Slow Burn, Charles BlackmanSeptember 11, 2010
Hopefully it won’t be viewed as a sign of ingrained male chauvinism that I’ve taken so long to talk about Slow Burn: A century of Australian women artists from a private collection, at the S.H.Ervin Gallery. The exhibition, which is proving extremely popular, is due to run for another week.
There has been a succession of shows and publications devoted to Australian women’s art over the past couple of decades. On my shelves there is a file box full of catalogues, as well Heritage: the National Women’s Art Book (1995), edited by Joan Kerr. In all these volumes one reads the same stories of neglect and discrimination, reflecting broader social attitudes towards women. The most perceptive commentators do not see the poor treatment of women artists is as an ideological conspiracy but as a result of many factors.
Most obviously, women in the past spent a disproportionate amount of time looking after homes and children. Before modern labour-saving devices became commonplace this meant a huge investment of time and energy. Those women who went on to have careers as professional artists often remained unmarried and/or childless. It was a sacrifice that few were willing to make.
Now that we have a female Governor of NSW, Premier of NSW, Governor General and Prime Minister, it is becoming more difficult to portray all women as victims of discrimination, although there are still significant inequalities to be addressed, notably in the business community. In the visual arts many would argue that the major battles have been won.
The most unusual aspect of Slow Burn is that it is an entirely programmatic collection put together by two private collectors. These women have recently been ‘outed’ but since they covet anonymity I’ll respect that wish. While most private collections are a matter of taste and impulse, the duo has spent fifteen years assembling a body of work by Australian women artists from colonial times to the present day. They have done this with the advice and assistance of the late Eva Breuer, whose unflagging energy, enthusiasm and good will, made her a rare specimen among local art dealers.
The show is presented as a tribute to Eva, who would be pleased by the crowds it has been drawing. It has all the hallmarks of Eva’s incessant foraging for works in private collections, auctions, and even, as the collectors say, garage sales. Predictably, it is a mixed bag, with some excellent pieces and some very minor ones. To be fair, this is the unvarying pattern of systematic collections, which always suffer from the fact that major works are already in museums. Even a late-blooming institution such as the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra (which now has a female director!), has had to make do with many minor but representative items.
The plan is to eventually turn the Slow Burn collection into a museum, perhaps something along the lines of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., on a more modest scale.
Opinions will vary as to which works in this show are museum quality, but surely any public gallery would be happy to have Stella Bowen’s portrait, Theadon in Kensington (1946), Florence Rodway’s Untitled (Portrait) (1912), or three pictures by Bessie Davidson, who spent most of her working life in Paris. There is also an excellent tonal portrait by another Parisian expatriate, Agnes Goodsir, La femme de ménage (1905).
Of the more recent works, it’s hard to go past the paintings by Anna Platten, Aida Tomescu, a 1987 Susan Norrie – before she put down the brush and starting making dull videos; and a really good Davida Allen, Figure, sheep and dog (1982).
One of the pleasures of this exhibition is the chance to see some unusual pieces, such as an early Janet Dawson, Art school interior, Melbourne (1956) and pictures by artists such as Marion Jones, Adelaide Perry and Janet Cumbrae Stewart, who are all deserving of a little scholarly attention. The works by indigenous artists are solid rather than outstanding, but the same could be said for many of their non-indigenous peers. Maria Kozic’s cut-out work, Bitch (with chainsaw) (1989) would be a passable gag if it wasn’t so badly painted. For Jenny Watson’s sake, I hope this Christmas someone will buy her a copy of George Stubbs’s famous book of 1766, The Anatomy of the Horse. (amazon.com/dp/0486234029)
The collectors claim that they have not proceeded indiscriminately, leaving out works by artists they did not like. But is it possible for two people to like so many utterly diverse things? Most definitely. In fact, it is far more unusual for Australian art collectors to be fixated on any single period or style. Just think of the Owston Collection, sold in June by Bonhams. Compared to that vast, chaotic array of loot, the Slow Burn collectors with their nur für Frauen stipulation, are models of fine judgement.
A great talking point this week, for all the wrong reasons, has been the two Charles Blackman exhibitions being held simultaneously at Savill Galleries and Arthouse. Normally this kind of coincidence sees dealers working together and in close consultation with the artist. This has not happened in the current instance, largely because of a few rude things that Denis Savill has said to anyone who would listen, including the media.
This is hardly unusual for Denis, who is not the shy, retiring type, but it casts an unhappy light on Charles Blackman, who has been suffering from a form of dementia for several years. While Savill Galleries is looking at Blackman’s Iconic Early Years, Arthouse is showing a series of recent drawings and small sheet-metal sculptures made from Blackman paper-cuts.
The Savill position is that the new drawings should never have found their way on to the gallery wall. “We don’t want them to belittle Charlie’s serious works,” he told the Herald. This is an outrageous thing to say, as an artist has a perfect right to work and exhibit until the day they depart this planet. The 82-year-old Blackman may be a far cry from his Bohemian youth, but his recent drawings – small and inexpensive as they are – still bear the hallmarks of a sophisticated artist.
One of the problems with Blackman’s work over a long period of time, was the ease and facility with which he turned out large, romantic pictures that looked impressive in gold frames, but had nothing new to contribute to the story of art. Quite a few works in the Savill exhibition might fit this description. The really outstanding paintings are the dark, atmospheric Self Portrait with Barbara and cat (1953), and Gasometer (1953) from his acclaimed Schoolgirl series. Both have that tinge of danger and melancholy that distinguishes all Blackman’s best efforts.
Most of Blackman’s pictures from the 1970s and 80s, which continue to sell well at auction, are painted in a more complacent manner. When we have seen an artist at his best, it is easy enough to tell when he has put his talent on cruise control. None of this was helped by the turbulent nature of the artist’s private life or his affection for the bottle.
In all these years we in Sydney have not had a well-rounded view of Blackman, who has never been granted a survey by the Art Gallery of NSW. His old colleague, Bob Dickerson, is in the same predicament. Both artists have paid their dues, but failed to register on the gallery’s ever-changing index of fashionable and desirable people.
And so, when the elderly Blackman, looking surprisingly healthy and spruce, decides to show his recent drawings, it is a tantalising prospect. The results are child-like but canny, with unsettling traces of wit. Look at the way the arm wraps itself around the guitar in the nude study, Serenade, or the way the line of the model’s hip seems to bisect her other arm. In Still life with window, a tiny window with curtains is inserted into the front of a vase. In Heading towards kosiowsko (sic), Alice wears spurs, while her companion, the Rabbit – or March Hare? – has black bands around his ankles. Both seem to have haloes, while the way Alice’s legs disappear into her skirt is a problem worthy of Lewis Carroll.
This is not bad drawing – it is a really fascinating mixture of the artist’s instinct and his reduced facility with the pen. Even when the works seem naïve or crude, there is a glimmer of the old know-how, a touch of poetry, that holds one attention. In this exhibition I thought of the artist, Ken Whisson, who feels that the worst artworks are those that are “clever and skilful”. After being clever and skilful for so many years, it would be a shame if Charles Blackman were denied this opportunity to rediscover his mojo.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 11, 2010
Slow Burn: A century of Australian women artists from a private collection,
S.H.Ervin Gallery, August 06 to September 19, 2010
Charles Blackman: The Iconic early Years
Savill Galleries, until 25 September.
Charles Blackman: Silhouette
Arthouse Gallery, until 25 September