John McDonald
c/- National Gallery of Australia

Dear John,

I’ve read the draft of your essay for the ‘Federation’ catalogue, and the introductions to its seven sections. Before commenting on them, I suspect that I need to set down my response to your appointment as Senior Curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia. Vasari’s Lives of the Artists made it clear that spite and envy are not new to the world of culture. Hence, any comment on your exhibition will be received by some as a reaction to you personally. The point in recording my responses is to distance my judgement of your curatorship of this exhibition from other people’s opposition to your appointment.

I did not join the chorus of outrage that some one with next-to-no curatorial experience should have been appointed to so important a post. One reason was that, as a freelancer for twenty-seven years, I am aware that, while too much uncertainty is corrosive, too much security is deadening. Some people stay too long in the one institution, with the result that they shape its routines to their comforts. They and their institutions would benefit from unrest cures. When I think of the Federation show that would have come out of the previous curators, I can see more knowledge than you mustered, but not necessarily more excitement.

The assumption that one is critical of professional performance only on the basis of animus etiolates discussion of public affairs. After I published complaints about the National Library, its then Director-General asked a friend of mine why I was attacking him when we had never met. A concern for the condition of public institutions is sufficient explanation for outrage over misguided management. My disappointment over ‘Federation’ is at a lost opportunity to enrich the political culture of the Australian people, whom you refer to as ‘they’, not ‘we’.

Not being a newspaper reader, I was not familiar with your reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald. After your appointment I went to your pieces on major retrospectives, about which I had also written, choosing those examples so that I would have a basis for evaluation. I came away disappointed because you lent on the catalogues and reiterated your commitment to the spiritual in art, giving very little idea of how your contact with a body of work had altered your understanding of a particular canvas or an individual artist, and still less how the viewing had unsettled your way of seeing. I feel the same about your ‘Federation’ writings, the attraction of which is that of provocative journalism. If your introductory essay were a university assignment from a fresher, it would attract a distinction for its range and dash. A final year honours student would be sent away to rewrite – after a lot more reading and looking.

Beyond the bitchiness over your appointment was the concern that you had insufficient experience in the management of collections and in the mounting of exhibitions. These lacks did not seem a problem if you were going to be an ideas person and let the area curators run the ship. Our cultural institutions need people whose prime task is to think. Libraries and museums - not to mention universities – are too big for their directors to be both CEOs and intellectual dynamos. Of course, thinking needs to be advanced through practice. A senior curator of ideas should stage a major show every three years. Your appointment promised that desirable outcome. It will be a pity if your departure from the NGA is used to preclude the appointment of thinkers who are not burdened with paper shuffling. The question is whether you were capable of such leadership.

I shall confine my unsolicited advice to your catalogue writings because the many Postwest readers who will never see the exhibition will be able to check my criticisms against your text in a library; secondly, a third of the works won’t be travelling; and, finally, because your ideas shaped your choice of works on display. 

‘Australia’s birth as a nation’ is your opening phrase, by which you mean the inauguration of the Commonwealth on 1 January 1901. Few scholars would agree that Federation meant nationhood. None would make such a claim without considering what is meant by ‘nation’, sovereignty and independence. Gallipoli is credited with installing national consciousness, or identity, not nationhood in terms of state-to-state relations within the British Empire. Some commentators have taken the declaration of Dominion status in 1926, its passage as the Statute of Westminster in 1931, or Canberra’s adoption of it in 1942, as the moment for the attainment of nationhood. Others argue that our nationhood remains in the future. Whichever solution one adopts, the issue is one which your exhibition needed to explore, not take for granted.

A parallel problem appears in your third sentence where you talk about the ‘Proclamation of Australian Unity’, followed by references to ‘unification’. Federation was not unification, and was never meant to be.  A plebiscite for unification would have been trounced in the 1890s, and at any time since, though it might have been carried in 1942 under the perceived threat of a Japanese invasion. The tension between federalism and unification, between States Rights and Canberra centralism, remains at the core of public life. For instance, will the Commonwealth use its foreign affairs power to override State administrations on the environment?

