Re­gard­less of elit­ist ar­gu­ments, Cor­rie Perkin says foot­ball in­spires po­etry and paint­ing, plays and prose

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IN 1996 artist Ginger Ri­ley com­pleted three paint­ings on the theme of Aus­tralian foot­ball. Two are in private col­lec­tions ( the Packer fam­ily pre­sented one to Ed­die and Carla McGuire as a wed­ding gift in 1997). The third, Wul gori- y- mar ( Foot­ball for all Abo­rig­i­nal Peo­ple) has hung in the foyer of Melbourne’s AFL House since it opened in 2000.

The Ri­ley paint­ing is in good com­pany, shar­ing space with works by other prom­i­nent con­tem­po­rary artists. This dis­play of great art — ac­quired for the VFL- AFL cen­te­nary in 1996 — re­minds vis­i­tors that the game is not only a busi­ness but also a thing of beauty.

The NRL Syd­ney head­quar­ters doesn’t have an im­pres­sive art col­lec­tion but one rugby league club un­der­stands the syn­ergy be­tween art and foot­ball. Last week Syd­ney team the Pen­rith Pan­thers an­nounced it had en­gaged three artists as part of the C3West ( cul­ture, com­mu­nity and com­merce) project, a col­lab­o­ra­tive ven­ture be­tween the club, con­tem­po­rary artists and west­ern Syd­ney com­mu­ni­ties.

The Pan­thers will work with artists Sylvie Blocher from France, Bris­bane- based Craig Walsh and Pen­rith’s Regina Wal­ter to de­velop ‘‘ five am­bi­tious projects which in­ject artis­tic in­no­va­tion into the club and en­gage with lo­cal west­ern Syd­ney com­mu­ni­ties’’.

As for rugby union, young artists such as New Zealand- born Richard Lewer are cre­at­ing bod­ies of work ded­i­cated to the game they love. ‘‘ I guess for artists it’s your own story or jour­ney, and rugby is cer­tainly part of that, ’’ Lewer says.

Foot­ball — union, league, Aus­tralian rules and soc­cer — is sel­dom thought of in terms of high art. Yet for more than a cen­tury Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture and jour­nal­ism, mu­sic, art, pho­tog­ra­phy, sculp­ture and theatre have cel­e­brated th­ese pop­u­lar na­tional games.

Sadly, much of this vast body of work of­ten slips un­der the cul­tural elites’ radar; foot­ball’s mass ap­peal, hint some arts gu­rus, rules out the the pos­si­bil­ity of schol­arly and crit­i­cal anal­y­sis.

As artist and Essendon fan Mark Hil­ton ex­plains: ‘‘ On the one hand, there is this per­cep­tion that art loses out to sport, but to what and to whom is hard to de­fine. Then, on the other hand, the last thing art wants to be is main­stream.’’

No one dis­putes that footy and art come to­gether, of­ten for com­mer­cial pur­poses ( the fa­mous an­nual Weg AFL grand fi­nal posters or league hero Ar­tie Beet­son’s re­cent au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, for ex­am­ple).

But great and en­dur­ing work can also be found. David Wil­liamson’s fre­quently per­formed The Club is still a reg­u­lar on the na­tional sec­ondary school English cur­ricu­lum 30 years af­ter its pre­miere ( a new pro­duc­tion star­ring John Wood is tour­ing re­gional Aus­tralia).

And Booker prize win­ner Thomas Ke­neally pro­duced a prose poem in the form of a sports re­port when he de­scribed the 1989 Can­ber­raBal­main rugby league grand fi­nal: ‘‘ John Fer­gu­son, a bet­ter winger and a bet­ter man than most of us, who had, with his mates, taken his first grand fi­nal through pure bloody- minded de­nial of the avail­able ev­i­dence, hob­bled the vic­tory lap and went in­doors to the rub­bing ta­ble.’’ Ke­neally’s piece re­mains one of the great ex­am­ples of sports colour writ­ing in re­cent years.

In Melbourne, au­di­ences re­mem­ber with af­fec­tion writer and his­to­rian Gar­rie Hutchin­son’s From the Outer trib­ute to Glen­fer­rie Oval, for­mer home of the Hawthorn Foot­ball Club: ‘‘ Hawthorn hadn’t seen any­thing like it for seven years. The leafy streets packed with prowl­ing cars and smil­ing park­ing in­spec­tors, the foot­paths bustling with rau­cous pedes­tri­ans and the an­tique Glen­fer­rie Oval crammed with a crowd of would- be for­tune tell­ers and book­mak­ers, set­ting the odds for 1981.’’

