Art

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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At the end of 1910, Irving Berlin took a winter holiday in Florida. James Kaplan writes, ‘Here we must pause for a moment to consider the miracle of a twenty-two-year-old who in recent memory had sung for pennies in dives and slept in flophouses becoming a prosperous-enough business man to vacation in Palm Beach.’

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Any definition of what constitutes ‘outsider art’, or art brut, is elusive. The boundaries of this ‘category’ are notoriously porous. There is no manifesto, no consistent medium, nor is it especially tied to any single period in time. However, it can be argued that outsider art is often regarded as art created by those on the margins of society, such as people in psychiatric hospitals, in prison, or the disabled. Outsider artists are also usually self-taught. For several decades, Anthony Mannix has been at the forefront of Australian outsider art, his particular qualification for the label being serious mental illness (though the term ‘illness’, as The Toy of the Spirit implores, is problematic). Mannix was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the mid-1980s, and spent periods as a patient in psychiatric hospitals over the next decade. Now based in the Blue Mountains, he has been free of schizophrenic episodes for many years.

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This beautiful book is ostensibly a conventional art monograph. In its innovative tweaking of the standard model, however, Centre of the Centre is one of the most rewarding publications about an Australian artist in recent years. Exploring two decades of ambitious work by Mel O’Callaghan, an Australian based in Paris, the book begins now, with her latest projects. In a quasi-geological enterprise, it then mines works whose interconnected seams comprise expansive video installations, sometimes including objects; wonderful paintings on glass; and, always, performed actions. Speaking about Parade (2014), Juliana Engberg noted the ‘ritualised, Sisyphean endeavour’ characterising O’Callaghan’s work.

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Australian Galleries opened in Melbourne in June 1956. One year later, Andy Warhol established Andy Warhol Enterprises in New York. Warhol’s art of making money became an art form in itself, with the artist elaborating that ‘good business is the best art’. Gallerists Anne and Tam Purves would have agreed. This husband-and-wife team took selling art seriously and introduced a professionalism unlike anything that had existed in Melbourne. Their new modern enterprise occupied a converted front section of their Derby Street paper-pattern factory in the working-class suburb of Collingwood. While the couple had no experience in art dealership or gallery management, they were confident that the arts were ready for something different. Anne, accomplished in commercial design, had considerable artistic aspirations, while Tam merely transferred his well-established business acumen across the factory threshold into their smart new premises. As with any business venture, timing was important, and they capitalised on the leverage that the 1956 Olympic Games brought to Melbourne.

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Amid all the hoopla surrounding the centenary in 2019 of the Bauhaus – naturally more pronounced in Germany – it is gratifying to see such a fine Australian publication dealing with the international influence of this short-lived, revolutionary art and design teaching institute. Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond – written by Philip Goad, Ann Stephen, Andrew McNamara, Harriet Edquist, and Isabel Wünsche – explores the Bauhaus and its influence in Australia.

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Melburnians are rightly proud of the great painting by Giambattista Tiepolo in the National Gallery of Victoria, The Banquet of Cleopatra. Now restored to its prominent position in the gallery, it will continue to attract admiration from generations of visitors, though we should hope that its neighbouring masterpiece, Sebastiano Ricci’s The Finding of Moses, is not overlooked when connoisseurs gather beside the Tiepolo. Jaynie Anderson’s handsome book is a whole-hearted and scholarly homage to Tiepolo in general, and to this picture in particular.

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The importance of reverie

Mary Eagle
Thursday, 07 November 2019

The traits women are encouraged to develop nowadays, such as outwardness, attitude, assertiveness, and professionalism, did not characterise Grace Cossington Smith (1892–1984). Family snapshots showed the young woman with tousled hair, guileless face, and buck-toothed smile: a neat-figured, long-skirted Edwardian tomboy after the style of Australian heroines in novels by Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce. The older woman in family photographs still had the tomboy grin; conversely, when she showed a public face, the mouth was closed and the eyes steady behind glasses.

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