Tag Archives: Sir Joseph Boehm

Nineteenth Century Fantasies

The front of the State Library of Victoria looks like something out of Dungeons and Dragons. A male warrior attacks a dragon and a female paladin advances; Joseph Edgar Boehm’s St. George and the Dragon and Emmanuel Frémiet’s Jeanne D’Arc.

Many people can’t stand European nineteenth-century academic sculpture. Other people think that it was the last stand of a noble aesthetic tradition. I don’t agree with either; for me, it is like Frank Frazetta or the Brothers Hildebrandt’s fantasy illustrations, it is art about make-believe world. It is about men who wanted their statues of colonial explorers, generals, and other leaders like a boy wants superhero figurines. By making these escapist fantasies figurative art, they were trying to make their meaning more tangible.

The messages in some of these fantasy art can be horrible, racist and sexist (this is not a defence or an apology for these statues). Others make their creators look like an obvious client for future Freudian therapy – man’s eternal struggle with monsters of the deep. They can also be intensely sentimental, or overtly sexy.

Springthorpe Memorial

There are many examples of this academic fantasy art sculpture in Melbourne from the statues of St. George and Joan of Arc, to the angels by Bertrand Mackennal in the Springthorpe Memorial, or Paul Montford’s The Court Favourite and Water Nymph and, the incredibly racist, (and fortunately rarely on public display in the NGV) Emmanuel Frémiet’s Gorille enlevant une femme (gorilla carrying off a woman).

Not since the Baroque has there been art as theatrical. The theatricality of the academic fantasy art is the same as the CGI imagery of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings. And it was just as popular, with the painter John Martin showing blockbuster exhibitions in London in the late nineteenth century.

The nineteenth-century academic artist was portraying the world, not as it was, or is, but as they thought it should have been; a bucolic, mythic, existence. They used everything as a symbol, retreating from the world in search for a meaning that would justify their beliefs. For the world and its facts were increasingly at odds with the values and ideals springing from European religion, myths and legends. What Europeans were discovering was that they were just another great ape of a common species found around the world and not the chosen ones.

The high art of today is about reality and not fantasy. Today fantasy is rarely shown in state galleries or installed in front of state buildings but widely available in prints and posters. But there is still plenty of fantasy art available, it is just curated for a different market and the statues of dragons and warriors are made in a 25mm scale.

(Some people might note that what I am calling ‘nineteenth-century academic sculpture’ includes works made in the early twentieth century. This is the difference between dates and styles and that some styles will in places continue for generations after their significant period.)

Paul Montford, Court Favourite, c.1906

Sculpture @ Showgrounds

Melbourne’s Showgrounds are an odd place to dump unwanted marble sculptures from the nineteenth century but it happened and they are still sitting there.

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Outside the RASV (Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria) offices at Melbourne Showgrounds is Young Bull and Herdsman, the work of English sculptor Sir Joseph Boehm (1834-1890). The white marble sculpture of a young man leading a small bull by the bronze ring its nose is an appropriate theme for the Melbourne Showgrounds. The carved marble smocking on the herdsman is a fantastic display of technique.

It came to Melbourne for the Centennial Exhibition in 1888-89 and was acquired by the Melbourne Art Gallery and Museum before being gifted to the RASV. It was purchased by the Trustees of State Library at the Centennial Exhibition along with St. George and the Dragon outside the State Library of Victoria.

It makes me wonder how many sculptures did Sir Joseph Boehm send to Melbourne for the Centennial Exhibition? I should also note that  Boehm’s St. George and Dragon was an influence on a very young, Peter Corlett who went on to be one of Melbourne’s most prolific figurative sculptor. Corlett remembers thinking that someone made the sculpture for the first time.

The two sculptures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by Charles Summers are slightly less appropriate for the showground’s gardens; Victoria might have been amused. There were originally a set of four sculptures of the royal family, I don’t know where the other two sculptures of her children have gone. The sculptures of the royal family were commissioned by the Trustees of State Library from Charles Summers in 1876. Summers having finished his Burke and Wills Monument, decided that he was Melbourne’s answer to Michelangelo and moved, just like Michelangelo did, to Rome.

It is interesting to note that late nineteenth century sculptures, unlike most other antiques, are actually declining in value.

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The one sculpture that appears to have been intended to have been installed at the Showgrounds is a life size equestrian statue The Australian Stockman. It is by Tasmanian based sculptor, Stephen Walker who has numerous public sculptures around Hobart. The bronze plaque says that it is “in memory of David Knox 4 Dec 1916 – 8 April 1995” not that any of the people at the show would know anything about Captain David Knox.

I am surprised that there are any sculptures at the Melbourne Showgrounds.


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