(Your confusion of Federation with unification parallels the mistake that NGA Director Dr Kennedy made in his early approaches to State and regional Galleries. Kennedy came from a unitary state, Eire, and so had to learn how a federal system worked.)

You also write of the ‘Jingoistic attitudes that characterised the period between the wars’. The use of ‘jingoism’ needs to be precise. Jingoism came out of the 1878 verse in support of Britain’s sending the fleet into Turkish waters to block Russian advances: ‘We don’t want to fight, yet by Jingo!, if we do, We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too’. That militarist attitude was not characteristic of Australia between 1920 and 1940. Rather, appeasement was prevalent on the Right and isolationism on the Left. Perhaps you mean chauvinism, nativism or parochialism, all of which were present, though in unstable combinations.

Your claim that existentialism ‘dominated the intellectual life of the 1950s’ is so wrong-headed that I wonder whether you intend this remark to apply to Australia at all, or are you thinking about the cafes of Paris and San Francisco? The dominant mentality here at that time was religious, if not exactly theological. Newly elected Prime Minister Menzies received a flood of letters in 1950 thanking him for reintroducing God to public debate. Church leaders issued ‘A Call’ for a moral revival late in 1951. Romans said the Rosary and many backed the Apocalypticism of B. A. Santamaria’s Catholic Action. Three million Protestants rallied to the 1959 Billy Graham crusade, which built on efforts by local revivalists throughout the previous decade. When television began in 1956, 7 per cent of broadcast time went to religious programs. The most active groups on campus were the Newman Society, the Evangelical Union and the Student Christian Movement.

Religious sentiments became dominant in our arts. Essays by the Anglo-Catholic T. S. Eliot stimulated painters. The Blake Prize for religious art began in 1951. Leading poets included the Catholics Francis Webb, James McAuley and Vincent Buckley, while even A. D. Hope maintained a respectful relation with Rome despite an Augustan manner and sexual exploration. Patrick White brought a metaphysical dimension to the explorer narrative in Voss and to the family saga in The Tree of Man. Manning Clark conceived the story of European civilisation here as a clash of religious ideas.

Existentialism was so idiosyncratic in Australia in the 1950s as to be non-existentas a mentality. Alternatives to religious thinking came from logical positivists and the old Left. Not until the decade ended did the New Left discover the alienation hypothesis in the early Marx. In 1962, Harry Heseltine unearthed a proto-existentialist outlook behind ‘our literary tradition’ which, he said,

presents a façade of mateship, egalitarian democracy, landscape, nationalism, realistic toughness. But always behind the façade looms the fundamental concern of the Australian literary imagination [which] … is to explore its uses, and to build defences against its dangers.

T. Inglis Moore had identified this grimness in his university and public lectures from the 1930s but did not publish until his 1971 chapter on ‘The Cry of the Crow’ in his Social Patterns in Australian Literature. Yet neither Heseltine nor Inglis Moore was in any sense existentialist.

None of this detail about religion or philosophy needed to be in your essay. Rather, a depth of understanding, a recognition of complexity and contraries, was essential to inform your choice of works and to provide the verbal and visual contexts to assist viewers. One mark of an historical sensibility is the capacity to appreciate ways of apprehending life that are remote from one’s own.

You pick up Robert Manne’s phrase about Australians suffering from ‘a culture of forgetting’. The problem runs deeper than that, as your exhibition illustrates. Our obstacle is a culture of ‘having never known’. Without depth and breath, the bits of information that make up your commentaries are no more than could be expected from an audio tour. We need to know more in order to be sure what was typically Australian and what was a local expression of a worldwide trend.

For example, when the Australasian Manufacturer in the 1920s praised Australian prime minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce ‘for his “mediocrity”’, you observe that ‘No irony was intended: it was actually considered safer to have such an ordinary person as the leader of the country’. In treating this attitude as typically Australian, you fail to consider whether the Australasian Manufacturer had borrowed its fondness for ‘mediocrity’ from a worldwide trend. An article in the American Magazine asserted that ‘business and life are built upon successful mediocrity’. This preference for ordinariness and ‘normalcy’ came in reaction against satires on middle-class values, such as Sinclair Lewis developed in his 1922 novel Babbitt.

