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Monday musings on Australian literature: Patrick White and those Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock

January 21, 2013

A change of pace for this week’s Monday Musings to give you a bit of a rest after my few rather lengthy posts of late. Enjoy!

I have already mentioned Patrick White a few times this month. One was my reference to his calling himself a “painter manque” in my review of his debut novel, Happy Valley. Another was mentioning his willingness to stand up for issues important to him, in last week’s Monday Musings on Australian women poets. Today’s post takes up both these points … You see …

In 1973 the Australian Government bought Jackson Pollock‘s painting Blue Poles. With a price exceeding $1 million, the painting’s purchase could not be approved by the then director of National Gallery of Australia, James Mollison, but had to be signed off by the Government. It just so happened that this Government was the new Labor Government which had won power the previous December after 23 years of conservative rule. Australia was ripe for change – and for philosophical and intellectual debate if not downright conflict between the conservatives and the progressives. And so, with announcement of the purchase, all hell broke loose, so to speak. Here is where our “painter manque”, Patrick White, enters the picture.

Campaigns were mounted to prevent the acquisition. One of these was a petition which Patrick White was invited to sign by a Canberra resident. Now Patrick White, as those who know him would expect, wasn’t having any of it. Here are some words from his letter, which you can view in full on the Leski Auction Site (where it was advertised for auction in 2012):

I am not signing the petition because I think you are wrong. You are the kind of person any creative Australian has been fighting against as long as I can remember, the aggressive philistine, often in disguise, who has held us back.

After a couple more paragraphs, he concludes

I regret to say, Mrs English, you are the (perhaps) well-meaning, but destructive, Australian busy-body, we must continue fighting against in the arts.

Don’t you love those parentheses around “perhaps”? How very White!

Patrick White Terrace

Patrick White Terrace, National Library of Australia

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2013 8:11 pm

    Oh yes, I remember the carry-on! I thought it was wonderful, even the idea of having an argument about the arts was of itself new and exciting!

    • January 21, 2013 8:25 pm

      They were exciting times weren’t they Lisa. I was at the NGA today and it was good to remember the early days of the gallery. Blue Poles is a stunning work (and I hear is now worth $40 million plus – if you can really value such things).

      • January 21, 2013 9:03 pm

        What you up to at the NGA?

        • January 21, 2013 9:31 pm

          Oh, nothing much today … catching up with two old school friends from Sydney who were going to the Toulouse Lautrec. We’ll go to that exhibition after school goes back!

        • January 21, 2013 10:03 pm

          There are nice things on at the NGV too but I’m running out of time to finish some stuff for school…

        • January 21, 2013 10:05 pm

          Don’t you think January has gone too fast? Not fair!
          (There’s an Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the NGA too … which is a period I rather like).

  2. January 22, 2013 3:11 am

    I plan to read a Patrick White novel this year, Gummie.

    • January 22, 2013 8:43 am

      Oh good, Guy … have you decided which one? Happy Valley? Voss? Tree of man? The solid mandala? The eye of the storm? Another?

  3. January 22, 2013 7:18 am

    I being from Hinterland of course am not aware of this major event in the artistic world. I’m presently reading a highly interesting novel called The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro, which changes my views about the art world. Anyway, too soon to say anything now, but if you’re looking for something fresh, I highly recommend this one. (albeit I admit I haven’t finished… but so far so good).

  4. January 22, 2013 1:17 pm

    I remember that petition. Thanks for reminding us about those dark days. And I love the White quotes. Nobody can insert the scalpel under the skin quite like he can! With regard to the Edith Wharton reference on my last post, I’ll search for the direct quotation – which could be interesting because i’ve feeling its in one of my early notebooks…

    • January 22, 2013 7:11 pm

      That’s it “scalpel under the skin”. He’s certainly good at it. And, I’d love to see the direct Wharton quote … but don’t lose too much time looking for it.

  5. acommonreaderuk permalink
    January 22, 2013 7:54 pm

    Australia’s struggle to build a legacy of cultural and artistic artefacts must be a story in itself. A newer nation has so much catching up to do in terms of acquisitions when older societies have been collecting for centuries. A fascinating post

    • January 22, 2013 9:50 pm

      Perceptive point Tom … and the NGA has positioned itself to focus on Australian and modern art rather than the old masters though of course it has a smattering of older works to provide the perspective a national institution needs to have.

  6. January 25, 2013 4:24 am

    What an advocate for the arts! I wonder what Mrs. English thought of that letter?

    • January 25, 2013 8:33 am

      Oh yes, he was Stefanie. And I wonder too … I wander what she or her family think about the letter being public. Still it’s part of our cultural history now!

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