Widows fan the flames of fame
Affairs of the Art: Love, Loss and Power in the Art World
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