The award for my last review of the year goes to something a little left field for me, Joy Eadie’s Discovering Charles Meere: Art and allusion. I say left field because it is, essentially, a book of art criticism, and I don’t do much of that here (or anywhere, for that matter!) However, when Halstead Press offered me a copy for review a few months ago, I was intrigued, so accepted the book. And here is why I was intrigued …
In the email offering me the book, the publisher wrote:
Australian Beach Pattern is Meere’s most famous work and hangs in the Art Gallery of NSW. However, despite its popularity and recognition, it has been labelled by critics as an unimaginative work which glorifies an Aryan ideal of mid-twentieth Australia, and Meere’s name is hardly known.
And thus my interest was aroused, because earlier this year I had been to the Brave New World: Australia 1930s exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. One of the sections was titled “Body culture” and the commentary noted that “the evolution of a new Australian ‘type’ was also proposed in the 1930s – a white Australian drawn from British stock, but with an athletic and streamlined shape honed by time spent swimming and surfing on local beaches.” The notes referred to the problematic aspects of this idea in an era when eugenics was on the rise in Germany.
While the exhibition didn’t, in fact, include Charles Meere, it is in this context that his most famous work, “Australian Beach Pattern” (online image) dated 1940, has been seen and it is this interpretation that Joy Eadie refutes by offering her own reading of the painting. She does this by analysing the painting and comparing it with like works from his oeuvre to develop her ideas about his themes and world view.
Eadie’s thesis is, essentially, that within Meere’s coolly formal application of an Art Deco-cum-neoclassical style lie recurring features including “a certain dry wit, irony, the use of allusion and appropriation, oblique reference to the historical context and to being in a certain time and place, while recalling other times and places”. These features, she argues, are not easily apparent in one work, such as “Australian Beach Pattern”, but they become evident in the context of several works.
However, before I discuss the book, I should explain for those who don’t know that “Australian Beach Pattern” is one of Australia’s iconic images. It was used on the program for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, on the cover of Robert Drewe’s The bodysurfers, and apparently features in curriculum materials about democracy in Australian schools. Merchandise featuring it is also amongst the most popular at the Art Gallery of News South Wales, where the painting has resided since 1965. But now, to the book …
It starts with a brief biography of the little-known British-born Meere (1890-1961), then moves on in Chapter 2 to analyse the poster (“1978 … 1938 150 Years of Progress”) he created for NSW’s 1938 Sesquicentenary celebrations. Referencing some of the tensions of the anniversary planning and using the careful eye for detail needed by an art critic, Eadie identifies features of the poster which depart from traditional poster style, and proposes that Meere’s aim was to subvert the “nationalistic hubris” of the anniversary story. Her analysis includes the suggestion that Meere alludes to Hieronymous Bosch’s “Ship of Fools” painting to comment on the practice of sending British outcasts to the other side of the world. She notes his inclusion of tall strong Aboriginal people on the shore, his placing of his own signature in proximity to these figures, and argues that his “choice of black to proclaim the joyous message of progress” was “deliberate and ironic”.
In this vein – analysing Meere’s painting style, use of colour, allusions to European paintings, historical context, and so on – Eadie discusses picture after picture, including of course “Australian Beach Pattern”, to build up her argument concerning Meere’s more subversive commentary on contemporary culture, and she is, overall, convincing. Her close reading of the paintings, mirrors, really, the close textual analysis literary critics do. And her challenge with Meere reminded me of that issue regarding the value to criticism of knowing the creator that I raised in my recent review of Bernadette Brennan’s book, because, in Meere’s case, it appears there are “no diaries or notebooks recording his artistic practice” so, says Eadie, “one can only speculate”.
And speculate she does, sometimes drawing long bows. These show the depth of her research, but with little evidence for what Meere actually knew, saw, experienced or thought, these bows rely on our agreeing with her assumptions – particularly regarding his alluding to other works. Her analysis of his “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” painting is fascinating but relies on our making a number of leaps with her. In her chapter discussing the origins of the large number of “copies” of “Australian Beach Pattern” which regularly hit the market, the speculations build, but, as she does elsewhere, she admits to them, calling one idea “highly speculative”. Other times, she explains that she had to work from digital or reproduction copies of works in private hands, and that her analysis could change on seeing the work itself. None of this, however, gets out of hand, and her arguments are clear.
Discovering Charles Meere might sound dry and suited only to specialists, but not so. Eadie’s writing is engaging and refreshingly free of academic jargon and meaningless polysyllabic words. The book is short, nicely produced, and is well-illustrated, making it easy to follow her argument. As for the content, it should appeal to anyone interested in Australian art and 20th century Australian culture. I enjoyed my foray into the outfields of my reading interests!
(Review copy courtesy Halstead Press)