Gladwell, and visiting international artists. The author, Doug Hall, is the former director of Queensland Art Gallery and now a Melbourne resident.

The beige cover suggests the excitement level of the long, rambling story that the author has bleached of colour. Even some theory and art-speak would be a welcome relief from the narrative, but Hall avoids both. It seems like Hall had almost a deliberate strategy to hide anything that might attract your interest in the middle of chapters. I could not get into it; the writing was that dull. All it got from me was skim reading, dipping into it, reading for research and not pleasure.

At first, I was hoping to find details that I could use in blog posts about some of the artists that Anna Schwartz Gallery represents. Unfortunately, I found nothing in it worth citing. Even the chapter on public sculpture was remarkably unedifying. Apart from a single photograph of Emily Floyd’s Public Art Strategy, the reader is told nothing about the artists that Anna Schwartz represents doing public art. Instead of information, the reader is treated to Hall’s opinions on why it is better not to be involved in public art commissions.

This is not the first time that I’ve read a rambling book about an Australian art dealer. Adrian Newstead’s The Dealer is the Devil – an insider’s history of the Aboriginal Art trade, (Brandl and Schlesinger, 2014) is almost as long and nearly as dull. Still, at least, Newstead can tell stories.

As I persevered through its pages, I wondered if this book was ever intended to be read and I considered the other reason to have a book. Books have a symbolic value both as objects on shelves and as unread ideas, documented in various lists. Many books are not intended to be read all the way through coffee table books, books as art objects, along with phone books and other reference books.

There is an art to being influential. The symbolic value of this big book, almost regardless of its contents, cannot be under-estimated. For its existence is a kind of proof of the influential reputation of Anna Schwartz Gallery. A book about Anna Schwartz Gallery deserves to be written. It is just the writer and editor that were unfortunate choices.

Doug Hall Present Tense – Anna Schwartz Gallery and thirty-five years of contemporary art (Black Inc.,2019) 


Guy Debord is Really Dead

Guy Debord is Really Dead by Luther Blissett (Sabotage; pamphlet edition, London 1995)

Guy Debord is dead but is he really dead? Guy Debord is considered by many to be the philosopher who articulated avant-garde art, the post-modern equivalent to what Andre Breton was to Surrealism, providing the intellectual framework for both punk and the May 1968 revolts in France.

Twenty-five years after it was published, I found the pamphlet by Luther Blissett on my bookshelf a few books along from Debord’s tract, Society of the Spectacle. A pencil mark on the cover indicates that at the time I paid $3 for it.

Is this a case of zombie situationism where dialectics demands an anti-thesis to progress? Or is this an elegy for the Bore (Debord) written shortly after his death? And what does this critique of the Debord and Situationist International mean today on the internet?

Goodreads has 21 ratings for the forty-page pamphlet averaging out at 3.86 stars. It also has one review that is a link to a WordPress blog that reproduces the entire text (the complete text is available online at multiple locations). Goodreads correctly identifies (if ‘identifies’ is the right word to use in the situation) Luther Blissett as a “multiple name”.

This open identity is more than just a pseudonym or a disguise, for multiple identities are essential to Blissett’s argument. For he, whoever he is, is critiquing the spectacle of Debord, which he calls “the Bore”, rather than the French guy who was alive between the 28 December 1931 and 30 November 1994. It condemns the Bore for becoming a conservative spectacle that denies meaning to any action. Reporting in pointless detail arguments against any dogmatic approach to situationism. The obvious problematic contradiction is that if Blissett’s argument is correct, then his text is as dead as the Bore.

Amazon’s customer reviews rate it as one star and offers it for sale at a ridiculous price. It has two “customer ratings”. One describes it as a “mean-spirited tirade” and the other “one of the worst literature on the subject”. I don’t think that either of the reviewers got the joke, prank, and punk iconoclasm.

In his introduction Stewart Home describes Guy Debord is Really Dead as “a ludic excursion” and notes the relationship between the Lettrists and the Parisian hash trade. And although it would be incorrect to summarise, Guy Debord is Really Dead as a studied parody of political history, Marxist orthodoxy and disunity, it could easily be read as one.

“Guy Debord Is Really Dead” is also a CD single by The Playwrights (Sink & Stove, release date: 2004-11-01). It has not been rated and is free to listen to on eMusic.

Stewart Home rated Blissett’s pamphlet five stars on Goodreads. (Home doesn’t list it on his three pages of books, so I am assuming that he didn’t write it, but I could be wrong.) 


A Scandal in Bohemia

In 1930 a young woman walking home late at night was killed in an laneway in Elwood. The death of Mollie Dean is an unsolved, murder mystery with artistic connections in Melbourne’s literary, music and visual arts.

Although the crime has all the elements of a lurid true crime story, the murder of a young woman with a violently possessive mother and salacious artistic companions. Haigh’s book is much more than that, focusing on the life and career of Dean rather than her brutal death.

