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Joy Eadie, Discovering Charles Meere: Art and allusion (#BookReview)

December 31, 2017

Joy Eadie, Discovering Charles MeereThe 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.

Robert Drewe, The bodysurfersHowever, 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!

aww2017 badgeJoy Eadie
Discovering Charles Meere: Art and allusion
Braddon: Halstead Press, 2017
96pp.
ISBN: 9781925043389

(Review copy courtesy Halstead Press)

16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2017 4:45 pm

    What a lovely book to end the year with!
    I like the underlying message of the book, that context is everything. If I read you correctly, Eadie is confronting the current preoccupation with pejorative labelling of anything that *looks* undiverse without attending to its context. (Yes, I think I just made up that word, but it’s just exactly what I mean all the same).
    And although I take your point about ‘drawing a long bow’ in the absence of notebooks and diaries, I think some artists would say that the artist says all that he needs to say in the artwork! I read somewhere once, though I can’t recall who said it, that if the artwork could be explained in words, there would be no need to make the art.

    • December 31, 2017 5:09 pm

      Thanks Lisa. I think the labelling of this artwork as fitting the eugenics/racial perfection philosophy goes back a few decades, to the 1980s when social and political issues underpinned a lot of art and art analysis.

      I’m glad you’ve engaged with that question about whether the art is all – it being the same question re books and whether the text is all. I guess the question is what do we get out of the artwork, and how much of what we get is informed by the prevailing attitudes at the time we are looking at it. I don’t think we need to know the artist, but I think it can probably help?

  2. January 1, 2018 3:35 am

    I wish that I knew more about art. Time constraints prevents me from taking too much of dive into it. Even so, this book as well as the concepts that you discuss in your post sound fascinating.

    Have a happy New Year’s!

    • January 1, 2018 7:51 am

      There’s only so much time isn’t there Brian? And back to you… Have a great 2018.

  3. January 1, 2018 10:07 am

    Any artist must live and die by what we read into their work. A problem if they intended irony and we read literally. Good criticism helps us take a second look.

    • January 1, 2018 10:32 am

      True, Bill. I don’t disagree with that. What I disagree with is the view that we MUST not look outside the art or the text, that the art and text is all, and that if we discover more from elsewhere that might affect our viewing or reading it’s irrelevant.

      My view is that nothing is so simple or either/or. My reading of Jane Austen’s texts now 200 years after they were written is immeasurably enhanced by discovering something about her times, her milieu etc. I can enjoy them very well as they are, but I can appreciate them so much more by learning more – through, as you say, criticism, or other ways such as her letters, or histories of her time, etc. And this appreciation may affect what I think her message is. My understanding of, say, TS Eliot is enhanced by my knowledge of the Bible to which he alludes.

      So here, Brennan, for example, is suggesting that certain works of Meere’s allude to certain European works but she doesn’t KNOW that he’s done that. She’s speculating based on what she knows of his biography and by deep visual analysis of the works – and she’s drawing conclusions from her speculations. This is what criticism is, except that sometimes you know more about the creator so your speculations may be easier to defend than when you know very little or sometimes the artist is more obvious in what they are doing. Am I making sense or am I going around in circles? And do you agree or disagree?

      • January 1, 2018 11:20 am

        No, I agree. It is impossible to read in isolation. Everything else that you’ve read (or experienced) has an influence on the text that you are reading.

  4. Jim KABLE permalink
    January 1, 2018 10:53 am

    Anne ZAHALKA – a noted Sydney-based photographer – has done a couple of intelligent re-workings of Charles MEERE’s “Australian Beach Pattern” – making for a far more culturally and ethnically diverse representation of who we are as Australians. Her first version I had wanted OUP to use as the cover of a text/anthology of short selections of Australian Literature I had edited: Made in Australia (1990) but sadly for me (in one sense) OUP had their own in-house artist who – in any event – did a brilliant job on the two volume companion anthologies. However I had by then had a meeting with Anne – and uncovered a kinship connection of sorts – so not all bad.

    In 1999 I was visiting cousins in Arizona – one of whom was then and till just recently the State Archivist. The Archives and offices were situated in the former State Legislature building – and what struck me most was that the statuesque representations in the art work around the building – of earlier colonial Arizona – was very much in the Charles MEERE vein – with minimal reference to the First Nations peoples or to the Spanish/Mexican colonial centuries. “Nationalistic” myth-making. Joy EADIE is clearly trying to reinterpret Charles MEERE’s intentions or vision – and that is as it should be. Irony may well be the thing – though I imagine most people of earlier decades saw it simply as representing the sun-bronzed types they saw in themselves – even as realisation started to grow that while the sun beat back the rickets – it allowed other dangerous darker things to grow.

    The mother of a god-child in Japan spent much of the period from 2000 till recent years researching an obscure Japanese poet who spent several decades in the late 19th/early 20th century in the US and in Britain – a friend/acquaintance of many of the literary greats of the time – who did all his writing in English – became a friend of Rabindranath TAGORE – but through the 1930s and War years was corralled by the rightwing Nationalists of Japan – and with war’s ending ignored and shortly afterwards passed away. His son to an American woman became one of the world’s most noted sculptors Osamu NOGUCHI. My academic friend has rescued the father NOGUCHI Yone(jiro) from obscurity and reinterpreted his place in the Japanese literary canon – in a larger world-connected English literary canon as well. We need revisits. Thanks for this interesting (as always) review!

    • January 1, 2018 2:33 pm

      Thanks for all this Jim. And I agree, we do need revisits because the original visits aren’t necessarily “right”” are they – they are simply based on the assumptions of the time which may or may not have been the artist’s as you’ve shown re Noguchi.

  5. Meg permalink
    January 1, 2018 2:29 pm

    Hi Sue, Happy New Year. I do like to view artwork through my own eyes at first. If it grabs me that is when I will search out more about the painting and artist No storms last night, fireworks were fantastic at Scarborough – but still very sultry, and muggy.

    • January 1, 2018 2:38 pm

      OH, you’re in Scarborough! I have good memories of Scarborough. My grandparents retired to Woody Point and my great aunt (grandmother’s sister) lived in a fibro (as I recollect – just like my grandparents’) house in Scarborough. The house was kept in the family after they left but I have a feeling that it may not be anymore, but my Mum will comment if she reads these comments!

      Anyhow, yes, I think that’s probably how most of us are – with books and films too. Experience it first and then, perhaps, research it.

  6. Meg permalink
    January 1, 2018 2:56 pm

    There are still some fibro houses here in both Scarborough and Redcliffe. I also have friends in Woody Point. It is a very nice area.
    Yes experience it once, and more experience improves the outlook!

    • January 1, 2018 3:07 pm

      My grandparents were on Gayundah Esplanade with nothing between them and the sea view. Loved Christmas afternoons lolling on deck-chairs out front letting the food settle!

  7. Meg permalink
    January 1, 2018 3:54 pm

    A very nice place in the world. I have checked out Gayundah Wreck and my friend lives on Whytecliffe Parade, the continuation of Gayundah Esplanade. Her backyard leads down to the water. Where I am house sitting is about 400 metres from the water, but I have a pool to cool off in. I overlook the sea and Scarborough marina and out to the Glasshouse Mountains.

    • January 1, 2018 3:58 pm

      That sounds beautiful, Meg. Love the Glasshouse Mountains.

      My grandmother’s house was along the higher part so we’d have to scramble down the cliff to the sea – I don’t think there was much of a beach at that point! (But then I’m not a beach person so I wouldn’t have tried or been very concerned.)

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