Tag Archives: artist colony

Bohemian Melbourne

Looking at the Bohemian Melbourne exhibition at the State Library of Victoria brought several ideas that I had been thinking about into sharper focus. “Artist, rebel, hippie, hipster?” reads the subtitle of the exhibition, given that I have been some kind of bohemian in Melbourne for all my adult life and that I have encountered some of the subjects of this exhibition, I have a lot of thoughts and there are several hyperlinks to previous blog post.

Vali Myers in her studio in the Nicholas Building, Liz Ham, 1997

Vali Myers in her studio in the Nicholas Building, Liz Ham, 1997

Firstly, it is not necessary to be a bohemian to be an artist and I pity to fool that thinks that it is sufficient.

Whatever a bohemian is, it is definitely a biographical genre, frequently autobiographical, and often exists in a multimedia format, even before the idea of multimedia. It is a story about a person who is outside of conventional society.

In Richard Miller’s book Bohemia, the Protculture, Then and Now (Nelson-Hall, 1977, Chicago) Miller distinguishes between the wealth and the poverty models of bohemian life exemplified by Doyenné and Murger respectively. He also distinguishes between bohemians on the basis of class background and political attitudes, something that Bohemian Melbourne neglected to emphasise, mixing and right wing bohemians, Percy Grainger being the epitome of a right wing radical. (See my post on the Grainger Museum.)

I believe that understanding bohemians would be helped with a better understanding of demographics and the sociology of different sizes of populations. For if x% of the population are bohemians and the population of a city is 100,000 will bohemian behaviour change when it is 1,000,000? Will it change again when the population reaches 5,000,000?

Bohemian Melbourne reminded me that art styles are in reality clubs, exclusive groups based not so much on a logic of stylistic similarity but membership. Melbourne’s early art history was established around clubs. Some like Buonarotti Club, The Cannibal Club, Savages Club were bohemian. Others like, Stray Leaves, the Victorian Academy of Arts and the Contemporary Art Society of Victoria were not. The first of these was the Victoria Fine Arts Society established in 1853, it last four years until 1857. In 1874 the Victorian Artists Society was established and still continues today (see my post on Zombie Artists).

Like most gangs these clubs defend their members and their territory, be that territory intellectual, as in Surrealism or geographic, as in the Cabal of Naples. Artist colonies, residences or even restaurants, like Montsalvat or Heide, can be the nexus of the group’s activities. (see my post on Montsalvat)

In part, artist clubs replaced the artists workshops, the guilds and apprenticeships in trying to answered the question of who qualifies to be a called an artist. Membership of these clubs takes various forms but it is essential that other members of the club recognise each other as members of the club. Non-members are excluded from being authentic. For example, being an Australian Aboriginal artist is not dependent on ancestry but on being recognised as Aboriginal by the local aboriginal community. Likewise, if you are not known to paint illegal pieces on buildings or trains without permission then you will not be recognised as a graffiti writer by other graffiti artists.

The reduction of clubs in society in general as an aspect of Australian society, is reflected in the art world. Sure the Contemporary Art Society of Victoria and the Victorian Artists Club still exist, like antique reminders of the past. The reduced numbers and lack of influence is one reason why there are no clearly identifiable art styles in contemporary art. (See my post Happy 70th Anniversary CAS)

The most important arts clubs that still exist in Melbourne are in the form street art crews. Street art and graffiti are movements rather than styles, a movement is where multiple similar clubs/crews/organisations/etc exist. Movements are larger than clubs and are not defined by the artists/members but by historians.

I could go on about artistic lifestyles and living a bohemian life on social security payments but I will save that for future blog posts.


Who cares about this pseudo-medieval influenced folly and what significance does it have to Melbourne’s culture? I have been to Montsalvat on a couple of occasions to see a concert or just to look around at the faux medieval architecture.

The idea of William Morris and the arts and crafts movement was that a return to traditional work practices would end the alienation of the worker by a creative anachronistic medievalism. Although the arts and crafts movement did produce some beautiful art it did not fulfil its utopian dreams and neither has Montsalvat. It is unique, an unsuccessful mutant that wasn’t viable, couldn’t adapt and didn’t reproduce any offspring.

Unlike Heide, the former house of art patrons John and Sunday Reed, Montsalvat is not significant in Australian art history. It has produced no significant artists as a look at their permanent exhibition of the resident’s paintings demonstrates. And unlike Heide, Montsalvat has been unable to adapt to the changing world because of its anachronistic ideal. While Heide can add a new gallery and sculptures; Montsalvat has become a quaint attractive setting for up market wedding receptions.

Another problem with Montsalvat’s cultural vision is that it is a bucolic rural vision and if there is a future for culture then it must be an urban vision. Suggesting that the solution to our cultural problems is to retreat from the urban environment is short-sighted and environmentally destructive however superficially attractive it might appear.

So who cares about Montsalvat and its financial problems? Nobody commented about my blog entry about Montsalvat’s financial problems but when I came to mention Betty Roland’s book about Montsalvat there were comments. As one correspondent wrote: “Montsalvat still stirs passions just as art does. Mention Meldrum or Jorgensen in certain circles and you will be shunned as some sort of leper.”

If one person can make a difference then Justus Jorgensen’s (1893-1975) contribution to Melbourne’s culture has to be negative. Melbourne’s artist colony at Montsalvat in Eltham by Betty Roland, The Eye of the Beholder, (Hale & Iremonger, 1986).

It is the history of a group of minor Melbourne artist, writers and hangers on, first centred on the painter, Max Meldrum but then the bullying personality of Justus Jorgensen takes over. Justus Jorgensen appears oblivious not just to the rest of the world, to history, to anyone who he does not dominate. “Jorg (Jorgensen) has a radio and listens to the news but does not discuss it. He is more interested in the love-life of his pupils than the fall of France.” (p.181)

Jorgensen, a student of Meldrum, copies both Meldrum’s personality cult and his artistic technique. Both Max Meldrum and Justus Jorgensen are conservative painters hanging on to 19th century tonal techniques. Jorgensen’s vision of an artist’s colony at Montsalvat is equally conservative as is his architecture. The extent that he and his followers archived letters and other documents, sure of their place in history, is unnerving and reminiscent of a cult. And Jorgensen’s ego is recorded in numerous self-portraits.

Montsalvat pseudo-medieval buildings were built with donated labour and money. Jorgensen appears to be a master at toadying to wealthy donors and exploiting his disciples. He appears to be more interested in controlling people than painting. His followers thought him a genius but he avoided contact with anyone who might damage this delusion. I felt no pity for those that he did manipulate, seduce or bully because they wanted it, they wanted someone to order them and give their lives meaning. If Jorgensen hadn’t controlled his or her lives somebody else would have.

Betty Roland is not a historian but one of the small circle that lived at Montsalvat. Her book is full of details of the infidelities and other love affairs of the group but becomes dull with all the details. It also suffers from being both an autobiography and a biography of Justus Jorgensen confusing the narrative. Ultimately the book it isn’t that interesting due to the group’s insularity and conservative artistic vision. It is hard to describe how boring, conservative and parochial this group of would be bohemians were; they were off to the pub at 5pm like everyone else in Melbourne.

(This blog entry is an edited version of two entries published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing.)

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