An arrow through the art
IN THE VINEYARD OF ART
By Michael Denholm
Carlton Street Press
RRP $ 40
FRIENDLY fire is a sanitised military term for a misdirected attack on one’s own forces. Michael Denholm has brought out the first of six books intended to systematically chronicle the development of art in Tasmania.
His fire, however, is not so much a heavy barrage, or even particularly unfriendly, but neither is it accidental when he takes specific aim.
In this first volume he delivers a warning salvo or two in the preface that promises to be elaborated in future publications and which will assuredly sustain interest in many quarters, particularly those being targeted.
But for a collective example, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery “needs to lift its game” as does CAST ( now known as Contemporary Art Tasmania) while sculpture from UTAS he regards, as “a disgrace” with MONA symptomatic of a “cargo cult as people with their herd like mentality, follow the latest fashion”.
In chapter one, Denholm begins with the rock art of the Aborigines before moving on to early shipboard artists who accompanied the European explorers. This is, in turn, followed by the colonial period that sees individuals like William Glover – who was sometimes hailed as the English Claude Lorrain and alternatively loathed by the likes of John Constable and William Turner – along with parallel and meritorious convict artists such as John Gould and Thomas Bock.
Achievements amid vicissitudes of Lady Jane Franklin “whose real offences against colonial society were her originality, intelligence and independence” are detailed along with those of Louisa Anne Meredith, a landscape and miniature artist and also an early environmentalist who deplored the despoiling of Mt Wellington.
According to the author, after 1850 art in Tasmania lost its edge and went into decline. Even son of a convict William Piguenit, whose kind of romanticised wilderness was enormously popular when paintings were the only colourful images to be seen, is regarded as “very small beer” when compared to Norwegian Edvard Munch whose virtues he extols at some length.
Denholm is often perspicacious and has undertaken much research but his overview is occasionally an idiosyncratic one.
He dismisses Jack Carington Smith, a 20thcentury legend, as philosophically limited like most administrators of art schools and quotes Mildred Lovett’s criticisms of him but then goes on to give a lengthy biographical portrait of him.
Beginning with profiles of the likes of convicted forger and probable murderer Thomas Wainwright, there is much information about the many characters that have left their artistic footprint in this island state.
Curiously though, many of the personal accounts, however captivating, lack direct relevance to their art and would have benefited from judicious editing.
An example is the profile given of Susan Walker, which mentions, amongst other details, her father’s lung collapse in 1953 and the murder a few years later of a friend in Perth, Western Australia, “who slept with no clothes on while the curtains in her bedroom were left open”.
For near centenarian Max Angus, although respectful to the watercolourist and his peers, we are entreated to oblique descriptions of attributes pertaining to various one- time female post- war female models right down to one who drove a red MG sports car or another who worked in a Hobart bistro.
The title of Denholm’s book evokes the transplantation of exotic species as well as conveying biblical imagery.
When needless information is overlooked, this first book serves to draw into one historical narrative what sometimes has been unknown, outdated or fragmentary.
One could not say that the author uses his work as a vehicle for “the grapes of wrath” but nevertheless there is some grapeshot with what appears to be deadly accuracy and seemingly more to come.