Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Mystery of the Past

I have already done a couple of posts on my trip to the NSW art gallery the other day, and this is my final one. The last two dealt with Australian art, but, as the section that displays the gallery's collection of slightly later Australian work was closed for renovations, I had to leave my own artistic shores eventually and look at the gallery's paintings from other places

On my way out of the Australian area though, a couple of pictures caught my eye. One was this one, called Midday, painted in 1896. It is by Sydney Long, who was born in Goulburn in 1871, but died in London, (the traitor). I thought it a great improvement on his more usual kitschy scenes of pan-pipe playing sprites et cetera, (I bet he was corrupted by the decadence of the English - if he'd stayed in Goulburn, things might never have gone awry; on the other hand he might never have made any money either):

The other was this painting of Henry Lawson. It was painted by John Longstaff, who was born in Clunes, the only place I've ever been that contained a cafe that does not open to sell coffee until lunchtime, (that was a long time ago though, just at that moment when the town was thinking about getting gentrified - hence the possession of a cafe at all - but had not yet fully achieved gentrification; I gather it has come a long way, "baby", since then.)

But enough of this idle nonsense about coffee and gentrification - the point is really not so much who painted the picture, but who Lawson was. He was a poet and writer of short stories. According to the picture's caption, his work in the lamented magazine The Bulletin "helped create the image of the Australian bushman as the epitome of egalitarian and national ideals".

This portrait was actually commissioned by the editor of The Bulletin, who at the time was JF Archibald. It was painted very quickly in 1900, as Lawson was about to go away to England, (as the gallery seems intent on calling the British Isles - did Lawson never intend to set foot in Scotland or Wales, let alone Ireland?)

The picture so pleased Mr Archibald that he set up an annual portrait prize, the Archibald Prize, which is probably the best known art prize in Australia. Its outcome is usually reported on the evening news and it has spawned a rather awful offshoot, the Bald Archie, which consists of really horrible caricatures of well-known Australians:
Until writing this post I had also laboured under the delusion that Lawson wrote a poem called The Australian Adjective which we stuck up in the lavatories when I was at boarding school and, as a result, got into a lot of trouble. It turns out it was written by quite another person - one WT Goodge. This is how it goes:

The Great Australian Adjective

The sunburnt bloody stockman stood
And, in a dismal bloody mood,
Apostrophized his bloody cuddy;
“The bloody nag’s no bloody good,
He couldn’t earn his bloody food -
A regular bloody brumby,

He jumped across the bloody horse
And cantered off, of bloody course!
The roads were bad and bloody muddy;
Said he, “Well, spare me bloody days
The bloody Government’s bloody ways
Are screamin’ bloody funny,

He rode up hill, down bloody dale,
The wind it blew a bloody gale,
The creek was high and bloody floody.
Said he, “The bloody horse must swim,
The same for bloody me and him,
Is something bloody sickenin’,

He plunged into the bloody creek,
The bloody horse was bloody weak,
The stockman’s face a bloody study!
And though the bloody horse was drowned
The bloody rider reached the ground
Ejaculating, ” bloody!”
” bastard!”

- W. T. Goodge
Anyway, having paid my ignorant respects to Lawson, (and, unwittingly, to WT Goodge), I moved on. Round the corner, I found this woman, who I rather liked:

She is made of blue Pyrenees marble, white and grey marble and red cement. Her maker was Ossip Zadkine, who was Russian/French and lived from 1890 to 1967. The gallery received her as a present in 1963 from Dr and Mrs HV Evatt, (Doc Evatt was an extremely complex man and politician, but this is not the place to go into his career, I don't think). I hope the gallery was grateful.
Across from Zadkine's woman with the red cement lips was a huge and very impressive painting by Lucian Freud.

I was puzzled that it should have been the one and only painting in the gallery that a male teacher of about 60 had chosen as worth instructing a group of young girls in uniform about.

"There is nothing soft about this painting", he was telling them as I approached, "nothing soft at all".

I wasn't sure he was right about that - I'd be interested in other opinions on the subject.

For a change, I then made myself go into the part of the gallery that has always baffled me, the part that holds a collection of European works from the late 19th century.

I started with this one, which I thought the gallery had hung rather spectacularly:
It is called Vive l'Empereur and was painted in 1891 by Edouard Detaille. It shows the charge of the 4th hussards at the battle of Friedland, which the label helpfully explains took part in 1807 and was a minor incident in an engage4ment that ultimately led to Napoleon's defeat of the Russian army (hang on - I thought it was the Russians who beat him). Apparently in the distance on the left Napoleon can be seen directing things.

Detaille, we are told, did not want to celebrate but to show how chilling the scene of hundreds of young men thundering to gory deaths in gold braid was. I'm not sure he succeeded - the gold frame and the gold braid all do their bit to make the thing look more like glorification than not to me:
This picture was a little distance away, but since we're on the men-in-uniforms theme, this seems a good moment to turn to it:
Called The Gordon riots 1780, the thing was painted in 1879 by John Seymour Lucas and shows a scene from, you guessed it, the Gordon Riots. I knew nothing about these. so at least I learned something - they took place in 1780 and were inspired by the protestant zealotry of Lord George Gordon, according to the label. The scene is London and the protestors shown are opposing the Papists Act of 1778, which sought to mitigate anti-catholic discrimination. The label describes the painter as a "fashionable late Victorian historical painter". What he is showing here is a "'desperate and infernal gang' ransacking the house of Lord and Lady Mansfield in Bloomsbury Square. A magistrate, having first read the riot act, twice gave orders to fire on the mob, but to no effect. The house was destroyed."

