ART - AUSTRALIAN - SYDNEY ICONS
‘Sydney 2000’ has sent that city’s curators back over 200 years of image-making to supply tourist attractions during the Games: ‘Australian Icons’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, ‘Australian Colonial Art’ in the Dixson Gallery of the State Library, and ‘Sydney Harbour’ at the Museum of Sydney. Viewers will have to become their own curators, bringing together in their minds’ eyes images from the three locations. The audience also needs to do much of the curators’ work by extracting themes, such as water, fire, religion or urban life.
his ‘Foreword’ to the Australian
Collection Book, to be published in October, Art Gallery of New
South Director, Edmund Capon, declares that his collection is ‘quite
simply, the finest and most representative in existence’. The laurel
still belongs the Art Gallery of South Australia. What ‘Icons’
demonstrates is how partial the New South Wales holdings remain, with
little before the 1880s and little enough from outside the home State.
Hence, the Gallery’s current assembly of the famous omits Glover, von
Geurard and Buvelot, as well as McCubbin, Heysen and Tucker. In
addition, for many iconic names it has second rate examples, for
instance, Roberts’s ‘The Golden Fleece’, not his ‘Shearing the
Icons’ does not have a catalogue and does not deserve one. But neither
does it deserve the picture book that will be out later this year. The
standard was set by the Queensland Gallery’s Brought
to Light (1998), which, by devoting 2500-word essays to each of
sixty works, gave the gallery-goer a solid starting place. The New South
Wales effort is a cross between a half-baked catalogue and glimpses at
collecting policy. Head Curator Barry Pearce’s praise for the
conservation and cleaning indicates that the NSW collection is the icon
to be revered.
display fails to deal with whether a work is to be acclaimed because it
was made by a great painter, or whether the painter is to be considered
great because he or she makes iconic work. Icons are images, not people.
But in the commercialised art world, the maker’s brand name is what
sells. So the icons are twenty creators. Of course, the Gallery is not a
chain store where icons would include Pro Hart and Ken Done. Instead,
the show is a connoisseur’s list. The best that can be said of its
conception is that the devoting of bays to single artists is what
Australian galleries should do all the time, paying special attention to
those who worked close by. One consequence of collating these
mini-retrospectives is that not only overseas viewers will be left with
the feeling that even a genuine display of Australian Icons would carry
significance only for the local audience, and that for reasons other
than their qualities as artists.
so few recognised icons to contemplate, the pleasure of viewing must be
pursued in the quirks and corners, or in the opportunity to view old
friends. Despite my familiarity with Roberts’s ‘An autumn morning,
Milson’s Point’ (1888), I was taken by his placement of the coral
building as a chromatic high point between the black smoke and the white
tower. Seeing Streeton’s ‘Central Station’ (1893) side by side
with his ‘Fireman’s Funeral’ (1894) let me contrast his use of an
empty foreground with his handling of a jumble of figures. Hung at eye
level, however, his ‘Fire’s on’ (1891) failed to deliver the clout
that I had always got when it soared above me in the main court.
Approaching George Lambert’s ‘Black Soil Plains’ (1899)
face-to-face set me wondering if the red-headed figure running alongside
the team is none other than the artist showing off as usual. The quip
that Lambert portraits were all examples of still life is confirmed.
and Pearce bought the accusations of ethnic and gender bias on their own
heads by going in for big names. The actuality of racism and sexism
means that the majority of icons will be dead while males. The two
indigenous artists represented, Munggurrawuy Yunupingu and Mawalan
Marika, pay tribute to the collector-donor, Dr Stuart Scougall, who
commissioned the barks in 1959-61. Neither Aboriginal is an iconic name
among settler Australians, and probably not outside their relatives in
Arnhem Land. Rather, their inclusion is another piece of the Gallery’s
patting itself on its back for its collection policy.
two are women, but once you start from artists’ names as icons, only
two settler women artists are possible: Preston and Cossington Smith.
The quotation in the explanatory panel attached to Preston’s five
Aboriginal legends of the 1950s is taken from the 1920s. Does history
not matter? In the intervening thirty years, the Jindyworobaks had made
Aboriginality into a literary movement. Moreover, her comment was about
art whereas the later works were part of the verbal impulse to present
Aboriginal myths as children’s stories. Preston’s modest sizes and
muted tones in oils did nothing to re-ignite my interest, so that I came
away more impressed by her works on paper. ‘Wheel-flower’ (1929) is
now an icon thanks to the postcard business, reputations being secured
in the Gallery shop. Cossington Smith’s shift to prismatic colouring
is exposed as a cover-up for the gawkiness of her drafting before the
mid-1930s, and advance brought at the expense of her earlier dynamism.
is one of the iconic names whose works hardly justify his reputation.
The two most persuasive pieces are the portraits of Mary Gilmore and
Margaret Olley, perhaps because of public standing. In the case of
Russel Drysdale, apart from the ‘Walls of China’ (1945), the
selection reminds us of the iconic pieces that are absent. That
evocation of the missing is true also for Nolan’s Kelly series. What
we see are the versions that Nolan made later to match the demands of
his dealer. However, ‘Boy in a township’ (1943) demonstrates that
Nolan derived his Kelly mask from buildings with windows. Lloyd Rees is
another who fails to convince in the way that his ‘Looking east, mid
afternoon’ (1978) at the Museum of Sydney does by balancing the
architectural with the ephemeral. No one is worse served than
Australia’s greatest all-rounder, Arthur Boyd, where the choice has
neither the lyricism of his Wimmera series nor the menace of
the artist in extremis. ‘Australian scapegoat’ (1987) is too
cramped to make an impact other than for garishness. The Fairweathers,
which include several key examples, look insipid, their figurative
calligraphy having shed its mystery.
contrast, the Fred Williams bay is a run of master works. The untutored
viewer could have been helped to connect their abstraction with
landscape had Roberts’s ‘Sherbrooke forest’ (1924) been moved
around to hang beside the Williams’s version. Well outside the domain
of icon, either as a painter or for a single image, is John Passmore
whose plastic strength and quotidian spirituality merit the attention
laid on Fairweather. To suggest links between Fairweather, Williams and
Passmore, on the one hand, and John Olsen on the other is to collide
with the obvious difference of restraint versus exuberance in size, line
and colour. The former trio of painters appeal because we can approach
them via their quieter passages. Olsen sticks his brushes in our eyes.
