My literary week (12), some art, a film, and an unseen play

Much as I’d like to, I don’t have time to write full posts on the three “events” I’m writing about today, but I do want to at least document them. I don’t, in fact, document every film, show or exhibition I attend but I have particular reasons, which will hopefully become obvious, for wanting to share these three.

MoMA at the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria)

For a very exciting reason – Mr Gums and my becoming grandparents for the first time – we made a flying trip to Melbourne last weekend, and, as we couldn’t spend all our time gazing at the adorable newborn, we took ourselves off to the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria during our long weekend. Titled MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art, it comprises a selection of MoMa’s world-famous collection. About 200 pieces the website says. The works are organised pretty traditionally – that is, in chronological order, but within this order there are themes, mostly relating to specific art movements, such as Cubism, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and so on. The website says that “the exhibition traces the development of art and design from late-nineteenth-century urban and industrial transformation, through to the digital and global present.” It’s an inspiring exhibition, but like all such big, dense, exhibitions, we had tired by the end, despite breaking for lunch in the middle – so my concentration, not to mention my feet, did start to fail, affecting what I remember.

Anyhow, the exhibition opens with a wall comprising a work each by van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Seurat, who, the audioguide explained, are deemed to mark the beginning of modern art.

Salvador Dali, The persistence of memory, 1931

So, what did I enjoy? Of course, I liked seeing famous works by well-known artists, such as Dali’s “The persistence of memory” (the famous melting/dripping clocks painting). Who knew it was so small? Well, you do know it, if you read the small print in art books, but you don’t tend to remember that – at least I don’t always. It’s only seeing the work itself that makes this stick. This is partly what makes going to exhibitions so worthwhile. I also enjoyed seeing lesser known works by well-known artists, and works by artists I barely know or didn’t, until last weekend, know at all! And, I appreciated the inclusion of women artists, such as photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) who was apparently looked at askance for photographing machines.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle wheel, 1951 (original was 1913)

There is so much more I could say, but, this being a litblog primarily, I’m going to end on one idea that particularly tickled me. Early in the exhibition is a work by Marcel Duchamp, the originator not only of Dada but of the art of “readymades“. The audioguide argued that one of Duchamp’s contributions to modern art was the idea that a work of art is not complete until it is joined with the viewer’s perception and questions (even if, the guide said, that question is, “is this art?”) This got me thinking once again about reading, and the fact that a book has as many meanings as it has readers, because each of us brings our own perspectives to it. An old hat idea, now, I guess, but I liked that Duchamp’s ideas resonated for me beyond the visual arts.

Gurrumul (Cinema Nova, Carlton)

Another exciting event in our lives – one still to come – is that in a few days we’ll be heading off to Australia’s Top End, to tour Arnhem Land and then spend a few additional days in Darwin. I can’t wait for the warmth – nor to experience Arnhem Land which has been on my must-visit list for some time now. Luckily for us, two friends have just returned from the same tour, and they advised us, in preparation, to see three films: Ten canoes (which we’ve seen before, but looked at again, via DVD last week), and two recent documentaries Gurrumul and West wind: Djalu’s legacy.

Gurrumul Yunupingu

Dr G Yunupingu @ Fremantle Park (17/4/2011), By Stuart Sevastos, using CC BY 2.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately we’ve missed West Wind on the cinema circuit, and it’s not available on DVD until later this year, but Gurrumul is still screening. So another time-filling activity for us in Melbourne was to see it at the Cinema Nova in Carlton. For those of you who don’t know, the film is about the recently deceased indigenous Australian musician, Dr G Yunipingu (the name used for him since his death in respect of indigenous Australian funerary practices. Permission was given, by Yunipingu himself the film says, for the film to be released, despite another indigenous practice of not showing images of deceased persons for some time after their deaths.)

Dr G Yunupingu was born on Elcho Island, in Arnhem Land, and was discovered early in his life to be blind. He taught himself to play music, and was clearly gifted – though it was his voice (“the voice of an angel” some said) that really captured attention. He wrote his own songs, which he sang mostly in language. The film chronicles, primarily, his musical life, but given his close connection to his culture, that couldn’t be done without reference to his family and culture.

It’s a traditional documentary, style-wise, but it’s the content, the subject himself, that makes this such a moving film. I was quite wrung out by the end – and not only because it had been an emotional couple of weeks leading up to it. One of the issues underpinning the film is an age-old story for indigenous people – the challenge of moving between two opposing cultures. It was a challenge that brought indigenous artist, Albert Namatjira, undone in the end. Dr G Yunupingu managed it better overall – partly because of his own sense of self and strong attachment to his country and culture, but partly also because his non-indigenous mentors had learnt from history and were respectful of Yunupingu’s wishes. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t tense times! The film will, I’m sure, enhance our Arnhem Land trip – but it’s worth seeing regardless.

Tourmaline (The Street Theatre)

Randolph Stow, TourmalineAnd, well, this last stop in today’s post is exciting too – but disappointing also, as I will be missing it. Yes, I am concluding this post by discussing something that not only have I not seen, but won’t be seeing either. I have a very good reason though for this strange behaviour, and it’s that the production, an adaptation of Randolph Stow’s novel Tourmaline, was written by Emma Gibson, one of the bloggers I mentored in last year’s Litbloggers of the Future program. Emma, in fact, wrote a guest post for this blog on Stow and the novel.

It is part of a double bill of adaptations of sci-fi-futuristic texts, the other being HG Wells’ War of the worlds. In her guest post, Emma said that the book has been described as an “ecological allegory”. This would slot nicely into Emma’s main interest, at present anyhow, which is writing about place. According to the promotions, the adaptations are made for radio – which is great to see in itself – but are being performed on stage at the Street Theatre. I am so sorry that I will be missing it – but I wish playwright Emma, and The Street, the best success with it.

