Australian Art

Laurie Duggan’s study of ‘imagined space’ in Australian visual culture arrived on my desk, with a certain synchronicity, the day after I saw the film Memento. In their distinctive ways, both these works seem indicative of our age, offering unstable and fractured accounts of space and time at a moment when virtual reality seems to be untying our formerly fixed Western notions of these concepts.

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Single-name status is granted to very few. In Australian art, ‘Daniel’ has always been Daniel Thomas: curator, museum director, walking memory, standard-setter (and inveterate corrector of errors), passionate lover of art, friend of Australian artists. His life’s work has been establishing the understanding of Australian art in our art museums, and his influence is incalculable. The late Andrew Sayers rightly described Thomas as ‘the single most influential curator in creating a shape for the history of Australian art’, but as editors Hannah Fink and Steven Miller observe, ‘Daniel is everywhere and nowhere: the greatest authority, hiding in the detail of someone’s else’s footnote, and in the judgements that have made the canon of Australian art.’

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When invited by Morry Schwartz, Anna’s husband and proprietor of Schwartz Publishing, which owns Black Inc., to write an account of the Anna Schwartz Gallery (ASG), Doug Hall initially declined but changed his mind after realising that it would enable him to write with a fresh perspective, having returned to Melbourne after twenty years as director of Queensland Art Gallery. The result, Present Tense: Anna Schwartz Gallery and thirty-five years of contemporary Australian art – which takes its title from the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007), Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense, curated by Robert Storr – is a periphrastic straddling of art history, social history, and biography, inclined to reminiscence over analysis.

Featuring eighty-nine chapters of varying length, the text mostly provides overviews of the artists represented by ASG, set within a chronicle of Anna Schwartz’s evolution as a gallerist. This broad narration is interspersed with chapters on a few key late-twentieth-century art dealers – sometimes to narrate artist defections to ASG – as well as state museum redesigns, biennales, and even a chapter on Anna’s wardrobe.

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This well-illustrated volume documents through its analysis of art exhibitions the massive rise of Australia’s art gallery attendances over a period of more than forty years. Before the late 1960s, only a few hundred thousand people visited Australian galleries each year ...

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It was the great American Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt who organised Melbourne artist Robert Jacks’s first show in Manhattan. This was held at the New York Cultural Centre in 1971, part of a program where each exhibited artist nominated his successor. Jacks had been enjoying a stellar rise since his début solo exhibition at Gallery A in Melbourne in 1966, when he was twenty-three years old. All twenty-five abstract paintings in that show sold. Each one had a title referencing James Joyce’s Ulysses, such as Mr Bloom with his stick gently vexed (1965). The largest, Timbrel and harp soothe (1965), was bought by the National Gallery of Victoria even before the show opened.

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‘He was a great bloke, a gentleman and a scholar,’ one of Scott Bevan’s interviewees says of his subject, the fêted and (at one stage) ill-fated painter, William Dobell. Like many others in the book, this interviewee got to know Dobell at Wangi Wangi, the little coastal township just south of Newcastle in New South Wales where the painter retreated for the last third of his life, following the unsuccessful but nonetheless wearing legal case mounted against him when he was awarded the Archibald Prize for portraiture in 1943. (The plaintiffs had sought to claim that the prize-winning work was a caricature.)

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Eight years ago Darleen Bungey published a revelatory biography of Arthur Boyd. She cast shadows across the ‘idyllic’ Open Country years where the extended Boyd family lived in suburban Murrumbeena and unflinchingly detailed his declining, alcoholic years at Bundanon. Bungey’s compelling new biography of John Olsen has its share of revelations. Olsen’s weak and inadequate father wound up destitute on the streets of Sydney, largely sustained by handouts from his son. Boyd was an intensely private man, friendly but reclusive. Olsen has been a public figure for most of his long career, reaching back to the early 1950s when he emerged from the Julian Ashton school as the star student of the difficult and demanding John Passmore. Boyd was dead before Bungey published her biography. John Olsen, happily, remains a boisterous octogenarian, going strong in art and life. A living subject is not always to the biographer’s advantage. Bungey can sound like a cheerleader: ‘Like Jay Gatsby, John was a man from an impoverished childhood with a mind for enquiry, a hunger for romance and a need for invention.’

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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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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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