Artists reveal secrets
Artists in Conversation
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