Do you have any cultural outings to share?

David Hockney at the National Gallery of Victoria

David Hockney

David Hockney (from video at NGV)

It’s a while since I wrote about an art exhibition, not because I haven’t been to any but because this is a litblog (and I’m even less of an art critic than I am a literary one). However, I did feel the urge to write about the David Hockney Current exhibition, which is now showing at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), because I have a long-standing – if rather rudimentary – interest in him.

It all started when, early in my film librarian career, I selected for the library a documentary about Hockney. That would have been the late 1970s or early 1980s. I hadn’t heard of him before that, but I was attracted to his larger than life, big, bold, art. This film featured, among other works, his famous 1967 painting, “A Bigger Splash“. My next memorable encounter came about twenty years later when, in 1999, the National Gallery of Australia acquired Hockney’s immense work, “A Bigger Grand Canyon”, and we hot-footed it to the Gallery to see it (having seen the Canyon itself several times in the preceding two decades). Looking at it again now, I can see that the issues Hockney was exploring then, including point-of-view in place and time or, as the NGV describes it, “multi-point perspective”, are still fascinations for him now – even more so, in fact, given the way visual media has developed in our digital age. And so, this current exhibition, which focuses on his work of the last decade, includes not only canvas paintings, but digital prints, videos and iPad/iPhone drawings.

Bigger Trees on Water detail

“Bigger Trees Near Warter” (large detail)

I’m not going to write a comprehensive report of the exhibition, but just share a few thoughts and highlights, starting with his work “Bigger Trees Near Warter ou Peinture en Plein Air pour l’age Post-Photographique“. (Are you seeing an ongoing “bigger” theme here!!) Like the Grand Canyon painting, it’s a multi-canvas work. Its dominant image is, by definition (not that painting titles are always so easily defined), trees. In the delightful 9-minute video interview with Hockney, which was created especially for this exhibition, he says that he has “always liked trees”. (A man after my own heart, obviously). The painting occupies the whole wall of one gallery room, with the other three walls containing digital same-size-as-the-original prints of the work. Beautiful – and rather mind-bending to be in a room surrounded by the original and its copies.

Enlarge iPad artBut, the exhibition comprised other works as well. The first thing that confronts attendees is a wall containing a row of iPhones, each containing drawings by Hockney. These little works are whimsical and fun, but have a serious edge too, reflecting, for example, on how new media can be used to create – and share – art. There are also bigger (ha!) screens displaying iPhone and iPad art in a larger easier-to-see format. These digital drawings include still lifes, portraits and landscapes, including some stunning, very large ones of Yosemite National Park (which, like the Grand Canyon in our gallery, had increased appeal for Mr Gums and me because of our familiarity with the park).

Some of the digital drawings are animated to show Hockney’s drawing process. Made me think – almost – that I could do it too but, funnily, whenever I put finger or stylus to a screen the result never looks quite as it does in my mind’s eye. The curators’ label suggests that these works “demonstrate that for Hockney art-making is a daily activity.” Hockney suggested in the interview that drawing had been dying until these little devices started bringing it back. He was amazed, he said, that the telephone could bring drawing back! Anyhow, these digital works, whether tiny or large, made for fascinating viewing, but there were so many of them it was impossible to take them all in. If I lived in Melbourne I’d happily go back.

Barry Humphries portraitThe last work I want to mention is a little different from the landscapes and still lifes. It occupied a long narrow hall/gallery and contained 82 (I think) recently painted acrylic portraits of Hockney’s family, friends, colleagues and other artists. I didn’t recognise any by face, except for Barry Humphries. In the interview, Hockney mentioned these portraits, each of which was painted in just 2 to 3 days, and said that he sees them as one work. He then quipped – partly seriously – that at his age he now sees all his life as one work. I love portraits and could have spent hours pondering each one – the poses, the expressions. Why did this one sit that way, but that one sit this way, for example. What did their choice of clothes tell us about them? (So many men seemed to wear blue and cream/beige. Not Humphries though!)

Finally, I want to share another comment Hockney made in his interview. He said that “happiness is a retrospective thing”. Interesting, we thought. Of course, as life is happening we feel things – happy, sad, proud, and so on – but I think his point is that it’s only in retrospect that we can obtain a “real” perspective on the sense of those times. That is, at the time it is experienced, happiness, for example, is usually an ephemeral thing, or so it seems to me. In that sense it could be described as superficial? But later, we can look back, reflect and perhaps comprehend a more mature, lasting form of the feeling? I’m not sure what he meant, but this is the meaning I came away with!

It’s a great exhibition. It can be easily enjoyed on the surface, but if you spend time with it, you can see things going on underneath. Hockney comes across as whimsical, charming, engaging but also alert, ever-curious, always-thinking, and above all excited by new ideas (or perhaps, by new ways of exploring old ideas). We came away on a little high.

NB: In previous art posts I have not included images of the art for copyright reasons, but I’m now thinking that using a small number of low-resolution pics will not infringe copyright.

My encounter with Encounters

I rarely write about museum exhibitions, and when I do it’s usually in the context of a travel post, but I do want to share with you our National Museum of Australia’s current exhibition, Encounters. Subtitled “Revealing stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum”, it is described by the Museum as “one of its most important exhibitions”. That could sound, of course, like your typical promo-speak, but in this case I’m inclined to agree. Encounters is a very interesting and, yes, important exhibition – one that is not without its controversy.

The foundation pieces of the exhibition are 151 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects, including masks, shields, spears and spearheads, didgeridoos, baskets and head dresses, which were collected by a wide range of people – settlers, explorers, administrators, and so on – between 1770 and the 1930s, and which are now held by the British Museum. Complementing these are 138 contemporary items, some specially commissioned for the exhibition. The objects are supported by excellent interpretive labels which convey both the history of the objects and contemporary responses to them. The end result is a conversation between past and present that is  inspiring and mind-opening.

