Visual Arts

Australian Art: A History by Sasha Grishin (review)

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A lot of people write about art. There is the art historian (who endures the long-distance marathon), the art critic (who partakes of the 100 metre sprint), connoisseurs, whose single-minded passions often induce surprising eloquence — and then there are the hit-and-run art commentators of varying abilities with a sustained appetite for unfocused diatribes.
Sasha Grishin, Sir William Dobell Professor of Art History at the Australian National University is an art historian in the best tradition. His new work is Australian Art: A History (MUP). His knowledge of his subject is substantial, his writing is measured, clear and graceful. This gives him the authority to make some bold assertions and to reposition by fleeting reference or outright omission, a number of ‘significant’ players in the art world, which alone will ensure the enmity of some galleries and some collectors whose purchases are guided by investment potential. The ‘wunderkind’ of the 1970s, Brett Whiteley is represented by one modest etching Mother and Child. 
Because a history of Australian art requires looking at the most recent offerings as well as the oldest, Grishin is rather in the position of a butterfly collector who has hundreds of specimens pinned to the board. Most of them are quite dead, but an uncomfortable number are very much alive and still fluttering. Others were allowed to flutter free from the net altogether.
This reviewer was delighted to see the ritual obeisance to the late art-world personality Margaret Olley avoided. As another writer, Chris McAuliffe observed in the Sydney Morning Herald: “the book is mercifully free of Margaret Olley’s lumpen still life paintings”. Agreed. Her upholstered works which sold for substantial sums, had the same relationship to art that Barbara Cartland’s novels had to literature.
Grishin’s describes his approach with great candour in the book’s introduction “I assembled a ‘council of twenty elders’ each of which was invited to critique the section of the manuscript that corresponded with their area of expertise … Their criticism has been enormously valuable, and in some instances has led to the rewriting of whole sections.”
He also alludes to the difficulty of writing about the art of the last 25 years, when the number of artists has mushroomed into the tens of thousands and of avoiding “a stampede of ‘hobby horses’’. In the first instance, Grishin approached 80 established artists to each nominate 50 artists who they considered “integral to any discussion of contemporary art making in this country”. But that was just the beginning of his unusually collegial approach of which there are details in his introduction. A procedure such as this meant that the art community itself pronounced on which artists should be overlooked as “frivolous, over-hyped and trite”. Another departure from the standard histories of Australian art was his decision to seamlessly integrate indigenous art (beginning with the striking rock art which is so widely distributed around Australia) with the art of more recent arrivals on this continent — and to point to the immediate and sustained dialogue between them. The result has been refreshing even though a number of remarkable contemporary Aboriginal practitioners have not been included.
There are 46 chapters in all, and they are structured so that the reader might read any one of them, in any order, without confusion. Some painters have been given a disproportionately large representation (such as Margaret Preston even as Grishin appears ambivalent about her) while others such as Frank Hinder are very much in the shade. It was a delight to see the page space devoted to William Dobell, who an earlier art critic Robert Hughes, had savaged relentlessly, both in his reviews and his in his 1970 publication The Art of Australia, (likewise to see the work of Norman Lindsay dispatched as “juvenile fantasies”). While a lot of unclassifiable and ephemeral conceptual work of the 1970s has been given a miss, only the need for some particular narrative line could explain the absence of images by later luminaries such as Robert Hunter, Ricky Swallow, Louise Hearman, Paul Partos, Robert Jacks and Mike Parr
The issue of that fugitive concept the ‘art establishment’ is threaded through Grishin’s text, beginning as early as the colonial period when painter Conrad Martens, that champion of the ‘picturesque’ conventions, gained patronage from the owners of merino flocks and a succession of governors of NSW.
From that time until the early 1950s, The trustees of the budding national galleries (often Sunday painters themselves) and the presidents of the fledgling art societies had a virtual-strangle hold on decisions about acquisitions and their favourites included George Lambert, Elioth Gruner, Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen. In 1939 the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria James MacDonald dismissed the modernists such as Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso as ‘degenerates and perverts’,  and in 1945 Hal Missingham the director of the Art Gallery of NSW, was temporarily “relieved of his power to purchase” when he bought a work by Sidney Nolan. Grishin alludes to these power structures in a reference to Hans Heysen in the 1920s: “His paintings encapsulated values that struck a kindred cord with the academic conservatives, who comprised most of Austraian’s ruling art oligarchy in power at the time …”
In the final count, this volume is much more than the modestly titled ‘a history of Australian art, it is the first volume of its kind to be written in Australia which lodges the whole enterprise of making art (which reflects on the observable world and the accompanying inner worlds) within the multi-layered context of Australia’s rural, industrial, cultural and social history.

Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams, 1890
Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams, 1890

Bradshaw Figures, Kimberley region, W.A.
Bradshaw Figures, Kimberley region, W.A

John William Lewin, Fish catch and Dawes Point Sydney Harbour, c. 1813
John William Lewin, Fish catch and Dawes Point Sydney Harbour, c. 1813 (Detail). 

Sidney Nolan, The Trial, 1947 (Detail).
Sidney Nolan, The Trial, 1947 (Detail).

Tony Tuckson, White lines (vertical) on ultramarine, c. 1970 (Detail).
Tony Tuckson, White lines (vertical) on ultramarine, c. 1970 (Detail).

[box] Featured image:  Dorrit Black, The Bridge, 1930 (Detail).

2 responses to “Australian Art: A History by Sasha Grishin (review)

  1. Ha! But Sasha is the Sir William Dobell Professor of Art History at ANU…OF COURSE Dobell would get a good airing in any book he writes. I’m sorry but I’m very cynical about Canberra ‘art club’ types somehow being impartial and collegial. The fact that 70s art would be almost now ‘dropped, is telling of how histories are written by the victors. Success is it’s own advertisement obviously. So yes Brett Whitely seems to have been downgraded but that just dumb in many ways, for all his excesses Whitely is a VERY Australian artist. Olley too in many ways but here works were always lumpen let’s face it. Rarely a good one. I dunno one has to ask why bother with such a book. It only rearranges the deck chairs on the sinking ship. Seen from overseas Australia is just a duck on a small pond. What is needed desperately is real new ideas about Australian art. One option could be to entirely up send the whole edifice and not ask 80 in house types but ask the public what they like. Now that would be radical, but being radical is certainly not what those in power would like. Rich collector or cosseted Canberra academic, there’s no difference. And anyway Kaldor is now asking for Big New Ideas which is a joke as you only have to see the tired list of judges for that project to know that no new ideas will come of it. When collectors and taste makers actively run competitions to find ‘new ideas’ we must face up to the fact that contemporary art as somehow autonomous social and cultural force is over. The local Westfield mall contains more visual information than an art gallery now…and things are better made and more importantly more visual. In the beginning there was the Image.

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