While I find the story interesting and recognise that the painting is handsome enough, I don't want to live with it and I don't understand why anyone else would. It is somehow rather boring, it seems to me.

Still it isn't nearly as boring as the next offering, in my view. I find this one quite unspeakably dull - a doomed attempt to do what was done so much better by artists many centuries earlier:
Of course it is competent, but is it moving or beautiful? I don't think so. It's by Roddam Spencer Stanhope and it's called Why seek ye the living among the dead? It shows the three Marys (as the label writer calls them, giving them the faint air of a team of vaudeville performers touring the seaside piers and working men's clubs of north-west England in the 1970s, their last ditch shot at the big time), arriving at Christ's tomb and encountering an angel who tells them he has risen again. Stanhope painted the same thing in the chapel of Marlborough College, in case you're in that area and want a closer look. He was a friend and follower of Byrne-Jones, which is fairly evident, and he was also affected by a visit to Florence. Indeed, he ended up living just outside the city in 1880.

We come now to the kinds of paintings that baffle me in exactly the same way as a fondness for fantasy literature baffles me. First we have The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, painted by Edward John Poynter between 1881 and 1890:

and then we have A Juggler, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1870:

What are they for?

The labels tells us that Alma-Tadema reconstructs the scene of an itinerant Egyptian entertainer in a luxurious Roman villa with scrupulous attention to historical detail, while conceiving the subject casually, as if it were a snapshot, while Poynter used details from the Bible and evidence of Assyrian remains unearthed in the 1840s to create his scene.

I suppose both pictures are fascinating, in the sense that there is lots of sumptuous detail to attract the eye -  costumes, and rich patterns and peacocks and monkeys and so forth. That is what reminds me of fantasy novels and the vogue for Game of Thrones - the triumph of fiddly bits over substance and deeper meaning.

To me both these paintings are just escapist spectacles, providing the viewer with no emotional interest or insight. I suppose they are also both part of that strange vogue for the oriental that Edward Said used to make such a song and dance about. I wonder, if I'd been born at the time that they were painted, would I have loved them? Probably yes - plus I'd probably have married a man with those weird mutton chop whiskers that they all grew (at least all the men; not all the women could achieve such feats of oddness) and that nobody seemed to notice were actually grotesque.

A quite different painting in this area of the gallery was this one, by a German painter called Friedrich Kallmorgen:

It is called A spring day and was painted in 1887. The label writer cheerfully points out that many of the children depicted probably ended their days in the trenches of World War One. What interested me about the painting was that it reminded me of the Chinese propaganda posters that used to be produced in the Cultural Revolution.I used to have one that was very similar: it showed the interior of a classroom with cherry blossom in full bloom outside the window:


Somehow I was unable to resist turning from Spring day to a painting that has always made me feel uneasy. It is by Evariste Luminais and is called The sons of Clovis II. Supposedly the two in the picture were rebellious in the 7th century and were punished by their mother, who ordered them to be hamstrung and set adrift on the Seine. They ran aground and were later reunited with their parents - I'm not sure at what point in the story we join them in this picture.

What bothers me  though is how creepy the picture is - who could possibly want to live with such a nasty scene? I don't know what hamstrung means - I hope it wasn't gory or permanent - but the boys look as if they are about to die. For me, the picture is simply ghoulish and disturbing, (so why do I always look at it?) Is there anyone out there who would actually enjoy having it hanging in their house? If so, what would be the pleasure of it? I would really love to understand the thing's appeal:

I had to cheer myself up after Clovis sons by looking at a couple of very fine hounds:
Requiescat by Briton Riviere, 1888

Study of a Bloodhound by Wlliam Holman Hunt 1848,

I left then, stepping out into the sunshine of the Domain, already looking forward to my next visit to the gallery, when I hope the other Australian gallery will be reopened.


  1. In response to that teacher, I would say that Freud uses so much titanium white that his surfaces marble like fatty bacon, and I would very much use moisture-oriented words like "soft" if I were describing them. But not restfully soft. Freud shoves the fat around.

    I'd talk about the contrast between soft material and rough action. Then I'd tell the class to compare Freud to Donald Judd, who worked with materials that would be hard if you touched them but movement-wise they're not hard at all. They pull focus by sitting very still. Think about that in your next art lesson, I'd say to the uniformed girls. Your materials aren't just bits of inert matter. They have character, and you can work with that character, or against it, or in some combination of ways. Let's put gouache and oils together in class some time and see how that works.

    1. You have missed your vocation. Kids need great teachers and my daughter, who is one (Eng Lit) says it is the most enjoyable profession imaginable - endless variety, talking about the thing you love best all day, never having to sit at a desk in an office for hours on end. If you aren't already one, I say go for it