I’m not going to formally review the exhibition. You can read a thoughtful one published in the Sydney Morning Herald last month, including a discussion of the repatriation controversy. (Thanks to brother Ian for pointing me to this review). Instead, I’m just going to comment about its impact on me. So, here goes …

One message I took from the exhibition is not a new one at all, really, but more a confirmation: it’s that indigenous people, like all of us, are not one! It is way too easy for us (no matter who “us” are) to simplify “other” (no matter who “other” are). We tend to think that “they” all think the same, but obviously, like “us”, “they” don’t! This is made patently clear in Encounters where we see different responses by different indigenous communities to the objects. Some are adamant that their objects should be returned to them. Others may agree with that, but that’s not their priority (perhaps because they realise such a goal may not be realistic, in the short term at least!) They, such as Robert Butler, a Wangkangurru man from the Birdsville area, believe that the objects should not have been taken in the first place but recognise that the fact that they were now means they are available once again. Still others argue that the important thing is not the object itself, but the knowledge and skill they can obtain from it. Obtaining knowledge and practising skills that can be passed on, they argue, are the crucial thing, because they are critical to indigenous people’s identity and mental health.

I was consequently interested, for example, in a comment from the Noongar community regarding objects that had been collected by a young Englishman Samuel Talbot in the 1830s. He made detailed notes about the objects, demonstrating his keen interest in understanding Noongar culture. Present day Noongar woman, Marie Taylor, says:

I want to acknowledge the white people who sat down with the Aboriginal people, who wrote the stories down, who collected this information that still exists today. Down here in Noongar country, we may have lost all of that had it not been for many of these people.

Talbot is one of many such people. Lieutenant Dawes, about whom Kate Grenville wrote in her historical novel The lieutenant (my review), is another. Taylor’s response is, though, a generous one, since had there been no white people, they would not have lost (or been at risk of losing) their culture in the first place!

Bagu figures, contemporary objects from the Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre, Cardwell, north Queensland

Bagu figures, contemporary objects reflecting the past, from the Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre, Cardwell, far north Queensland

A very different story comes from far north Queensland. The panel that accompanies a shield, club and basket is titled “Guerrilla warfare”. The objects were collected in the 1860s by settler John Ewen Davidson at Rockingham Bay. He’d gone there, we’re told, “in 1866 to establish a sugar plantation. He began as a shocked observer of the violence of the occupation, yet within six months he was part of it”. Coincidentally, this story reminded me of another Grenville novel, The secret river, in which her fictional protagonist commenced with the aim of being peaceful but he too got caught up in violence.

Then there’s a comment that touched me on a more deeply personal level. It comes from Aunty Barbara Vale, a Dieri elder in South Australia. She says:

When I visit Killalpaninna I get a strong feeling of belonging. It’s our land, Dieri land. I feel safe and relaxed and always come away feeling good for having been there.

Now, I know my connection to the land is nothing like that of an indigenous person’s sense of belonging to and responsibility for their country, but Vale describes perfectly how I feel each year when Mr Gums and I go to Kosciuszko National Park – safe, relaxed, and a lovely sense of well-being. I don’t presume at all that my feeling is the same – it’s not – but her statement did give me a sense of connection, and, in that, of the validity of my own “truth”.

Towards the end of the exhibition, I came across a recent statement by Don Christopherson, a Muran man. He said:


And that is the spirit I’d like to think we all have in Australia today. It is surely the only real way we can move forward. Objects like the ones in this exhibition are crucial to this process, because, as one elder said, they bring the past into the present, which then enables us to move into the future. And, I’d say, they provide an excellent basis for a conversation.

A wonderful exhibition that I’ll try to visit again.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is a link to short films included in the exhibition. Many depict the way contemporary indigenous Australians are making objects today – some making traditional objects, some making modern ones commenting on contemporary relationships and concerns (like the ghost net project on Darnley Island – Erub – in the Torrest Strait).

Art meets Literature at In the Flesh

I’m pushing it really with my heading, as for many the literary aspect of the National Portrait Gallery’s In the Flesh exhibition would be a passingly noticed sideline, but for me it added significantly to my enjoyment. It helped of course that I found the following in the first room:

It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days more than enough for others. (Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility)

I like it when exhibition curators draw parallels between different art forms or, perhaps more accurately in this case, use evidence from one art form (in this case literature) to comment or elucidate another (here, figurative art).

Exhibition curator Penelope Grist describes* the exhibition as being about “humanness – the experience of a mind enfleshed in a body”. She goes on to say that “relationships between the human mind, flesh and lifespan underpin the nature of portraiture”. But wait … are these portraits? Technically not, I think, not if we understand “portrait” to mean the depiction of a specific person. While individuals may have modelled for works in this exhibition, they are not, with an exception or two, identified. Given the subject matter of the works, I don’t see this as a problem. Categories are sometimes best left fluid.

"In the Flesh" interpretative panel

From “In the Flesh”

This exhibition looks at the idea of “humanness” through ten themes – Intimacy, Empathy, Transience, Transition, Vulnerability, Alienation, Restlessness, Reflection, Mortality and Acceptance – which are, in themselves, interesting. I can imagine the fun the curators had in deciding these ten themes. They are an eclectic bunch, but they make sense. The works exhibited vary in form and come from ten contemporary figurative artists: Natasha Bieniek, Robin Eley, Yanni Floros, Juan Ford, Petrina Hicks, Sam Jinks, Ron Mueck, Jan Nelson, Michael Peck and Patricia Piccinini. I like art but keep up with it erratically, so was really only familiar with two of these: Ron Mueck and Patricia Piccinini.

