All posts by annettehamilton82

After life as an anthropologist, including years of fieldwork in remote Australia and Southeast Asia, I am now working on painting, photography, art and cinema and publishing fiction, memoir and children's stories. I spend most of my time in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and at a house on the Hawkesbury River, where my family has lived since 1923.

Sigmar Polke: Don’t mention the Germans

Australia has never had much of a taste for German art. Apart from the epic romances of Austrian born Eugene von Guerard (1811-1901) who towered over all others during his time in Australia from 1852-1992, and produced the most magnificent landscapes unrivalled in scale and grandeur then or maybe ever, German painting has never figured much in Australian galleries or exhibitions. Nor does it feature much on Australian art school curricula although Gerhard Richter turns up here and there.

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Eugene von Guerard. Govett’s Leap and Grose Valley, Blue Mountains NSW 1873

It is true that Australian art tastes have generally been conservative and provincial anyway, so perhaps it is understandable that the work of contemporary German artists is of little interest. But in America the impact of German art has been powerful over several decades and shows no decline. The Americans however seem to pick up German artists and movements just as they start fading in Germany itself .

In 2014, New York’s MOMA offered a huge retrospective of the work of Sigmar Polke (“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010”). Polke, a contemporary of Richter, is seen as a pioneer of the formal cleverness and ironic perspective which underlies much of today’s painting. The dark irony of much of his work seems to open up a bitter playground where the gesture sits side by side with dexterous painterliness while poking fun at our aesthetic convictions. Polke was both more and less serious than Richter. Put them together and one illuminates the absences in the other.

Polke Bunnies 1966
Bunnies, 1966, acrylic on canvas, 150 cm x 100 cm

Also unlike Richter, Polke played with everything: drawing, painting, sculpture, film, video and sound. Richter was obsessed with the visual image, the photograph in particular, and the peculiar position of painting given the existence of photography. Polke’s work is harder to assess if only because it is so much more various. And influences are far more visible: pop art, American abstraction, psychedielia, a rabid experimentalism which the far more restrained Richter eschews.

2003 Primavera
Primavera – playing with the framing

All this messing around with materials should make Polke a great favourite among contemporary artists who don’t actually want to paint. Creating abstractions on glass using old lamp soot, flinging about different kinds of paint, and attacks on the picture plane itself all have had a turn. These processes once were shocking although now they do seem fairly routine.

At times Polke seems to hover in Richterian shadows. Frau Herbst und ihre zwei Tochter (Mrs Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991) seems redolent of early Richter, with its base in a nineteenth century French engraving on a massive canvas where competing representations alternate across the canvas. Cheap conventional images of German guard posts in the “Watchtower” paintings reference historial trauma, almost mechanically.

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Frau Herbst and her Two Daughters, 1991.

No contemporary German artist can challenge the dominance of Richter, but the shame of it is that here in Australia we rarely get the chance to see any of them, let alone Richter, in a full show. My first encounter with a Richter painting in Australia was that wonderfully mysterious painting of Helga Matura with her Fiance. For me, this image is emblematic of everything Richter was trying to achieve in the 1960s. There it was, the sole Richter representative in a rather bedlamatic show, Pop to Popism a the Art Gallery of NSW, in 2014. There was a lot of fun to be had with the usual suspects, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Brett Whitely among them. (What? Brett Whitely as a Pop artist?) It was a good show but the inclusion of Richter as part of a Pop movement seemed very strange and his brooding, magical monochrome painting did not sit comfortably with the other male hysterics around it.

Helga Matura with Fiance
Gerhard Richter. Helga Matura and her Fiance.

Polke responded constantly to changes in technology and their meaning for the reproduction of the image. In the late 1990s he worked on an endless series of photocopied works which occupied whole rooms of display space.

photocopiarbeiten
Photocopyarbeiten, late 1990.

These days that generation of German artists is still influential, but maybe fading. The Leipzig school, the great Neo Rauch and his pals, also may be on the edge of exhausting their cred among the avant-garde. But if you don’t spend time in Germany and read the German art press there’s almost no way to find out. The Australian art scene is right to focus on our own, with its distinctive history and brilliant grasp of landscape, light and space. But there is a kind of underground urban sensibility which wells up now and then, and could gain a lot from exposure to German painting. I am thinking of it as opening up a counterpoint to the Australian brightness, a protected area where we can hide from all that light and insistent demand that everything be laid across vast landscapes which dwarf and minimize our presence. Australian Gothic is a recognized feature in Australian cinema. Maybe that sensibility is lurking around in painting as well.

For a really detailed discussion of Sigmar Polke, see:

http://capscrits.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/sigmar-polke-2014.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of the Bower-Bird

In an earlier post (“What is Art? February 2015) I made some remarks about animal art. The issues around whether or not animals can make art are far from simple and very hard to research. It is as if the idea of animals being art-makers, or having an artistic sensibility, seems too silly for words to many people. If chimpanzees make drawings it’s because they have been rewarded for doing so by their human carers or otherwise manipulated. It just isn’t “natural”.

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Jimmy, 27, a famous artist in Brazil

I find this very hard to accept. When you see talented chimp artists totally fascinated by their painting it’s hard to think they’re doing it for a dog biscuit or banana. And what about the creatures who go to a great deal of trouble to make art without any input from the human world? Jimmy the chimp artist at Rio de Janeiro zoo took up painting to get over his chronic depression. Animal rights activists have used his talent as a basis for obtaining his release from captivity, although so far the case has not succeeded in the courts.Jimmy the artist chimp has fame but not freedom

In recent times I have been feeling very close to birds. Spending a lot of time in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and on the Hawkesbury River, brings the bird- world very close. The range of species, the musicality of the bushland, the presence of tiny wrens and finches seen so rarely now in city gardens is a great reminder of the richness and expressiveness of the bird-world. And the amazing beauty of the birds themselves.

Fairy Wrens Scott Fontini
Female and male Fairy Wrens – once common in Sydney gardens (credit: Scott Contini)

It is true that there are still many birds in Sydney but the range of species is limited compared to the luxuriant birdlife some years ago. All the same at our Sydney place which is just ten or so Ks from the CBD we have kookaburras, currawongs, Australian mynah birds, flocks of shrieking lorikeets and a regular visitor, a tawny frogmouth who sits on the back fence or the front railing uttering soft repetitive cooing sounds.

tawny frogmouth
Tawny Frogmouth

Just recently he and his partner have been raising an owlet in a ratty gumtree at the front of the house. He sits on the railing and stares into the house until we come out to greet him.During the day he rests against the trunk and dozes.

