The Weekend Australian - Review
ROCK MEDICINE AT MIDNIGHT
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In 1995 Foo Fighters debuted with its impossibly strong self-titled album. At the time it was a revelation, unexpectedly living up to postNirvana expectations and simultaneously introducing drummer Dave Grohl as a world-class singer, songwriter and guitarist in his own right. That record and its superior follow-up, 1997’s The Colour and the Shape, also created enough goodwill to allow the band to coast through 20+ years of steadily less-thrilling releases. Album No 10, Medicine at Midnight, is supposedly the Foos’
“disco” album, likened by the press material to Bowie’s Let’s Dance. And the comparison works, at least in that the 1983 album is also surprisingly short and has about three decent songs on it. In non-COVID times this nine-track album would be seen, correctly, as existing purely as a justification for a world tour filled with the band’s trademark jubilant, life-affirming gigs. And there are some songs which will doubtlessly squeeze into future setlists, such as Making A Fire and the Killers-lite Love Dies Young, with its briefly danceable four-on-the-floor beat. Then there’s everything else. No Son Of Mine is a tribute to Motorhead’s late leader Lemmy, in that it shamelessly rips off the Ace Of Spades riff; Cloudspotter starts stripped-back and intriguing before the band scurry back to a yawn-inducing Foos-by-numbers chunky chorus; Chasing Birds is a string of cliches fashioned into an acoustic ballad, and the title track is so relentlessly unmemorable it’s impossible to recall even when you’re listening to it. For all of the supposed experimentation there’s nothing here you haven’t heard before, and done better by others. But there’s a larger issue that the album makes clear: Foo Fighters are arguably the world’s last global stadium rock band, and if this is the cul-de-sac that guitar music has driven into while hip hop and EDM keep conquering new creative frontiers, maybe it deserves to die out as a popular mainstream genre. The indefatigable Grohl is still rock’s most beloved dorky-cool uncle and Medicine at Midnight isn’t going to tarnish his legacy. It’s not bad, just frustratingly unnecessary.
For an Aboriginal kid in the 1970s or ’80s, action hero Bruce Lee’s films were a call to step outside the wider “Anglo Empire”, says actor Kyle J Morrison. Growing up in Western Australia’s Pilbara, Morrison and his cousins began their Kung Fu education with the television series Monkey, “the only thing on television that wasn’t just white people”.
“We would be running around cracking each other on the head with the broomstick and as we got older we wanted to cut that broomstick into nunchucks so we could be Bruce Lee,” Morrison says. While Enter the Dragon has long been one of his favourite films, until recently he hadn’t seen the 1972 Hong Kong classic Fist of Fury, written and directed by Lo Wei.
“I turned off all the subtitles and all the English dub and watched it completely in Cantonese, a language I didn’t understand,” says Morrison. “What the culture was dealing with made me cry a number of times.”
Morrison, 38, is voicing the role of Lee’s character Chen Zhen in a new Noongar language dub of the film, Fist of Fury Noongar Daa, for Perth Festival. Noongar belongs to the Indigenous people of the southwest corner of Western Australia, Morrison’s grandmother among them. And while there are roughly 40,000 Noongar people, the language is spoken by less than 400.
“There’s going to be a lot more use of Noongar in the next five years because of Fist of Fury,” Morrison says. “This visual document will give us a better sense of how to use Noongar going forward.”
The film takes place in 1930s Shanghai during Japanese occupation of the city and opens as Chen and his fellow students at the Jingwu School of martial arts are mourning the death of their teacher. Into the school swagger members from a Japanese dojo who belittle the Chinese as “weaklings”. The Japanese present a tongue-in-cheek gift of a framed sign reading, “Sick man of East Asia”. The Chinese decline the invitation to fight but Chen later returns the message to the dojo. The moment his jacket comes off we know it’s all over. Grossly outnumbered, he defeats the Japanese students, rips the sign in half and prompts two students to eat it telling them, in one of the film’s most quotable moments: “This time you’re eating paper. The next time it’s going to be glass.”