So, where does the literature come in? Well, as you’ve probably guessed already, each of the themes is introduced with a quote. Jane Austen’s introduces the theme of Intimacy. In her article, Grist explains that:

The contemporary art of In the Flesh takes the weight of the thousands of years that human minds have expressed in art their struggle to comprehend the existence, transformation and demise of the human body. The ten quotations from Shakespeare to The Doors that accompany each theme reference this legacy.

I’m not sure why she limits her comment here to “the human body”, unless she doesn’t mean it literally, because the quotations themselves refer more widely to the condition of being human. And the rest of her article encompasses a broader concept of “humanness”.

I’m not going to discuss the ten themes in detail, and I’m not going to include a lot of images**. Instead, I’m going to briefly discuss my responses to two of the works to exemplify how one can enjoy this exhibition.

Sam Jinks, Unsettled Dogs

Sam Jinks, Unsettled Dogs

The first room is devoted to Intimacy, and it contains works by sculptor Sam Jinks, one being “Unsettled Dogs”. I was captivated by this. It’s tender, fragile. They look paradoxically trusting and vulnerable (another of the themes) as well as intimate. But it’s also disconcerting, because of the dog-heads. Grist explains this: “the dog-headed cynocephalus of ancient and medieval imagination reminding of the human capacity for destructive irrationality within intimate relationships”. I have always seen dogs as benign not destructive creatures, but the sculpture does indeed capture the tension contained in this classical concept. Perhaps it’s also because the dog heads are fox-like which we Aussies definitely equate with destruction.

Juan Ford, The Reorientalist

Juan Ford, The Reorientalist

Another work in which a cultural context affected my “reading” is Juan Ford’s painting, “The Reorientalist” (2013). It is in the Reflection theme, and is a large, arresting, powerful piece. Grist talks about the “motif of the play-weapon” confronting “the notion of the natural self”. She says the works displayed in this section are not about glorifying war but questioning why we are interested in war as children, raising ideas of “innocence and experience”. The curator at the Dianne Tanzer Gallery says of this work:

Standing strong, grasping staff-like branches as if to communicate his allegiance to nature’s side of the war. Bound in industrial detritus, this figure wears a tribal outfit that might be conjured from a Mad Max film, like a lone-warrior of both painting and the wild – and a caricature of himself as the artist. The title itself suggests a challenge to the colonialist tendencies of the painting traditions he seeks to subvert, redirecting their Orientalist imperatives into the wilderness; an exorcism performed by an Absurdist shaman.

I can see the tension between children, play and weapons, and I appreciate Ford’s wanting to subvert colonialist traditions. However, in the current environment of concern about the radicalisation of young Australian men, this work had another layer for me. Am I over-thinking it? It certainly made me ponder how art can take on different meanings according to circumstance.

These are just two of the 63 works in the exhibition, most of which made me stop and think. If you are in Canberra over the next few months, I recommend you make time to visit this exhibition. Meanwhile, I will close on the literary reference used for the theme of Transience, partly because it’s by William Cowper who was one of Jane Austen’s favourite poets:

The lapse of time and rivers is the same,
Both speed their journey with a restless stream;
The silent pace, with which they steal away,
No wealth can bribe, nor prayers persuade to stay …
(William Cowper, “A comparison”)

The ultimate description of our “humanness”!

* “In the Flesh: an exhibition of humanness in ten themes” in NPG’s magazine Portrait #47 (Spring/Summer 2014). Currently for sale but will, I believe, be available online on the magazine’s site down the track. The article includes excellent images from the exhibition.
** I’m not totally sure of copyright issues, and I don’t want to detract from the exhibition itself, so I’ve just included a couple of my poor quality iPad images of works that the NPG has used on its website. You can click on the images to see them bigger, though not necessarily better! I am assuming that my use here is covered by fair dealing for criticism or review.

The meeting of art and literature, at the Singapore Art Museum

SAM ExteriorMr Gums and I have had a busy few months, with, unusually for us, two overseas trips in less than four months. Both were family-inspired: Canada in April-May to visit our daughter, and then last week Koh Samui to help Mr Gums’ sister and husband celebrate their 40th anniversary. We decided to spend a few days en route to Samui in Singapore. What an interesting place it is. Although, technically, a new country which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, it has a much longer history, dating back to the second century. What we know as “modern” Singapore, though, began when the British, via Sir Stamford Raffles, established a trading post on the island in 1819. We didn’t see anywhere near enough but we tasted its variety –  including my topic for this post, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).

SAM is housed in a gracious old 19th century missionary school building – the St Joseph’s Institution run by La Salle Brothers.  The building was constructed in stages, from 1855 to completion in the early twentieth century. It was acquired for the museum in 1992. SAM describes itself as having “one of the world’s largest public collections of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian artworks, with a growing component in international contemporary art”.

The current major exhibition, which will run for a year, is Medium at Large: Shapeshifting materials and methods on contemporary art. SAM explains that it

explores the idea of medium in contemporary art, probing some of the most fundamental and pressing questions of art – its making, and also our experience, encounter and understanding of it.

It’s the sort of exhibition I enjoy – modern, confronting and/or provocative, with useful interpretive signage. Of course, I enjoy the famous, classic galleries like the Louvre or Prado, just as I like to read classic novels, but I also enjoy seeing what contemporary artists are doing and thinking. I loved the concept behind this exhibition. In our increasingly fluid, interactive, interdisciplinary world, a focus on how art is made and how re relate to it, seems very relevant.

