Tag Archives: Ron Robertson-Swann

Maquettes of Melbourne’s Sculptures

This is a collection of photos of Melbourne public sculptures and their maquettes. Maquette is an arty French word for a ‘model’ from when French was the language of art (now the language of contemporary art is any language that you speak). They are made in a variety of media from wood, wax, clay or anything other inexpensive media that works for the sculptor.

Sculptors make them as visual sketches for themselves but they are also used to get commissions for sculptures. The sculptural equivalent of architectural models. The City of Melbourne has a small collection of these maquettes in their storage, as have the Arts Centre, that were submissions for sculpture commissions.

These models are made directly by the sculptor whereas the full-scale version may be the work of both sculptor, assistants and other fabricators. The models for bronze sculptures are made out of bees wax and multiple bronze editions of these scale models are sometimes made.

Louis Laumen’s Pastor Sir Doug and Lady Gladys Nicholls Memorial (aka Dungala Wamayirr) was originally design to be on opposite sides of each and to be on a higher plinth. Here they are along with James White’s Edmund Fitzgibbon Memorial, along with another unknown statue (possibly Peter Corlett’s John Cain but on a plinth).

Marc Clark’s Portal (See my post on the hostile installation of this sculpture.)


Re-Vault

Four people wearing yellow chemical coveralls are slowly moving in the City Square in Melbourne. It is Re-vault a performance about Vault, Ron Robertson-Swan’s ill fated sculpture that once stood in the City Square, hence all the yellow. It is one of EPA’s performances, part of Melbourne 47 “senses of the city” paid for though Melbourne’s Arts Grant Program and Monash University.

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Two of the performers are manipulating planes of steel grids for concrete reinforcing. These modernist grids refer to the angles of the steel planes of Vault. The other two people are tied together with yellow and black barrier tape. They act as pedestrian control and a human safety barrier creating a space between the shallow pools and the Christmas kitsch that is under construction in most of the square.

Jonathan Sinatra’s performance piece comes 35 years after Vault’s removal. The Christmas construction means that the performance could not be anywhere near the original location of Vault, in the northwestern part of the square. Not that it mattered as very few people passing by would have any idea of Robertson-Swann’s sculpture that now located in the forecourt of ACCA.

Although the limited audience of passing school groups, tourists and locals had no idea of the original sculpture the performance did. Aside from the obvious yellow there were a couple of other references. Vault was intended as a grand interlocking sculpture and Re-vault’s body-sculpture also acts as an interlocking sculpture, although less grand.

I take a seat at the Caboose Canteen order a pulled pork slider and a cider and watch the performance unfold. It is a beautiful day, the first day in Melbourne over 30 degrees since March. It was the perfect seat until the performers move one bridge up. It reminds me that these band of shallow water and the very shallow water pouring down the surface of the John Mockridge Fountain are the vestigial remains of the all important ‘water feature’ found in the original architectural brief for the square. In the original city square water the smell of chlorine filled the air as water poured over an enormous multi-stepped fountain. There was so much chlorine in the air that it pitted the bronze sculpture of Burke and Wills. Fortunately water is being used more wisely now.

Re: Vault my review of Geoffrey Joseph Wallis, Peril in the square: the sculpture that challenged a city (Indra Publishing, 2004)


Henry Moore & Australian Sculpture

Australian interwar sculptors mark the transition from traditional to modernist. Interwar modernism in Australia was not building on any modernist foundations, it was the start, and it started in England with Henry Moore.

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Henry Moore was the acceptable face of modernism in England. He was English and his easy version of biomorphic surrealism was friendly. Although it was modern sculpture, all smooth with holes in it, everyone could engage with because everyone has a mother.

It was a particularly British sense of modern and Moore did things including making his sculpture from local stone, to maintain the idea that the sculptures were British. The British liked to distance themselves from the mainland of the continent hoping to avoid the French revolution and the other revolutions, like modernism, that might arise after it.

Assisting Henry Moore was almost a rite of passage for Australian sculptors. George Allen, Lenton Parr, Ron Robertson-Swann, and Ola Cohn all worked with Henry Moore at one time. Art in Australia was still part of Britain even if it was on the other side of the earth. Australia was too close to Britain to look to at European art and consequently early modern sculpture in Australia was in part a response to Henry Moore.

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Ola Cohn sculpture at Melbourne City Library

In Ola Cohn’s autobiography, A Way With The Fairies – The Lost Story of Sculptor Ola Cohn edited by Barbara Lemon (R. W. Stugnell, 2014, Melbourne) there are no insights provided about the transition to modernism in Australia. Cohn doesn’t seem like a typical modern artist as she doesn’t express any desire for change, she just goes along with the changes. The lack of insight that Ola Cohn exhibits in her autobiography means that her rambling account of her life has many details with little meaning.

