The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christopher Allen

ART his­tory and crit­i­cism as we know them be­gan with the tra­di­tion of artists’ bi­ogra­phies founded by Gior­gio Vasari in the 16th cen­tury and de­vel­oped by his suc­ces­sors, in­clud­ing Gian Pi­etro Bel­lori in Italy and An­dre Feli­bien in the north. Be­cause the bi­o­graph­i­cal genre in­cluded a crit­i­cal as­sess­ment of the artist’s char­ac­ter and work, Vasari gen­er­ally avoided writ­ing about in­di­vid­u­als who were still alive — though he made an ex­cep­tion for Michelan­gelo in the first edi­tion and Ti­tian in the sec­ond — and this be­came a con­ven­tion fol­lowed by his suc­ces­sors dur­ing the next cou­ple of cen­turies.

Grad­u­ally, crit­i­cal writ­ing about the work of liv­ing artists de­vel­oped into a sep­a­rate genre. Diderot, con­tribut­ing to a pri­vate news­let­ter in the late 18th cen­tury, was a pre­cur­sor, but it was re­ally the com­bi­na­tion of large public ex­hi­bi­tions as the oc­ca­sion with the new ve­hi­cle of daily news­pa­pers that al­lowed it to ex­plode in the 19th cen­tury. Art his­tory, too, be­gan to tran­scend the lim­its of in­di­vid­ual bi­og­ra­phy and con­sider broader move­ments of cul­ture and civil­i­sa­tion, re­flect­ing the wider in­tel­lec­tual con­cerns of the time: in the wake of Hegel and other thinkers of the ro­man­tic pe­riod, his­tory was no longer sim­ply an ac­count of con­tin­gent events, but the man­i­fes­ta­tion of a peo­ple’s ethos or even the un­fold­ing of a cos­mic destiny.

Marx­ist his­to­ri­ans were the heirs to the cos­mic destiny model, adapted as a the­ory of his­tor­i­cal ne­ces­sity based on eco­nomic and so­cial de­vel­op­ment. In­di­vid­u­als, in all such ac­counts, are less im­por­tant than their so­cial cat­e­gories, classes and af­fil­i­a­tions. The later 20th cen­tury, how­ever, wit­nessed an en­thu­si­as­tic re­newal of artists’ bi­ogra­phies, of­ten in sev­eral vol­umes, rev­el­ling in in­ti­mate de­tails that once were glossed over.

No doubt this in­ter­est in mi­cro­scopic bi­og­ra­phy is symp­to­matic of the way art and artists are thought of to­day: in a world of ex­treme con­form­ity, art has be­come a kind of es­capist game where the most gra­tu­itous and os­ten­si­bly shock­ing ges­tures are val­ued as an in­ver­sion of the util­i­tar­ian con­straints of real life. The artist, too, is fetishised as a sym­bol of free­dom in a world of eco­nomic servi­tude. Hence many in­tel­li­gent readers are gen­uinely in­ter­ested in wad­ing through the most minute ac­counts of the life of such mod­ern le­gends as Pi­casso.

The ques­tion one has to ask, of course, is how much this kind of in­for­ma­tion con­trib­utes to un­der­stand­ing what the work means, and in the end it is only the work, and the ideas crys­tallised within it, that mat­ters. Ul­ti­mately, an ex­ces­sive em­pha­sis on the artist’s life rep­re­sents a form of the in­ten­tional fal­lacy, the mis­taken as­sump­tion that what an artist says about their work — what they claims it means, or even what they wanted it to mean — is a re­li­able ba­sis for de­ter­min­ing its mean­ing. The truth is none of us fully knows the sense of ev­ery­thing we do or think; and the sit­u­a­tion is ex­ac­er­bated for the artist, who op­er­ates at in­tu­itive and imag­i­na­tive lev­els partly at least be­low the radar of ra­tio­nal self-con­scious­ness.

But although ex­haus­tive bi­ogra­phies may be of ques­tion­able value, some bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion is de­sir­able. Know­ing an artist’s dates al­lows us to sit­u­ate them in his­tory and dis­tin­guish the pro­duc­tion of youth from that of old age. Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion may cast light on char­ac­ter and aes­thetic choices, and re­veal his con­nec­tion to the so­cial cir­cum­stances of the time. This is true, for ex­am­ple, of John Lewin (1770-1819), whose oeu­vre and ca­reer are prop­erly stud­ied for the first time in an out­stand­ing ex­hi­bi­tion and book by Richard Neville, Mitchell li­brar­ian at the State Li­brary of NSW.

Even for those who know some­thing about early Aus­tralian art, Lewin is likely to be summed up by call­ing him the first pro­fes­sional artist to come to Australia as a free man, thus dis­tin­guish­ing him from such con­vict painters as Joseph Lycett. As for the work, we may know him as a painter of birds and flow­ers who oc­ca­sion­ally did land­scapes, and who painted, in a lec­ture, a picture of kan­ga­roos that makes a telling com­par­i­son with one the great Stubbs had ex­e­cuted from a stuffed spec­i­men brought back from James Cook’s first voy­age.

Neville has re­stored a full picture of a man and his time, in­clud­ing his artis­tic for­ma­tion, his re­la­tions with con­tem­po­raries, and his pa­tron­age within the still very small so­cial world of the new colony and the re­lated ques­tion of his sta­tus within that mi­lieu, dra­mat­i­cally di­vided as it was be­tween con­victs, free set­tlers of var­i­ous ranks and those who con­sid­ered them­selves gen­tle­men. And he al­lows us to un­der­stand both Lewin’s gifts and his lim­i­ta­tions as an artist.

Lewin was the son of a nat­u­ral his­tory il­lus­tra­tor who en­joyed some suc­cess, although not the stand­ing of a real sci­en­tist, a pat­tern re­peated to some ex­tent in John’s life. His fa­ther seems to have been his first teacher, and the ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes a se­lec­tion of books il­lus­trated by Wil­liam, with fine images of var­i­ous crea­tures, from birds to moths and their grubs. On some of these he may have been as­sisted by his son, who was still very young. Af­ter Wil­liam’s death in 1795, John em­i­grated to Australia, ar­riv­ing in Syd­ney in 1800.

It is not sur­pris­ing that a young man with this back­ground, seek­ing to pur­sue his ca­reer and keen to work from bet­ter spec­i­mens than des­ic­cated ones brought back to Bri­tain from the colonies, should have thought of trav­el­ling to New Hol­land, as it was still known.

The colony was in its in­fancy and Syd­ney Town still con­sisted of a few build­ings clus­tered around Syd­ney Har­bour, the first ever erected on the con­ti­nent. But for a nat­u­ral­ist, Australia rep­re­sented an ex­tra­or­di­nary source of new and un­pub­lished ma­te­rial.

Nat­u­ral his­tory was the pas­sion of the later 18th cen­tury, as the fo­cus of sci­en­tific re­search moved from the fields of physics, me­chan­ics, op­tics and astron­omy that had been rev­o­lu­tionised in the 17th cen­tury to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the liv­ing world, an ori­en­ta­tion that would soon lead to the mo­men­tous dis­cov­er­ies of evo­lu­tion and

John Lewin’s 1817 paint­ing, Male & Fe­male Red Kan­ga­roo, is a prime ex­am­ple of his art

Lewin’s Platy­pus (1810) seems about to slip into the water

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