The Japanese want him dead and he is faced with an impossible decision; leave Jingwu, the woman you love and your culture, or place everyone in danger. When he learns that Suzuki, the dojo master, organised to have his teacher poisoned by a biscuit, he vows to avenge the death and leaves Jingwu to covertly pick off his enemies.
“It triggered so many things I thought I’d dealt with in terms of the colonisation and the dispossession of our languages and cultures,” says Morrison on the phone from Perth. “And then the decisions we make every day as Noongar people to fight or to just live. You want to fight every day. You can’t keep fighting. It’s unsustainable. Accessing some of those emotions was really hard.”
Fist of Fury Noongar Daa is the latest project directed by Kylie Bracknell, who has made several productions with Morrison centred on revitalising the Noongar language. As part of their Noongar Shakespeare Project with Perth-based Indigenous theatre company Yirra Yaakin, of which Morrison was artistic director from 2009-19, they presented Hecate at the 2020 Perth Festival, the first full-scale production of a Shakespeare play in an Indigenous language in Australia. Their first project together was a translation of the Bard’s Sonnets which showed as part of the Globe Theatre’s Cultural Olympiad in 2012. Up until that project Morrison didn’t speak a lot of Noongar because the language had effectively been erased from his family, his grandmother a member of the Stolen Generations and raised in the mission system.
“My grandmother was beaten if she spoke her language,” he says. “If she spoke any language it was violently ripped out of her. It was a lot safer for my father and his siblings to focus on English and be part of this western world. A lot of Noongar families had to do that.”
Through learning to perform the Sonnets in Noongar and the conversations that took place in the rehearsal room, he managed to progress from what he describes as “toddler to pre-primary” level.
Before Yirra Yaakin took the production to London, Morrison put on a small performance for members of the Noongar community. He had to stop looking at his grandmother during the show.
“I was halfway through my first sonnet and my grandmother’s tears were just flowing out because that was the first time she heard her language fluently spoken by her family in over 80 years,” he says. “My mother drove my grandmother home after and my grandmother was like ‘I remember some of those words now. He was talking about this. And I’m sure he was talking about that’. It actually woke up the language in her.”
Bracknell’s voice cracks when she talks about the large portion of the Noongar population who were severed from their language. This film, she says, is for them and for their children.
“Bruce Lee represents a time where the Noongar teenagers of the ’70s were pretty much the first generation to have full impact of language loss because they are the children of the Stolen Generation. I wanted to pay homage to them,” says Bracknell, who conceived the project with Tom Vincent who curates the festival’s film program.
The film is produced by Boomerang and Spear, a cultural consultancy she created with her husband Clint Bracknell to preserve and apply the language to contemporary projects. Clint also worked as a translator on Fist of Fury. Speaking on the phone from Perth during the recent lockdown Kylie, 40, interrupts our conversation with some instructions in Noongar for her husband, asking him to tend to their toddler.
“It’s a part of my everyday,” says Bracknell, who is raising her son to be bilingual. “I learned orally from grandmothers, uncles aunts and with that being my foundation I then looked into every resource ever put together in Noongar language and I guess I’ve calibrated all of that knowledge.”
In dubbing the film she wanted to work with a Cantonese speaker, preferably a woman “because I am”, and ideally someone she had worked with previously. The only person who ticked all of those boxes was Hong Kong-Australian theatre director Ching Ching Ho who she worked with on the Black Swan State Theatre Company and National Theatre of China production The Caucasian Chalk Circle in 2016.
“There are so many relatables in the film,” says Bracknell, whose paternal grandfather is Chinese. “It had to be done in earnest and it had to be done from Chinese directly to Noongar with the bridge of English because that’s our common language.
“I feel we have really reached the strength of the interpretation considering that Cantonese is arguably one of the most sophisticated languages in the world and Noongar is one of the most critically endangered languages in the world.”
Naturally there were instances where there was no direct translation from Cantonese to Noongar, but together with Clint she could explore the “synonyms that sit inside the brackets” of the words. “I don’t think any senior Noongar speakers have ever had the opportunity to really sit down and evaluate that.” For example, in Noongar there are no past tense negatives, so when Bruce Lee’s character says “I’m late” this was voiced as “I’m slow” or daba karn. “We don’t really have a word for ‘late’ because the concept of time for us is that you’re never late. When you look at Chen and he says daba karn you hear the words ‘I’m slow’ but (because of his) body language you go, ‘Oh he’s late’.”