However, there is one insight that is quoted in Cohn’s autobiography. Blamire Young in “Art – Past and Future: Streeton and Ola Cohn” (The Herald 1931 p.86) writes: “Our approach to modern art is surrounded with difficulties, and its effect on Australian students who visit Europe is interesting to watch. They return to Australia with an amazing understanding of its outward and most recognisable  characteristics, but it is seldom they make us feel that they have been through the spiritual suffering that its originators had to undergo.”

For Cohn and many other Australian sculptors modern art meant simply smoothing out the figure into a streamlined form and nothing else. There was no deeper meaning to early Australian modernists as there was no modern revolution or revolt in Australia. Early Australian modernism was simply a copy of British modernism, more a shift in style rather than a revolutionary attitude.

In the progression of modernism another one of Henry Moore’s assistants, Anthony Caro would continue to be a major influence on Australian sculptors, particularly in the work of his students Ron Robertson-Swann and Fiona Foley. The history of Australian sculpture continues to be entwined with British sculpture and the legacy of Moore’s influence in Australian sculpture continues to this day.


And it was all Yellow

Ron Robertson-Swann’s sculpture, “Vault” (aka the Yellow Peril) was only in the Melbourne City Square for a year but it haunts Melbourne like Banquo’s ghost at the banquet. The sculpture certainly haunts the architects DCM who choose it. It was only in the City Square for a year but it left a permanent psychic mark on Melbourne. The sculpture has been the subject of endless discussion when it was completed and Wallis wonders why Melbourne became so obsessed with this sculpture. Wasn’t there anything more important to talk about in Melbourne?

“I actually think Melbourne is better off than Sydney, because of the experience of Vault. Vault was a public issue, and I think Melbourne is a lot more sophisticated as a result of these arguments being aired, over a long period of time.” Ron Robertson-Swann, Oct. 2002 (Carolyn Webb, “Melbourne’s mellow peril” The Age 3/10/02)

Vault has no meaning besides being art; it is simply an arrangement of yellow steel planes. The significance of it to Melbourne is the subject of the book.

The cast of characters spans Melbourne and clearly describes the conflict’s political dimensions.

For the sculpture: DCM (architects), Cr Ivin Rockman, Cr McAlpine, The Age, Eric Rawlison (director of the NGV), Professor Patrick McCaughey, Contemporary Art Society, Norm Gallagher (BLF)

Against the sculpture: Cr Don Osborne, Cr Jack Woodruff, The Sun, Premier Ruper Hamer, Bert Newton, Australian Guild of Realist Artists, Peter Thorley (chief commissioner of Melbourne)

Wallis does note that the conflict was as much aged-based as it was one between the left and right. It was Cr Osborne who popularised its derogatory nickname – “the yellow peril”. As well as, covering the controversy, Wallis comprehensively examination of the whole process from the competition for the commission, the commission and construction, the Melbourne City Council politics and the public reaction, the dismantling, removal and exile to Batman Park.

It is interesting to note that BHP contributed to the cost of the steel for Vault. That with a larger budget for the sculpture the City Square might have had a Henry Moore or Hans Arp sculpture. And that if the budget had been smaller friends of Montsalvat sculptor Matcham Skipper might have been able to pay for a place for him in the City Square.

Wallis looks closely at the reactions of the public to the sculpture, not in just the newspaper’s letters to the editor page. He looks at people climbing it, graffiti, homeless sleeping under it. The way that people moved around the sculpture was part of the commission and part of the concern of its critics.

The controversy over “Vault” extended the conservative position on Melbourne’s public sculpture. Long after their experience with “Vault” Melbourne City Council shunned any public sculpture commissions, paralyzed by fear of another controversy. The little good that came out of the whole incident was that it started the push that eventually the federal government introduced legislation protecting the moral rights of artists.

The book is well written and attractively laid out – I like the side texts that expanded the history through sidetracks. The book also features lots of great photographs, cartoon clippings from newspapers and other evidence of sculpture’s significance in Melbourne. And there is sort of a happy ending to look forward to as the sculptor and the people of Melbourne finally accept “Vault” in its new location outside of the ACAG.

Geoffrey Joseph Wallis, Peril in the square: the sculpture that challenged a city, (Indra Publishing, 2004) ISBN 1920787003, 9781920787004

Penny Webb reviewed Peril in the Square (The Age 14/5/04)


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