Art sur­vey has a con­tra­dic­tion at its heart

Chris McAuliffe

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

THERE’S no short­age of am­bi­tion in John McDon­ald’s pro­jected three-vol­ume sur­vey of the art of Aus­tralia. Vol­ume one, travers­ing Abo­rig­i­nal pre­his­tory to Fed­er­a­tion, comes in at more than 650 pages, promis­ing a to­tal of some­thing close to 2000 pages when the set is com­pleted.

As a con­trar­ian critic, McDon­ald has con­structed a mav­er­ick pres­ence in Aus­tralian art writ­ing, a qual­ity his pub­lisher prom­ises will make for a nar­ra­tive that is new, provoca­tive and en­gag­ing.

Yet McDon­ald is bur­dened by the prob­lem faced by all au­thors of sur­vey his­to­ries. It’s of­ten dif­fi­cult to see this as his book. To su­per­sede pre­vi­ous sur­veys ( in­clud­ing those by Bernard Smith, An­drew Say­ers, Christo­pher Allen, and Daniel Thomas), this book’s dif­fer­ence has to be de­clared. But his­tor­i­cal fact is sta­ble and his­tor­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion changes slowly: McDon­ald’s story, in many ways, will be the same as ear­lier ver­sions.

In such cir­cum­stances, there’s not a lot of room for strik­ing shifts in ori­en­ta­tion. McDon­ald’s big state­ment on the leg­endary 9 x 5 ex­hi­bi­tion — ‘‘ It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that the frames were far more in­no­va­tive than the pic­tures’’ — is an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, if only be­cause the de­mands of the sur­vey see him spend 13 pages on the paint­ings and one sen­tence on their frames.

The bare bones of his­tory writ­ing — dates, names, chronol­ogy, sim­ple nar­ra­tive suc­ces­sion — are al­ways in plain view in a sur­vey text. The au­thor’s duty is to plant sign­posts or, more of­ten, point to ex­ist­ing sign­posts along a fa­mil­iar trail.

Once the jour­ney has be­gun, the mo­men­tum al­lows for fleet­ing em­bel­lish­ments, but there’s no hiv­ing off on to new paths. The rhythm of the sur­vey text lures the au­thor into a kind of short­hand, as when Smith is at one point gra­tu­itously iden­ti­fied as ‘‘ then a ded­i­cated Marx­ist push­ing 30’’. I say gra­tu­itously in the strictest sense; nei­ther Smith’s age nor po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion have any­thing to do with the mat­ter at hand ( his opin­ion that Tom Roberts, Arthur Stree­ton and Fred­er­ick McCub­bin never bet­tered Louis Bu­velot). It’s the sort of au­to­mated pi­geon­hol­ing that creeps into the sub­con­scious of the sur­vey writer.

What is new in this story of Aus­tralian art re­flects the gen­teel re­vi­sion­ism now com­mon in our pub­lic mu­se­ums. The stature of house­hold names is undis­puted, and lesser lights and re­gional artists are in­tro­duced. Doug Hall, when di­rec­tor of the Queens­land Art Gallery, once chal­lenged me to name a 19th-cen­tury Queens- land artist and I couldn’t, to my mo­men­tary shame. Now none of us need cross the street when we see Hall com­ing, for McDon­ald has dili­gently and de­lib­er­ately bro­ken the stran­gle­hold of Syd­ney and Mel­bourne on the na­tional nar­ra­tive.

Photography is given more at­ten­tion than in any ear­lier sur­vey, re­flect­ing re­cent cu­ra­to­rial in­ter­est in it. And, fol­low­ing the lead of his for­mer col­league at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, Roger But­ler, McDon­ald in­tro­duces the pop­u­lar print, es­pe­cially il­lus­tra­tion and car­i­ca­ture, as a lively and quirky colo­nial lan­guage.

As McDon­ald notes, his role as a news­pa­per critic has taken him to all the im­por­tant ret­ro­spec­tives and his­tor­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tions. In a sub­tle sense, the book reg­is­ters the present mood of mu­se­ums, cu­ra­tors and col­lec­tors. Dis­tilled from schol­arly jour­nals, full-scale bi­ogra­phies and re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logues, ob­jec­tively col­lated and duly ac­knowl­edged, the char­ac­ter­is­tic tone is

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