Art

With his founding of the Bauhaus in 1919, the German architect Walter Gropius proposed a radical reimagining of the arts and crafts. His manifesto outlined the principles for an institution that would unify architecture, art, and design, creating ‘a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavoured to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists!’ At the heart of this stirring vision was a world in which creativity was directed to practical ends, where function was a fundamental element of creative endeavour. Gropius’s call was both inspiring and timely, and it found ready devotees. In a continent savaged by four years of war, there was urgent need for a new way. Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Oskar Schlemmer were a few of the many who made their way to the German city of Weimar to work with Gropius and to help realise his vision.

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Cy Twombly: Making past present edited by Christine Kondoleon with Kate Nesin

by
April 2021, no. 430

If you were fortunate enough to take Franz Philipp’s course in Medieval and Renaissance Art at the University of Melbourne in the 1960s – the old Fine Arts B – you would have quickly encountered Erwin Panofsky’s masterpiece, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1960). It set forth authoritatively the argument that from the Carolingian revival in the eighth century through the Ottonian and Romanesque survivals, culminating in the Italian Renaissance of the quattrocento and cinquecento, Western art was haunted by the spectre of antiquity. Admiration for its mighty surviving works throughout western Europe turned steadily towards emulating them.

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The history of art history in the West over the past five hundred years is rich and complex and yet rests on clear historiographical foundations, themselves grounded in inescapable historical realities. Authors and artists in the Renaissance looked back to the civilisation of Greco-Roman antiquity, all but lost in the catastrophe of the fall of the Roman Empire and succeeded by centuries of dramatic cultural regression. They sought to regain the greatness of antiquity, and the bolder even hoped to surpass it.

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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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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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Art and Paris meant everything to Agnes Goodsir. ‘You must forgive my enthusiasm,’ she wrote. ‘Nothing else is of the smallest or faintest importance besides that.’ Goodsir was the Australian artist who painted the iconic portrait Girl with Cigarette, now in the Bendigo Art Gallery. It depicts a cool, sophisticated, free-spirited woman of the Parisian boulevards. When Goodsir created it, in 1925 or thereabouts, she had lived in Paris since the turn of the century. Apart from brief visits back to Australia, she stayed there until her death in 1939.

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The Stranger Artist is a finely structured and beautifully written account of gallerist Tony Oliver’s immersion into the world of the Kimberley art movement at the end of the twentieth century; the close relationships he developed over the following years with painters such as Paddy Bedford, Freddie Timms, and Rusty Peters; and the creation of Jirrawun Arts as a collective to both promote and protect the artists and their work. How these artists, under Oliver’s practical guidance, came to assume the mantle of the legendary Rover Thomas and took Kimberley art to the world provides a compelling narrative: from fascination to enthralment to disillusion. Dreams are born, bear fruit, and die. Like many a fine work of art, The Stranger Artist attracts with a brilliant surface while fascinating with its deeper layers. Behind the thrill and wisdom of the painting – so new and old, so luminous and dark – lurk the tragedies of history and dysfunctional politics. This book – how could it be otherwise? – is peopled with spectacular characters, art, and landscapes. Appropriate to this remote corner of Australia, it is full of intense colour and eccentricity, while also permeated with great sadness.

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You are looking at a book. On its cover is a painting of a person of colour. But you can only see a portion of the piece. The face is obscured. One dark eye takes up the middle third of the page, while one nostril fills the bottom right-hand corner. The painting is covered in a layer of fine cracks – presumably due to its age. These lines show that myriad individual pieces make up the image before you, but this is still only one part of the picture. Frustratingly, you cannot see the face as a whole.

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