The exhibition comprises 32 artworks and apparently draws mainly from the museum’s permanent collection, but it also “includes loans and commissions from Singaporean, Southeast Asia, and Asian artists”. We are seeing more Asian artists here in Australia, but it’s exciting to visit Asian galleries where we can see art and artists less familiar to western gallery-goers. And so, we saw two portraits made using live bullets on sandpaper (by Filipino artist Alvin Zafra), and a sculpture made with human hair (Dutch-born Indonesian artist Mella Jaarsma’s Shaggy). We saw works that play with medium and form, such as an oil painting overlaid with a video projection (Indian artist Ranbir Kaleka’s He was a good man), a distressingly mesmerising video of a woman dancing on butter captured also in still photographs (Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo’s Exegie – Butter Dance), and another video in which a taut rope springs and snaps through architectural spaces (Singaporean Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s Space Drawing 5). Our minds were challenged by a video installation called The Cloud of Unknowing (by another Singaporean Ho Tzu Nyen) in which various residents in an apartment complex experience some sort of epiphany or understanding of something mystical. Some of the works, including this last one, have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

RenatoOraro's Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

Renato Orara’s Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

But, since this is primarily a litblog, I’ll finish with two works that incorporate books. The first one is, in fact, the first work that confronted us in the exhibition, Filipino Renato Orara’s* Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403). It comprises a lamb cutlet, finely drawn in ballpoint pen on a page of the Bible, a page from Job. Since Job is primarily about how humans can comprehend why an all-powerful God lets good people suffer, the piece raises all sorts of questions about “the lamb of God”, about sacrifice. The label suggests other tensions too, such as between word and image, between open/public (when the book is open) and hidden/private (when the book is closed), and, through imposing what is essentially a chop on the Bible, between the sacred and profane. I would add another tension – that between wonder at the delicacy of the execution of the image and feeling “gross” from seeing a lump of fatty meat on the Bible. A surprising work that stays with you.

Part of Titarubi's Shadow of surrender (2013)

Part of Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender (2013)

The other work, Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender, comprises multiple components in a large space. I could not quite fit it all into my photo but it contains large, open, blank books on benches, with chairs, and with big charcoal drawings of trees on the walls. It was commissioned for the Indonesian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. It’s a complex work, with additional layers of meaning contained in the knowledge that the wood used in the furniture comes from colonial-era railroad tracks. The pieces are burnt, which apparently references the charcoal the artist’s mother cooked with, but which also links to the charcoal tree drawings. And, of course, trees provide the paper and wood used for books and furniture, suggesting a cycle of life theme too. The label refers to the fact that the books are empty implying a “tabula rasa” and the idea that it is time to re-write history or re-learn lessons, and thus develop anew leaving past colonial constructs.  An article about the Biennale on Titarubi’s website says that in this work he links “sakti” (‘divine energy”) “to both education and the environment, to knowledge and the natural world”. Another powerful and emotive piece, as you can see.

SAM was our last “sight” in Singapore and rounded off our visit very nicely!

* While researching where Orara was from, I discovered an article about artists using ballpoint pens. It starts with: “Accessible and affordable, the ballpoint pen has become the medium of choice for artists to make obsessive abstractions, extreme drawings, and playful riffs on venerated ink traditions”.

Canada’s Group of Seven

You’ve seen me write about Canberra’s Seven Writers, a group of seven women who got together to share their writing and support each other. All of them published well-received books – novels, short stories, poetry. Well, I was amused – I’m easily amused – to discover  the other day as we explored the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) that Canada has a Group of Seven.

However, Canada’s Group of Seven – as you’ve probably guessed – is not a writers’ group but one of artists. It comprised seven men who had been painting for many years before they formed this group. They first exhibited together in 1920 at the Art Gallery of Toronto, now the AGO. According to signage at the Gallery, they believed that to develop a sense of nationhood, Canada needed to find its voice in art – and they saw this voice as coming through nature and landscape. The group operated – is that the best word? – until 1933, but, the Gallery says, their work “continues to influence national identity”.

The seven artists are men I’ve never heard of: Franklin Carmichael (1890–1945), Lawren Harris (1885–1970), A. Y. Jackson (1882–1972), Frank Johnston (1888–1949), Arthur Lismer (1885–1969), J. E. H. MacDonald (1873–1932), and Frederick Varley (1881–1969). Apparently the Seven did become bigger when A. J. Casson (1898–1992) joined in 1926, Edwin Holgate (1892–1977) in 1930, and LeMoine FitzGerald (1890–1956) in 1932. Mr Gums and I were particularly attracted to the stylised, almost abstract landscapes by Harris, though, really, we didn’t have enough time to explore all the artists in depth.

The Gallery has an impressive collection of their work, due largely to its major benefactor, the collector, Ken Thomson. Because we had limited time, though I’d happily go back to the gallery, we focused the second half of our visit on this collection, and some of the rooms near it. (In the first part of our visit, we checked out the special exhibition which featured Henry Moore and Francis Bacon.) Ken Thomson’s philosophy on collecting art was quoted on the walls:

If your heart is beating, you know it was made for you.

The hanging of the Ken Thomson Collection was interesting – and different to that in many other parts of the Gallery – in that the paintings were hung without individual labels. Instead, in each room there was a large introductory label and a spiral bound book with thumbnails of the works and the needed identification. I had mixed feelings about the approach: it enabled the works to be shown, rather as they would in a home, unadulterated by any immediate mediation, and yet in a gallery I do want to know what I’m seeing. I suspect, though, we are all different in how we want to interact with art. I have seen this sort of approach before – that is, not identifying the picture with a label next to it – in some of the galleries and art exhibits we visited in Japan, but in those places there tended to be very few works on the walls, sometimes just one big work on each wall.

