Published  16/01/2013

Antipodean Springtime: Letter from Australia

Antipodean Springtime: Letter from Australia

Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra
September–October 2012


September-October in Australia was intended to be entirely for family reasons and I made an effort to avoid work and therefore exhibitions. Impossible. As my book Contemporary Australian Drawing, (Metasenta/Macmillan) had just been launched in Melbourne, in June, regrettably in my absence, I felt I was due a holiday, but that was not to be. It was a wonderful and art-packed three weeks.

Saturday 29 September: Mimi Roennfeldt started the adventure in Melbourne. Our day together took place at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. Being Grand Final Day (similar in Melbourne to a religious festival), Mimi negotiated a clever route avoiding the drama at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the ensuing traffic mayhem. At Heide we saw two excellent exhibitions: Danila Vassilieff: A New Art History; and LESS IS MORE, a survey of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism in Australia.

Danila Vassilieff: A New Art History, (21 April–7 October 2012) was guest curated by Felicity St John Moore, to mark the launch of her expanded and updated second edition of Vassilieff and His Art (first published 1982). The new volume contains additional chapters and reproductions that confirm the essential place of Cossack émigré artist Danila Vassilieff (1897–1958) in the development of modern Australian art. The exhibition was a revelation in terms of putting the record straight over Vassilieff’s pivotal position in the development of expressionist modernism in Australia from the 1930s, and particularly the direct influence (to date acknowledged but in a most limited manner) on the work of Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. His work clearly influenced the narrative, childlike imagery of Mirka Mora, a French immigrant artist, but it has been played down.

Heide, on the outskirts of Melbourne (now subsumed by the spread of the suburban mass) was the home in the 1940s of John and Sunday Reed. It became an artists’ community attracting their friends. In due course these became leading artists in Australia: Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Yosl Bergner, John Perceval, Joy Hester, Mirka Mora and numerous others. In the 1940s, John Reed, a lawyer with a wide-ranging intellect joined with young Adelaide poet and editor, Max Harris to establish a publishing firm, Reed & Harris, most famous for its radical cultural journal Angry Penguins.
John and Sunday Reed were also actively involved in arts organisations that promoted avant-garde art.

John was a founding member of the Contemporary Art Society in 1938, serving several terms as president. In the mid-1950s the Reeds established the Gallery of Contemporary Art as a venue for CAS exhibitions. In 1958, with the assistance of friend and entrepreneur Georges Mora, they re-launched the Gallery as the Museum of Modern Art of Australia. The Heide Collection, from which many of their exhibitions are drawn, was assembled over five decades by its founders, John and Sunday Reed, with an important list of benefactors since, enabling the expansion of facilities and exhibition spaces. Throughout their lives, the Reeds supported innovative contemporary art and promoted and encouraged the artists there. It has since become not just a delightful place, with Sculpture Park and superb gardens, but a research centre with an extensive archive.

The life of Russian émigré artist Danila Ivanovich Vassilieff is remarkable by any standards, as Heide curator, Kendrah Morgan points out:

The story of how Vassilieff came to make his career in Australia reads like a script for an epic feature film. Set across several continents and featuring a changing cast of colourful characters, it is interwoven with grand themes: war, survival, adventure, love, betrayal, loss and above all, an innate drive to create. The tale begins in Kagalnitskaya, a small village in South Russia, where Vassilieff was born to a Cossack father and Ukrainian mother. He demonstrated enough potential as a young man for his parents to send him to a military academy in St Petersburg, where he trained as an engineer. Caught up in the Russian revolution of 1917 and ensuing civil war, he joined the Cossack cavalry and served on the Eastern Front, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel before being caught by the Reds at Baku, on the Caspian Sea. After a daring escape, he slowly made his way to China, living for a time with Tartar horsemen in Armenia, learning English in the employ of an Anglo-Persian oil company, and travelling by train through India and Burma. Arriving in Shanghai in 1923 he married a fellow refugee, Anisia Nicolaevna and the couple made their way to Australia where they bought a sugar cane farm in Queensland. Later, while working on the railway extension in the Northern Territory, Vassilieff began to paint, using a child’s painting kit.