However this post has been prompted by a morning conversation about the Australian bower bird.* The Satin Bower Bird lives up and down the east coast. The adult male is black and glossy, the females and the younger birds are brownish-olive.

Bowerbird_Satin 3 (Geoffrey Dabb)
Lady Bower-Bird: look at her gorgeous blue eyes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many bower-birds live in the bush below the Mountain escarpments. The male is a consummate installation artist. He builds an elegant small bower for his lady to rest in and decorates the “floor” in front with a range of found objects in bright colours, an array of reflectivity, and a carefully designed layout. Blue is a favourite colour. I think he likes the blue because it reminds him of her lovely eyes.

Bowerbird at Bower 1
Male satin bower-bird with a bright blue feather for his installation

In a documentary I recently watched, the gentleman bird spent hours re-arranging his objets d’art until he felt they were absolutely perfect. Then his lady visitor was ushered into the bower, where she sat quietly while he picked up a range of his favourite objects, showed them to her one by one, put them carefully back and then began an elegant and very moving dance. All this was of course prelude to their love-making which was very rapid indeed. It was the artistic part – the collection, the curation, and the ballet – which was the main point of the exercise, the foreplay if you like, while the mating itself was a kind of boring obligation to be completed as rapidly as possible.

Courtship dance of the satin bower-bird

satin_bowerbird blue pegs
Blue pegs are a favourite

Yes, I know, this is putting things round the wrong way at least from a David Attenborough point of view. But why should we think that the bowerbird is mainly interested in the sex? It looks to me that the art is far more compelling.

Satin-Bower-Bird-Display
An exceptional display, completely surrounding the bower

I have never come across a good discussion of the role of art and aesthetics in animal evolution – rarely enough is it even touched on for humans. But Art’s role in human evolution is a major theme for 2016 Dark MoFo at MONA in Hobart.  An earlier exhibition The Red Queen at MONA in 2013 expressed the core ideas which David Walsh, quirky arts patron, has long been interested in. Here’s a short ABC report. More to come on the 2016 program shortly.

Story on Art and Evolution at MONA 201

* warm thanks for the conversation, fellow artists Tina McCormack and Gloria McGrath.

Elisabeth Cummings: ABC Interview

Cummings in studio 2015

Was so delighted to see the ABC interview with Elisabeth recently. She expresses herself vividly on camera and you get to see a little more of her beautiful bush studio and workspace, and of the bush around which so invigorates her perceptions. The interview was prompted by her participation in the Destination Sydney three-gallery exhibit meant to showcase Sydney and its surrounds. Does this mean she is now officially “discovered”? (Or is this, as she would say, a ridiculous concept?)

The link is here – in an earlier version of this post I used an outdated link, sorry, and thanks to Cultural Conversations for the correction.

And if you go to Youtube, there are some great interview segments with Elisabeth, as well as one with her and Luke Sciberras.

She is showing at Manly Art Gallery and Museum, along with Brett Whitely and Lloyd Rees – stellar! – but the show finishes soon (February 14th) so if you are a Sydney local and a big fan better get there soon.

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I think this is actually a picture of Darwin Harbour but the feeling could be Sydney.

 

 

ELISABETH CUMMINGS: ONCE MORE, SO MUCH FEELING

Not long ago I wrote an appreciation of Elisabeth Cummings here (see Elisabeth Cummings: Slow Art,  March 24th 2014). The theme of the piece echoed comments by art critic John McDonald, who has repeatedly championed Elisabeth’s work and expressed dismay at its failure to receive the acknowledgment it deserves. He expressed astonishment that her work had not been included in the NGA show of 200 years of Australian landscape painting headed for London in 2013 (SMH, January 21 2012).  She had also been excluded from the Wynne Prize more than once, although that was not the case in 2013 when her  Sunrise, the Kimberley out-glowed everything else on the walls, although it did not win. Imants Tiller’s Namatjira was a puzzling although not unworthy choice.

Cummings Sunrise Kimb Wynne 2013
Elisabeth Cummings. Sunrise, Kimberley. Oil on canvas, 175 x 300 cm.

When I sent my 2014 post to Elisabeth, a personal friend for decades, she protested mildly at my emphasis on the scandalous lack of critical recognition and my reference to her being “overlooked”. She was right to do so. If certain precious art-world critics and habitues had nothing to say about an older woman landscape artist … Excuse me? A what? … many others especially collectors have no doubt about her worth. Her  paintings (and prints) sell reliably from her long-time gallery (King on William) at show after show, some at astronomical prices for a living artist.

Over the past couple of years a new appreciation of her work has become widespread. By late 2015 you could hardly move in fine art circles in Sydney without someone mentioning her name. She was being described as “Australia’s greatest living female landscape artist”.  At a lively discussion around Luke Sciberras’ Hill End diner table in October the question was raised whether or not the “female” descriptor could be omitted. Hmmm.  Luke, her semi-protege, who could reasonably think the title should be his,  didn’t know how to respond.  This year she and Luke collaborated on a stunning show in Hong Kong, responding to that spectacular Asian city with the same kind of delicacy and intelligence as she had long shown for remote Australia’s dry creek-beds and scrubby sandhills.

cummings hong kong 1
From on High 2015.  Oil on canvas 91 x 86 cm

Such a tragedy that this exhibition will never be seen in Australia! Most of the pieces have been snapped up by private collectors and will rarely if ever emerge again in their lifetimes.(“Flying Goose Hill” at the Nock Art Foundation, Hong Kong, October 17 – November 14)

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Elisabeth and Luke being interviewed for the Hong Kong show, 2015.

Now she is named alongside John Olsen among Australia’s greatest living artists, along with Cressida Campbell, Peter Kingston and Kevin Connor. The summer exhibition (Mosman, Manly and S.H Ervin galleries), offers 140 paintings and drawings celebrating Sydney as a source of artistic inspiration. The SMH arts and books writer Linda Morris hails the group as the living successors of Brett Whitely, Lloyd Rees, Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston.

[http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/destination-sydney-names-elisabeth-cummings-john-olsen-among-greatest-artists-20151211-]

Both Connor and Kingston have had recent major exhibitions in Sydney while Cummings’ current King on William show ( until 19th December) was an astonishing record of recent work and almost sold out by the opening night.

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Stemmed Flow 2015.  Oil on canvas 115 x 130 cm

It is so wonderful to see Elisabeth  moving to this level of recognition.  She has been utterly consistent in her vision and commitment over her entire career as an artist but the development of her work has been powerful beyond expectation over the past ten or so years. She shuns fame and all the hoop-la but we should be so grateful for everything she has offered not to mention what is yet to come.

