TAN­GI­BLE LIFE FORMS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

IT seems hu­man be­ings have a nat­u­ral ten­dency to think ev­ery­thing is go­ing to the dogs. Many or most cul­tures seem to look back on a bet­ter past — whether golden age or myth­i­cal cre­ation time — and to con­sider the present as a pe­riod of com­par­a­tive deca­dence and de­prav­ity. Not in­fre­quently, as one finds both in He­siod and in an­cient In­dian mythol­ogy, it is imag­ined as the penul­ti­mate phase of de­cline be­fore the cat­a­clysm that will lead to the be­gin­ning of a new cy­cle.

No doubt this chrono­log­i­cal par­a­digm is a way of mak­ing sense of the mis­ery of present con­di­tions and pos­tu­lat­ing a stan­dard for the bet­ter world to which one may aspire, and which is mythol­o­gised as a lost re­al­ity. At the same time, the schema of de­cline is prob­a­bly re­in­forced by a hu­man ten­dency to look back on the happy years of one’s youth as a bet­ter time: the old, as it has been ob­served since an­tiq­uity, tend to be­come nos­tal­gic for times gone by.

Things were cer­tainly very bad dur­ing the half-mil­len­nium that fol­lowed the fall of Rome. But then, af­ter the new se­cu­rity and pros­per­ity es­tab­lished in the Mid­dle Ages, Europe be­gan to think in a dif­fer­ent way. The Re­nais­sance con­sid­ered it­self a pe­riod of dra­matic im­prove­ment, of the restora­tion of high civil­i­sa­tion af­ter a mil­len­nium of deca­dence. There was still a fear of re­lapse, and the theme of re­gres­sion re­curs spo­rad­i­cally through­out the fol­low­ing cen­turies, but in a longer per­spec­tive we can see that what was emerg­ing was an en­tirely new par­a­digm.

The be­gin­nings of mod­ern science dur­ing the 16th cen­tury and its ex­plo­sion in the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion of the 17th at last re­gained and then sur­passed the sci­en­tific knowl­edge of an­tiq­uity, while the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion of the 18th and 19th cen­turies fun­da­men­tally changed the con­di­tions of mod­ern life. The snow­balling de­vel­op­ment of knowl­edge and its con­se­quent tech­nol­ogy led to the as­sump­tion that things were con­sis­tently im­prov­ing: the in­ven­tion of mod­ern science in Europe brought us the new idea of progress.

The new par­a­digm ex­tended to po­lit­i­cal think­ing — in what has been called the Whig in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his­tory — and the op­ti­mism of so­cial and demo­cratic progress sur­vived the cat­a­strophic events of the 20th cen­tury; only in the past few years has it dawned on us, through the en­counter with vi­o­lent re­li­gious big­otry, that large parts of the world don’t want to be­come mod­ern or share in so­cial progress, hu­man rights and democ­racy. At home, mean­while, the eco­log­i­cal move­ment has been a re­minder that progress can come at a high cost.

The new idea of progress, as we have seen, was closely as­so­ci­ated with the de­vel­op­ment of art from the Re­nais­sance, but it has be­come a more se­ri­ous prob­lem for the un­der­stand­ing of art since avant-gardism, which was the prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion of the idea in con­tem­po­rary art, be­came con­fused with a pro­gres­sivist view of art his­tory it­self. As far as our un­der­stand­ing of the art of the past was con­cerned, this led to the il­lu­sion that each suc­ces­sive phase was some­how an ad­vance over its pre­de­ces­sors, each great mas­ter bet­ter than the last.

It is sur­pris­ingly hard, for ex­am­ple, even for aca­demics to avoid sug­gest­ing that Car­avag­gio was bet­ter than his pre­cur­sors, or that the im­pres­sion­ists, or Cezanne and so on, were in their turn su­pe­rior to those who are im­plic­itly as­sumed to be re­peat­ing the for­mu­las of the past. In fact, al­though of course some artists are bet­ter than oth­ers and some pe­ri­ods richer in great fig­ures, the fact re­mains that art is not es­sen­tially pro­gres­sive: it is not a story of suc­ces­sive im­prove­ments but of changes in ori­en­ta­tion, and each new achieve­ment in­volves some kind of sac­ri­fice — Rem­brandt’s dra­matic chiaroscuro, for ex­am­ple, con­signs large parts of the paint­ing to dark­ness; im­pres­sion­ism’s vivid sense of the mo­ment en­tails re­lin­quish­ing the time­less for the ephemeral.

The his­tory of mod­ernism has been par­tic­u­larly dis­torted by the fal­lacy of progress and in the most ex­treme case by a tele­o­log­i­cal ver­sion in which that progress has an end point, namely ab­strac­tion.

The re­sult has been to priv­i­lege cer­tain move­ments and artists — con­sid­ered pro­gres­sive or in­no­va­tive — in a stan­dard his­to­rio- gra­phy of the late 19th and 20th cen­turies, and to ig­nore oth­ers who sim­ply don’t fit in. This nar­ra­tive has been un­der re­view in a piece­meal fash­ion for some time, but there is still much to be done, and the post-war half-cen­tury re­mains murky.

One of the Aus­tralian artists who does not fit into the stan­dard mod­ernist story is Lloyd Rees (1895-1988), and this has led to his be­ing al­most en­tirely left out of any his­tor­i­cal view of the 20th cen­tury. Late in life, partly thanks to the con­nec­tion with Brett White­ley, who had ad­mired Rees from an early age, and partly thanks to the luminous late paint­ings with their Turner-like dis­so­lu­tion into light and the pathos — as with Monet — of an artist los­ing his sight, Rees be­came a quasi-leg­endary fig­ure, yet with­out thereby gain­ing a proper place in any his­tor­i­cal se­quence — like White­ley, to a cer­tain ex­tent, he was in his last years con­sid­ered a kind of ge­nius stand­ing out­side his­tory.

For all th­ese rea­sons, the Lloyd Rees ex­hi­bi­tion at the Art Gallery of NSW is a wel­come op­por­tu­nity to re­con­sider Rees as an artist, and the beau­ti­fully pro­duced book by Hen­drik Kolen­berg that ac­com­pa­nies the show — it is far more than a cat­a­logue — at last does jus­tice to the va­ri­ety and breadth of his oeu­vre.

If the rea­son for the pop­u­lar­ity of Rees’s late work was an airy dis­so­lu­tion ap­proach­ing the all-too-fa­mil­iar ab­strac­tion, the rea­son for the in­com­pre­hen­sion of the early work was its ba­sis in what had come to seem al­most the an­tithe­sis of mod­ernism, care­ful and pre­cise draughts­man­ship.

At the same time, mod­ernism had made au­di­ences lazy: while the best mod­ernist art, like that of any pe­riod, was in­tel­lec­tu­ally de­mand­ing, the move­ment on the whole had trained au­di­ences to ex­pect bright colours, sim­pli­fied forms and facile dec­o­ra­tive ef­fects. Post­mod­ernism, in turn, has trained them to ex­pect gim­micks that can be grasped and con­sumed in the time it takes to walk past a dis­play.

Rees’s work de­mands and re­wards close at­ten­tion, of which most gallery vis­i­tors seem in­ca­pable. In the time I was look­ing at the ex­hi­bi­tion, a sin­gle cou­ple en­gaged rel­a­tively closely with the work, and they had known the artist. A few younger peo­ple drifted in, walked around with a glazed ex­pres­sion and left again

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