Yet behind that fury and flurry is a poetic which depends on tonal
control, notably in ‘Golden Summer, Clarendon’ (1983). Whiteley’s
bravura gets lost in the space of the entrance level thoroughfare,
exposing the emptiness of more than his multi-paneled ‘Alchemy’. All
his oeuvre could be called
‘Self portrait in the Studio’ (1976). Our apprehension of the beauty
of his line and tonality requires the confinement from which his
subjects escaped in spreads of harbour blues and Oberon oranges.
Gleeson is remarkable for the revival of a talent after a nearly 40-year
gap between masterworks. The recent massive canvases display the ocean
as the unconscious - a fathomless sea of fantasy – and the landscape
as organic. They also suggest a materialist view of life on earth
clawing its way from the protoplasmic slime and the amoebic stew. At the
Museum of Sydney, Gleeson’s tiny ‘Harbour’, from the late 1940s,
is a precursor for these dredged morphs.
always have a hard time of gaining recognition. Hence, the organisers
should be praised for including Bertram Mackennal and Robert Klippel,
even if not one in a hundred Australians has heard of them. If Klippel
achieves iconic status it is likely to be for his 1978-79 photographic
collage, ‘Philadelphia’, because it is mechanically reproducible in
a way that three-dimensional pieces are not.
suffers from the institutional covetedness that Canberra overcame with
the transfer of works from the National Library to the National Gallery.
No matter how often the Dixson collection is rotated, the traffic of
viewers upstairs through the State Library is never going to be more
than a trickle compared with the flood on the other side of the Domain.
The Dixson collection belong to the people and should be available where
most Australians can see it – especially when the Art Gallery has no
prospect of acquiring pre-1880 examples of comparable quality.
twenty-one works of Colonial Art at the State Library carry no captions.
Instead, a booklet, available for a donation, provides a wealth of
information. Curator Elizabeth Ellis comments on a few of the frames but
neglects to list the media or dimensions. The hang is an abomination.
The upper tier of works are damn near impossible to see because
reflections from the glass combine with the spotlights to dazzle the
viewer with a second artificial sun. Worst of all is the skying of
Joseph Lycett’s intricate ‘Corroboree at Newcastle’ (c.1820s) so
that it appears to be a panel of tar.
this small selection raises questions about our art history. George
Peacock’s ‘City and Harbour’ (1860) has a foreground of
destruction which expressed his personal tragedy and the despoliation of
the land and the terrorising of its original inhabitants. Here is a work
with the technical quality and iconographic depth to embody the fatal
shore and challenge Sydney 2000’s promotion of the harbour as
playground: an icon waiting for its postcard or tablemat.
the Peacock are pieces of varying merit, but all of which can contribute
their mite to the discussion of how and when European vision accustomed
itself to Australian textures and forms. Joseph Blacker was massing the
foliage of gums before Louis Buvelot landed in Melbourne. The weird
fluidity of the human and arboreal limbs in John Glover’s
‘Aboriginals Dancing’ (1835) mimic each other to such an extent that
the parallel becomes a comment on the contemporary as much as a homage
what will become an impossibly crowded room once the tourists arrive,
the Museum of Sydney has an art gallery style display, with a few museum
items as added décor. Some of the paintings are superior to those in
the Gallery but aesthetics should not determine museum practice. Museums
and Libraries should not follow Galleries in supposing that their
intellectual task ends with the arrangement of pretty pictures in a
of the paintings at the Gallery and the Library would be more at home at
the Museum of Sydney, which is holding the sole thematic show.
‘Harbour’ is so obvious a topic for that Museum that it has blinded
its curators to the significance of the harbour as a work site, from
before the convicts landed. The appearance of the place was shaped by
human labour while the artists reacted to those interventions, covering
them up or celebrating the subordination of nature to the accumulation
of capital. A Museum should be capable of investigating how nature was
wrought into culture through commerce and industry. Exploring those
interactions would get past the Bridge and Opera House as icons and
perceive the meaning of their construction and maintenance. David
Moore’s 1950 shot of the repainting of the Himalaya is as close as the show comes to recognising that tourism
is also work, wage-slavery for the cooks and the cleaners.
the adjoining room, a suite of Lorrie Graham’s recent photographs of
Sydneysiders confirms what the rest of Australia suspects – no one in
Sydney works. Only one among her dozens of images is connected with
earning a crust, that of a prawn fisherman. Graham’s imagery is
subordinated to the culture of advertising where consumption proceeds
without production. The State Library does have a segment on the
changing face of work as one of the ‘Weird and wonderful’ aspects of
the city photographed in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of its snaps of food
and fashion are also of work.
Gilmore’s verse ‘Old Botany Bay’ retains the first and last word:
‘Shame on the mouth/That would deny/The knotted hands/That set us