Utzon’s Opera House

January 6, 2014
Rew Hanks, Eternity, 2006, coloured linocut.
Rew Hanks, Eternity, 2006, coloured linocut.

“It has made me feel glad I am alive in Australia today,” wrote Patrick White in 1965, after a tour of the Sydney Opera House with architect, Jorn Utzon. “At last we are going to have something worth having.”

The official opening in 1973 was overshadowed by the long and painful building process, which began in 1958 and soon devolved into a battle of nerves between the Danish architect, Jorn Utzon and the state government of Robert Askin. Nowadays everyone agrees that Utzon was shabbily treated, and that his forced resignation of 1966 added years and many millions of dollars to the construction. He was not invited to the opening ceremony or even mentioned in any of the speeches.

Successive governments spent a long time trying to make it up with Utzon (1918-2008), who would never return to Australia. It was not until 2004 that he was asked to design some renovations and had a room named in his honour. In the meantime the Opera House had become known as one of the architectural marvels of the twentieth century.

Last October the Opera House turned 40, and the S.H.Ervin Gallery is celebrating with an exhibition of works by 24 Australian artists and a small selection of Utzon’s drawings and models. The show is a reprise of an earlier one put together by the architect’s daughter, Lin, for the Utzon Centre in Aalborg, Denmark, in July 2012.

In her catalogue introduction for that show, Lin Utzon writes that the Opera House changed “a whole nation’s outlook and perception of itself.”

“Just as the Eiffel Tower announced the industrial age and caused a complete change in artistic consciousness and expression,” she continues, “so the Sydney Opera House signaled and caused a transformation in the consciousness of Australians, giving them a strong sense of place and pride in their beautiful and wildly poetic country.”

It’s a big call but if any single building may be said to have imprinted itself on the Australian collective consciousness, it is the Opera House. Its impact may be compared to that of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1930s, but where the Bridge acted as a symbol of hope and resilience during the Great Depression, the Opera House reputedly signified a new era of cultural awareness in a country renowned for its philistinism.

Travel writer, Jan Morris, wrote that the Opera House “is like a very emblem of fresh starts”. This is perhaps less positive than it sounds, because Australian culture has always been a stop-start affair.

There are five works by the late Martin Sharp in the S.H. Ervin show, but the list doesn’t include his portrait of that Australian Everyman, Boofhead, from a 1965 Oz magazine cover, who announces in a speech bubble: “But I don’t give a stuff about opera.” Does this represent the narrow-minded attitudes of the early 1960s as opposed to the sophisticated Australia of 2014? The reality is that we keep taking three steps forward then two steps back. Public galleries are still dealing with inadequate budgets and declining attendances. The Australian Opera is flirting with classic musicals such as South Pacific to bring in customers. The local film industry is a poor shadow of boom we saw in the 1970s. Wealthy individuals and corporations think philanthropy is a medical condition against which they are quarantined.

Most disturbing are those sudden outbreaks of redneck thinking, such as the Mayor of Newcastle’s suggestion that the regional gallery should sell off part of its collection to pay for an extension.

Australian culture is better symbolised by the Opera House under construction than by the finished product, because the struggle between those who see the arts as an essential part of life, and those who see only a waste of money, is still underway. If there is a building to define the next era in Sydney, it will be a towering casino at Barangaroo – a project embraced by both Government and Opposition. Optimists may consider it proof of cultural progress that James Packer is throwing in a $60 million donation to the arts.