Tom Thomson landscapes at AGO

Note the hanging of Tom Thomson landscapes at AGO

Interpretive sign re Group of Seven, AGO

Interpretive sign re Group of Seven, AGO

As I’m still travelling, I don’t have time to write too much more, but I wanted to mention the room that was devoted to displaying works by both the Group of Seven and artists contemporaneous with them. The latter were hung on sections of walls painted in a darker grey colour to identify them more easily. These non-Group of Seven works, some of which were by women like Emily Carr, expressed a more diverse, less romantic, perhaps, view of Canada. They included figurative works, which contrasts significantly with the Group of Seven’s pretty much exclusive focus on landscape. One that I particularly liked was the naive style “In the Nun’s Garden” (c. 1933) (see below) which, from a distance, gave the impression of penguins. It’s easy to see how their association with nuns works!

Works by Lilias Torrance Newton (top) and Sarah Robertson

Works by Lilias Torrance Newton (top) and Sarah Robertson, contemporaneous with the Group of Seven

Emily Carr, in fact, is one of the few artists I’d come across before, in my visit to the Canada’s northwest in 1991, where we saw her art at the Royal British Columbia Museum. She was particularly known for painting indigenous Canadians and their culture, though moved into “forest scenes”. She met the Group of Seven, and was apparently encouraged and supported by their “leader”, Lawren Harris. She was also a writer, which, really, is the main reason I know her – through her autobiographical book Klee Wyck.

Another artist associated with the group was Tom Thomson (1877–1917). He died young, before the group’s official formation, but his landscape paintings of the west belong very much to the group’s ethos. The introductory signage described his landscapes as “boldly expressive and passionate”. According to Wikipedia, group member and recognised leader Lawren Harris wrote in his essay “The Story of the Group of Seven” that Thomson was “a part of the movement before we pinned a label on it”. The room dedicated to Thomson’s painting was rather poignant.

One of the great things about travel is getting a sense of how a nation views itself. I think Australians find visiting Canada particularly interesting because we have quite a lot of similarities as well as, of course, our differences. This art exhibition, with its discussion of landscape and nationhood gave me another insight into a country which, like ours, has immense space and dramatic, defining landscapes.

Russell Drysdale at Tarra Warra

English: Photograph of Australian painter Russ...

Russell Drysdale with canvases, 1945 (Photo by Max Dupain. Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

If you’d asked me to name an Australian artist when I was young, two names would have popped into my head – Russell Drysdale and the indigenous artist Albert Namatjira. As I grew up, other names came to the fore, such as William Dobell, Sidney Nolan, Margaret OlleyMargaret Preston, Jeffrey Smart, and Brett Whiteley, not to mention newer indigenous artists like Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye. Russell Drysdale, in fact, disappeared a little from view – at least, I stopped hearing him mentioned. So, when I discovered recently, via Lisa of ANZLitLovers, that the Tarra Warra Museum of Art in Victoria was having a Russell Drysdale exhibition on the theme Defining the Modern Australian Landscape, I knew I wanted to see it. Fortunately, we had a trip planned to Melbourne during the exhibition. Guess where I went this week!

The thing I have always liked about Drysdale (1912-1981) is that the paintings I knew were simple – in the stark sense, not in the meaning sense! This starkness equates, for me anyhow, with the spare in writing – and regular readers here know that I like the spare. I love the fact that paintings that look simple or easy to comprehend contain layers of feelings and ideas that only become evident if you spend time looking at them. But, of course, as usually happens with exhibitions of an artist’s oeuvre, I learnt things I hadn’t known in my simple (and here I mean simple in terms of understanding) youth. Here are some of those things* …

Drysdale’s early landscapes were rejected by the Modernists

Apparently, the Melbourne Modernists didn’t think landscape was a proper subject for art – despite the fact that Drysdale’s landscapes, particularly those from 1940-1941 when the criticisms were made, were not pretty or simplistically representational. One of his artistic influences was Modigliani, which is obvious in the elongated figures he painted into his landscapes in the 1940s, such as his 1941 “Man feeding his dogs”.

As time progressed, however, his images became redder, starker and darker – and yet, the exhibition tells us, he wrote in 1956:

The vast spaces of the north, endless and old. It’s very hard to reorient oneself. Outside the traffic rushes by as in every city. The hurrying crowd, dressed and neat, and rain splashing on the roads. Neon lights and no stars; but the loneliness of the desert plains seems friendly, and infinitely peaceful. (Drysdale’s journal, 13/10/56)

Friendliness and peacefulness are not, I think, the usual feelings you take from his outback paintings. There is certainly the loneliness, but alongside it is a sense of the hardness of the life, of resignation, and, more positively, of resilience. But, there is also, from the painter, a sense of respect and affection. I found, via Google, an oral history interview he did with Hazel de Berg in 1960, in which he said of the landscape:

It is an environment which I love and which I like to go back to, and for me it has a tremendous appeal, it is continually exciting, these curious and strange rhythms which one discovers in a vast landscape, the juxtaposition of figures, of objects, all these things are exciting. Add to that again the peculiarity of the particular land in which we live here, and you get a quality of strangeness that you do not find, I think, anywhere else. This is very ancient land, and its forms and its general psychology are so intriguing as compared to the other countries of the world that it in itself is surprising.

I wonder what Murray Bail would say about this?

Drysdale was rejected for war service

Drysdale had a detached retina from his teens, which left him essentially blind in one eye and hence unfit for war service, so he (unofficially) contributed to the war effort through his paintings. During the Sydney Harbour submarine scare of 1942 he moved to the safety of Albury. His paintings at this time included soldiers on the Albury station platform. I had not seen these paintings before and found them particularly moving – dark, somewhat disproportionate figures that look weary but resigned. There’s “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” sense about them. (See Soldiers, Albury Station, 1942.)

