Christopher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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