Wi­d­ows fan the flames of fame

Af­fairs of the Art: Love, Loss and Power in the Art World

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­tri­cia An­der­son

By Ka­t­rina Strick­land Melbourne Univer­sity Press, 242pp, $34.99

WHEN art his­to­rian Bernard Smith asked this re­viewer a decade ago to write his bi­og­ra­phy he penned an ad­di­tional note a week later. ‘‘ From your own ex­pe­ri­ence you will know that it’s wise to keep wives on side, as far as hu­manly pos­si­ble, when writ­ing about their hus­bands!’’

Ka­t­rina Strick­land’s vivid and en­gag­ing Af­fairs of the Art sug­gests a sim­i­lar ap­proach, but this time the ad­vice is be­ing of­fered to cu­ra­tors, gallery di­rec­tors, auc­tion­eers and art deal­ers in their ex­changes with the guardian of the artist’s flame — the artist’s widow.

One thread run­ning through this book is that the en­dur­ing pub­lic pro­file and mone­tary value of a prom­i­nent artist’s work is ex­plic­itly linked to the han­dling of their es­tate. Thus wi­d­ows take up a lot of space here and a cross­sec­tion of hu­man na­ture un­folds: the pa­tient types, the philo­soph­i­cal, the strate­gic, the rat­baggy, the be­mused and the in­de­ci­sive.

Artists’ per­son­al­i­ties are also taken into ac­count. Artists such as Sid­ney Nolan and Brett White­ley were tal­ented racon­teurs and show­men, and th­ese skills en­hanced the aura that grew around their sub­stan­tial out­put.

In the first in­stance, Strick­land fo­cuses on those artists, such as Nolan, White­ley, Arthur Boyd, Fred Wil­liams, John Brack, Al­bert Tucker and Ros­alie Gas­coigne, whose works have reached the strato­spheric lev­els, by Aus­tralian stan­dards, of be­ing worth six and even seven fig­ures.

But in some re­spects the most heart­felt chap­ters are those on Bron­wyn Oliver, a sculp­tor whose in­tri­cate cop­per con­struc­tions were highly sought-af­ter and who ended her life at 47 in 2006, and on Paddy Bed­ford, whose daz­zling tra­jec­tory helped un­der­pin the suc­cess of Jir­rawun Arts. This cen­tre in farnorth Western Aus­tralia was founded in 1998 by a for­mer Melbourne gallery owner, Tony Oliver, and Abo­rig­i­nal artist Fred­die Timms but un­rav­elled a decade later with Bed­ford’s death and Oliver’s ex­haus­tion.

Strick­land’s ac­count of Ge­orge Baldessin, a gifted print­maker and sculp­tor, is fas­ci­nat­ing. By all ac­counts he was hand­some and enig­matic and when he died in a car ac­ci­dent at 39 he be­came the James Dean of the Melbourne art world. His larger-than-life bronze pears graced the ap­proach to the National Gallery of Aus­tralia in Can­berra, and their yel­low fi­bre­glass cousins have, from time to time, been grouped like pen­guins on an ice floe in the cen­tral court of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Some artists who did not have the ben­e­fit of a vig­i­lant widow, such as Wil­liam Dobell, now have an un­cer­tain rep­u­ta­tion. In his life­time he was as­ton­ish­ingly suc­cess­ful. His exhibitions and prices oc­cu­pied more space in the daily pa­pers than any other artist ex­cept Rus­sell Drys­dale and when sev­eral of his tiny works were stolen from the AGNSW in the 1960s it cre­ated a frenzy. But tastes change and pa­trons fade.

There is an en­dur­ing im­pres­sion of Dobell as shy and re­tir­ing, not a use­ful trait in an artist, but he could be as­sertive if re­quired. Dur­ing his time as a trustee at the AGNSW, its pres­i­dent pro­nounced loudly on the in­ad­e­quacy of draughts­man­ship in the draw­ing of an arm. Dobell said: ‘‘ And what do you know

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