You seemingly get carried away by alliteration into describing the 1950s as ‘the era of cathartic consumerism’. Catharsis, Aristotle said of tragedy, is a purification of the emotions by vicarious experience. Any catharsis through affluence was unmediated. The purging of memories of hard times stretching back to the 1890s did not occur until the 1960s. Rather, the 1950s was a time of import licensing and credit squeezes to manage chronic disruptions in the balance of payments. The boom did not settle in until after 1962. You are right to say that ‘mass-produced cars and household appliances came within reach of average Australian families’, but these commodities were acquired one at a time, hire purchase and debt remaining suspect. The change was in the extent of home ownership, usually in the fringe suburbs.

You write that ‘in the suburbs it is newness that counts’. Which suburbs do you have in mind, and when? Many developers strive to make their project homes look historic, providing an instant past by the addition of Federation, colonial or Spanish mission features. In addition, the pressure has been on for twenty yeas or more to preserve the old. What ‘counts’ for the first home buyer is price. Again, you have failed to deal with the layering of life, or to be precise about shifts over time.

Further to this topic, you complain that ‘Few suburbanites want to stand out too sharply from their neighbours’. Even if this judgement has always been true for Australians, how different have we been from the occupants of inner-city apartments in Munich or Shanghai? Anonymity is a condition of urban life, which brings both positive and negative consequences, with the opportunity to form a community of likeminded outsiders being balanced against the costs of loneliness.

Your talk of a ‘gum tree school’ during the inter-war years needs to be differentiated if your comments are to sound more than a snobbish disdain for Sunday painters and butchers’ calendars. Clarice Beckett, Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith and Kenneth Macqueen depicted lots of gumtrees but were hardly part of that school. Even its old masters, Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen, deserted the standard formulae. Heysen went from ‘Red Gold” in 1913 on the edges of Adelaide to the Flinders Ranges after 1926. While Streeton was churning out bush scenes at five guineas a square inch in the 1920s he was also painting canvases which protested against deforestation. The Hermansburg school had plenty of gums but their watercolours were remarkable for their shocking purples, which broke from the blue-gold tradition. Norman Lindsay valued Elioth Gruner for his capturing of light, not for his scenery.

In this connection, you allege that, in the 1930s, publisher and critic P. R. Stephenson envisaged ‘a day when Europeans will come to their senses, abandon their modernistic experiment and recognise the radical charms of Australian gum-tree painting’. As you provide no footnotes it is not easy to decide on what evidence, if any, you have constructed this paraphrase, but here is what Stephenson wrote in The Foundations of Culture in Australia(1936):

Some day, by a swing of the pendulum away from Epstein, towards restfulness and the exotic but quiet beauty of Gruner, it may become a Vogue to have gum trees and sunlit Murrumbidgee valleys on the walls of Mayfair and Manhattan flats. That day has not yet arrived, and could only arrive if a group of art-dealers first secured a ‘corner’ in Gruner pictures before launching a campaign of theory to prove that he was Corot redivivus, but more charming, more strange, more incomprehensible except to the initiated. (pp. 73-4)

The disparity between your sneers and Stephenson’s mocking tone and nuanced substance requires explanation.

You also join the queue to mock the Gallery director and critic J. S. MacDonald for claiming in 1931 that Australians ‘can yet be the elect of the world, the last of the pastoralists, the thoroughbred Aryans in all their nobility’. MacDonald’s vision splendid is an easy mark now that the word Aryan is associated with the Nazis. The puzzle is what did MacDonald mean? Aryan derived from the Sanskrit for noble, a fact likely to be known by MacDonald who read the encyclopaedia in bed. MacDonald was not so much pushing a race line but attacking those who wanted to ‘mass produce themselves into robotry; thinking and looking like mechanical monkeys chained to organs whose tunes are furnished by riveting machines’ in contrast to the ‘music akin to great overtures; golden, morning stuff, melodious and Grecian’ that he discerned in Streeton’s major canvases. Once more, the context of the quotation gives a significance other than the one offered.

