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):
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:
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!”
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".
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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: