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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.

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Sunshine Lane

A visit to the Sunshine Lane (Ann St, Brunswick) is always worthwhile to see quality street art and graffiti. There are other great locations for street art in Brunswick hidden away in the backstreets. Few laneways in Melbourne get a 5 star review on Google but this is one; Google describes it as an art gallery and in a way it is. Sunshine Lane is one of the locations in Brunswick where street art graffiti thrive because it is semi-curated by Dean Sunshine, whose family owns several of the warehouse in the area. There are some permanent works, like this one by Slicer that I videoed when he was spraying it six years ago.

In the video I wanted to convey the action painting aspects of painting with a spray can (as in the action painting of the Abstract Expressionist 10th Street School). Aspects that Slicer embodied well, but it is his footwork, the dance that is also common to all artists spray painting large walls that I was also watching. The person dances along the wall with their spray can, steps back, pause, steps to the left, or to the right, and then steps back up to the wall to once again paint across its surface.

A couple of stencils by Drasko and others around the area reminded me that a decade ago the main focus on Melbourne’s street art was stencils. It is not that stencils are making a come back, they never went away, it is just that the street art scene is so much larger that stencils no longer dominate.

No-one would have predicted what is still happening with street art; what was underground and wild is now mainstream. A decade ago I was told so often that Melbourne’s street art had peaked that I took it too mean that the person in question was getting out of the scene. However, for every person who left the scene to pursue other goals it seemed that five took their place.

Rapid urbanisation has been the fuel in this expansion in many ways. The growth of the city, not just spread, but vertically has created many more walls filled by many more people who want to paint them. The walls get larger, whole sides of multi-storey buildings and more and more get painted. There are now building sites around Sunshine Lane, small laneways have vanish or are now cut off by construction works.


Most controversial public sculptures in Australia

Readers in Melbourne might think that this will be about the flat yellow steel planes of Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault (aka the Yellow Peril) but it is not. Although the controversy lasted a year, mostly letters to the paper and angry city council meetings. A few people figuratively lost their heads but no sculptures lost their heads. For more on Vault read my post: And it was all yellow.

Other readers might think that the controversy was the statue wars of 2017 when statues of Captain Cook and Governor Macquarie were vandalised with paint. “No pride in Genocide.” Again a few people figuratively lost their heads but no sculptures lost their heads. For more on this read my post: Statue Wars 2017.

There are two sculptures that were so controversial that the sculptures were actually decapitated.

Robert Hitchcock Yagan 1984 (photo by Nachoman)

The Yagan statue by Robert Hitchcock is located on Heirisson Island in the Swan River in Perth. It was decapitated and the head stolen in 1997 by an anonymous vandal who identified themselves as a ‘British patriot’.

The decapitation occurred the same week that Yagan’s actual head was returned. Yagan was murdered in 1833, shot a point-blank range by an eighteen year old Englishman William Keates was speared to death in revenge. Yagan’s head was taken as a trophy to England; if this had been done today it would be a war crime. After passing through multiple British hands Yagan’s head was eventually buried in an unmarked grave along with the body of another Indigenous Australian, some dried viscera and a Peruvian mummy in a corner of Everton Cemetery in Liverpool.

The statue was restored with a new head only to be decapitated again in 2002 leading to a second restoration and another slightly different head. The pattern of racist attacks only stopped when the area was fenced off. There were no witnesses to either of these crimes although WA Police Headquarters has views across the Swan River to the statues site.

Greg Taylor, Liz and Phil Down by the Lake, 1995 (image gregtaylor-sculpture.com)

However, even the Yagan statue is not the most controversial public sculpture in Australia which has to be Greg Taylor’s Liz and Phil Down by the  Lake 1995. Made of cement fondue coated with iron oxide to give them a rested appearance. It was part of a temporary exhibition for the National Sculpture festival organised by the Australian National University in Canberra.

Seated on a park bench by Lake Burley Griffin were two naked figures. The wrinkly old naked Liz and Phil looked, the very opposite of regal, frail and human; only the crown on Liz’s head reminded the viewer who was being depicted. The fact that Lese-majeste is not in Australian law but that didn’t stop Returned Service League chief Bruce Ruxton calling for Taylor’s execution.

Then the head of Liz was stolen on the night of 13 April. The police log stated boldly: ”The Queen has lost her head and doesn’t know where to find it.” After the beheading a former Sydney policeman decided to dress the sculpture in bedsheets printed with the Australian flag. The following night the Duke’s head was removed along with further vandalism that severed legs from both figures and caved in Phil’s chest. The entire sculpture was was removed on 16 April, two days later.

Taylor told the Canberra Times: “It’s a pretty sad day for freedom of speech and freedom of expression when you can’t even put a piece of art up without its opponents being able to control themselves.”

In a secondary controversy the Australian Federal Police on May 14 issued a denial that the Queens head had been found in home of a right wing militia member who had infiltrated the computer and communications sections of the Defence Department and possessed an arsenal of weapons.


A long and narrow road

The words following the white line on Upfield bike path. The reflective white line dividing the bike path becomes the page, the site for the text. The path of words runs between the throughly domesticated work or architects and building engineers and the wild feral art that grows like weeds along the railway line.

It was part of More Art 2018, is A Narrow Road to the Deep North by Illimine. Illimine is an international collective of multimedia artists, performers and academics who have been doing site-specific art since 2013 that has a several Melbourne based members.

The text goes on for some kilometres, about 10 km making it amongst the longest works of urban art or poetry. (Not that I want to get into an urban art measuring contest, so you can put your hand down now Sigmund. We all know what you are going to say.) It is a durational writing performance the work.

If it is literature, it is the kind that nobody reads completely and just dip into a bit, so that they can say they have. It is even harder to read because although the text goes left to right, as the writer proceeds along the left hand side of the path north, the blocks of text go from right to left.

Now the mainstream news is reporting on it. This is an indicator of how slack I have been in reporting on what is going on in my neighbourhood; in my defence, it is poetry and there is no hurry to read it. As the text doesn’t compete for space with either the developers or the graffiti writers it will survive until the lines on the bike path are repainted.


Goodbye 2018

On my way to Yarra Sculpture Gallery this year I saw a ghost sign painted on an empty building. It reminded me of one of the reasons why I write this blog. I want to record something of the galleries in Melbourne today.

“J Miller Art Gallery / Pictures Framers Restorers / Sales Service & Supplies 419 7516”

The old telephone number before the 9 prefix was added to Melbourne telephone numbers in 1995. Miller’s gallery provided a range of services; contemporary art galleries in Melbourne no long do picture framing as part of their business.

The State Library Victoria has a one folded invitation card and one sheet press release for an exhibition at J Miller Art Gallery. The exhibition was by the Polish artist, Grzegorz Morycinski, March 14, [no year, circa late 1980s?]. Morycinski was a contemporary painter who spent four months in Australia in 1987.

Perhaps my blog posts will simply contribute to a more complete archive of Melbourne’s art world (not a vain hope as this blog is preserved by the State Library of Victoria on Pandora).

* * *

I am still working on my book on art and crime as I have decided to expand it from Melbourne’s art crimes to Australian art crimes. I have been posted a couple these stories from my research, and a couple of times I have been rewarded with more information. 

Perth’s Fake Pollock Exhibition 

The theft of La belle Hollandaise  

The Life and Art of Ronald Bull 

* * *

I have been fortunate to be born a white heterosexual male in an Anglophone culture and it has been a privilege. The only downside was that I was in generation X, a punk anarchist and there are thousands of guys like me. Writing about Melbourne’s visual arts appears to be a good use of my academic skill set. (Thanks to the Australian tax payers for providing me with the free education. I hope that I am paying it forward with my blog.) However, for much of this year I don’t have been trying to listen, learn and leave room for other voices.

* * *

So goodbye to 2018; this blog will return in 2019.


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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