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Helen Razer comes to terms with art, eugenics and Bakelite (again)

How to review a museum show that combines the thorny issues of rapid technological change, cataclysmic political movements, obsessive body image, racism and art?  Send a recognised ‘art critic’? No, send Helen Razer.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s Brave New World at  Melbourne’s Federation Square closes this Sunday afternoon and Helen Razer is your friendly (and opinionated) gallery guide.

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It is upon the authority of a cultivated adult that I recommend NGV Melbourne show Brave New World to other cultivated adults. It contains, says my buff, some dark curatorial surprises from Australian art of the 1930s. These are brought to light by inclusion of the era’s stars, including a sunny Cossington Smith and some positively Reef Oil-ed Dupain. Quite the tasteful, thoughtful constellation, says my learned source. Who then shuttles off, taking only a little of my mass ignorance on visual art with him as he goes.

I don’t know much about what I like, but I do know that it’s rarely exhibitions of art.

So, it is only upon a brutal lack of authority that I can personally recommend Brave New World to other brutes. I don’t know much about what I like, but I do know that it’s rarely exhibitions of art. I go in as a vulgarian, and it is in this same condition I far too frequently leave. I know just enough about art to realise that simply standing in front of it will not unlock its context and conventions. I know so little about art, the experience of it often embarrasses me. Within minutes, I will retreat in a muddle to the gift shop, where I always seem to pick up another Italian resin bottle-opener, that I will come to resent as another totem of my ignorance.

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Grace Cossington Smith’s The Bridge in-curve (1930)

Anyhow. Thanks are due, I imagine, to curators Isobel Crombie and Elena Taylor who brought us brutes a show that makes sense. I did not enter the gift shop, I did not blush from bewilderment and I did dally for much more than an hour within a show which may, as buff warns, be slightly more enamoured of social history than it is in tracing the movement of Australian art. But, this is fine for a literal brute who much prefers to read accounts of history than stand around waiting for metaphors to unfold.

Perhaps Crombie and Taylor know that for some of us, the path to visual art is not always visual. Certainly, they must know that the idea of the 1930s now presents itself to many in the West very clearly. Then, the masses paid the price for the excesses of the few. Then, political and cultural divisions were made starker by unequal wealth. There were those buoyed by dreams of a technology-led utopian future. There were those who idealised the past to malign the present. There were loud, ridiculous political leaders who had risen to power from nothing but a base of everyday desperation, expressed in the barbaric racist tongue.  It’s tricky for the literal person to view this collection without thinking, “Gee, that’s creepy. We may have been here before.”

It was also rather difficult not to be charmed by the era’s lovely objects. You can have your political nostalgia, but I’ll be standing in that room filled with the era’s bright Bakelite radios. The aesthete might, quite reasonably, bristle as brutes like me slobber over old tech, feeling the easy thrill of obsolescence in a space that strives to encourage a more deliberate pleasure. But, they may do well to consider that this could be a start to our fine-art education.

Brave New World, Australia in the 1930's exhibition at NGVA.
Brave New World, Australia in the 1930’s exhibition at NGVA.

To see these old radios in the context of the 1930s idea of progress, and to be led to them by an IKEA-style track which takes one first past Cossington-Smith’s hopeful view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, later by dystopian works by artist-prophets and pastoral works that recreated the past is to begin—I think—to understand something more than social history. It is, at least, to get a sense of the broad conditions in which art, of very distinct kinds, is produced. Possibly, it is to begin to understand the function of art and design.

I appreciate that this show has, through careful design and placement, given every item the chance not to be understood just as history, but as art.

There are a few furniture pieces here, and none more optimistic than those commissioned by Baroness Maie Casey, aviatrix and wife of the Governor-General. When she was not busy flying or entertaining dignitaries, she must have been reading up on Bauhaus. Her aggressively simple armchair must have been quite the retort to all the front-room froufrou of Art Deco. Built from native timber, it is bold and it is beautiful. But not one jot as moving as the pieces fashioned by unnamed people, with access to nothing but packing crates and a productive human urge. I appreciate that this show has given these precious, quite lovely objects a context broader than “folk art”. I appreciate that this show has, through careful design and placement, given every item the chance not to be understood just as history, but as art.