The 1972 English dub of the film is soaked in the American accents of Hollywood. Watching the Noongar version one can’t help but feel this language is a better fit; the voicing is more considered and conversational and allows the focus to be on the story.
The script is voiced by a cast of 22 actors and aspiring Noongar speakers, including Bracknell who rather amusingly plays Wu En, the translator and advisor to the dojo’s grandmaster Suzuki. Wu winds up hanging from a lamppost.
“I’m a huge fan of Kate Mulvany and she played Richard III. I admire female actors who can break down the gender barriers and play male characters. And I wanted to play the bad guy. I don’t think I’ve played the villain before.”
Fist of Fury Noongar Daa is showing as part of Perth Festival at various venues, February 20-March 6.
Time was that a visitor to London from Sydney, Melbourne or Perth could land in the British capital and happily spend an hour or two at the National Gallery. It was like catching up with old friends. The collection is not panoramic or encyclopaedic. It is, quite specifically, a gallery of paintings. And yet few public collections in the world have such a concentration of masterpieces. You can start at the early works – celebrated pictures by Piero, Van Eyck and Leonardo – and across the course of a morning or afternoon make your way through to the origins of modern art. The history of European painting unfolds before your eyes.
On a busy day, you sometimes have to wait your turn to get close to the more popular pictures. There’s usually a small crowd in front of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and scuff marks on the timber floor in front of it are testament to the heavy foot-traffic. Sunkissed with gold and yellow, the picture is Vincent’s best-known treatment of the theme and is the daily subject of countless selfies.
That was when you actually could get to London to see the Sunflowers or any pictures in the National Gallery. The pandemic has put a stop to international travel for most of us, and many of the world’s most-visited art museums remain closed or have only cautiously reopened. Fortunately, there’s an opportunity to see a substantial array of the National Gallery’s treasures here in Australia.
A new exhibition, Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London, was organised before the pandemic and the associated disruptions. Opening next month at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, it has been conceived as a kind of mini-NG, with a selection of 60 paintings from 400 years of European art. Indeed, this exhibition, which also has travelled to Tokyo and Osaka, is the first time the National Gallery has sent such a large group of pictures overseas. While the gallery previously has made loans of individual art works, never has it offered such a wide-ranging sample as this one.
“It’s the first time we are doing something like this – a significant departure,” says London’s National Gallery director, Gabriele Finaldi. “It’s how we want to see ourselves in the world. We have a world-class collection and the world comes to see us here. By taking the show to Canberra the gallery can present itself to the world over there … This is the first time we are going as the National Gallery to the Far East and then to Australia.”
Born in London, and with Italian heritage, Finaldi has been director at the National Gallery since 2015. He spent the early part of his career at the gallery, and was deputy director at the Prado in Madrid before he returned to the top job in London. He is thoroughly British in his manner of speaking and cosmopolitan in his outlook: the sense of having deep cultural connections with Europe. I meet him in his office one afternoon in January last year. The director is relaxing in his shirt-sleeves, one long leg crossed over the other, spectacles on a cord around his neck. There’s a small espresso machine on the bureau beside him, and he used to keep a baby grand piano in here, too. “I enjoy playing Chopin, Brahms,” he says.
His office is at the front of the gallery with windows looking onto Trafalgar Square. This being midwinter, it’s already getting dark outside, and lights twinkle through the misty rain. There’s no hint, yet, of the turmoil and disruption that’s about to be visited on world, including the National Gallery.
Within a few weeks, the gallery will shut its doors and Finaldi and his household will all come down with COVID-19. Two of his former colleagues at the Prado die from the disease. The gallery reopened in the northern summer but shut its doors again at the second lockdown in December, and remains closed.
In an article for The Art Newspaper, Finaldi invokes a Churchillian sense of forbearance, referring to the dark days of the Blitz when the National Gallery’s pictures were removed for safekeeping to a mine in Wales, and piano recitals were given in the empty rooms. It is an “almost sacred duty”, he writes, “to protect and share the collection, and to ensure we hand it on as a legacy to future generations.”