The art world also has its share of cel­e­brated foot­ball im­agery. Sid­ney Nolan’s 1946 Foot­baller is among the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s most pop­u­lar paint­ings and the Melbourne Cricket Club has ac­quired the con­tro­ver­sial and bril­liant Gee­long Noth­ing! No Wumpu­rani ( young black­fel­las) Play for Cats — Plus Gee­long by Peggy Na­pan­gardi Jones for its new mu­seum.

Chris McAuliffe, di­rec­tor of the Ian Pot­ter Mu­seum of Art, has no doubt that footy and art can live com­fort­ably to­gether, pro­vided artists are pre­pared to think about sport in new ways.

‘‘ Do artists see the chal­lenge as some­how ad­dress­ing or even en­cap­su­lat­ing some­thing es­sen­tial to Aus­tralian cul­ture or ex­pe­ri­ence?’’ he asks. ‘‘ If they say ‘ Yes, that is my task’, then I’m sure some of them will turn to foot­ball or swim­ming or what­ever as a way of look­ing at th­ese ques­tions.’’

Ac­cord­ing to NGV se­nior cu­ra­tor and pas­sion­ate Melbourne sup­porter Ju­dith Ryan, ‘‘ Many great artists, play­wrights and film­mak­ers have been in­spired by foot­ball, whether it be AFL, rugby or soc­cer, pri­mar­ily be­cause it is part of our cul­ture.’’

Why? ‘‘ Foot­ball is a metaphor for so­ci­ety,’’ Ryan replies. ‘‘ You need luck, money and power to suc­ceed con­sis­tently. Like other sports, luck en­ters into it, and there­fore the el­e­ment of chance ren­ders foot­ball em­blem­atic of life.

‘‘ Yes, things played out on the foot­ball field re­flect other fields of hu­man en­deav­our. As with artists, some play­ers ex­cel and are lauded; oth­ers fail and are con­demned in the me­dia. In the heat of bat­tle, like sup­port­ers in the stands, some vil­ify op­pos­ing play­ers on racist grounds. The play­ers are only hu­man, not gods, and there­fore are sub­ject to hu­man fail­ings.’’

Over many gen­er­a­tions foot­ball and art have played on sep­a­rate pad­docks, view­ing one an­other’s ac­tiv­ity with sus­pi­cion and, some­times, con­tempt. Sports fans are sup­pos­edly bored by any­thing arty- farty. The arts com­mu­nity stereo­typ­i­cally sneers at sport­ing codes that are pop­u­lar, pre­fer­ring in­stead more com­plex and in­tel­lec­tu­ally chal­leng­ing sub­ject mat­ter.

Mark Hil­ton sug­gests this kind of dis­crim­i­na­tive think­ing among artists prob­a­bly be­gins at art school. ‘‘ I won­der whether they pick up on a cer­tain vibe there or not. If you have a first- year artist paint­ing foot­ball play­ers, would that artist be en­cour­aged or per­suaded not to paint foot­ball play­ers by their teach­ers? It’s the same sce­nario as a young artist who wants to use, say, a pal­ette knife as op­posed to an­other tool.’’

Hil­ton is look­ing at foot­ball through a se­ries of cru­sader- type fig­ures in the style of me­dieval il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts. His de­tailed and com­pelling work won him a place on the short list of the in­au­gu­ral $ 100,000 Basil Sel­lars art prize, an award that asks par­tic­i­pat­ing artists to use sport as a theme in their work. ( The win­ner will be an­nounced later this year and an ex­hi­bi­tion will be held at the Univer­sity of Melbourne’s Ian Pot­ter Mu­seum of Art.)

Sel­lars, a wealthy busi­ness­man, for­mer na­tional bas­ket­ball cham­pion and Syd­ney Swans fi­nan­cial backer, set up the award to en­cour­age artists to ad­dress sport in their work. Aus­tralian foot­ball, league and union will fea­ture promi­nently among the short- list en­tries.

In seek­ing a keen par­tic­i­pant in his ven­ture, Sel­lars didn’t have to look any fur­ther than McAuliffe and the Pot­ter mu­seum. The di­rec­tor is a fa­nat­i­cal Colling­wood sup­porter ( he also plays lawn bowls on week­ends). He agreed with the Syd­ney phi­lan­thropist that a rich prize and an ac­com­pa­ny­ing ex­hi­bi­tion ded­i­cated to sport may be the first step in chang­ing peo­ple’s views: ‘‘ On one level we are sim­ply en­dors­ing the ac­tiv­ity of artists who are do­ing a lot more than mak­ing a pic­ture of a game, and I think that’s what we’ve seen in a lot of the en­tries.

