An ar­row through the art

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - BOOKS - Clyde Selby


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.

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