Artists re­veal se­crets

Artists in Con­ver­sa­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­tri­cia An­der­son

By Janet Haw­ley Slat­tery Me­dia Group, 415pp, $39.95 (HB)

THE artists rep­re­sented in this col­lec­tion of in­ter­views with Syd­ney jour­nal­ist Janet Haw­ley prompt some re­flec­tions on the mech­a­nisms that cause artists to be prom­i­nent and suc­cess­ful, and there­fore most likely to find them­selves cel­e­brated in such a book — some­times ir­re­spec­tive of the qual­i­ties of their work.

Mar­garet Ol­ley, for ex­am­ple, is in­cluded, and where this re­viewer be­lieves Ol­ley’s prodi­gious out­put is to the art world what Bar­bara Cart­land’s is to lit­er­a­ture, her bene­fac­tion is un­matched. Ol­ley’s gen­eros­ity saw more than 100 works by artists of the cal­i­bre of Edgar De­gas, Lu­cian Freud and Gi­a­cometti en­ter the Art Gallery of NSW col­lec­tion, and in 2003 she wrote a cheque for $250,000 for six Cezanne draw­ings, one of which was of his child­hood friend, Emile Zola.

The en­gine that drives an artist’s ca­reer is a com­plex piece of ma­chin­ery that needs reg­u­lar oil­ing and ser­vic­ing. Be­hind the wheel of one artist’s as­cen­dancy might be a unique vi­sion, a sala­cious pri­vate life, a raft of ec­cen­tric­i­ties, a pre­ma­ture death — pos­si­bly all of th­ese. The tal­ented Brett White­ley, one of Haw­ley’s sub­jects, springs to mind.

Stay­ing the dis­tance is im­por­tant for an artist; hav­ing a sig­na­ture sub­ject — Ned Kelly, say — is help­ful, as is the ca­pac­ity to en­ter­tain and amuse. John Olsen, 84 and still paint­ing with gusto, shares th­ese qual­i­ties with the long de­parted Sid­ney Nolan, Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful art ex­port. Both had a clear phi­los­o­phy for liv­ing and work­ing, and painterly wis­dom to dis­pense to their fol­low­ing.

Then there is serendip­ity. When Bri­tish art his­to­rian Ken­neth Clark vis­ited Aus­tralia in 1949, he urged Nolan and Rus­sell Drys­dale to ex­hibit in Lon­don. Drys­dale fol­lowed his ad­vice; so did Nolan, with stun­ning re­sults. Yet a few years ear­lier, when Nolan’s paint­ings first went on dis­play in the win­dow of Sh­effield’s newsagency in Hei­del­berg, Vic­to­ria, priced from 10 shillings to three guineas, not a sin­gle work sold. When his first Ned Kelly se­ries was ex­hib­ited in 1948 at Ve­lasquez Gallery in Mel­bourne, only one found a buyer: art critic and writer Clive Turn­bull.

Yet it was this group of works around which a steady mythol­ogy has ad­vanced. The AGNSW re­cently bought Nolan’s First-Class Marks­man for $4.5 mil­lion.

John Brack and Lloyd Rees, both per­cep­tively in­ter­viewed by Haw­ley in this book, are the odd men out in the self-ma­nip­u­la­tion of

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