‘‘ Artists are will­ing to . . . use sport as a spring­board to much larger and more com­plex re­flec­tions on Aus­tralian iden­tity, or on moral is­sues like drug cheats, racism and top­ics like that,’’ he ex­plains.

McAuliffe says foot­ball codes are highly fer­tile ter­ri­tory for artists. ‘‘ The pas­sions and the trib­al­ism those sports arouse — more than the kick or the mark or the hand pass — at­tract artists. And they have an enor­mous ca­pac­ity to throw up mo­ments, or to dis­til larger de­bates into a pow­er­ful im­age.’’

He high­lights the last­ing im­pact of the 1993 im­age of in­dige­nous St Kilda player Nicky Win­mar rais­ing his jumper in front of the Colling­wood crowd and point­ing to the colour of his skin as an ex­am­ple.

Com­mer­cial con­sid­er­a­tions and lim­ited in­ter­na­tional mar­ket in­ter­est sup­pos­edly some­times also pre­vent pub­lish­ers in­vest­ing in qual­ity, ex­pen­sive foot­ball- re­lated lit­er­ary works.

Melbourne pub­lisher Ge­off Slat­tery thumbs his nose at this idea. Dur­ing the past decade his com­pany has pro­duced sev­eral publi­ca­tions in which ac­claimed writ­ers have con­trib­uted es­says on Aus­tralian foot­ball.

This month it re­leased a pub­li­ca­tion that cel­e­brates the 150th an­niver­sary of the first of­fi­cially recorded game of Aus­tralian foot­ball, and will also soon launch a new lit­er­ary se­ries called 4 Quar­ters .

Slat­tery is a long- time be­liever in the game’s abil­ity to in­spire artists who, in turn, present a new view to the broader pub­lic.

‘‘ Foot­ball has been an Aus­tralian in­sti­tu­tion since 1858, and it has this won­der­ful his­tory ( of) cul­tural con­nec­tion with the com­mu­nity,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s unique to Aus­tralia and the po­ten­tial for in­ter­pre­ta­tion by qual­ity artists is un­lim­ited.’’

While work­ing on The Aus­tralian Game of Foot­ball , Slat­tery says, ‘‘ it hit me that the artistry is clearly ev­i­dent in the pho­tog­ra­phy of the game over most of those 150 years. It leaps off the pages, show­ing an amaz­ing love of the game, a con­nec­tion with the broad com­mu­nity of all ages and all so­cioe­co­nomic po­si­tions.’’

This kind of creative po­ten­tial, he says, is what ‘‘ makes up what artists paint or con­struct or con­ceive: it’s right there be­fore them, in and around the game’’.

In 2003 Slat­tery hatched a plan with Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria di­rec­tor Ger­ard Vaughan ( a Melbourne fan) and the gallery’s then pres­i­dent Steve Vizard ( who, like Slat­tery, sup­ports Hawthorn) to present an ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled The Spirit of Foot­ball. The idea was for NGV cu­ra­tors

to in­vite a group of artists to par­tic­i­pate, with an ex­hi­bi­tion sched­uled for 2004.

Slat­tery of­fered to spon­sor the show with a $ 40,000 award to the artist whose work the judges felt best rep­re­sented the spirit of footy, along with $ 2500 to each of the 21 par­tic­i­pat­ing artists. The win­ner, Melbourne artist David Wadel­ton, was an­nounced on the Nine Net­work’s high- rat­ing The Footy Show in Au­gust 2004, and the ex­hi­bi­tion was vis­ited by sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple. Yet Slat­tery says he was dis­ap­pointed by the lack of in­ter­est shown by some NGV cu­ra­to­rial staff.

‘‘ It ( foot­ball) is some­thing that’s loved by more than seven mil­lion peo­ple who go to games each year, and mul­ti­tudes more who see it on television,’’ says the pub­lisher, whose com­pany also pro­duces The AFL Record .

‘‘ I thought it was a way for the world of art to con­nect to a whole group of peo­ple who would not nat­u­rally at­tend an art gallery, but would be drawn there by the lure of the game they love and the way that prom­i­nent qual­ity artists in­ter­pret that game,’’ Slat­tery says. ‘‘ If there had been a pas­sion for it ( the idea) and a con­ti­nu­ity, and lack of snob­bery from within the gallery, it could have be­come a pow­er­ful pro­gram for the artis­tic com­mu­nity for all time.’’