 

Lines of Resistance: Vattimo and Weakening Philosophy

white cloud marble
White Cloud marble: lines of resistance in nature

Gianni Vattimo is an Italian philosopher who has written on modernity and the metaphysics of being. A Festshrift for Vattimo recently appeared under the title of Weakening Philosophy (2007). Although Vattimo’s philosophy seems heavily indebted to the Italian tradition, including its entanglement with Christianity, his ideas can be used to open up some new considerations on art in contemporary context.

 

The publisher’s blurb says:

Moving away from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism and Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, and building on his experiences as a politician, Vattimo asks if it is still possible to speak of moral imperatives, individual rights, and political freedom. Acknowledging the force of Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” Vattimo argues for a philosophy of pensiero debole or “weak thinking” that shows how moral values can exist without being guaranteed by an external authority. His secularising interpretation stresses anti-metaphysical elements and puts philosophy into a relationship with postmodern culture. 

Vattimo’s core idea is that although metaphysical power has been weakened under modernity the post-metaphysical world is not completely free and arbitrary. His thought leads away from arguments for absolute randomness, unstructured chaos and indeterminacy. These are important issues for contemporary philosophy, for example in recent thinking on aleatory materialism and radical contingency. No matter how apparently free-flowing thought and moral values might seem, there are lines of resistance which introduce a kind of structure of their own, even though it is not the product of a metaphysical intention (eg the mind of God). These ideas offer interesting perspectives on contemporary art among many other things.

tree-skin
Dense bark on old trees: lines of resistance as protection

We can take his idea of “resistances” and think about the emergence of global art movements, for example. As the signs carved out and organized in different forms by different cultures have been loosened from their previous determinants (beliefs, practices, cultural conditioning) they have begun to deposit a kind of magma which determines their possibilities of flow. Just as the grain in wood or stone makes the material easier to cut in one direction rather than another, so does thought and human expressiveness develop in ways which create a certain conformity even though this is not intended or in any way “planned”. It is a kind of neutral determinism.

If we follow this line of thinking, we might consider that the condition of being human, with all the animal and cognitive capacities this implies, always/already creates the possibility of flows of thoughts, ideas and interpretations, and the existence of deep structures in language makes this even more likely. This argument is notably contra the spirit of Deleuze and Guattari in Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972) and, by extension, much contemporary postmodern thought which argues against any form of “determinism”.

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Lines of resistance creating the landscape: Yangpo River, Tibet.

Lines of resistance do not imply that universal laws exist (although at the deepest material level they may do). The productions of human action in whatever form create ebbs and flows which are self-reinforcing, just as a small trickle of water can cut out a creek-bed and finish up as a river. Being should not be thought of as a one-way street, but rather a network of freeways, roads and by-ways which travel in more than one direction. Some result in dead-ends, others become more and more essential, until they dominate the options for existence. But this does not mean that they cannot come to a sudden end. There is no better indication of this than the many recent discoveries of versions of archaic humanity which seem to have appeared, flourished, and then disappeared without trace.

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“Hobbits”: reconstruction of hominids found in Indonesia, half human size, long extinct

We can no longer think of the emergence of humanity as a single unified sequence of development with a logic of constant progression and improvement. Rather it seems to have been a winding inconsistent process of genetic networks and climatic outliers only some of which led to the present condition of the species, more or less by accident. But there are species continuities: the recent discovery of a new hominim species in South Africa (named Naledi) seems to have ritualized the disposal of the dead, maybe 2.5 million years ago. But everyone seems to forget that elephants also dispose of their dead, or at least attend the funerals.

mourning elephants

Vattimo’s is a radical critique of universalizing metaphysics like that begun by Heidegger, though in a very different time, context and technological capacity.

Nietzsche, considering European nihilism in the summer of 1887 said that under conditions of post-metaphysics those who will emerge and flourish are the most moderate, who have no need of extreme articles of faith, who concede and even embrace contingency and nonsense, who do not need to ascribe overwhelming value to human Being but do not diminish or belittle its significance.

One very interesting connection with art under modernity is the idea that the weakening of metaphysical power in the West was in a way announced by or even presided over by the withdrawal of apparent communication in the realm of art in modern times. Vattimo speaks of Kandinsky in this regard, but a better example might be Rothko. Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s discussion of Rothko in their book The Arts of Impoverishment (1993) opens up these horizons (to come in a later post).

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Mark Rothko
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Rothko Chapel, Houston

Ryan Hoffman Paintings: “Third Person”

Ryan Hoffmann:  Liverpool St Gallery Sydney 11th August – 3rd September

Ryan Hoffmann is a young artist from Sydney’s National Art School, one among few to have been given a solo show in a reputable gallery while completing his Masters of Fine Arts degree.

There has been a buzz around Hoffmann for some time, and this show gives him an opportunity to demonstrate why. It doesn’t entirely succeed although the concept is great. But the “hang” and the lack of documentation are a problem. Most pictures in gallery shows exist in their own right, each with its unique qualities, capable of standing alone. Hoffman’s are part of a larger vision and the viewer needs to know more about how they relate to each other and we should care about them.

As pictures they are of varying quality. Overall they seem barely painted, more like gestures, although they look much stronger as photographs for example on the gallery website. The images are thrown together on varying supports, some very small. The smaller paintings are no better resolved than the larger ones, if anything they are even more random and sketchy.

The gallery wall is covered with what looks like cloth or paper or maybe paint in a vague wash of pastel colours. Most of the paintings are hung close together in what seems to be a random array, large and small, bright and monochrome, square and rectangular. A few of the larger paintings – the “hero” pieces- occupy spaces of their own and two of these are especially striking (more on this later). Art lovers like to see paintings in a show as separate entities, each existing in its own terms, able to be translated to a different space, for example to a wall at home or in an office. Diptychs or triptychs are fine, creating a single visual statement, but otherwise each painting is seen as its own entity. Are these images telling a story? Is there something we should know but haven’t been told? Well yes there is, and it is quite complicated.

Installation, Liverpool St Gallery
Installation, Liverpool St Gallery

Hoffman has exhibited these, or related, paintings in at least two previous shows.  While Artist in Residence at the Glasgow Art School earlier in 2015 he offered a similar show with more paintings, at least fifty.  Some of them, many in fact, are also being shown here.  The concept for the hang was the same: a single wall, a lot of pictures jammed up together in seemingly random order.

Later, in a show called RREALITY PROJECTIONS, part of the requirements for the MFA at Sydney’s National Art School, the same layout includes many of the same paintings. An exegesis accompanied the show, called “Readymade digital photographs: Virtual reality as autobiography”.

