Harold Freedman: Artist for the People Art Gallery of Ballarat, Victoria, until May 28.
Many people today imagine the great art of the past was all made at the command of powerful patrons whereas modern artists are free to do as they like. The painters and sculptors of the Renaissance or baroque periods, they will insist, were forced to glorify their masters and to produce propaganda for the church, whereas artists today can express their own experience or social and political views.
Yet art today is no less involved with money, power and patronage than it has ever been. From the investment market and the record prices of auction houses to the corporate sponsorship of large-scale work and exhibitions as part of brand-building strategies, the contemporary art business is deeply concerned with money, power and fashion.
Patrons of the baroque period, meanwhile, eager to aggrandise themselves and their families, generally achieved this end through sponsoring important works of public art, especially building, restoring and decorating churches. And this in turn was predicated on the existence of shared religious faith: as in other societies under the same conditions, the powerful individual gains the respect and admiration of the community through a kind of self-effacement in the name of common belief.
Nor can the art made for the church during the medieval and Renaissance periods be thought of as propaganda, for religious belief was universal and shared by all. Propaganda consists, in its essence, in trying to persuade others of something you do not believe yourself, or that you do not believe in the simplistic way that you are presenting it. It is indeed only from the baroque period onwards that a significant gap begins to open up between what the educated ruling class believes and what they want the masses to believe.
It is because of such developments in recent centuries that public art has become so elusive. The roots of the problem go back at least 300 years but it has grown increasingly acute in the course of the past two centuries: true public art of real distinction has grown rarer and in its place works of propaganda have proliferated, culminating in the art of the totalitarian regimes that were such a disastrous part of the history of the 20th century.
We can see a kind of epilogue to this development in the political themes that often emerge in contemporary art. These are broadly aligned with a new political left that has lost sight of its traditional social vision in an introverted preoccupation with marginal and identity issues. In the process, a large part of its former constituency has been abandoned to the new populists.
Artists, too, are often attracted to themes such as race and gender, harped on in art schools and easier to get excited about than the great, daunting and complex problems of the world: ecological sustainability, economic development and global equity. Fringe issues can provoke an intoxicating rush of resentment and self-righteousness but such passions are largely a form of moral self-indulgence, especially when turned to the past rather than the future.
It is in this wider context that we have to consider this interesting exhibition of an artist little known today yet who was appointed in 1972 as the first and only official artist of the state of Victoria. In the course of a long career, Portrait of Alan Marshall Self-Portrait Harold Freedman (1915-99) tried his hand at almost every kind of art addressed to a large audience, from political cartoons to portraits, war and postwar propaganda, graphic design, commercial advertising, topographical illustration, children’s books and, in the later phase of his life, large-scale murals in paint and mosaic.
Yet there are surprisingly few things here, apart from the portraits and some early still lifes, that can be considered as interesting pictures in their own right — that could take their place in an exhibition of the art of their period without looking incongruous. One is a small painting of two radar operators during the war, both seen in profile. The young man closest to us is a dark silhouette, while the other is lit from behind. The two are intent on their work, together yet not speaking to each other.
In this composition Freedman is thinking like a painter, capturing something, as a shortstory writer may, that cannot be evoked in any other way. Here, in effect, he goes beyond illus- tration: the world is transformed by imagination into something more than reportage. But why is this so rare? Why does his subsequent career turn away from intimacy and the imagination?
There is an early self-portrait, from 1940, from which we could infer a different kind of artistic ambition: it is painted in the style of Max Meldrum, with large blocks of colour and tone; the artist represents himself as a bohemian with cravat and pipe and palette held prominently. Behind him and on the left, a small framed landscape hints at other ambitions.
Yet in a second portrait, painted two years later when he had joined the airforce, all traces of bohemian individualism have been extinguished by an oppressive infantry greatcoat and hat that are more symbolic than real, since they do not correspond to any uniform he would have worn. The expression is stupefied; the eyes, alert in the first painting, seem vacant.
From the early years of the war, several political cartoons demonstrate considerable ability, with an understanding of the anatomical structure of the body and of movement that allow him to produce a range of formulaic but effective attitudes and postures. He is clearly influenced by great predecessors in Australian black-and-white illustration, including Norman and Lionel Lindsay and Will Dyson — Dyson’s sickly Kaiser, for example, is reincarnated as Freedman’s feeble Hitler.
Two studies of trees from these early years are telling: once again they show much ability, although the first especially is clearly indebted to Hans Heysen. There is no doubt a student capable of such work would stand out from his class as unusually talented. But one does not need to compare them to the truly remarkable tree studies of Lloyd Rees from a similar period to see how limited they are — how self-limited, as the hard outlines and summary shading demonstrate: content to go so far but no further.
That same utilitarian aesthetic is evident in the portrait drawings, including one of his mother and another of Alan Marshall. They are characteristically competent, but once again hard outlines reveal the instinct to limit and define rather than to remain open to complexity. These qualities become even more apparent in painted portraits, such as the one of a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force, which was reproduced in the Royal Australian Air Force’s wartime publications RAAF Saga (1944). There is a tendency to turn individuals into types or symbols, rather than to ponder what makes them individuals.
This tendency reaches caricatural form in the postwar series Men and Women of Service: the project was a kind of after-the-fact soft propaganda, intended to emphasise that those
Freedman’s (1943), left, and (1940), above
Radar Ops (1945) by Harold Freedman