Com­mer­cial gallery owner Bev­erly Knight, who is also a board mem­ber of the Essendon Foot­ball Club, agrees. ‘‘ Where the NGV missed such a great op­por­tu­nity was to ac­knowl­edge that peo­ple who go to the footy also love art. Artists are pas­sion­ate peo­ple and they love paint­ing about their pas­sion. But when it comes to foot­ball, it’s more about the op­por­tu­ni­ties which are not there, rather than artists be­ing able to — or want­ing to — paint the sport.’’

She adds: ‘‘ It will be in­ter­est­ing to see if the Sel­lars art prize pro­motes peo­ple be­ing able to paint their pas­sion.’’

For nearly 30 years writer and his­to­rian Gar­rie Hutchin­son has found creative in­spi­ra­tion in the AFL game. His pop­u­lar The Watcher col­umn, which ran in The Age dur­ing the 1980s, took foot­ball anal­y­sis to a new lit­er­ary level.

The game’s cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance is im­mense, he ar­gues. Why shouldn’t it be fer­tile ter­ri­tory for artists? ‘‘ It’s some­thing that’s older than later con­cepts like Aus­tralia,’’ he says, re­fer­ring to his­toric in­dige­nous pic­tures that de­pict Abo­rig­ines play­ing a form of the game long be­fore Euro­pean set­tle­ment.

‘‘ Foot­ball as we know it now is 150 years old and it’s mixed up in our dream­time sto­ries about how it started, there’s the in­dige­nous con­tri­bu­tion, ( one of the sport’s found­ing fa­thers) Tom Wills and that lot, and it’s a much stronger thing be­cause it’s lo­cal and na­tional as well.

‘‘ It’s also a bas­tion against the forces of transna­tional and in­ter­na­tional brands, and Amer­i­can sport. It’s our own thing. ‘‘ There’s a lot there for artists, I think.’’ Hutchin­son high­lights the plethora of beau­ti­ful foot­ball writ­ing in the late 19th cen­tury, which found a keen mar­ket among the cit­i­zens of the young pros­per­ous colony of Vic­to­ria.

The writ­ings of Mar­cus Clarke, Tom Wills and ‘‘ anon’’ ( also pos­si­bly Clarke), who wrote match re­ports for The Argus in the 1860s, plus Ed­ward Dyson’s 1896 A Friendly Game of Foot­ball (‘‘ Then we bounced the ball and started, and for twenty min­utes quite, / We ob­served a proper cour­tesy and a heav­enly sense of right’’), all con­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cantly to a colo­nial sense of iden­tity. As Hutchin­son says, ‘‘ it was a way of ex­plain­ing what the most suc­cess­ful colony in Aus­tralia was up to. It was Vic­to­rian and na­tional, in a na­tion­al­is­tic sense.’’

Hutchin­son names Arthur Stree­ton’s 1889 The Na­tional Game as a par­tic­u­lar favourite.

‘‘ The mood in that paint­ing is re­ally the mood of our his­toric and cul­tural me­mory,’’ he says. ‘‘ I find that one of the more mov­ing and redo­lent images of any Aus­tralian paint­ing.’’

Vaughan is also a fan of this work. In The Spirit of Foot­ball , an ex­hi­bi­tion pub­li­ca­tion ( pro­duced by Slat­tery’s com­pany), Vaughan writes that Stree­ton’s paint­ing was pro­duced ‘‘ at a time when the rules and or­gan­i­sa­tion of the game were still in for­ma­tion. In­ter­est­ingly, this was al­most a decade be­fore the Vic­to­rian Foot­ball League was in­tro­duced. By its very ti­tle Stree­ton’s paint­ing hints at the search for a sense of na­tion­hood and of na­tional iden­tity, which led in due course to Fed­er­a­tion.

‘‘ Per­haps be­cause Aus­tralian foot­ball is unique to this coun­try, the sub­jects of the game and the play­ers have been source ma­te­rial for gen­er­a­tions of artists,’’ he says. In 1981 Cor­rie Perkin be­came the first wo­man to cover AFL. She is a for­mer ed­i­tor of The Footy Record.

By Johnny Young: Bombers vs Mag­pies at Titjikala , 2003

Boot of all easel: From far left, paint­ings of rugby play­ers A. Haden and A. Dal­ton, by Richard Lewer; Lewer in the stu­dio; Wul gori- y- mar ( Foot­ball for all Abo­rig­i­nal Peo­ple), by Ginger Ri­ley; right, Gee­long Noth­ing! No Wumpu­rani ( young black­fel­las) Play for Cats — Plus Gee­long , by Peggy Na­pan­gardi Jones

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