The show is engaged with digital photography, and is telling a kind of autobiographical story. This story can be told in many ways. No images take any particular priority, they can be arranged in any order. They are not art photography but the kind of images which everyone now shoots on their phone. If they bother downloading the images at all they can rearrange them in any order, make new “albums” from them, send them round the world in various forms, pin them on Pinterest, send them to their Instagram account. These seem to be paintings of casual snapshots on the digital device, to be treated in the same random way.

NAS final show

Ryan Hoffmann, RREALITY PROJECTIONS (exhibited as a requirement of a MFA at the Nation Art School accompanying the exegesis ‘Readymade digital photographs: Virtual reality as autobiography’ )  room #2, 2015; oil on linen; dimensions variable (Photo courtesy of Peter Morgan).

Earlier still a show called The Inter Galactic Image Factory at Liverpool Street brought together four of the NAS 2014 cohort including Hoffmann (with Seth Birchall, Mason Kimber and Conor O’Shea). Hoffmann’s paintings in this show are different to those in the later shows but clearly show the same impulse. An artist’s statement appears on Hoffmann’s website which explicitly connects his practice to the use of smart technologies and the Internet. While this statement is in a rather tortured form, it illuminates what this work is about.

Images are now simultaneously representing, existing and omnipresent as a form of “virtual reality”. 
By regarding the digital image as a form of readymade imbued by its time, place, culture, Hoffmann’s practice investigates the potential for a new paradigm in painting which courts a contest between photographic representation and painterly application. Through the negation of linearity and hierarchy in subject, Hoffmann locates images in painting from this “virtual reality” to form an autobiography. 

And so we see that, without explicit reference, Hoffmann is in Gerhard Richter territory, struggling with the same issues about reality, image, painting and autobiography, now in the digital age.

It would have benefited the Liverpool St show if something to this effect had been made available in the catalogue or on the wall. There is an argument against spoon-feeding the art public but in a case like this the “sense” of the work shifts into a radically new position when it becomes clear that we are looking at deliberate engagement with a specific problem in contemporary representation. There is a difficulty with work which lives on the border between commercial art practice and art theory: how to connect the results of such a practice with the conventions of the art-buying public. Around less than half of these works had been purchased in the first two weeks of the show. Some were the smallest works, barely sketches, priced very modestly. The others were the strongest and generally the most “stand-alone” pictures in the show, with the very strange exception of the main hero-piece, “Penumbra”, which in spite of its striking qualities and painterly aesthetic had not been snapped up.

Penumbra. Oil, polyester, wood and copper.99 x 78 cm

 Penumbra, 2015, oil on polyester canvas, 90 x 78 cms

 By far the most effective works for me were those expressing the manifold possibilities of semi-monochrome. Small works such as Alpine Resort shine with hidden depths as, on the very small canvas lights beam out in pale reflection.

Alpine Resort 2015

Alpine Resort, 2015, oil on linen, 30.5 x 35.5 cm

 Some of the most interesting works feature grids and shadows on windows, or views through windows into empty spaces. In the relatively large-scale I forget where we were there is the sense of the sudden experience of light and dark which opens up to an unexpected which could be anywhere.

I forget where we were I forget where we were, 2015, oil on canvas, 63 x 138cm

In the tiny very sketchy Passing the viewer looks out of a window at a building in a snowy landscape. Inside, there is a sense of enclosure or capture, but also a feeling of relief at being safely in an interior while the outer world is unknown.

Passing 2014

Passing, 2014,oil on polyester canvas, 26 x 31 cm

One of the most effective pieces in the show is the graceful, well-balanced landscape Tracks. The eye moves between the snowy peak on the horizon and the network of traces proceeding from the viewer’s position into the distance. The trees form a kind of entryway into the mid-distance, where the traces disappear. The absence of human figures is contradicted by their presence, the landscape could not look like this had they not been there but now they are evacuated. The subtle colouration in this painting is picked up clearly in photographs although in bright sunlight on the gallery wall it is much harder to discern.

Tracks 2015

Tracks, 2015 oii on canvas, 94.5 x 115cm

Among the numerous small pictures are several sketches which suggest the reality of a journey which could be universal, any airplane, any seat, any destination. The composition in Untitled is very powerful but on such a small scale and with so little depth on the canvas it is hard to feel engaged. If this was a painting on a much larger scale – one which emphasised the abstract aesthetics of these moments of everyday life – it would be extremely effective. As it is, it is easily overlooked.

Untitled 2015

Untitled, 2015, oil on polyester canvas 61 x 89cm

Another striking image is offered in Sniper. In earlier work Hoffman clearly reflects on military themes. But this sniper might not be military. He (or at a pinch it could be a she) is sighting down the barrel at an unknown target: it could be people coming out of a picture theatre or some other expression of the random mayhem in the contemporary world. The thin vagueness of the paint and the limited use of tone and colour in this little picture makes it particularly effective.

Sniper 2015

Untitled (Sniper), 2015oil on linen43 x 56cm

This brings us to the key issue of whether the conceptual qualities of this work can engage with the commercial market. The ideas behind the project are compelling, but the images need to be able to stand alone, unless of course someone chooses to purchase the entire suite of works, which would make best use of them. Many seem to be barely painted, which creates an interesting quality at one level but is not what the art buyer is accustomed to. Hoffmann has a lot of raw talent and strong presence on the wall but the work needs to be re-oriented or harnessed differently if it is to move forward into the fraught terrain of post-art school life.

Anne Judell “Void” – Review.

Anne Judell. “Void”. Janet Clayton Gallery, 2 Danks St. Waterloo NSW 2017. 10th September-4th October 2014.

Anne Judell Void 2

 

Anne Judell is a quiet presence in Australian visual arts. Her public profile and challenging works are seldom out front in the hurly-burley of the contemporary art scene. Even those who deeply appreciate her achievements struggle to articulate what it is that compels and enchants them.

Her recent exhibition at Janet Clayton Danks St gives a glimpse of her subtle technique and surprising mark-making. Yes, these are “drawings”, but not in any ordinary sense. Two forms of vision are offered. Layers of pale pastel on Canson paper create an effect which seems to hover at a microscopic level while expanding into universality. These pastel works are small in size and mounted in white frames, so they seem to blend into the wall-space. The mixed media works on Hahnemuhle paper are loosely attached, the heavy paper slightly curved in places, creating shadows and depth behind the work itself. The pastels are profoundly dense and subtle, calming; the mixed-media pieces, constructed mainly in multiple dark and light tones, demand a different kind of attention. These works use acrylic, pastel, charcoal and gesso, worked deftly and pushed repeatedly into the surface of the paper. (Above, Left: Void 2). Judell has said:

 I spend half my life closely observing the natural world. The other half I spend in the studio, attempting to translate this experience into two-dimensional form. I am always drawn to the minutiae exposing the evolution of form. Fragility, intimacy, cycles and sequences are what interest me, as opposed to the heroic and the sublime. (Judell 2005).