The allegation that Modernism was a Jewish conspiracy was widespread, here and abroad, but the task is to contextualise and interpret, not just to parade shocking examples. Your expose means that you missed out on treating race theories as a vehicle to investigate landscape and portraiture. ‘White Australia’ was more than restrictive immigration, constituting a national ideal of what Australia should become, based in part on progressive notions of positive eugenics.

By entitling your essay ‘Gallipoli to Homebush’, you focus on the Sydney Olympics to disparage its opening and closing ceremonies as kitsch and superficial. How would you have organised those events, when you have so trouble pulling together a static exhibition? The Olympics were not beyond criticism but given the nature of the occasions could its spectacles have avoided your charges? Your response to Sydney 2000 brings to the surface an undercurrent of embarrassment about being Australian which runs through your texts. A trace of modesty would have been more appropriate since you claim that ‘Eternity’ was ‘painted’ on Sydney Streets, when it was chalked.

You are entitled to react to my asking how you would have staged the Olympics, by asking how I would have organised ‘Federation’. Rather than come back at you by picking your choices to pieces, I shall consider how to represent the representation of our country and our cultures.

The problem is that an art gallery should never have the carriage of an historical exhibition; that is the responsibility of a museum. Neither of us accepts the fading fashion that all images are equal. Art institutions need an aesthetic component to their collecting if they are not surrender their reason for being.

How can the history of Australia in the twentieth century be told by works selected for their aesthetic excellence? Of course, artworks can illustrate that story but that role is far from telling the tale by themselves. An exhibition chosen on artistic principles should be able to illuminate certain trajectories within one strand of our visual culture. Non-art items could provide some context for viewing and evaluating the high art. But that mingling is along way from the political history of the Commonwealth through pieces selected for their qualities as art.

If we take the concept of a federal compact as an organising principle for the segments you entitled ‘The Land’ and ‘Cities and Suburbs’, it would be possible to present first-class images of the State capital cities around 1901, 1951 and 2001, both their CBDs and suburbs. Canberra could have been pictured at nodal moments of its development – 1913, 1927 and 1988. This emphasis on the urban would also provide a necessary corrective to the association of Australia with the rural.

Running parallel to these cityscapes would be depictions from each State of comparable stretches of country at the start, the middle and the close of the century. Those clusters would allow for comparisons of time and place. More importantly, they would undermine the notion that landscape is a given, that the bush is natural, showing instead that our responses to it are filtered through human intervention of farming and mining and inventiveness of painting and filming. In short, that the axeman and artist have altered how we see.

A second strand worth pursuing is the interrogation of the typical Australian face and body that you broached. A gallery of Lambert’s fashionable faces, Norman Lindsay’s nudes, Nolan’s Kelly masks, Tucker’s Antipodean Heads, Drysdale’s stick men and fat women, the anonymous in the streets of Blackman and Dickerson, Dobell’s insect-like caricatures, Nora Heysen’s self-studies, and the official portraiture by McInnes, Dargie, Hele and ???? document the several ways there always have been of being Australian. This relaxed and comfortable genre can be made to open onto questions of ethnicity and gender. In light of the persistence of One Nation, the need to realise that national stereotypes are constructed and ever changing is even more urgent than is the recognition that those conditions also apply to the natural world. Of course, the two remain linked, though not as clearly so as they were in the days when even scientists tied blood to race and soil.

Beyond these criticisms of your text, my complaint is that the project was not given the time and expertise necessary to contribute to a public understanding of how we have remade ourselves in the first century of Federation. The failings in your curatorship of ‘Federation’ cannot be excused on the grounds that you had insufficient time. If that were the case, why did you proceed? Alternatively, why did you not bunker down, refusing all other calls on your attention? Nor is it enough to say that ‘Federation’ and its catalogue are no worse than some from State Galleries. Equally, while the patchiness of research from the visual arts departments in universities made your task harder, you show too few signs of acquaintance with the available scholarship.

The hope is that local curators, education officers and the viewing public will pick up the pieces of your jig-saw to make their own story as we must all do in every aspect of life.

I remain,
Yours sincerely,

Humphrey McQueen


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