Vassilieff’s dynamic approach to painting reflects this extraordinary life, rich in emotional content and with spontaneity, hitherto unknown to Australian artists. He favoured the meaning of a work over the aesthetic perfection of a piece, and when he chose local Lilydale marble from which to sculpt, he drew on his knowledge of Russian folk carving, and familiarity with the work of European modern masters such as Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. An economy of means, intense colours, inspired by Russian icons resulted in works that share the monumentality of the paintings of Natalie Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov. For many years after Vassilieff’s death in 1958, writers, curators and collectors often overlooked his great influence on Australian art. Felicity St John Moore, has used the exhibition at Heide to assert his importance to the generation of rebellious young Melbourne painters in the late 1930s and 1940s who became known collectively as the Angry Penguins – Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester and John Perceval.

The second exhibition at Heide LESS IS MORE, (3 August – 4 November 2012) is a survey of Minimal and Post-Minimal art in Australia, focussing on work from the 1960s until the present. It examines Minimalism and its critical counter-point Post-Minimalism highlighting their continuing relevance for contemporary art. Including works by over 30 Australian artists such as Robert Jacks, Mikala Dwyer, and Nigel Lendon alongside key American Minimal works by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Sol Le Witt, I inevitably enjoyed the works of artists whom I had included in my drawing books, including Guy Stuart and Peter Booth, and Kerri Poliness, whose debt to the work of Sol LeWitt indicates the genesis of the movement in the American project. Guy Stuart’s marvelous web-like sculpture combined aspects of Minimalism with the later experimentation with soft, pliable materials. The manner in which the substance of the net-like piece hangs from the wall reveals the key role of drawing in his art practice. Robert Hunter’s work reminded one of the beauty and understatement of minimalism; he lived in New York and was close to the key artists there.

Sue Cramer a curator at Heide, reviewed the show in The Melbourne Review. Hers was one of the few press comments to place Minimalism in an accurate context, but independent critique was largely absent. Indeed, one cannot help but observe a paucity of good art journalism at the present moment in Australia, with key exceptions, of course. Perhaps the Australian art world, outside of the galleries and museums cannot any longer support a “critical response industry”, with the “curatorium” attracting the best graduates in history of art, and a younger generation unable to support themselves on the meager earnings of an “arts writer”. Magazines and newspapers struggle to keep up with the flourishing consumer culture; Australia being so much more buoyant than Europe in the world economic climate. Most artists I met and spoke to or interviewed regretfully criticised the lack of informed critique at present in Australia.

Sunday 30 September: I visited Langford 120, a relatively new gallery in North Melbourne, dedicated in the most part to the art of mid-career artists who are so often over-looked by the commercial system, prone as it is to celebrating senior artists with retrospectives, or “discovering” and championing new, young talent. At Langford was the first exhibition in southern Australia of Torres Strait Islander work from the Erub Erwer Meta (Darnley Island Arts Centre). Sea-Journeys – our home, our people, was visually marvellous, large works on paper in charcoal, watercolour and acrylic works hung unframed on the spacious white walls. The images derive from the history of the islanders who use art to assert their identity and to revitalize their traditional culture and promote it to the world.

While two-dimensional art has only really existed in the post Christian era on the Torres Strait Islands, two-dimensional art existed as decoration for three-dimensional works, and body art from ceremonies. The tradition of carving, however, has long existed in Torres Strait art so that mark making onto a surface using a cutting implement, (such as the work of Alick Tipoti from Thursday Island) is an immediate form of expression and it is a natural extension of traditional Islander art practice. According to author of Ilan Pasin: This is our way: Torres Strait Art, Tom Mosby, however, “cultural rules dictate art production in the Torres Strait, where established stereotypes possess little personal vision or ego”.1

Much Torres Strait Islander work resonates with the sadness of a lost culture as a consequence of colonialism and a pride in being part of the movement that seeks to assert that unique culture. Ellen José, whose family are from Erub, like many islanders historically, migrated to the mainland. When she became a mother, she realised the importance of passing on her culture: “Dispossession is not just a matter of losing your land – it is much more. It’s a matter of losing your cultural roots and ultimately your very identity. My journey is the same journey that thousands of mainlanders have embarked on. Some rediscover their culture, others hold onto and expand vestiges of culture that make them people. Some do it through family, others through art or religion. Each journey strengthens their individual and group identity.2 Among the finest pieces in the Langford exhibition were sculptures of varying sizes, made from clay, fired and lovingly decorated or dressed using twine for hair, and shells for jewellery. They are mesmerising and powerful works.

