Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

To­day, the word con­tro­ver­sial has be­come an in­sipid and shop­worn part of the vo­cab­u­lary of press-re­lease writ­ers, in­tended to pique the in­ter­est of jaded read­ers but doomed like all the other cliches and hy­per­bole in such doc­u­ments to pro­voke the op­po­site re­ac­tion. Part of the prob­lem is that in such us­age of the term, the work in ques­tion is un­der­stood to be con­tro­ver­sial in the eyes of some­one else. When a work is de­scribed ap­prov­ingly as con­tro­ver­sial it re­ally means that ignorant philistines or prudes — of­ten straw-men con­jured up for the oc­ca­sion — dis­ap­prove of it but that you and I know bet­ter.

That is why the re­cent ar­gu­ment about Her­mann Nitsch’s work was a gen­uine case of con­tro­versy, be­cause the work re­ally did af­front be­liefs and val­ues held by a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of people, even in­clud­ing mem­bers of the pro­fes­sional art world. In such a case it was worth con­sid­er­ing the value of Nitsch’s work and its aes­thetic claims.

His­tor­i­cally, artis­tic con­tro­ver­sies were part of the un­set­tled cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment of mod­ernism, which we can now see from a dis­tance as part of much broader grow­ing pains of the modern world, re­lated to cul­tural and so­cial changes that helped bring about the catas­tro­phe of the Great War and its se­quel in World War II.

Art con­tro­ver­sies are con­ven­tion­ally seen from the per­spec­tive of mod­ernism, in which, as al­ready sug­gested, they are taken as ex­am­ples of aes­thetic avant-gardism chal­leng­ing the ob­tuse con­ser­vatism of the academy, or of the es­tab­lished so­cial or­der more gen­er­ally. Un­der­ly­ing this per­spec­tive is the fal­lacy of progress in art, ex­trap­o­lated from the pro­gres­sive model of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy es­tab­lished from the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion on­wards.

In that way of think­ing, it was easy to see im­pres­sion­ism as a sci­en­tific way of look­ing at the world, although Monet does not rep­re­sent an im­prove­ment on the re­al­ist or ro­man­tic painters any more than the post-im­pres­sion­ists such as Cezanne rep­re­sent an im­prove­ment on Monet. What im­pres­sion­ism re­ally rep­re­sents is a change of ori­en­ta­tion, of aes­thetic pri­or­i­ties, an in­ter­est in the in­ti­mate and op­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of the world, akin to the close analysis of sub­jec­tiv­ity by con­tem­po­rary writ­ers.

The other thing that is mis­un­der­stood about con­tro­ver­sies, es­pe­cially in the pro­gres­sivist mod­ernist per­spec­tive, is that those who ob­jected to the new at var­i­ous points can­not al­ways be dis­missed as sim­ply wrong.

Thus the no­to­ri­ously re­ac­tionary Jean-Leon Gerome failed to pre­vent the Manet ret­ro­spec­tive at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1884 and, as late as 1900, at the Ex­po­si­tion Uni­verselle in Paris, stopped the pres­i­dent of the repub­lic from en­ter­ing the hall of the im­pres­sion­ists, call­ing them le deshon­neur de l’art fran­cais — the dis­grace of French art.

Gerome’s own art, although strik­ing in its way and the sub­ject of a re­cent re­newal of in­ter­est — with an im­por­tant ex­hi­bi­tion at the Getty Mu­seum in 2010 — also could be crit­i­cised on moral and aes­thetic grounds. Yet at least he took paint­ing se­ri­ously and be­lieved, as did many of his con­tem­po­raries, that the state of art was symp­to­matic of the state of the cul­ture, if not of the soul of the na­tion more gen­er­ally.

No one re­ally be­lieves that to­day, when con­tem­po­rary art is treated by cor­po­rate spon­sors as a con­tent-neu­tral sig­ni­fier of in­no­va­tion, and when prom­i­nent art spa­ces al­ter­nate sup­pos­edly cut­ting-edge events with fash­ion shows, din­ners, farm­ers mar­kets and other ac­tiv­i­ties that ef­fec­tively re­duce art to the same sta­tus as the other lux­ury con­sum­able goods and ser­vices that make up a cer­tain life­style.

Things were dif­fer­ent in Syd­ney in 1943-44, when Wil­liam Do­bell be­came, very much against his will, the cham­pion of mod­ernism in a gen­uine con­tro­versy that ended in an ex­tra­or­di­nary court case. Even in the mid­dle of the war and in a coun­try not known for tak­ing art par­tic­u­larly se­ri­ously, there seemed no doubt that im­por­tant prin­ci­ples were at stake.

Do­bell had won the Archibald Prize — not pre­vi­ously as­so­ci­ated with the idea of con­tro­versy — with a por­trait of his friend and fel­low por­trait painter, Joshua Smith. The pic­ture was a strik­ing im­age of an un­usual-look­ing man and Dis­cov­er­ing Do­bell Tar­raWarra Mu­seum of Art. Tar­rawarra, Vic­to­ria. Un­til Au­gust 13 two of the un­suc­cess­ful en­trants in the ex­hi­bi­tion protested against the award on the grounds that it was a car­i­ca­ture and not a true por­trait. In the en­su­ing court case, the plain­tiffs and the de­fen­dants were rep­re­sented by two of the most prom­i­nent bar­ris­ters of the day — Garfield Bar­wick and Frank Kitto re­spec­tively. Al­most ev­ery­one in the coun­try who could be con­sid­ered an au­thor­ity on art was called to tes­tify on one side or the other.

The case, how­ever, was ex­tremely dis­tress­ing to Do­bell and even more so to Smith, who had to en­dure dis­cus­sions about whether the artist had ex­ag­ger­ated or merely faith­fully re­pro­duced his odd phys­iog­nomy. In the end, the judge held that the work was a true por­trait and that it was there­fore el­i­gi­ble for the award.

But nei­ther artist re­cov­ered from the con­tro­versy: Smith, who had been made to feel like a freak of na­ture, was haunted by it to the end of his life.

The re­al­ity of the artist be­hind this no­to­ri­ous and even tragic episode is dis­played in a new ex­hi­bi­tion at Tar­raWarra, which brings to­gether works orig­i­nally ac­quired by the Be­sen fam­ily — whose gift forms the ba­sis of the Tar­raWarra Mu­seum — with many other items from pri­vate and pub­lic col­lec­tions.

What is par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing about this ex­hi­bi­tion is the great num­ber of prepara­tory draw­ings and stud­ies that are shown with the por­traits and other paint­ings and that help us to un­der­stand the stages of the artist’s think­ing and the way he has solved prob­lems of com­po­si­tion and ex­pres­sion.

These draw­ings have been care­fully se­lected by the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cu­ra­tor, Christo­pher Heath-

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