Books Stephen Romei’s A Pair of Ragged Claws column
An outstanding new history of Australian art is sensitive to the glory of great artworks and the humanity of those who create them, writes Christopher Allen
WHEN reviewing a book on a subject on which one has also published a work, it is probably prudent to begin by acknowledging the fact. My Art in Australia from Colonisation to Postmodernism (Thames and Hudson, 1997) was commissioned by Nikos Stangos, who had about three decades earlier commissioned Robert Hughes’s Art of Australia (1966). In fact Stangos saw my book as in some sense a replacement for Hughes’s volume, taking into account not only another 30 years of contemporary art but also the significant re-evaluation of Australian colonial art in the last decades of the 20th century.
As part of the World of Art series, my book was necessarily concise, conceived as an accessible introduction to the subject. My intention was to propose a way of reading the history of Australian art, a narrative that stressed the intrinsic concerns of artists in this land rather than seeing Australian art as a series of colonial, and later provincial, reflections of art-historical developments in metropolitan centres.
Sasha Grishin’s new book, Australian Art: A History, is very different in scale, in ambition and in its historiographical approach. And in the first place, if my book was meant to take the place of Hughes’s short introduction, Grishin’s is intended to replace Bernard Smith’s Australian Painting (1962), hitherto the greatest synthetic vision of the development of art in Australia. Grishin’s book is neither an introduction nor an interpretative essay, but a full-scale history of art in Australia.
When I arrived in London to see Stangos, a Customs officer asked me the purpose of my visit. When I said that it was for a book on Australian art, he replied without missing a beat, ‘‘That would be slim volume, then, sir.’’ In fact, Australian art is far from a small topic and Grishin’s book is certainly not a slim volume. It is huge and enormously heavy, and yet it would be hard to argue that it is too long: it is simply the scale the subject demands if it is to be covered in the degree of detail he has set himself.
The scale of a history, of course, is like that of a map: it can be greater or smaller depending on what one wants to achieve. On a map of a small scale, it is easier to see the shape of a country but hard to make out any but the biggest mountain ranges, rivers and cities; on a very detailed map, even small topographical features and modest towns and villages may appear, but it will be harder to grasp the overall shape of the land. In a history, concision will favour the sketching of a vue d’ensemble, but greater length is more congenial to the empirical historian who is concerned to gather all the facts in the most objective way possible. Grishin, professor of art history at the Australian National Univer- Australian Art: A History By Sasha Grishin The Miegunyah Press, 584pp, $175 (HB) sity, is essentially empirical rather than interpretative in his approach, and he has succeeded in marshalling a vast amount of research, impressive in its detail and its accuracy, into a structure that presents periods and movements in an intelligible way, while focusing largely on a series of individual studies in a manner that makes the book useful and convenient as a reference work.
In a shorter survey, the biographical circumstances of an artist’s life can only be briefly outlined, and their oeuvre frequently has to be reduced to one or two works that epitomise their contribution to the overall story. In a history of this nature, there is room to discuss the upbringing, artistic development and career of each significant individual including, importantly, the date and circumstances of their death. There is space to acknowledge personal and aesthetic complexities, as well to recognise that an artist’s career extends beyond the years when his work occupied the limelight of fashion or the forefront of the avant-garde: time and again, artists have grown from young rebels into members of an art establishment that does not always welcome the following generation.
One of the great virtues of this book, in fact, is the author’s ability to enter into the spirit of the successive periods and to sympathise with the artists he writes about. Far from the complacency of hindsight too often encountered, especially in accounts of modernism, Grishin has the historical imagination to see things from the point of view of the artists and others that he is writing about, which does not mean that he is uncritical. The right balance between criticism and sympathy is important in dealing with any period or individual, and a degree of sympathy can itself allow criticism to be deeper, rather than merely harsh or strident.
In any case, it is one of the most attractive features of Grishin’s work that he engages in such a generous spirit with the artists whose careers and work he deals with. Without being exactly an advocate for each individual, one does feel at least the author has situated them in their time and explained their work, interests and style in a way that presents the best plausible case for their claim to our attention.
The way that artists of one generation influence and are in turn judged by those of successive ones is always important, but the question becomes more complex than ever, and often fraught with difficulties, in the modern period, because of the rapidity with which new styles appear and challenge the authority of those who had come before. At the same time, there are often conflicting perspectives even within
by Tom Roberts, left;
by William Dobell, right