The global lockdowns have affected the Botticelli to Van Gogh exhibition, too. In Tokyo, the pictures were installed at the National Museum of Western Art, ready to be part of the celebrations surrounding the Summer Olympic Games. They hung on the walls unseen until the exhibition finally opened in June. The delay pushed back the exhibition in Osaka, and consequently the Canberra season is starting four months later than planned.
Still, despite the longer than expected wait, visitors to the NGA are in for a treat. Botticelli to Van Gogh has stunning pictures from important departments of the London collection, organised into seven main themes: the Italian Renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age, Van Dyck and British portraiture, the Grand Tour, the discovery of Spain, landscape and the picturesque, and Paris, London and the rise of modern art.
On my pre-pandemic visit to London I’m shown around the Dutch paintings by curator Bart Cornelis, who has also helped plan the Canberra exhibition. Our first stop is a jewel of a painting by Vermeer, one of two by the master of Delft in the National Gallery’s collection. The small picture of about 50sq cm is of a woman wearing a blue silk dress and playing an early keyboard instrument, the virginal. Vermeer’s relatively few extant paintings are prized for their delicate handling of light and detail and, for Australians, this one has a particularly interesting connection.
It was part of an extraordinary collection assembled in London in the late 19th century by George Salting, the Sydney-born, Etoneducated heir to a sheep and wool fortune. An eccentric with a highly refined eye, he purchased and traded up his paintings, works on paper and ceramics into a superb body of works. He left 192 paintings to the National Gallery, including three that are travelling to Canberra: Portrait of a Woman with a Fan, by Frans Hals, Jan Steen’s Peasant Family at Meal Time, and the Vermeer.
Cornelis leads me through a hall of extravagant Rubens pictures and into a room of Rembrandt portraits, including those miraculous self-portraits that were also advertisements of his artistic skill. The National Gallery has one of his best-known, painted when he was in the flush of artistic confidence and success. The Self-portrait at the age of 34 shows Rembrandt wearing a fur-trimmed jacket, velvet hat and a heavy gold chain. He is leaning on a narrow sill in a pose he likely borrowed from celebrated portraits by Raphael and Titian. “It’s a cocky painting,” Cornelis says. “He really wants to say, ‘I’m as good as those guys’ – and of course now we agree.”
Where I’m standing with Cornelis in the 17th-century Dutch and Flemish rooms is roughly at the gallery’s midpoint in terms of chronology and floor plan. At one end is the Sainsbury Wing in which are housed some of the splendid Italian Renaissance works that are coming to Canberra, including Botticelli’s Four Scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius. If the subject is a little obscure – the formerly pagan nobleman Zenobius is shown at his baptism and then his ordination as the first Christian bishop of Florence – the picture has the simple, affecting expressions and limpid colours that are unmistakably Botticelli.
Uccello’s St George and the Dragon is a more dramatic picture, notable for its dynamic use of Renaissance perspective, in which the saint on his rearing white horse thrusts his spear into the dragon’s snout. Visitors will see pictures by Venetian masters Titian (his beautifully fresh Noli me tangere, in which Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ) and Tintoretto, with a glamorous mythological picture of the birth of the Milky Way.
In the other direction are galleries displaying the Spanish and Italian baroque, and more highlights in the Canberra show. Two paintings by Murillo of young boys – one in the guise of John the Baptist – display the Spanish artist’s sensitive, if not sentimental, handling of genre and character. El Greco and Velazquez are represented, as is Goya with a very British subject: Lieutenant-General Arthur Wellesley, future Duke of Wellington, who commissioned the artist following his victory in Spain over Napoleon’s army.
