Features Australia

Leave plenty to the imagination

Two historical exhibitions on Australia and the US struggle to capture the spirit of the two nations

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

It seems they’re all the go at the moment; major historical survey shows, that is. There was Australia at the Royal Academy, London (too late, you’ve missed it; it closed in early December) while currently at the Art Gallery of New South Wales there is America: Painting a Nation (until 9 February). There are some interesting similarities and some striking differences.

The word ‘America’ is spelt out in huge metal letters mounted on the footpath in front of the gallery while four banners between the columns reproduce pictures from the exhibition the two most striking of which are of a Native American man and the skull of a horse. Both are perplexing. ‘Horse’s Skull with Pink Rose’ as painted by Georgia O’Keeffe in 1931 is both handsome and decorative, but gives the viewer no real sense of life in New Mexico. The portrait of the Native American man is ‘No-Tin (Wind), a Chippewa Chief’ from 1832 by Henry Inman (1801-1846); it is an arresting image that contains no hint of the reality behind it. Only a few decades earlier, the Declaration of Independence, still regarded by many as a model of liberal aspiration, had been adopted containing the words ‘…the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.’ This noble portrait was commissioned as part of a public relations campaign by the Federal Government. It should stand as warning against including too many words or ideas in foundational documents.

This background to such a painting also illustrates the difficulty of using art to make implied statements about nationhood. The Australia show at the Royal Academy was subject to some trenchant criticism both by Australian reviewers, notably John McDonald in the Australian, and by several British reviewers especially in the Sunday Times. On the other hand, Andrew Lambirth in this publication in a review (5 October) headed ‘Wizards of Oz’ described the show as ‘exceptionally rich and exciting’. Private individual responses have been just as varied. One particular and cultivated friend who has lived in England for nearly 50 years has visited the show twice and enjoyed encountering ‘old friends’ on the walls.

Both are big shows; America has over 90 paintings while Australia is enormous with more than 200 works by 146 artists. But still there are gaps with some artists unrepresented or under-represented or represented at too low a standard. As Andrew Lambirth said: ‘Selection of course is selective, but a show like this also needs to be representative. The problem lies in maintaining the balance.’ The sources of the pictures can be a problem; if there needs to be representation from all states or other political factors are in play, then too many compromises might have to be made.

America is drawn from the collections of four notable institutions: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Terra Foundation for American Art. Works by a number of household name artists are included although not necessarily knockout pictures. That is, no doubt, a vulgar concept and we should be past expecting blockbuster shows. But a little more showbiz wouldn’t go amiss.

Everyone will have their favourites but I particularly responded to ‘Cactus’ (1931) by Charles Sheeler, reminiscient of a Margaret Preston in the wonderful Sydney Moderns, the previous show at the AGNSW. There are two John Singer Sargent’s, one a typically stylish double portrait: ‘Portrait of Mrs Edward L. Davis, and Her Son, Livingston Davis’ (1890). There is a fine Edward Hopper, ‘House at Dusk’ (1931) with his hallmark ambiguity and threat of loneliness. A Jackson Pollock titled No 22 (1950) at just half a metre square may be tiny compared to Canberra’s ‘Blue Poles’ but its swirling drama adds to our understanding of this artist’s work. Mark Rothko is well represented with ‘Gyrations on Four Planes’ (1944) from the Philadelphia Museum. As well as the picture already referred to, there is a second Georgia O’Keeffe, ‘Two Calla Lillies on Pink’ (1921), which is even more decorative than the equine skull.

There is much more but, as with the London show, there are inevitable questions about who isn’t represented. I discussed the show with my art-loving, art-studying grandsons. One asked whether there was a Rauschenberg, the other asked about Warhol. Well actually no, neither. Why not? Not really knowing the answer, I suggested that maybe none of the four museums involved had works in their collections by these artists or maybe they couldn’t be released. But this rather illustrates a basic problem with survey shows. Or perhaps that’s part of the fun for the viewer, identifying the missing pieces. Even Andrew Lambirth questioned why the Royal Academy show has six Nolans ‘as against a single Smart and a solitary Whiteley, and nothing at all by Charles Blackman’.

One place where Whiteley was not under-represented was in a quite different sort of survey show; that presented by Edmund Capon on ABC and BBC television in three hour-long episodes as The Art of Australia. These visually alluring programmes with compelling commentary made the connections and explained the points without the viewer needing to read a catalogue or accompanying story cards. This is a really lush series with both the backgrounds and the paintings looking wonderful; indeed they look even better on computer or tablet if accessed via ABC iview. I am not suggesting that television is a better place for a survey show but it is an effective place. But even on television there were missing favourites; perhaps even more gaps than in a gallery because television demands more time for more information on each artist or painting. Let’s not choose; it’s great to have this embarrassment of visual riches.

America is a handsome and important show; residents and visitors to Sydney will both derive pleasure and knowledge from this collection. Meanwhile, a quite different aspect of America is separately on show in Sydney. Coming out of the famous Dakota Building in New York to the Museum of Contemporary Art is the ultimate celebrity retrospective show War Is Over! (If You Want It): Yoko Ono. My teenage research assistants both loved Yoko’s show finding it it fresh, eclectic and thought-provoking. You don’t have to choose; go to both.

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