Judell’s work requires time: time to produce, and time to view, to sit with it quietly and let the subtle effects engage your consciousness. A somewhat noisy gallery is probably not ideal. The initial impression can be puzzling. What are we looking at here? A comment by Stella Rosa McDonald is offered to gallery visitors. She speaks of comparisons and similes, suggesting that Judell may have “figured out how to hit pause on the universe”. A lengthy interpretive essay by Luke Davies goes straight to quantum physics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, seeing Judell’s work as embracing a negative capability, a border-zone between abstract and figurative, the felt and the known, the seen and the heard, the physical and emotional. Davies speaks of meditation and trance, suggesting that her work offers “portals” into another frame of experience, between “outward expansion and inner compression”.

These are strange claims for works created in small scale on paper. Such works are often associated with a feminine delicacy, and certainly Judell refuses the usual apparatus of heroic masculine art. Yet this work is far from gentle or decorative. The mixed media works have something of the visual impact of the older indigenous desert women’s dot paintings, without the colour field. Designs and suggestive associations emerge from dense marks which offer many possibilities. Nos 18 and 19 especially have an animal quality, reminiscent of fur or scales. Others might be reflections of the surfaces of tree-bark or the earth itself. Strong, deep shapes emerge without warning. Paleness, greyness, hints of blue, dark stripes in stipples, “Glory be to God for dappled things” (Gerard Manly Hopkins). We could be traversing roads, mountains, depths of earth, the night sky, the infinite universe, maybe even the reflection of stars in different galaxies of darkness.

Anne Judell Void 1

And there is the “thump” of Rothko, especially the Houston chapel works. It may seem an odd comparison, the grandeur of Rothko’s huge paintings and these seemingly modest works on paper. But in both cases the longer you view the more a sense of shimmering depths and a shuddering emerges, almost as if we are at the edge of emergent Being itself.

 

Anne Judell, Void 1.

The title of the show, “Void”, points directly towards this philosophical realm. More than just a cute title, the idea of the Void has been emerging recently into a new significance for metaphysics, artistic and creative expression, and in scientific debate around the nature of human experience. The idea of the Void is usually seen as a manifestation of nothingness, associated with the contemplation of emptiness. An awareness of a void at the centre of phenomenal existence has long been central to Asian metaphysical traditions. In the Heart Sutra, “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”. The idea points towards an apprehension of a whole reality, before it is sliced up into concepts, especially via the effects of language. Yet the Void also points to a presence, rather than a lack of it, involving particles and antiparticles erupting into being, a constant hidden dimension of which we are usually unaware. Artists have tried to point in this direction: Alberto Giacometti’s Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) 1934 was an early example, while Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void 1960 tried to capture the sense of something in nothingness as the human body engages with space and gravity.

Recent research at the University of Ljublana, Slovenia brings together the need to redefine the problem of the Void, in particular the idea of the generation of “something” and ultimately of Being and the universe. Empty space, it turns out, is not empty but the seat of the most violent physics. The theory of relativity and quantum field theory have altered our understanding of the fabric of physical reality, in which the void becomes the key element in the structural functioning of existence itself. Heidegger, in his essay “The Thing” (Das Ding) poses the void as the deep essence of thing, as opposed to its manifestation in the form of material objects as such.

Ann Judell’s work seems to be guiding us towards these unsettling perceptions. The limitations and potentials of the human body, the vision system and its links into the sub-microscopic level of cells and life-forms are called into action in the contemplation of her work. It is as if she is telling us to Be carefully and cultivate our own awareness of the absolute mystery behind everyday existence.

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Anne Judell, Moonlight 3. Mixed Media.

 

Anne Judell, 2005. http://marsgallery.com.au/anne-judell/

Mr Turner: very Artistic but what about the art?

Turner with mystery painting

Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner, a soi-disant biopic concerning the final fifteen years of the life of Britain’s most famous artist , was released in the UK on 31st October following its premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival where it competed in the Palme d’Or. Timothy Spall playing Turner won Best Actor; cinematographer Dick Pope received the Vulcan Award for his outstanding work.

This is without doubt a very artistic film. It drips and oozes its credentials from first to last, with scene after scene composed and shot in homage to famous paintings of the past. Some of these scenes especially the hazy glowing skyscapes on which the camera lingers so peacefully could be Turner paintings. Others are constructed as if we have entered into interiors painted by Dutch or Flemish masters of the previous century.

 

Film Still Dutch style

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775 in London’s Covent Garden and died in 1851. Best known for his romantic land- and seascapes in oils, he also worked in watercolour, producing remarkable works of astonishing scale and detail.  The contemporary art world seems to be increasingly enraptured by Turner. This is strange, considering the turn away from classical and traditional forms and the critique of painting which has dominated our cultural consciousness for decades.

The film is being released to coincide with a major exhibition at Tate Britain, from September 2014 to January 2015, a blockbuster entitled “Late Turner: Painting Set Free”. For those who don’t do their sums, the movie covers almost precisely the period of the works being shown in the exhibition. As the intro explains, the show “celebrates Turner’s astonishing creative flowering in these later years”. The fine work of this period was “controversial and unjustly misunderstood”. So, we might say that the film illuminates the life, while the exhibition illuminates the work. Side-by-side, they should open out, reveal, the reasons for a new appreciation of the remarkable talents of this scion of British art.

Why should it matter? Why do we need to engage with Turner now? There are several clues. The first key is in the sub-text to the exhibition title: Turner’s is “Painting Set Free”. The blurb accompanying the exhibition is at pains to position it as a challenge to the myths and assumptions around his later work, to highlight his “radical and exploratory techniques”, and to connect his perceptions of modernity – the machine age – with the deep historical and mythological themes arising from the cultural traditions of his era.

In this revisionary art history discourse, Turner turns out to be okay, even though he was a painter who did pictures of sea battles, ancient cities and historical narratives – Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, Dido and Aeneas – as well as the extensive hazy sky-dominated landscapes for which he is best recognized today.

Agrippina Landing with the ashes of GermanicusAggripinia Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus

Just to emphasize the point, one of the few late paintings remaining in private hands, Rome, from Mount Aventine, sold for over thirty million British pounds in December 2014, the highest auction price ever for any pre-20th century British artist.

rome from Mt Aventine

Rome from Mount Aventine

To understand what this all means requires a familiarity with the changes in art historical and critical discourse which has been going on hesitantly in recent times. There has been a slow creeping up of representational painting almost hidden away behind the continuing domination of installation, performance and video art since the turn of the millennium. Because of the vast level of financial investment in contemporary art, especially in Britain and the US, it has been impossible to grasp openly the implications of this shift. The writing has been on the wall for a while though. Julian Spalding in 2012 gave reasons “Why you should sell your Damien Hirsts while you can” and the commercially driven imperatives of the late global art market has been attracting more and more bemused critical attention from the artistic world itself – see Isaac Julien’s film Playtime for instance. Could it be that we have to take painting seriously again?

According to the received wisdom of most of the last century, Turner’s late work was pretty terrible. The decline in its quality was thought to be the result of many factors, notably a fog of poor eyesight, ill health, gloom, and personal disarray. The death of his father, who took care of all the most important but invisible elements of his painting practice – he selected and purchased the pigments, ground them, made up the frames and the canvas supports – was a significant loss. The film makes much of this, by the way. The lack of representational accuracy, the domination of his palette by an extremely unsubtle use of chrome yellow (which so disturbed the young Queen Victoria, a scene also featuring in the movie), his vague and hazy outlines, seemingly confused compositions and bizarre methods of working – being strapped to a ship’s mast in a snowstorm for instance – were all seen to explain the strange and disturbing quality of his late work.

steamer in a snowstorm

Snowstorm: Steamboat at a Harbour’s Mouth

Because he was a much appreciated figure in the art world of the time, in no small part due to the enthusiastic support of critic and aesthete John Ruskin, he continued to be hung in the annual Academy exhibitions, albeit in a back room or annexe. His art still sold, due largely to his name and to the patronage of high-born figures such as the Third Earl of Egremont whose lavish family seat in Surrey was the site of many visits and exhibitions. Nevertheless, the late Turner was until recently a rather sad footnote to a brilliant artistic career.

Now, though, we are asked to revalue this work. Late Turner turns out to be a father of Impressionism. His very vagueness and haziness are to be seen as part of a deliberate strategy of radical innovation, a means of overcoming the stringent, boring and traditional practices of British art in order to usher in a new kind of vision consonant with our current understanding of what good painting could be. His late style, the energetic brushwork, the lack of details and the modern subject matter of some works of this period surprised his supporters and lent abundant material to his critics who compared his pictures to lobster salad, soapsuds and whitewash. We moderns however can see beyond this strait-laced view and embrace the late Turner as one of our own.

The British critics so far love the film. Without didacticism or any clear plot or narrative strategy, the points for revaluing late Turner are made clear in scene after scene. Mike Leigh of course is another favoured son of British art. His films are unique in their approach and resonance, built on character rather than narrative and characterized by an almost total lack of screenplay. The actors go beyond Stansilavski, especially those playing the main characters, Turner, Mrs Booth and Hannah the housemaid. The film is very long, at 150 minutes, but never drags or loses the viewer’s attention, in spite of the lack of story arc which is typical of a Mike Leigh film but very unusual in mainstream popular cinema. Given the general public and critical enthusiasm, it seems picayune to complain about the way it depicts Turner as an artist.

If the viewer knows nothing about painting or the practices of plein air work or the use of pigments in oil and water or the physicality involved in working on a large scale in a studio at an easel it all seems so very easy. Turner rushes about with a little leather satchel and produces a pencil from it, drawing something or other in a little notebook. He holds the pencil near its end. He never seems to need to sharpen it. We never get to actually see what he puts in the notebook, or how it relates to the picture he ultimately paints from it. Although he worked astonishingly well in watercolours as well as oils it is impossible to tell what medium he is using at any one time, although when he asks Mrs Booth the landlady at Margate (with whom he finally shacks up) for a bowl of water we must assume those sea views are being painted or sketched in watercolours. When he stands grumpily and half-bent over at an easel scrabbling into the canvas surface with a thick stubby brush we might imagine this is an oil-painting but then he starts spitting on it. Why? Would an artist spit into oil-colour? Surely not. So this must be one of his watercolours, but if so why would he be working at an easel? We are given occasional glimpses of half-finished canvases but they are obscured and the glimpses are transient. We do see some of the finished works – are we to assume these are in fact the very works themselves, or copies of them? – and we see him daubing onto a canvas while the picture is already hung in the annual Academy exhibition. Actually we see a lot of painters daubing away on what seem to be finished works. This would be very strange. Finished paintings were meant to be dried and then varnished before entry, and certainly retouching them in the exhibition itself would be most peculiar.

The publicity for the film makes much of the fact that the actor Timothy Spall went to great trouble to get his painting and drawing right, taking art lessons for two years. If so, his art teacher has a lot to answer for.

I was, in short, astonished that an artistic film about an artist would take so much artistic licence with the art itself. I then came across an excellent piece in the Guardian by Andrew Wilton, “A brush with Mr Turner: why can’t films about painters get the painting right?” (The Guardian, Monday 27 October 2014). Wilton is a world expert on Turner. He is on the Turner House Trust and was consulted by Mike Leigh and his team, but already they had decided what they were doing with the film and any advice Wilton may have given them was apparently superfluous. Wilton called it a “deeply moving and beautiful fim” but, modestly, commented that “it’s not quite the Turner I know”. He gave his reasons, which are simply stated and based on the art itself. For example, Turner’s sketchbooks are full of tiny water colours full of topographical and atmospheric detail, showing delicate and subtle observation. His oils, for example the famous “Steamer in a Snowstorm” (exhibited 1842) were painted with great care, although you’d never know it from the way the act of painting is shown in the film. As Wilton comments, Spall’s depiction of Turner’s painting practice is full of smears and spits and swiping, which is what modernism has asked us to believe, because we are meant to see this film as a demonstration that Turner, great British artist, was after all a modernist, like we are today, and not one of those boring traditionalist representational painters who worried about technique and composition. Wilton also addresses the myth that Turner was some kind of abstractionist. Although the Tate show claims to do otherwise, it reinforces it, casting Turner as a rival to the American abstract expressionists. Wilton is so right: this draws us away from the real quality of Turner’s art.