Brave New World, Australia in the 1930's exhibition at NGVA.
Brave New World, Australia in the 1930’s exhibition at NGVA.

It occurs to me that I may have had my first authentic moment of “art appreciation” in years. And then, Max Dupain ruins it all.

Just when I think I am “getting” the scope of this art thing, a photograph of Dupain’s commissioned by the Kelvinator company disturbs the view. Here, a handsome couple in evening clothes appear to be considering a threeway with a fridge. The image is creepy as clowns and no person over the age of ten could see it without the immediate temptation to psychoanalyse Max, who must have been traumatised by the primal scene in his parents’ kitchen.

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Kelvinator advertisement (1936) by Max Dupain

I have never much cared for Max, and his popular images of healthy white bodies in the sun have long been indivisible for me from this nation’s racist mania—addressed in a brief section on depictions of and/or by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people which includes some works by Albert Namatjira—and the three skin cancers I’ve had cut out of my face. I am so disturbed by and curious about this Ménage a Frigidaire, I make time to ask co-curator Crombie outright, “Is this weird ad thing art?”

I no longer see these near-century old pictures of men as harmless camp, but as white supremacist propaganda.

Yes, she answers quickly. Yes, it is. It may be art made in a pact with industry, she explains, but that has by no means been an unusual collaboration. Then Crombie, who has, as it turns out, written critically and notably of the famous photographer in her book Body culture: Max Dupain, photography and Australian culture, 1919-1939, gives me the goods on a guy likely besotted with eugenics. She takes me through other Australian works, both artistic and commercial, that advance the fiction of biology as power, and I no longer see these near-century old pictures of men as harmless camp, but as white supremacist propaganda. Which not only redirects, again, my understanding of every 1930s work I had seen that morning, but prompted me to write the note for you, “if you see Isobel in the gallery, bribe her for a short lecture on body culture”. (And also the more abstruse, “All this 1930s back-to-nature white, tanned eugenics shit. Pete Evans?” No idea what I meant.)

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Max Dupain’s Sunbaker (1938)

Or, you can follow the didactics and then your hopes or fears to the section or works of an exhibition that even the brute can find elevating. You will not feel lost and you will likely not blow seventy bucks on an imported blob of plastic in the gift store. You will find a way to comprehend an era so similar and so separate from our own. You might also discover, as I did in a few instants, a beginner’s approach to “art appreciation”.

I enjoyed and was upset by this strange exhibition. I sincerely recommend it to the strange.

Brave New World is at the NGV’s Federation Square gallery in Melbourne until October 15

Main image: Max Dupain’s On the Beach. Man, woman, boy (1938)

16 responses to “Helen Razer comes to terms with art, eugenics and Bakelite (again)

  1. That’s an interesting take on the show, Helen. I agree with many of your observations and yet we come to different conclusions. In recent years I’ve developed an interest in, and appreciation of, the art of early 20th century (Australian or otherwise) so I was looking forward to this, yet I came away disappointed.

    Let’s start with the rainbow room of bakelite radios. Visually striking sure, but barely more so than a collection of high-end kitsch at a retro decorating store or bar in Gertrude St. I had no idea bakelite came in any colour than shades of brown and cream so the display had curiosity value, but otherwise I have to think the curators lucked on this collection and couldn’t resist its decorative potential.

    Max Dupain is the sine qua non of any exhibition of this period, and the NGV must have a stack of his work in its vaults. Yes the ménage à Frigidaire (congratulations on that) is a bit weird but it alone could be the basis of a social history lecture – technology, fashion, suburban values, etc etc. Way more interesting than seeing the tired old sunbather yet again though I admit the “tanned eugenics shit” makes one ponder.

