Art

Although most of the ten million annual visitors to the Louvre think of it as an art museum and former royal palace, for much of its history it has performed other functions. The Louvre has also played a defining role in many events in French history. Its raison d’être in the Middle Ages was as a fortification in the then most westerly part of Paris. Transformed into a royal palace during the sixteenth century, it has undergone more than twenty different extensions and renovations under successive rulers and administrations, emerging as the behemoth we know today. Surprisingly for a building that so much embodies Paris and feels so permanent, much of the Louvre was created during the third quarter of the nineteenth century under Napoleon III, when it was almost doubled in size and given its external ‘dizzying opulence’, as James Gardner describes it in this new book.

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To start with the broadest of generalisations, artists’ biographies can be divided into three types: those that concentrate on the work; those that take the life as their focus; and the ‘life and times’ volumes that attempt to place the artist in her social and political context.

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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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Some years ago, Robert Hughes bemoaned the capitulation of art museums and galleries to ‘the whole masterpiece-and-treasure syndrome’. Although made in the 1980s, Hughes’s point may still be valid, especially if the number of recent exhibitions with the word ‘master’ in their titles is anything to go by. A quick check reveals that, in Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria is particularly fond of the word. In Melbourne last year, we had ‘Dutch Masters from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’ and ‘Albrecht Dürer: Master of the Renaissance’. In 2004 the NGV put on ‘The Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay’.

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The best things about this book are the paintings, the photographs, and the paper. The worst thing is the prose. But does this matter, you may well ask, in a book obviously designed to travel rapidly from the coffee table to the wall – with its large size format and convenient disintegration at first read? It’s the pictures we want, not the prose.

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Eva Gandel and Marc Besen Married in Melbourne in 1950 and soon began collecting current art. After the closure of John Reed’s privately established but short-lived ‘Museum of Modern Art & Design of Australia’, they bought a few of its de-accessioned possessions, paintings by John Perceval and Sidney Nolan. In the 1970s they added works by recentlydeceased Sydney artists William Dobell, Ralph Balson, and Tony Tuckson. These were perceived ‘gaps’ in a collection of recent Australian art. Perhaps the systematic history of Australian art then profusely displayed in the private collection formed by their relative Joseph Brown, and first published in 1974 as Outlines of Australian Art, had inspired the Besens to be more systematic. Hitherto, they had mostly encountered local work by living artists.

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Those of us who work in classical music will be familiar with the accusation that our chosen art form lacks contemporary social relevance. It is one with a long pedigree. ‘Sonata, what do you want of me?’ asked an exasperated Fontenelle in 1751, according to Rousseau. But you will find no widespread or heightened disdain for worldly affairs among classical musicians on the whole. Rather, any apparent reticence they may have describing how their art connects with the world at large stems from the fact that it is notoriously difficult to do. As the well-known quip goes, ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ This is not a love that dare not speak its name so much as one that struggles to be put into words at all.

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In his conclusion to this book, Kevin Brophy states a key principle of creative composition: ‘to be responsive to what happens, what is thrown into the mind, what one comes upon.’ This is at once a statement of advice for an artist at work, and a theoretical proposition. Through the course of the ten essays that make up the volume, Brophy develops a hypothesis about the kinds of brain function involved in creativity and, in particular, the role of consciousness in relation to other mental and sensory forms of intelligence. Without drawing the terms ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ into play – a great relief to those of us who have grown weary of that inevitable binary – he suggests that the work of an artist or writer may be facilitated by an exploratory interest in the operations of consciousness.

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In the late nineteenth century, the Sydney barrister and critic, William Bede Dalley is reported to have said: ‘I enjoy literature in all its manifestations. But if there is one class of books I prefer to another, I think it must be’ – with a flash of his teeth – ‘why, New Books!’

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Influence spotting is one of the major preoccupations of traditional art history. Important and necessary though the practice may be, I sometimes suspect that it is employed to keep art history the preserve of the specialist and to deny access to the general reader. How refreshing, then, to be confronted with a scholarly Australian art history book that explores the artists’ subject matter and its local context rather than the derivation of the artists’ styles.

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