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?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Pulp fiction, 1940s to 1970s

This post was inspired by the Pulp Fiction exhibition* at the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery that ran from August to October this year. The exhibition used materials from two collectors, Graeme Flanagan (d. 2015) and James Doig, who also wrote the accompanying booklet. Doig says that Flanagan “amassed one of the most significant collections of Australian pulp fiction paperbacks”. He also collected original cover art, and in 1994 wrote Australian vintage paperback guide, which was apparently the first detailed book about Australian pulp fiction and is still an authority on the subject.

Most of you probably know what pulp fiction is, but if you don’t, it encompasses cheaply produced “mass market paperbacks and digests” in popular genres such as Westerns, crime, romance, adventure, science fiction and horror. Printed on “pulp” paper, they were not made to last and were poorly regarded by the literati of the time. But, of course, they were part of Australia’s reading culture and are now being recognised for the cultural objects they are. Because of their cheap production and disposability, however, they can be tricky to find – and, says, Doig, even Australia’s legal deposit libraries don’t hold complete collections.

Doig starts by referring to an article in the Tribune titled “I spent a week in a literary sewer” by journalist Rex Chiplin who wrote about the “muck” – “the pornography, sex, sadism, brutality and illiteracy” – being sold weekly on Australian newsstands. He wanted to find out where it all came from – but I wanted to find out who Rex Chiplin was. Well, I found out, via a blog called Ethical Martini, that he was a communist, which is not surprising because, as most Australians would know, the Tribune was the Communist Party of Australia’s newspaper.

Apparently Chiplin was called before Australia’s version of the USA’s McCarthy hearings, the Royal Commission on Espionage (1954-55), but the tidbit I want to share is Ethical Martini’s quoting another communist journalist, David McKnight, on Chiplin. McKnight wrote:

One unusual piece of exposure journalism was the pamphlet, “Facts Behind the Liquor Commission”, printed by the Communist Party of Australia at its underground printery which set out to expose capitalism in the shape of the ‘brewery barons’. Written by a journalist (probably Rex Chiplin) who had a racy turn of phrase (‘Bottled beer was as rare as a bankrupt Vice Squad sergeant’) the pamphlet incidentally exposed corruption in the labour movement…

It’s the “racy turn of phrase” that caught my attention, because it is certainly in evidence in the “sewer article” where he describes, for example, the directors of a magazine publishing company, American-Australasian, as “all North Shore pukka sahibs.” A little further on he describes a magazine called Action Detective Stories as “good wholesome literature for homicidal maniacs and similar unfortunates”. He criticises these “sewer” magazines’ forays into political commentary about the Korean War and Soviet behaviour in southeast Asia – but, I’m getting offtrack, so let me just share what he writes about Consolidated Press:

Consolidated Press, Frank Packer’s organisation … publishes a host of crime, sex and violence comics and the Phantom and Star paper-covered novels. Phantoms and Stars are direct reprints, lurid covers and all, of American gutter novelettes which are churned out by the score in “pulp factories.”

By reprinting they apparently circumvented import restrictions. Doig says that “Phantom Books … reprinted more than 300 of the best American crime novels between 1953 and 1961 and is a highly desirable series.”

Larry Kent, Murder MatineeAnother company named and shamed by Chiplin was Cleveland, which our mate Doig says is the only pulp publisher still active (in Australia) today – focusing these days on westerns. Cleveland was also known for the Larry Kent I hate crime series which “was named after a 1950s Sydney radio show [preserved at the National Film and Sound Archive] about a hard-boiled New York detective”. The radio series commenced in 1950, and its popularity inspired, says The Thrilling Detective website, Cleveland “to try their hand at some Larry Kent novels”. They were written by American expat Don Haring through “an arrangement” with the radio producer. The first series of these monthly novelettes commenced in April 1954.

The Thrilling Detective explains that:

over 400 Larry Kent novels and novelettes were pumped out under the Larry Kent byline in the next thirty years, and supposedly, as late as the 1990s, the series was still being produced in Scandinavia. The covers usually featured paintings of leggy, full-figured babes and sported such snappy (and often exclamation mark-endowed) titles as Kill Me a Little!, This Way, Sucker!, Cute Heat!, Dig Me a Dame! and Stand Up and Die! Add on the 150 or so radio shows, and our Larry turns out to be one of the hardest working eyes around…

If you, like me, ever give pulp fiction a thought, it is probably for these covers, “lurid” though Chiplin thought they were. As The Thrilling Detective says:

Although the books were decidedly hokey pulp affairs, and by no means great literature, the covers themselves have a gorgeously cheesy flavour, and are now quite collectible. In fact, most of the web sites featuring Kent deal as much with the covers than the contents of the books.

Horror tales, illustrated by Frank Benier

Illus. Frank Benier

Doig says that selling these books, which happened at stalls and newsagents on street corners and railway stations, was a competitive business. So “the cover was all important, the more colourful and garish the better.” He names some of the illustrators who did these covers – Stan Pitt and Walter Stackpoole (for Cleveland), and Col Cameron and cartoonist Frank Benier (for Horwitz). It is these covers as much as anything which now make these books highly sought after – and highly exhibitable!

Have you ever read any pulp fiction – or, even, are you a collector? I’d love to know.

* Images from the exhibition can be seen on Pinterest.