    The room of Indigenous artists was a rather disparate collection and seemed to be there more from a sense of duty rather than being part of a coherent narrative with the rest of the show. But then again the rest of the show didn’t seem particularly coherent, so perhaps I shouldn’t single it out.

    I have to agree with you on Maie Casey’s taste in furniture.

  2. I really enjoyed the exhibition for lots of reasons. Very interesting photos of Ballet companies that were here in the 30’s, and lots of other exhibitions of great interest.
    I can’t understand why everyone is going on about the Dupain advt. for the Kelvinator. I am sure the Advertising Agency would have told Dupain what they required in their advt. People did used to wear formal wear just to go to the theatre, do you remember all the cigarette advt. with everyone in evening wear?
    Anyway, I love Dupain’s work, I remember an exquisite close up of a lily, so simple in black and white. Look up some of his other photos. And, yes, don’t forget his then wife Olive Cotton, a great contributor to his work, and her own work was great.

  3. Great review Helen. May I note that there is a number of people (myself included) who have a sense that some of Max D’s reputation/ ‘profile’ rests on the talents and labours of Olive Cotton. Her work deserves more serious political analysis.

  4. I’ve just found a photo by Max Dupain of a little black girl in a white organdie dress licking a white ice cream under a tree. Guess I never looked at Max Dupain as the exemplar of obliteration before; it’s a very good point, even if it means all those streamlined limbs and perfect arcs were nothing but cardboard cutout scenery after all.

    1. Yes. Certain of his images have been for so long part of our shared visual memory. It was really interesting to learn and to see the conventions he was using, and the things (the strange things) he believed.

  5. despite professing a philistine’s ignorance of `Art’ (Bauhaus ref. gives you away) – this is a fine, stimulating piece of art writing. Loved your reading of Dupain’s Kelvinator ad –
    Brava!

    1. Honestly, A, I only know Bauhaus because I was a young communist. (Now I am an old one!)
      I really appreciate your generous assessment, though. I do admire good visual art criticism and as a young lady, I took Susan Sontag very seriously on the matter. But, it’s true. I know nothing, or almost nothing, of visual art. I think we can say that the exhibition itself helped me see something about it.

  6. I also spent far too much time in the Bakelite Wireless Room. It felt alarmingly like coming home for me. Thanks for the review though. Fascinating exhibition full of surprises.

  7. That fridge photo has to be the biggest noir fail of all all time.
    Just remembered – my mother used to spell “fridge” as “frig”. At the age of eight in 1966, I knew there was something wrong going on there…

    And thanks – I’m so glad to realise that “arty” Max Dupain has never done anything for me. Where did these earnest Australian “duties” come from, to think that he is a leg-end, along with the likes of Steele Rudd and Norman Lindsay and innumerable other bozos.

  8. Bravo, Helen

    A luminous review. So vivid was it, I don’t need to go and see it for myself. (It’s a long trek from Brizvegas to Melbourne and back.)
    You have captured the sights an aromas of the exhibition

    I’ll happily renew my proposal of marriage. That would make two out of three of us happy – My wife and I.
    I’m not so sure about you, should you be foolish enough to accept!

  9. A wonderful piece of writing and review and you’ve got me wondering if Dupain knew of the Reform Movement in Germany – all those naked blonde Aryans running through the forests and later into the arms of the Nazis. His photo ‘On the Beach. Man, woman, boy’ reflects very strongly the aesthetic of the times and without knowing who the photographer was, I would have placed the photo in Germany between the two world wars. But like you, I’m also not a cultivated adult, so maybe I’m just waffling on here.

  10. I don’t know about Art reviews, but I know I liked this. As Germany gets set to elect its first far right representatives since the last ones worked out so well, it is timely to glimpse that part of history that seems to have repeatedly avoided being putrified by time. A little lust with a locally made fridge is surely more wholesome than a damn foreign menage a meile, and of course these days it is all submarines which is hardly a challenge for a photographer. Great review!

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