Haigh is well known for his books on cricket and his skill in describing one of the world’s most boring sports lends itself well to explaining Melbourne’s cultural scene in 1920s. Especially when he writes about the self-obsessed group of painters known as the Meldrumites including the founder of the artist colony of Montsalvat, Justus Jorgensen. Although Mollie Dean’s lover was the painter, Colin Colahan was never considered a suspect the artists thought the murder was all about them and their reputations.

Haigh doesn’t have any new conclusions or evidence about the crime his research in finding and putting together the details of a young woman’s life is amazing. The difficult search for her few published stories and poems in small Australian publications is heroic.

It is these sidetracks in the story, the background of Melbourne’s history that make for a great true crime story. I was disappointed that there was nothing more on the lead detective Percy Lambell who investigated Melbourne’s first art theft a few years earlier; as there is probably a book yet to be written about him.

Unfortunately there are so many fictional versions of the crime at the end of the book that the true crime is overshadowed. The fictional versions of the murder of Mollie Dean distort the facts with fiction. One of the fact that this type of crime is all too common for women to be killed as they walk home. Although Haigh does look at the difference in opportunities and reputations between the sexes in Melbourne at the time but male violence against women remains unexamined.

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


Art Forgery Book

In Forged Jonathon Keats looks at art forgery with the usual stories of art forgery. The first part of the book Keats tells a short history of art from Ancient Egypt to the present day from the perspective of his thesis of the greatness of fakes. In this loose history Keats doesn’t distinguish between fakes, forgeries, copies, appropriation and piracy. In an odd version of the artistic skill verses originality argument Keats argues that forgeries are the great art.

However, Keats’s argument only works when the fake is discovered or revealed because part of the greater quality that Keats believes exists in them is that they have fooled people in the past. There is little else to prove any quality aside from the fact that they fooled people who wanted to be fooled, like Nazi’s supporting the forgery of medieval turkeys because the Vikings could have brought them back from America. When the fake has not been discovered it remains a mediocre to poor example of the supposed artist’s work.

The second part, and the bulk of the book, tells the story of several famous forgers in the twentieth century: Lothar Malskat, Alceo Dossena, Han Van Meegeren, Eric Hebborn, and Tom Keating. All of these forgers have been extensively written about in many other books.

It is in these biographical chapters that Keats argument of technique over anything else flounders. Even when cherry picking examples of famous forgers their technical ability appears over-rated. The Australian forger Pamela Liberto’s fake Rover Thomas works proved that you don’t need any artistic talent or technique to make and sell fakes.

These famous forgers are not really an appealing lot and Keats doesn’t help them; he even compares Van Meegeren’s aesthetics to Hitler’s. The famous forgers that Keats writes about are bitter, thwarted anachronisms; they certainly don’t appear to be the great artists of our age.

In the third part Keats continues his history of art that he started in the first part. He doesn’t look at forgeries at all but rather at copies. The closest that this part gets to forged is the art of J. S. G. Boggs who hand-draws pictures of money and exchanges it for goods of that value. There is an examination of copies of Mona Lisa by Warhol, Banksy and Duchamp before wandering into contemporary art.

It feels like the meat of this book, art forgers, has been sandwiched between an essay on originality in the history of art and I don’t think that they go together.

Jonathon Keats Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age (Oxford University Press 2013)


Makatron’s Book

Mike Makatron In Ten Cities (Trojan Press, 2015)

I read Makatron’s book, if “read” is the right word for book that is primarily photographs, over a pub lunch and two pints of cider. It is a good over-view of his work in Melbourne and around the world.

I have been looking at Makatron’s work in Melbourne’s walls for the last decade and it is easy to see why his work is popular. He mostly paints animals but there is more to his work that just reproducing a photograph in aerosol paint. Makatron’s animals are often distorted surreal creatures, giant animals with buildings on their backs, decomposing fish or stranger creations. The book doesn’t show all his work but it is a fair representation and not just a greatest hits; there are tags, straight letters and photographs of works in progress.

The text is not indulgent or boasting, fun, modest and reasonably informative although limited and containing way too many puns.

How to present the man behind the paint is a problem given that we are not going to get a photographs of Makatron’s face for legal reasons, although there are a few masked versions. There is a bit of autobiography at the end of the book. A born risk-taker Makatron was working as bicycle courier in NYC on 9/11; something that gets a random page of photographs in the middle of the book and is mentioned again at the end.

Although the structure of the book is not irritating or terrible it could be better than the almost random approach. An editor’s view could have made this book so much better than chaotic travels in time and space.

As a photo-books, street art and graffiti don’t make for great photographs; a wall square on in good lighting is the standard format, photographing street art is often more documentation than photography. John Tsialos is credited as the principle photographer but there are others including David Russell (see my post on his street art photography that brings the streetscape into focus).

I borrowed this book from Moreland Library. Like me, Makatron will have received his library lending rights money for this month for all the times that his book has been borrowed this year. Yes, authors do get paid when their book is borrowed. So go and borrow Makatron’s book (and my book Sculptures of Melbourne) from your local library.

Here are some of my photographs of Makatron’s work in Melbourne.



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)


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