Drysdale was concerned about environmental degradation

In 1944 the Sydney Morning Herald commissioned Drysdale and a reporter to record the effects of the severe drought that was occurring in western New South Wales. His drawings of dead trees and animals, eroded landscapes, and tired people were printed in the newspaper, and brought him to wider public attention. The exhibition included reproductions of these newspapers. Newsprint is not the ideal medium for such works, but you could still see the power of his feelings about what was happening to the land and the people. The works (paintings and drawings) that came out of this time include somewhat Dali-like surreal but also grotesquely anthropomorphised trees.

He went on in the late 1940s to paint scenes from the old gold mining towns of Hill End and Sofala. The exhibition notes talk of his depicting the impact of “bad farming, reckless mining and unrestrained civic expansion”.

One of the most famous paintings which comes from his Hill End-Sofala period, The Cricketers (1948), is in the exhibition. Its depiction of cricket players dwarfed by stark buildings in a destitute landscape is not the usual way this subject is rendered.

Drysdale was one of the first modern Australian artists to paint indigenous Australians

The exhibition included a few paintings from the 1950s to 1970s which depict Aboriginal people. The exhibition notes describe his concern and empathy for Aboriginal people, for the way they’d been “relegated to the margins”. The notes explained that he first depicted them in the traditional “white settler view of forlorn people”, but then moved to showing them as “silent figures standing in their country” and finally onto a more “abstract representation of their mystic connection beyond the material world”.

One of the strongest paintings from this period in the exhibition, and one of my favourites, is “Bob and Maudie” (1972).

I’m going to finish on a quote that was not in the exhibition, but that I can’t resist. It comes from his longstanding friend, artist Donald Friend. Friend wrote:

He loved gaiety and wild talk and drink, laughter, companionship. Everything, in fact, that was unlike those superb sad empty pictures he made in which a town was an empty street, a pub was one bored man leaning against a verandah post.

Well, he was, like me, the Aquarian – the escapist who could disappear into other shapes…

It’s interesting – the notion of escaping into darker reaches – but Drysdale isn’t the only person to do that, is he.

* Unfortunately, because Drysdale died in 1981, his paintings are still in copyright and so I can’t include any here. However, a Google Images search on his name will retrieve many examples.

Villainesses thriving in Canberra

Now I know many Australians see Canberra, their national capital, as a soulless, boring, sliced-white-bread sort of place but not so. There is life here. Art is happening – and it’s fresh, vibrant and young. Not all our young people have left (yet!).

Last night Mr Gums and I went to the opening of a collaborative exhibition organised by a group of twenty-somethings. The theme was Villainess. It was chosen, as one of the collaborators Georgia Kartas wrote in the foreword of the accompanying booklet,

for its surface-level but nonetheless undeniable badassery. Heroes have quests, villains have motives.

This is not a politically-focussed feminist exhibition as its name could suggest – though by its very existence it makes a statement about young women and their sense of self, their confidence, their willingness to get out there and do something for themselves. No, in fact it’s a fashion photo shoot exhibition. It is fun, clever, wicked – and it is stylish, as you’d expect from a fashion shoot. You can read something about its origin and the creation process at hercanberra and at Georgia Kartas’ redmagpie blog.

The collaborators were Elly Freer (photographer), Laura McCleane (make-up artist), and Georgia Kartas (fashion editor). The clothing, the hairpieces, the props were all sourced locally.

The photographic subjects are – of course – villainesses and they were chosen by the models – Elly, Laura, Georgia and their friends. There are ten villainesses, and they come from literature, popular culture and mythology, ranging from the very modern, such as Elle Driver from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, to the very classic, like Medusa.

We loved the exhibition. The photographs are beautiful, and exude a delightful, but intelligent, irreverence which characterises the ethos of the exhibition. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the event, including the production of an accompanying booklet which contains written responses to the villainesses by local writers. These responses give the exhibition an extra dimension – reflective, and often satirical, or tongue-in-cheek. I particularly enjoyed Eleanor Malbon’s response to Elle Driver who was modelled by Elly Freer (what a coincidence in names here!) in which she manages to spoof both Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron (Avatar):

… All together, the problems of the world make a charge at Driver.

Flesh meets steel as she wields her swords. Elle Driver dunks soil erosion in a bucket full of gypsum. She rips the mask off charity programs to reveal their reinforcement of material inequality. Her bullets fly through the heart of the underlying causes of biodiversity loss.

You get the picture I’m sure. The booklet itself, designed by Sheila Papp, is a lovely piece of art and a fabulous memento of the exhibition.

Yep, a good night in which we saw the next generation of artists-creators strutting their stuff. What fun!

Kaori Gallery, Cnr London Circuit and Hobart Place, Civic
7-9 November, 2013

Disclosure: I have known the photographer since she was a baby. Go Elly!

unDISCLOSED, the second national indigenous art triennial

Indigenous Australian art has, over the last few decades, become big business in Australia and overseas, and for good reason. It is unique and it is beautiful. Most Australians, I suspect, only know of the “traditional” dot painting style of the Central Australian Desert and perhaps the wood carvings of the Torres Strait Islands. However, contemporary indigenous artists are producing works across the whole art spectrum from traditional painting to modern sculpture, from digital photography to video installations, and it is this variety that is currently on exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in its second national indigenous art triennial titled unDisclosed. The first triennial was titled Culture Warriors and was, I understand also exhibited in Washington DC.

The exhibition is organised thematically, with the themes speaking to traditional relationships with country and people as well as to more modern concerns regarding identity and the ongoing effects of oppression. They are:

  • Family, Ritual and Country
  • Invisibility, Silence and Memory
  • Belonging
  • Manifesting Presence
  • Revelation

Twenty male and female artists spanning a wide age range are represented. While there wasn’t a piece of work I didn’t enjoy, the works that spoke most to me were those in which political comment was woven into gorgeously conceived art with an indigenous sensibility.