Further on are the English portraits including several of royalty and the nobility. Celebrated court painter Van Dyck is represented with his double portrait of Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and Dorothy, Viscountess Andover. The spaniel-eyed sisters were no great beauties, but Van Dyck shows what can be achieved with some choice jewellery and judicious styling, setting the template for flattering society portraiture. The English tragedienne, Sarah Siddons – celebrated for her Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and, indeed, her Hamlet – is depicted in the no less celebrated portrait by Gainsborough. And there are two portraits by Lawrence: Queen Charlotte in a shimmering sky-blue gown (fans of Bridgerton will note the queen’s pale complexion), and of art collector and slave-owner, John Julius Angerstein, who was Lawrence’s patron.
The National Gallery is unusual when compared with other important art museums in Europe. The Louvre, the Rijksmuseum, the Kunsthistorisches and the Prado all have their origins in royal collections; the National Gallery was instead founded by the British Parliament, when in 1824 it acquired Angerstein’s collection for the nation. Today, the collection remains relatively small, comprising just over 2300 paintings, and only paintings: prints and drawings belong in the British Museum, and decorative arts are in the Victoria and Albert. And yet it is remarkable in its concentration of quality. The collection’s focus is painting in the western European tradition – “Giotto to Cezanne”, in the classic formulation – and it expands only very slowly. Additions, such as the recent acquisition of Artemisia’s self-portrait as St Catherine, are rare.
“It’s a peculiar collection, if you think of other big collections in the world,” Cornelis says. “Most major museums that we know –
the Louvre, Rijksmuseum, almost any museum in Europe – is a royal collection in its origin. This is a civic collection, it never had anything to do with the royals, and the Royal Collection is still intact.” He points roughly in the direction of Buckingham Palace. “There’s almost another National Gallery just down the road.”
Cezanne and others associated with the beginnings of modern art form the final chapter of the collection, and of the Canberra exhibition. From Cezanne are a landscape of his beloved Provence, and a deeply felt portrait, Old Woman with a Rosary. There are theatre pictures by Renoir and Degas, and still lifes by Fantin-Latour and Gauguin. The highlight for many, though, will be Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. He painted this version in anticipation of his friend Gauguin’s stay at the Yellow House in Arles in 1888; it was the fateful visit when Van Gogh, after an argument with Gauguin, severed part of his left ear. The painting was acquired by the Courtauld Fund in 1924 and originally was hung at the Tate; in 1961 it moved to the National Gallery. Its current tour to Japan and Australia is only the fourth time it has been sent overseas since 1924.
“It’s a picture that is very much in demand,” Finaldi says. “That bit of the gallery is always very crowded, people are interested in associating themselves with that image – it’s much in demand for selfie photographs. It’s a way of spreading the riches of the National Gallery through social media.” If people taking selfies seems at odds with a serious-minded art museum, Finaldi does not discourage it. In the past five years that he has been director, he’s gently positioned the National Gallery to be more aligned with modern community expectations.
The Artemisia acquisition was significant, being a major work by the most famous woman artist of the Italian baroque. The painting was taken on tour – including to a girls’ school and a women’s prison – and was the centrepiece of an exhibition about the artist that had to be closed with the pandemic. The gallery also has started to explore new exhibition formats, including a whole exhibition based around a single painting, Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, that involved installations and video projections. Another innovation was NGX, an experimental lab housed at the gallery to encourage collaborations between scientists, musicians and curators.
At the time of this interview last year, COVID was not yet the global menace it has become and headlines in Britain were dominated by the nation’s divorce from the European Union. It’s partly because of Brexit that the National Gallery is seeking to broaden its horizons and seek partnerships with other institutions around the world, including the NGA. The pandemic has had an enormous impact on the National Gallery, as it has on so many other cultural institutions. Finaldi says the gallery is having to rethink its financial models, use of resources, and public engagement, with fewer visitors expected than the six million in an ordinary year. What won’t change, he insists, is the commitment to sharing the National Gallery collection with other museums.
At such a time, Australia is indeed fortunate that 60 treasures are coming to Canberra and the National Gallery’s “sister institution”, the NGA. “Traditionally the gallery was very conservative about these things, and possibly slightly nervous,” Finaldi says. “It will be a wonderful thing to see National Gallery pictures in the National Gallery of Australia.”
Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London, is at the National Gallery of Australia, March 5 to June 14
Matthew Westwood travelled to London with assistance from Art Exhibitions Australia.
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