News & Commentary, Visual Arts

Which artists should grace the Aussie currency?

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Vivienne Westwood was, briefly, one possibility. Bridget Riley and Tracy Emin were also touted. But, it’s unlikely any will grace the new 20 pound note in the UK. While the Bank of England has apparently given preference for a woman artist to be honoured on sterling, it is proving a bit challenging as the stuffy bankers have stipulated that the figure must be like those very bankers: historical and dead.

While any of the above is not beyond the occasional stunt, it’s hard to imagine the chance of getting one’s head on a banknote is sufficient enough for any to top themselves.

Jane Austen banknote

Already the bank has plonked Jane Austen’s visage on 10 pound notes from 2017. But the national call out for artists to go on the currency has, while hardly vexing the nation, wrinkled a few brows and set the art masses chattering.

William Hogarth, Richard Attenborough and JMW Turner are at the shortest odds.

In the US too, officials at the Treasury are looking for a woman’s noggin to put on their $10 note. Their greenbacker is to be, said a spokesperson, “a champion of our inclusive democracy”. Norman Rockwell perhaps? But it’s unlikely an artist will get the nod in this case however.

How would we go here? If our grey heads at the RBA offered us a say in a new banknote, stipulating only that it were a dead visual artist, and an Australian, whom would we come with?

We asked a few local art experts to get their views on which artist should grace the Australian dollar.

David Hulme, fine art consultant at art dealers Banziger Hulme felt any artist would have to pass the “taxi driver test”. Figures like Pro Hart or Ken Done (who is still kicking, turning 72 later this month) fall into this category, he says, being easily recognisable to non-art aficionados, like a consumer brand.

Brett Whiteley might too, he argues. But he was, well, of infamous repute.

“Brett was a drug addict,” says David, adding, “Donald Friend would be considered a paedophile today.”

It raises the question as to whether nationally honoured artists should pass the character test. Is it their work we honour? Or is it the person?

“Carravagio was a murderer,” says David, pondering whether that cuts him out from being considered a great artist.

Hulme threw numerous names on the theoretical table. Sidney Nolan, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Emily Kngwarreye, Albert Namatjira, Rover Thomas, Robert Klippell, Bronwyn Oliver …

His final thought was emailed: “I don’t think we have enough bank notes for all of the suitable artists,” and I could feel his head hit the desk.

Geoffrey Smith, Chairman of Sotheby’s Australia was less conflicted.

He simply threw forward three names — Nolan, Streeton, and Drysdale — before backing away and not establishing eye contact, hoping I’d leave him alone. I did. Busy man.

Helen Ennis, Head of Fine Art at the ANU nominated two figures, Margaret Preston and Rover Thomas.

Preston, she says, did much to establish national themes in local art.

“She grappled with ideas about art in relation to national identity and was responsive to Aboriginal art as being intrinsic to this… Her positioning of Australian art in the Asia Pacific after the Second World War was very progressive, marking a reorientation away from the UK.”

Ennis adds, “There is a democratic aspect to her art practice that I find commendable, it wasn’t simply aimed at an art elite.”

Rover Thomas, she says, stands as the iconic indigenous visual artist, representing both his people and his context with aplomb worthy of respect. And his own banknote.

He “changed expectations of how Aboriginal artists represented their land in visual imagery,” she says. “He was part of the Aboriginal art movement that took Australian art to the world and was….a role model for a whole generation of Aboriginal artists.”

So, what do Daily Review readers think? Which artists best represent us?

Or perhaps the question might be: which artists can best represent us on our currency? Because, we have to consider what our currency stands for. Banknotes are kind of popular culture, but they’re not too. The more money you have, well, the more access to the art on banknotes you have, quite literally.

Do we really want popular figures on banknotes if the culture behind them is considered less than equal and fair, perhaps even inimical to creativity and freedom?

Another issue is; would the artists themselves want to be on banknotes? There are those for whom the money economy was something of a dark and nasty place, somewhere they didn’t wish to traverse while living and perhaps would be distraught to be so much a part of it in death.

And finally, when we say “Nolan” or “Thomas” are we talking about the person or their art? What’s more important?

Our current polymer banknotes were first introduced in 1992 and there are no visual artists depicted on our “paper” money.

Perhaps it’s time to have the debate over whether an artist should be included on our moolah, and, if so, which one?

2 responses to “Which artists should grace the Aussie currency?

  1. I’m still waiting for QEII to be replaced by Edmund Barton on the $5; the first PM should be commemorated here in the same way Washington is in the US.

  2. i’m from Tasmania and I used to think Albert Namitjira’s work was a bit…kitch, unreal. A year ago I moved to the north of SA and I must say, when the light is right, it looks exactly like his paintings. genius .

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