My literary week (10), Non-fiction November and Lady Chatterley

I had hoped to finish my current book by this weekend, but it’s been a busy week with a two-day trip away, an exhibition launch, and a Friends’ of the NFSA event, on top of usual commitments. However, I do have some “literary” bits and pieces to share. I’ll start with the one that isn’t hinted at in the post title!

Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits Exhibition

Stupidly, I didn’t take any pics of the two events I attended – a special members preview and the gala opening – for this exciting new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Created collaboratively by the NPG and the National Film and Sound Archive (which provides most of the images), this exhibition contains 275 images from Australia’s film industry. I’m including it here – besides wanting to promote it – because the curators, Jennifer Coombes and Penny Grist, have organised the collection to convey a narrative, from set-up to resolution. This results in images from different eras and genres being placed side by side, forcing us to think about them from different perspectives. I’ll be back to spend more time. (Meanwhile, you might like to check out the interactive exhibition of the Cinesound movie company’s gorgeous Casting Books.)

Cover Story (or, Vinyl Covers with David Kilby)

Still with the NFSA, on Friday I went to an event organised by our Friends’ group at which record collector David Kilby presented a selection of record covers. David often collects records for their covers, rather than their contents, and at this presentation we could see why. But, how to present them? There are various possibilities, but the one David chose was to display examples from the “categories” he collects – and my, does he have some fascinating categories. Some relate to audio content – such as Religious songs, Instructional records, or Co-star with me – and some to the cover art. There are, for example, covers which use “stars” who have nothing to do with the content. Jayne Mansfield was a popular choice here! Wonder why! Then there are those which depict actions, such as smoking, or types of people, such as plumbers. You really had to be there!

Music to read lady Chatterley's lover by, album coverBut, the group I’m sharing here is the “Music to [insert action] by”, and particularly, “Music to read by”. To represent this group, David displayed the cover for Music to read Lady Chatterley’s lover by. The music comes from Richard Shores and his Orchestra, and there are ten tracks: Love, Hate, Sorrow, Gay, Blues, Surprise, Frustration Nostalgia, Fear, Hysteria! The cover notes briefly refer to the novel’s controversial history – the censorship, and so on – and then continues:

Richard Shores [apostrophe?] initial venture into musical “no-man’s-land” may trip the same kind of alarm. Nature in the raw is seldom mild as can be seen when Shore utilizes his melodic pallet to characterize the spectrum of human emotions.

While music has always reflected the composer’s attempt to picture human emotions through the symmetry of naturals, sharps and flats, Shores flamboyantly exposes man’s innermost feelings relentlessly.

Gotta hear this one day!

Non-fiction November meme

Having seen some of my favourite bloggers – such as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) – take part in the Non-fiction November meme sponsored by julzreads, among others, I considered joining in, but this week got the better of me. Consequently, I’m just going to respond briefly here:

Week 1, Oct 30-Nov 3: Your year in non-fiction

Two of the questions for this week were:

  • What was your favourite non-fiction read of the year? Without doing the count, I seem to have read more non-fiction this year than in recent years, so it’s tricky to answer this. In fact it’s so tricky that I’m going to give three: Kim Mahood’s Position doubtful (my review); Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too afraid to cry (my review); and Stan Grant’s Talking to my country (my review). All three explore Australia, and what it means to be Australian, particularly in relation to indigenous people. (For more, see Week 3 below)
  • Bernadette Brennan, A writing life Helen Garner and her workWhat is one topic of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? This would have to be literary biographies and memoirs. Two, in particular, have come out this year that I’ve not managed to read (yet), Bernadette Brennan’s biography of Helen Garner, A writing life: Helen Garner and her work, and Georgia Blain’s memoir, The museum of words. I did though retrieve (and read) from my TBR pile, Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers (my review) so it hasn’t been completely hopeless.

Week 2, Nov 6-10: Book pairing

For Week 2 participants were asked to pair a non-fiction book with a fiction one, using your own criteria, but essentially meaning books that seem to go well together. Many bloggers have posted multiple pairings, but as I’m not devoting a whole post to this, I’m going with just one, the one that popped into my head the minute I realised the subject of my reading group’s August book, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (my review). It’s about Koreans in Japan, and their struggle to survive. My paired book is Richard Lloyd Parry’s People who eat darkness (my review). Parry’s analysis of the murder of a young English woman in Japan by a serial killer includes a discussion of the poor treatment of Koreans by the Japanese. It prepared me well for Min Jin Lee.



Week 3, Nov 13-17: Be the expert/Ask the export/Become the expert

From this group – which officially starts tomorrow, so I’m jumping the gun somewhat – I’m choosing the “be an expert option”. This asks me to share the title of three books on a single topic that I’ve read and recommend (thus making me an expert!). Well, I don’t claim to be an expert on this topic – it would be insensitive of me to do so in fact – but I would (and have) recommended these three memoirs on the experience of racism in Australia. Two of the books are by indigenous Australians, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too afraid to cry and Stan Grant’s Talking to my country, and one by an Australian-born writer of West Indian background, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (my review). These books paint a picture of Australia that is depressing and distressing. When I first became aware of racism in my teens in the late 1960s, I’d have been horrified to think that half a century later so little progress would have been made in how we treat each other. What is wrong with us?



And here I will end. It would be cheeky answering Weeks 4 and 5 this far in advance.

However, I’d love to know your answers to these non-fiction questions.

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.

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.

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)