Wilton’s comments infuriated many readers. It is a real education to go through all 106 of them. The great majority pour scorn on Wilton for failing to recognize that this is a “film”, not a “documentary”, which means apparently it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether it gets the details of the art right or not. According to this logic, Turner could have been painting Jackson Pollocks for all it would matter to the viewers. As one said, “why can’t art snobs appreciate artistic licence?” and compared the problem to that of World War 2 movies using the wrong tanks. A few commentators tried to bring the issue round to the key question, namely the fact that how you put paint on canvas makes a difference to the results you get. But the majority thought these arguments smacked of elitism. If you know how art is produced you are an “expert” and so you should shut up about “movies” because you make it less fun for others. So art critics are not allowed to be film critics, because they don’t understand that “screenwriters on non-documentaries” can put in and leave out what they please.

There is a problem, though. What people see in a film, especially one which claims to be about a real historical artist and how he made his actual artworks (ones now worth millions of dollars) is likely to be what they understand to be the truth of it. This is not the place to discuss the contentious problem of historical truth in cinema, but it certainly warrants some more consideration than the viewing public is willing to give in this case. It seems, rather, that what they like is the depiction of an artist who is ugly, unattractive, badly dressed, poorly spoken, gross and often vulgar, having it off with the unfortunate eczematic housemaid at random intervals, enjoying himself with his landlady and generally behaving just like an early nineteenth century Bad Boy might be expected to behave. Yes, that is the artist we like to see today, and if it means we think he spent his time spitting all over his canvases, that just adds spice to the mix.

 

 

 

Jason Benjamin. Everyone is Here.

Jason Benjamin.   Everyone is Here.   Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, 1st August – 28th September 2014.

Benjamin She's Searching for You 2013

Jason Benjamin She’s searching for you too (Adaminaby NSW)                       2010, oil on linen

This touring survey exhibition, curated by Gavin Wilson, offers 35 paintings and drawings from Jason Benjamin’s recent work. The media release “talks up” this selection as a re-affirmation of a landscape tradition “at the heart of the Australian experience”. Edmund Capon, in the catalogue introduction to the show, speaks of scale and the infinity of time and space in the work. The collection suggests an intense feeling of being alone with the earth, an entry into the space of a particular form of nature, spare and haunting, a poetic reverie said to be saturated in poetry and beauty.

Benjamin 2

Jason Benjamin, The Waiting Garden, 2011, oil on linen, 180                       x 180 cm.

The exhibition is moving around several large NSW centres including Cowra, Wagga, Bathurst and Katoomba. The arrangements for such a touring show must be complex and the motivation for an artist such as Benjamin to engage in the venture are not exactly evident. Certainly it is great for the rural NSW art-lovers, but there must be more to it than this.

Benjamin is a brilliant and unique artist. When I first saw some of his work exhibited in a Melbourne gallery a few years back I was astonished by the scale and technical ability of the works, far beyond anything which normally appears as “landscape” in the contemporary art scene. His work is realist, maybe at a brief glimpse hyperrealist, but underneath this superficial impression are layers of profound subtlety. Time and space are expanded and condensed. Horizons tremble, seemingly alive. Skies are overwhelming and absorbing. Details of rocks, leaves, grasses and trees are rendered with what almost seems like love. I thought at once: I want to buy one of these paintings. I had never heard of Benjamin and imagined his work would be at least affordable. Wrong. These large landscapes were selling for $30,000 and up, and almost all in this show had been sold.

Benjamin was born in Melbourne in 1971 and began exhibiting in 1989. At the age of 16 he received a scholarship to the Stony Brook School in New York for a diploma followed by work at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He has won many local prizes in Sydney (Mosman Art Prize, Kings School Art Prize) and has had been a finalist in the Archibald in 2011, 2013 and 2014. He has also had solo shows in Tokyo, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Rome. His work is far outside the conventional expectations of the contemporary art world. As Maurice O’Riordan commented in an Art Monthly piece in 2010/11, his work at first sight seems to be “acritical”, beautifully rendered but earnest and conventional. This impression was based on seeing jpegs of the images; once seen in the gallery or studio the full impact is a revelation. O’Riordan saw the exhibition Shelter at the Michael Reid gallery in Sydney (4 May – 5 June 2010) and noted the moody colour and obsessive detail, realising the importance of encountering the actual surface of the expansive oil-on-linen works. These were not works of mimesis, but evocations of emotion and psychology.

Benjamin’s career began with an encounter with Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist canvases in New York, very far from his current landscape work. The monograph on his work What Binds Us, 2007, goes through the various phases and genres of his work, including his portraits of Tony Abbott, Bill Hunter and others. Nevertheless, he is best known for his landscapes.

Benjamin Tim Rogers 2014

Jason Benjamin, Portrait of Tim Rogers,  I Just Wanna                                        Dream. Archibald Finalist, 2014.

In 2008 Benjamin and his family were invited to stay at the station Burrabogie on the Hay Plains, from which the work in this show emerged. Benjamin considers that this experience resulted in a “drastic shift” in approach (p.11) It is not really clear what this shift consists of. Journey, centred on a huge, partly dead tree, offers a simple composition with an odd centredness. Poem, from the same year, is highly repetitive in structure, with a few dark birds scattered across the detailed sky. One of the most moving works is She’s Searching for You Too (2010). A gently curving road stretches across a rise into the far distance. A setting sun illuminates banks of clouds while the sky behind is a tremulous pale blue. In many works the semi-circular grey granite rocks look like sheep resting in a paddock. The large square composition, Can We Stay Here Forever (2012) again offers a very formal composition of rocks on finely detailed grass, with the same turbulent sky and scattered birds above.

Benjamin Post-History

Jason Benjamin.  Can We Stay Here Forever?  2012.

The material in the touring exhibition does not seem up to the quality of his best work.  His paintings are sometimes criticised for being picturesque or sentimental.  That is not the problem here.  Rather, there is something formulaic and perhaps casual about it. In part this may be the result of the smaller scale of the works, and perhaps the scope of the palette. The introductory interview by Gavin Wilson offers many insights into his thought process in depicting the granite boulders and shifting skies, the sense of elation and foreboding found in the place. The dead tree limbs set up the compositions. Benjamin has studied Chinese and Japanese traditional art and philosophy, which seems to provide inspiration and interpretation especially through the concept of the Zen garden.  The idea is great, but sometimes the execution seems to lack immediacy, the sense of rapidity which underlines Zen/Chang art.

The works on paper are beautiful and extremely elegant. I particularly liked the heads of birds: kookaburras, parrots and owls, rendered in exquisite detail. I have never seen Benjamin’s drawings before so this was a particular pleasure.

