Art History

Sir John Richardson published the first volume of his monumental A Life of Picasso: The prodigy, 1881–1906, in 1991. The second volume, The painter of modern life, 1907–1917 illuminating the Cubist years, followed in 1996. The next volume, The triumphant years, 1917–1932, appeared eleven years later and gave rise to speculation as to how Richardson, then seventy-three, could complete his ambitious task with nearly thirty years of prodigious production on the artist’s part still to be covered. Now we have the fourth and final volume, The minotaur years, published posthumously – Richardson died in 2019 – with a lot of assistance. It’s the shortest, least compelling volume of the series.

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HG60

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01 March 2022

Australia’s regional galleries hold rich collections that demonstrate a powerful communal need to collect and display art. Victoria’s regional cities, in particular, are notably well endowed with public art collections and handsome buildings to house them. The gold rush towns were at the forefront in establishing public art galleries: the first, in Ballarat, was founded in 1884; Bendigo followed in 1887. There are now nineteen of them fairly evenly positioned across the state – between one and six hours’ drive from Melbourne – from Warrnambool (1886) in the south-west and Mildura (1956) in the north-west to Bairnsdale (1992) to the east.

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The cover assembles the book’s title and author’s name (writ very large) with a photograph of him, in an art gallery, before a wide yellow landscape by Fred Williams. Turning to the viewer, Patrick McCaughey is about to launch into a story that will satisfy the curiosity teased by the name of the book, Strange Country: Why Australian Painting Matters.

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There was something of the alchemist in Albert Namatjira. Using the most liquescent of media, he created impressions of the driest terrain. Painting in watercolour involves the fluid dispersal of pigment. Yet in Namatjira we find colours distilled in such a way that each landscape glows with a quiet intensity. This evocation of light reveals the influence of Rex Battarbee, who, long before he began to tutor his famous protégé, voiced dissatisfaction with ‘traditional methods’. He developed a painting technique of his own, specifically designed to ‘achieve luminosity’. Like many an inventor, he was cautious about sharing his discovery, in part because he believed that artists should develop on their own terms. But Namatjira was so keen an observer of his then master that he would have realised if Battarbee had withheld information. So Rex decided to teach him everything he knew, both for the sake of Namatjira, whom he clearly adored, and more generally and altruistically ‘for the sake of the Aborigines’.

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The Bard Graduate Center, long known for its ground-breaking studies in the decorative arts, has taken the ambitious leap of presenting a comprehensive history of decorative arts and design from 1400 to 2000, covering Asia, the Islamic world, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. (Coverage of Australia and Oceania is planned for future editions.) At over 700 pages, this is a most impressive achievement. For once, instead of being relegated to occasional paragraphs in major survey texts of art history, the decorative arts are presented centre stage. I wish it had been around when I was a student. Weber has assembled a team of scholars to cover this vast territory and it is not surprising to read that the book was almost ten years in the making. This volume does for the decorative arts what those standard university textbooks, Gardner’s Art through the Ages and Janson’s History of Art, did for the fine arts.

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Not many substantial private collections of art and decorative arts in Australia have remained intact from the nineteenth century. John Twycross (1819–89) was one of Melbourne’s early art collectors, and his collection has proved to be an exception. Twycross, lured there by the gold rush, made his money as a merchant in Melbourne in the middle of the nineteenth century. He began collecting art during the 1860s and became a major lender to the National Gallery of Victoria’s historic 1869 loan exhibition. He also spent heavily at the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 and even made a few purchases from the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition of 1888, the year before he died. He was also a lender to the 1888 exhibition. Some 200 of the works that Twycross purchased at these exhibitions have remained together. In 2009 a descendant donated them to Museum Victoria, which is custodian of the Royal Exhibition Building.

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Behind the Doors: An art history from Yuendumu by Philip Jones with Warlukurlangu Artists

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August 2014, no. 363

The painting of the Yuendumu doors in 1984 by Warlpiri artists, whose country is north-west of Alice Springs, represented an extraordinary moment in Australian art and modern art generally. In the 1980s some Aboriginal elders painted the doors in the Yuendumu School building to prompt students to show respect for their school and as a marker of their culture. It was the first time that they had painted using acrylics (not ochres), in colours never before used, to record the major stories of their community.

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When the intellectuals, writers, and artists of the Renaissance sought a theoretical basis for the new styles they were developing – at a time when the new meant all’antica and the term modern was still coloured by associations with the Middle Ages – they found that ancient sources were relatively abundant in some areas and scarce or non-existent in others. Poets could find inspiration in Horace’s Ars Poetica, and later in Aristotle’s Poetics. And there was a wealth of material on rhetoric – Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Tacitus – in fact an abundance out of all proportion to the practice of the art in an age when public speaking was represented by sermons and university lectures rather than by the deliberative and forensic oratory that were the lifeblood of Greece and Rome.

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Edwardian Opulence is the book for the sumptuous survey exhibition of Edwardian art which was shown at the Yale Centre for British Art from 28 February to 2 June 2013. It is a sweeping look at the visual arts in Britain in all its manifestations during the period roughly corresponding with the reign of Edward VII. This substantial book contains important essays by the curators, Angus Trumble and Andrea Wolk Rager, as well as contributions from leading art historians such as Tim Barringer, Pamela Fletcher, Elizabeth C. Mansfield, and Alexander Nemerov. Many of the paintings, sculptures, photographs, and works of decorative art in this publication reflect the supreme self-confidence and wealth of the ruling élite at that time. However, it was also a period of dramatic change; and this too is reflected in the publication.

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The opening chapter of Robert Hughes’s memoir, Things I Didn’t Know (2006), may have persuaded readers that Australians are a mercenary, uncouth and ungrateful lot who love nothing more than a glistening athlete on a podium. Hughes had reason to be sensitive at this time, having eluded the ‘feather-foot’ on that desolate Western Australian highway in May 1999 and endured the trials that followed. He names two writers, Peter Craven and Catharine Lumby, who have stood by him, whereas others, he says, have sought to further their careers by denouncing him. To the former small but faithful posse can be added Patricia Anderson, who defies that great Australian tradition of ‘cutting down the tall poppy’ to celebrate Hughes’s achievements in this biography of his ‘Australian years’: from Hughes’s birth in 1938 until 1970, when Time magazine afforded him the opportunity at last to leave our shores.

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