(1) First, the exhibition. Art from Australia shown in Britain.
A worthy display covering 200 years or another cringe festival?
IT'S lucky Australians have thick skins and a deep well of good humour because if we were to see ourselves - and our artists - through the eyes of British critics alone, we'd have given up long ago...
...Forty years later, Tate Britain, home of the national collection of British art, opened Australian Painting: Colonial, Impressionist, Contemporary with much fanfare and after a seemingly endless behind-the-scenes controversy at home. Robert Menzies, fired by his deep affection for the Commonwealth and keen to entice more Britons to immigrate to Australia, squeezed state gallery directors out of the curation process and remodelled the show in his image, depicting a narrative of Australian art infused with nationalist symbolism and pioneer spirit.
Modern art, women and migrants barely featured. Aboriginal artists figured not at all.
"Anyone who goes to the Tate needs to have with him a bottle of solvent to get rid of that epoxy resin high stress glue of Australianity ... the effect as you walk through remains generally and overwhelmingly one of decibels and road drills, of colour clatter and eye bashing, there being nothing so stupid as a larger than usual giant with clumsy limbs," thundered Geoffrey Grigson - among a multitude of others - in the New Statesman.
Australian cultural policy was later significantly reformed.
The only early "national" show that bucked this trend was at Whitechapel, in London's East End two years before. Bryan Robertson, the gallery's bright young curator, identified a unique opportunity in the endless Tate delays and, after his great success with Sidney Nolan's one-man show in 1957, moved quickly to gazump Tate. His gutsy 1961 show focused solely on contemporary work - which differentiates it from the others - and included 111 paintings by a panoply of artists, from Nolan to Charles Blackman and a young (and immediately highly acclaimed) Brett Whiteley. Critics loved it and the catalogue essay, written by a 20-something Robert Hughes, is still studied today.
A legacy of nearly a century of art and curatorial criticism - good, bad and downright ugly - is entwined within the Royal Academy's present show. What matters in the end, however, is that it has elicited lively debate and both hemispheres, north and south, are talking about Australian art.
Paola Totaro / The Weekend Australian
28 September 2013
28 September 2013
read full article here
(2) Then the reviews. This time, at best, mixed. Some shockers!
We've already quoted from and provided links to these here and here.
More of these than usual. The latest is by Doug Hall (former director of the Queensland Art Gallery and Australian commissioner to the Venice Biennale), published today in the Australian Financial Review.
Thanks to the AFR for allowing publication here:
Thanks to the AFR for allowing publication here:
Aboriginal art remote and outdated : British critics
Rolf Harris – entertainer and painter of the Queen’s portrait –has attracted a softer media reaction to his recent court appearance than the critical response to the exhibition Australia, on at London’s Royal Academy until December 8.
More than any other western culture, it is Australians who write our own art history. It’s different everywhere else, where other histories are written by art historians from all over the globe.
In the wake of some unfavourable London reviews, many in Australia seem surprised that others see us differently than we might view ourselves. And that’s often as a cliché –one we have fostered of who we are. It’s where art is eclipsed by the imagery of tourism.We’re glass-jawed when it comes to criticism.We’ll never admit it; national self-reflection is not our forte.
I tend to agree that the idea for this exhibition is odd – a late 19th century re-rendering of a rapidly urbanised Australia but seeking expression of its identity through the landscape. The reviews call it as they see it and there’s much to agree with.
But what I wasn’t expecting was the view of Aboriginal art. It’s commentary you’d be hard-pressed to find outside the UK. The honesty is worrying, because it suggests nothing from the discourse of post-colonialism’s thundering freight train ever registered. Many observations are almost pre-colonial. The Sunday Times and the London Evening Standard are particularly odd, and hostile.
If we can imagine a concept of secular creationism, two respected critics give expression to it. Not surprisingly, they lay into white settlers for dispossession, murder and the introduction of disease and alcohol.They’re keen on historical Aboriginal art and argue its greatness. But then the Standard’’s Brian Sewell gets quite narky about a culture that wasn’t cryogenically held in time. Something astonishing happened with contemporary Aboriginal art – and he hates it. “The Aborigine offers only are invented past, his adoption of‘whitefella’ materials and, occasionally,‘whitefella’ ideas ... undoing his‘blackfella’ integrity.”
A reinvented past? Isn’t that the history of art? Sewell boldly gathers up all of Aboriginal Australia and claims its culture is “half-remembered”. This is complete rot. Survival requires adaptation – you don’t survive tens of thousands of years without it. And the story of Aboriginal art since white arrival is dramatically compressed considering its hitherto long and meandering timeline.
To be savvy to circumstances and apply what’s useful, to recognise that living cultures are not quarantined as archaeological curiosities for western indulgence, is to know certain inevitabilities of history. The carnage of colonialism is not to forever condemn,but to knowthat something remarkable might emerge from the debris of western supremacy.
The Sunday Times’s Waldemar Januszczak regards the Aboriginal presence in Australia as tokenistic, and calls the works in the show “dull canvas approximations, knocked out in reduced dimensions, by a host of repetitive Aborigine artists making a buck ... inmost cases the great art of the Aborigines has been turned into tourist tat”.
Yes, like all cultures there’s tourist tat. But it’s not in this exhibition. When Aboriginal art after 1970 has been exhibited (and collected) in the US, East Asia, Germany, France and the Netherlands, none of this blustering disapproval ever surfaced. We forgive the British for appropriating French language, manners, cuisine (a latecomer) and most areas of the arts because they thought it was the path to appear more cultured and civilised. Would we suggest Januszczak return to his post-war Poland, eat gruel and remain uneducated for the sake of original and perpetual authenticity? He seems confounded when indigenous cultures change and no longer remain anthropological curiosities for his conceits.
I don’t know whether critical newspaper opinion means anything to those who visit the Royal Academy. But if the British remain uninterested in Australian art, or don’t like it, does it really matter? Who actually cares? English Raj-like views of other cultures should be outed for what they are. Australia’s artistic engagement with Asia, our future, has never been greater.There’s a curiosity and genuine reciprocal engagement.
One more thing. If Januszczak is a preserver of language he ought to know that Aborigine is a noun – Aboriginal is the adjective.
Doug Hall / Australian Financial Revue
3 October 2013
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Our poet-in-residence has penned a liberation haiku to mark this freeing moment. A combination of Martin Luther King's "Free at last, free at last"; the under-praised Fremantle Docker's Club Song; and Poly Styrene's compelling refusal of servitude, X-Ray Spex "Oh Bondage Up Yours!".
We are free!
O! Way to go!
A Person Looks At A Work Of Art/
someone looks at something ...