Particularly clever are two works about colonisation by Michael Cook, Broken Dreams featuring a woman and Undiscovered featuring a man. Each work comprises 10 photographs that comment on indigenous experience of colonisation in a surprising and mind-bending way. In Broken Dreams, a beautifully dressed indigenous women is pictured in England of the late 18th century. As the sequence progresses, moving across the sea to Australia, she is gradually undressed. In the second last photograph, she is bound by rope. The photos are simple – in their muted tones and uncluttered composition – and complex in their iconography. What, for example, is the role of the colourful lorikeet which accompanies the woman on her journey? This is the sort of work that invites conversation.

Another mesmerising work is Christian Thompson’s Heat which comprises a “large-scale three-channel projection of three young Aboriginal women, sisters, each on a separate screen”. We see only their heads and bare shoulders against a plain background. They stare into the camera – and therefore at us, the viewers – with only the occasional blink. Sometime during the projection, which runs for a little over 5 minutes, wind catches their hair which becomes alive and waves about their heads and faces, while they maintain their steady stares. (How they didn’t sneeze, I’ll never know!) The symbolism of the hair is complex and invites us to consider women’s hair, personally, historically and mythologically. It makes us think about the relationship between hair and wildness, beauty and, of course, the power held by and over women.

My third selection, for the purposes of giving you a flavour, is Nici Cumpston’s set of four large landscape works which were created by combining photography with inkjet printing, watercolour and pencil. The images all depict aspects of Nookamba Lake (aka Lake Bonney to “the interlopers”) which is part of the damaged Murray-Darling River System. The lake, now stagnant, was once part of a flourishing system supporting a rich indigenous life. Cumpston’s stark images – with their muted colours – contain evidence, if you know where to look, of that past life while also conveying the current degradation. And yet, paradoxically, the images are beautiful too. I sometimes wonder whether such beauty – though admittedly stark – can undermine the message?

The exhibition’s curators, on an the interpretive panel, describe Heat as saying:

 We are here; We are strong; We have survived.
And that is, indeed, what the whole exhibition says, loud and clear, and with a confidence that is inspiring. It is well worth seeing … I wonder if the triennial could turn into a biennial!

(Note: I have not included images of any of the artworks here for copyright reasons)

Post-impressionism redux

Musee d'Orsay

Main hall, Musee d’Orsay (Courtesy: Benh, via Wikipedia, under CC-BY-2.5)

It was almost 30 years ago to the day that I attended my first exhibition of post-impressionist art. That was in London: it was Post-Impressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts, 1979-80, and we went on March 9, 1980, the last day of my first European trip. Last night, March 4, 2010, we went to the Masterpieces from Paris exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. It is an exhibition of post-impressionist art sourced solely from the wonderful Musée d’Orsay. The Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, by contrast, contained paintings sourced from collections besides their own.

Now, being a librarian-archivist, bibliophile and all-round hoarder, I still have my catalogue from the 1980 exhibition, and so I did a little comparison. I loved that first exhibition – partly because the post-impressionist era is a favourite of mine – but when I compare the offerings from the two exhibitions, well, there’s a big difference. The Musée d’Orsay’s collection is outstanding and to see such paintings as Van Gogh’s “Starry night” and “Bedroom at Arles”, and Monet’s “Waterlily pond, green harmony” in my home town on the other side of the world is something to be treasured.

However, the The Musée d’Orsay exhibition is not only great because of these top masterpieces; it is full of treasures, big and small. Some of the small treasures that caught my attention included works by Maurice Denis. Now, I checked him out, too, in the two catalogues and found an interesting example of art on the move. In the 1980 exhibition was Denis’ lovely, colourful “Sunlight on the Terrace” (1890). The catalogue, as catalogues do, said it was “Lent by a private collector, St Germain-en-Laye”. Clearly that collector did not hang on to this gorgeous piece (and wouldn’t it be interesting to know the story behind that) because here it now is in the Musée d’Orsay’s collection.  This current exhibition catalogue says it was “purchased, 1986”. I liked this little work, as well as a few others by Denis.

As, I think, most of us like to do when we go to an art exhibition, I looked for a work or two that particularly appealed to me. Of course, it’s hard to go past the “biggies” like the Van Goghs, Cezannes, Monets, and the like. We’d seen some before, but they were then, and will remain always, stupendous. However, the fun is finding new artists or new works to take your fancy. For me, this time, these new works included a couple by Denis. They also included an artist I don’t recollect having heard of before, Théo van Rysselberghe. He worked quite a bit, though not solely, in the pointilist style, and two of his works are in the exhibition. The one that particularly appealed to me was “The man at the tiller” (1892). While the waves seemed a little clumsy to me, I was drawn to its simple but dramatic composition. I also like its allusion to Hokusai’s famous “The great wave of Kanagawa” (1829-1832) – and I like it because I am fascinated by pointilist painting.

The exhibition – of 112 works by 35 artists – is beautifully curated. The works, which cover the significant styles and schools – including Pointilism, Neo-impressionism, SynthetismSymbolism, the Pont-Aven School, and the Nabis – that loosely comprise the Post-Impressionists, are spread thematically across 6 rooms. This arrangement works well to demonstrate development within these styles as well as between them – and it resulted in several artists appearing in different rooms as they developed their style over the period. And, the lighting is magnificent. “Starry night”, for one, simply shimmers. It’s no wonder that the Gallery reached its target of 250,000 visits 6 weeks before closing. This is a blockbuster to end all blockbusters.

(Note: I have not included images of any of the artworks here due to copyright complications. While the works themselves are generally out of copyright there are arguments that images of these works are not. I am not willing to take on the “big boys” on this matter as the Wikimedia Foundation did last year. And anyhow, they are mostly easy to find with a quick Google search, if you are interested)