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

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

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

  1. 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).

  2. 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…

  3. 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

    • 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.

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