As befits a birthday celebration, Utzon’s Opera House treats the building not as a vexed symbol but as a source of inspiration to artists. There are more than fifty items in this show, but it would have been easy enough to find hundreds of works that feature the Opera House. It’s a spacious hang but might have been more effective if smaller pieces were hung in clusters, making way for a few extra pictures.

opera house home

Eric Thake, An Opera House in every home, 1972

Nevertheless, the organisers have included all the obvious candidates: Lloyd Rees, William Dobell, Brett Whiteley, Martin Sharp, John Olsen, Peter Kingston, Ken Done, and Eric Thake’s witty linocut of the Opera House portrayed as a set of dishes in a drip tray – An Opera House in every home (1972). John Olsen is in understated mode, with only four etchings. The most glaring omission is probably Whiteley’s Opera House painting of 1982 that was owned by Qantas before being sold at auction for $2.88 million in 2007. An extravagant piece of kitsch, this picture is no masterpiece, but it would have been a drawcard. Instead the exhibition includes a more tasteful Whiteley – Sydney Harbour in the rain (1976-77), in which the Opera House has only a cameo role; and his Portrait of Patrick White at Centennial Park (1979-80). With a cavalier regard for geography, Whiteley has given the novelist a view of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge from the window of his study.

Lloyd Rees painted the Opera House in a Turneresque manner, although these luminous pictures owe a debt to the artist’s fading eyesight as well as the play of sunlight on the water. Kevin Connor’s approach in Circular Quay (2009) is the diametric opposite. The Opera House looms on the right of Connor’s large canvas, which is dominated by a crowd of crudely drawn figures in the foreground and a tattered, murky view of the Harbour. The painting is anything but sublime but it has a wonderful sprawling energy. Connor sees the city as a human landscape in which the iconic building is no more a small framing device. Many of the works in this show might be classified as ‘picturesque’, denoting a straightforward intention to please the eye through a harmonious or striking arrangement of forms. This holds true for Margaret Olley’s rather tame Opera House from The Rocks (2009-11), and Ken Done’s simplified, brightly coloured depictions of the Opera House at night. Peter Kingston has shown a devotion to Sydney Harbour that few artists could match. His efforts are rewarded with four inclusions, the most striking being Full Moon, High Tide (Big, black Opera House) (2008), which turns that distinctive silhouette into a dark, craggy mountain range that looms over a small ferry. It’s more like a vision of the Lonely Mountain from The Hobbit than an architectural icon.

The bulk of the show is seriously quirky, including a painting by Michael Herron; works on paper by Reg Mombassa, Noel McKenna and Tom Carment; prints by John Coburn, Rew Hanks, Bruce Goold, Tania Crowther and Bruce Latimer; ceramics by Fairlie Kingston and a shell-covered confection by Esme Timbery. Family ties are acknowledged by a large drawing by Mika Utzon Popov, grandson of Jorn Utzon. If there is one truly irresistible piece it is Glen Farmer Illortaminni’s print, Sydney Harbour Bridge II (2006), with the Opera House in the background. Farmer is an artist from the Tiwi Islands who undertook a residency in Sydney, and learnt to be a barista in his spare time. He has translated the view of Harbour into the unique Tiwi visual language. It takes a moment to recognise the arc of the bridge and the shells of the Opera House, but the Eureka! moment is sheer delight. Utzon’s Opera House also serves as a timely tribute to Martin Sharp, who left us on 1 December, having sacrificed his life to the jealous god, Nicotine. The Opera House was one of Martin’s passions – he declined to call them “obsessions”. Like everything that absorbed his artistic attentions it became part of Sharp’s personal mythology, mingling with other preoccupations such as Tiny Tim, in the silkscreen poster-print, Tiny Tim at the Opera House (1982). The famous warbler’s profile is transposed onto the building, as he serenades the Harbour Bridge and Luna Park.

Another poster-print, The Sydney Opera House is Ten (1983), draws parallels between the ‘sails’ of the building, and the sails on the yachts that circle the Harbour. The rhythmic composition is held together by a flock of seagulls in flight. There is something both graceful and eye-catching in Sharp’s graphic style. His pictures might pass as the private musings of an extrovert, or the public demonstrations of a recluse. Either way, they are well suited to capturing the Opera House – itself such a graceful but imposing presence on Bennelong Point. It may have been part of our cityscape for forty years, but by day or night we may still be ambushed by this apparition on the Harbour and filled with wonder.

Utzon’s Opera House: Australian Artists Inspired by Sydney’s Architectural Icon
S.H.Ervin Gallery, until 19 January.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 4 January, 2014