Following Langford 120, I went with Irene Barberis to her studio and saw much of the work for her new exhibition, Apocalypse/Revelation: Re-Looking, which was ready to be hung the following week. The work was very powerful and she has pulled many projects together with a large work, 18 by 2.8 metres, Cut it Out! Wonderful World: Resurrection in Melbourne (2012), which has been inspired by the Stanley Spencer painting of 1924–6, The Resurrection, Cookham. This new body of work is reviewed separately.

Monday 1 October: An early morning flight enabled a full Sydney day by the harbour. Staying with Ann Savill, mother of my great friend Joanna, we all met for drinks at Darling Harbour, where with Joanna, as Director of the Sydney International food festival, delicious and elegant (complimentary) canapés arrived, as if by magic: Campari as the sun set over the water. The Food Festival opened the next day so Joanna’s mobile ran hot, from culinary stars in Italy, reminding one of the Edinburgh International Festival just weeks earlier with egos and sleep deprivation: analogies between food and art, chefs, artists, taste buds and consumption. In a conversation with Joanna Savill – Massimo Bottura waxed [as poetically as an art historian], saying that his intention was to "put feeling, emotion, onto the plate, which means that I have to go fishing into my youth, my heritage, my landscape of ideas". He then described the genesis of his dish of eel lacquered with saba (grape must), with polenta and wild apple "extraction". It was his [commemoration] for a journey taken by the Duke of Ferrara and Modena in the 16th century, after the duke had been forced out of Ferrara by the Pope, thereby losing, among other things, a considerable income from the local eel fishery”.3

Wednesday 3 October: Drove to Canberra with a great friend, the first woman Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Representatives in Australia. Judy Middlebrook now lives in the Brindabella Mountains, west of Canberra; I slept in a Yurt to be woken by hundreds of cockatoos and red and green parrots. Visited Convergent Worlds at the Drill Hall Gallery, and Go Figure, at the National Portrait Gallery (reviewed separately for Studio International).

Saturday 6 October: Train back to Sydney. The final weekend was spent in the Blue Mountains with Tony Bond and Anne Graham. Tony’s swansong at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where he has been Assistant Director and Curator of International Art since 1984, is a major exhibition of Francis Bacon, opening this month. Anne Graham is an important sculptor, whose recent exhibitions in Beijing and Sydney inspired my Studio Visit and interview. Mount Olive is 20 minutes from Mount Victoria with magnificent views. There, Bond built the large wooden house himself. Antony Gormley and many other artists and curators from abroad stay there; Bond and Graham both migrated from England to Australia and have made an important contribution to the Sydney art scene. Another Studio Visit and interview in inner Sydney with sculptor Hilarie Mais, whose exhibition was about to open. Both interviews will be published in Studio International in the coming months.

Monday 8 October: More fresh seafood and good company that night with Bill Wright, who was Assistant Director of the AGNSW for nine years, and Director of Sydney Biennale: Vision in Disbelief. He is running William Wright Artists’ Projects. Sandy Nairne from the National Portrait Gallery, London came too.

Tuesday 9 October: The Bathers’ Pavillion with Ann Savill, one of Sydney’s innovative and popular eating places, on Balmoral Beach: a perfect finale to springtime in Sydney.

Wednesday 10 October: Five days in Beijing before returning to London and Scotland, enabled me to update on Australian work in Beijing as well as Chinese, on a useful stop over. I visited the studio of Tony Scott before being taken to the Panjiayuan (Dirt) Market, where a spectacular range of textiles, calligraphy brushes, antiquities, pearls, jade, amber and countless unlikely treasures and antiques can be found. Exhibitions are plentiful year round in the 798 district, and project plans continue though tinged with a certain caution since the economic growth recently slipped from 10% to 7%: the election of the new leader this month, November, I was assured would dispel caution necessary to encourage renewed investment in the arts again.


1. Tom Mosby, Ilan Pasin: This is our way, Torres Strait Art, Cairns Regional Gallery, 1998, p.88.
2. Ibid, p.143.
3. The Sydney Morning Herald, October 2012.

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