IMG_6838

Overall though, in spite of the curator’s efforts to affirm some kind of transcendental significance to this show, it is not at all apparent why we are seeing in his recent art a “gradual transformation of the physical into the metaphysical” (p. 10, Catalogue publication). Or, at least, it is unclear how this show in particular demonstrates this more than his earlier landscape works. On the wall these paintings look far less powerful. There is a blankness to the earth, and a kind of hysteria in the heavens. Somehow the fascinating balance of the Monaro and high plains landscape seems to be just missed here. One hardly dares to suggest it, but what might be needed is a genuinely new approach, one which moves away from the well-established and recognizable Benjamin “style” and leads the viewer to stop, and ask: who is this painter? Whether a change of landscape subject in itself is sufficient to provoke this, or whether some very different grasp of the issues in perception and representation might be called for, is an open question. However, the current tendency, or insistence, on the “signature” of the individual artist in the works may be reaching its limits in Australian landscape painting today, and Jason Benjamin may be the first in line to suffer for it.

References:

www.bathurstart.com.au/…/347-jasonbenjamineveryone-is-here.html [accessed 10 October 2014).

O’Riordan, Maurice. 2010/2011. Jason Benjamin and the importance of being earnest. Art Monthly #236, 68-70.

Marx, Jack. Jason Benjamin: What Binds Us. MacMillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2007.

 

 

REMARKABLE RAT MAN: LUCIAN FREUD IN W.A.

Freud Naked Man with Rat

Lucian Freud, Naked Man with Rat (1977-78).

Comment on Kitty Hauser’s piece in Public Works, The Weekend Australian, October 25-26 2014, p. 11.

One of the most challenging and “shocking” of Freud’s large-scale paintings – 91.5 cm square – it was quite surprising to see it in full colour in the Weekend Australian. The painting is reproduced in some of the published books on Freud’s oeuvre but for some reason I had never realised it was acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth in 1984. This is another of those super-mysterious Australian art-acquisitions about which I am thinking of writing a short study. My interest in Evariste Luminais Sons of Clovis 11 (1880) has been mentioned elsewhere, and I am writing a preliminary outline. The research I have done to date on Clovis (including at the excellent library at AGNSW) has revealed a lot of short comments and magazine and newspaper reviews published at the time of its purchase in Paris in 1886 but little detail on this surprising decision by the AGNSW – we don’t know who was involved, how it came about, why it was this particular painting and not the second, almost identical version which was acquired, and so on. I imagine the answers, if there are any, must lie deep in the archives, but if there is material there, it should be accessible.

The second example is perhaps the most obvious, the controversial acquisition of Blue Poles (1952) by the National Gallery in Canberra in 1973. This seems to be generally attributed to the innovations of the new “It’s Time” Labor Government. Prime Minister the late Gough Whitlam personally approved the purchase even though the Gallery then did not have authority to sign off on purchases of over one million. James Mollison, the director, believed the painting would be a great start to the new national gallery, at a time when it did not even have a building. The painting was purchased from the collector Ben Heller of New York for the unprecedented sum of 1.3 million Australian dollars. (For some reason the sum of $2 million is now often attributed to the purchase). Clement Greenberg, New York art critic, was Pollock’s particular champion, and had given a lecture on the worth of Pollock’s abstract expressionist works which was challenged by the local theorist Donald Brook but supported by the Melbourne critic Patrick McCaughey.  Local response was largely one of outrage, involving the retelling of various stories current in books and magazines about the circumstances of the painting’s creation. “Barefoot drunks painted our $1 million masterpiece” said one newspaper headline.

Some other less famous but contemporary paintings purchased by Australian galleries include pieces by Willem de Kooning at the NGA, including Woman V of 1952-3. Australian public galleries continue to invest in old masters: the National Gallery of Victoria purchased Correggio’s Madonna and Child with Infant Saint John the Baptist (1514-15) from Sotheby’s London for $5.2 million, the single highest priced acquisition in the NGVs history.

Naked Man with Rat is a very interesting case. I think there is only one other early Lucian Freud painting held in an Australian gallery: And the Bridegroom (1993).   I mentioned it earlier in the context of the small exhibition at AGNSW of treasures from the Lewis Collection. So I guess it isn’t really in the same boat, i.e. the picture was bought by Lewis and then bequeathed to the Gallery, along with the much smaller painting Susie Sleeping (1988-9). It is perhaps a stranger painting than Naked Man with Rat, but both are outstanding examples of the bizarre quality of Lucian Freud’s vision and technical approach, and it is amazing that these two, at the least, are in public collections in Australia.

and the bridegroom

Lucian Freud, And the Bridegroom, 1993

30-cezanne-naples

Paul Cezanne,  Afternoon in Naples, 1975.

The NGA also holds Freud’s After Cézanne, a variation on the theme of Paul Cézanne’s L’Aprés Midi à Naples (Afternoon in Naples) (1875), which was purchased in 1985. This was one of Freud’s “day pictures” which he painted in nine months from December 1999 to August 2000. The painting is famous in part because of its peculiar composition. It was initially painted on a rectangular canvas, but when Freud found there was not enough room to put in the upper half of the maid’s head, he added some additional canvas. This is a completely unexpected mode of approach to composition, which normally takes the boundaries of the canvas on its stretcher as the limits of what can be displayed.

Freud after Cezanne

                                         Lucian Freud, After Cezanne,1999-2000

As far as Naked Man with Rat is concerned, the commentary by Kitty Hauser is short but to the point. She has some good gossip on the painting – this is unattributed but no doubt came from one or more of the books recently published on Freud – I suspect from the excellent and informative book by Georgie Grieg, Breakfast with Lucian (2013) – but also identifies the genre as portraiture, rather than a “nude”. Yes, the subject is naked, but the purpose is to create a portrait, without clothes. The subject is Raymond Jones, an interior decorator from whom Freud borrowed money to settle a gambling debt. Repayment was in the form of this portrait. The viewer is gripped by the very strange posture of the figure, the floppy genitals almost at the very centre of the composition and then the rat (and its tail) which is at first hardly noticeable and then impossible to ignore.

I am not sure what to think about the details of the involvement of the rat in this painting. What ethical obligations does the artist have to his subject, even if it is a rat?   This rat was dosed with sleeping tablets dissolved into a dog’s bowl of Veuve Cliquot for the entire time of the painting’s completion. Freud was notoriously slow and extremely thorough in his work. At the end of it, this rat was without doubt an alcoholic and addict. Nothing in the literature which mentions this picture gives us any further information about the life (and death) of this nameless rat, but we must agree that it is one of the heroic figures of contemporary art, truly martyred in the interests of great art.