The Highs And Lows Of The Archibald by Geoff Harrison

Visiting the Archibald Prize is akin to viewing a weather map.  But if droughts are caused by an excess of ‘Highs’ and not enough ‘Lows’, some recent Archibald’s would have had me reaching for the life jackets.  This most prestigious of art awards has been courting controversy since at least 1943 with William Dobell’s winning portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith.  So incensed were 2 Sydney artists with the decision, they took the matter to the Supreme Court alleging the portrait was a caricature. 

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Dobell has been described by some art historians as a timid rabbit who suddenly found the spotlight rudely thrust upon him.  Interviewed many years later, Dobell said he became so distressed over the episode that he developed severe dermatitis as well as temporarily losing the sight of one eye and the use of one leg.  He said he could never forgive those responsible.  Dobell won the case, but he shied away from portraiture for a while before making a triumphant return to the Archibald in 1948 with his winning a portrait of Margaret Ollie.  He won again in 1959.  The Smith portrait was later almost totally destroyed by fire before being sent to the UK for the “less-than-successful” restoration seen above.


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Dobell died in 1970 and given the events around the Smith painting, one wonders what he would have made of Adam Cullen’s winning portrait of actor David Wenham in 2000. About all that can be said of it is that it meets the three key criteria for winning the Archibald these days; it’s big, the subject is well known and it’s topical as Wenham was starring alongside Sigrid Thornton in the ABC TV series Seachange at the time.

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To me, one of the more memorable recent winners was Craig Ruddy’s 2004 portrait of actor David Gulpilil.  This image does the work no favours at all.  I saw it in the flesh and it was a stunner. 

And so to the 2019 prize currently on show at Tarrawarra and Anh Do’s entry left me even more convinced he would make a very good plasterer of feature walls.  In recent years I have found the Archibald a rather cold and alienating experience.  Perhaps it’s a sign of the times and some of the works in this award fit that description, but not all.

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There’s Tsering Hannaford’s studied portrait of Adelaide philanthropist Mrs. Singh, superbly executed but perhaps too conventional?

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Jude Rae’s portrait of actor Sarah Peirse performing the role of Miss Docker in Patrick White’s “A Cheery Soul” is emotive and powerful.

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There’s Katherine Edney’s exquisite little “Self Portrait With Ariel”.  She was 37 weeks pregnant with her first child at the time.

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Last year, Jun Chen was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint Li Cunxin, the Chinese-Australian former ballet dancer who is now artistic director of Queensland Ballet.  The title ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ is also the title of Cunxin’s autobiography that was later made into a film.  There is something ethereal about this painting, almost as if the figure is not really there.

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And the winner is………..Tony Costa with his portrait of fellow artist Lindy Lee.  Viewed at close range this work is unconvincing, but step back at least 10 metres and there is a real presence about it.  The figure appears to be floating in space.

The Archibald continues at the Tarrawarra Museum of Art until 5th November.

Reality In 21C by Geoff Harrison

A question came to my mind after leaving the exhibition “Civilization – The Way We Live Now” at NGV Australia.  What exactly constitutes living these days?  Author Sasha Grishin makes it plain how he felt about the exhibition “powerful, troubling photographs of a crowded planet with an uncertain future.” 

Sami and the Panguna mine 2009–10 (Bougainville), Taloi Havini & Stuart Miller

Sami and the Panguna mine 2009–10 (Bougainville), Taloi Havini & Stuart Miller

The show brings together over 100 contemporary photographers from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and Australia with over 200 photographs. Some of the works are large in scale and all are thought provoking. There are very few images of people in rural settings, highlighting the fact that most of the world’s population now live in cities.

Desigual, Nathan Dvir, 2013

Desigual, Nathan Dvir, 2013

“For the first time, there is a real prospect that the human species stands to comprehensively annihilate itself, not through an act of war, but through man-made climate change and over consumption. It is also the first time that photographers are virtually everywhere and are photographing virtually everything.” GRISHIN

Brookes Brothers New York, WTC, Sept 12,2001, Sean Hemmerle

Brookes Brothers New York, WTC, Sept 12,2001, Sean Hemmerle

The exhibition is divided into 8 broad themes which, we are told, occupy many of the world’s photographers today.  There are images of military conflict, mass migration as a result of it and poignant scenes of the bedrooms of US servicemen who have died during the Iraq conflict.

Caribbean Princess 2015, from the Cruise Ships series 2014, Jeffrey Milstein

Caribbean Princess 2015, from the Cruise Ships series 2014, Jeffrey Milstein

“A hallmark of a memorable exhibition is that it seduces the viewer through its sheer beauty, while at the same time making us question the reality that we inhabit.”  An example of this is the theme Escape which, for some people, involves fleeing from a war zone while for others it involves the positive connotation of  ‘getting away from it all’ – hence the blossoming pleasure business.

Migrants walk past the temple as they are escorted by Slovenian riot police to the registration camp outside Dobova, Slovenia, Thursday October, 22, 2015, Sergey Ponomarev

Migrants walk past the temple as they are escorted by Slovenian riot police to the registration camp outside Dobova, Slovenia, Thursday October, 22, 2015, Sergey Ponomarev

One of the photographers featured in the exhibition, Nick Hannes, believes our civilization is reaching social and ecological limits.  His ambiguous and ironic imagery expresses his confusion and incomprehension with what’s going on.  He hopes to hold a mirror up to ourselves and create a moment of self-reflection.

f.D-2, KDK (this room really exists)

f.D-2, KDK (this room really exists)

The exhibition will run until February 2020 after which it will travel to Auckland.





Death By A Thousand Brushes by Geoff Harrison

If the creators of Midsomer Murders ever run out of ideas (and after 20 seasons they surely have), they could do a lot worse than attend an arts fair.  DCI Barnaby would have been kept very busy at the Affordable Arts Fair in Melbourne where the death rate, in artistic terms, was phenomenal.  I saw illustration, décor and crass commercialism but very little art.  Have a good look at the logo…..is it any wonder the artist has hidden her face?

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One of the more appalling stands was the online gallery, Bluethumb.  It had me realizing that I’m mixing with the wrong crowd.  Yes, I have sold 2 paintings on that site, but none recently and clearly I am out of step with their main focus – colour, surface, texture.  Interestingly, the Bluethumb people gave me a wide berth whilst I was there – was it the expression on my face?  Or did they recognise me from a few months ago when they sent me false sale notifications on 2 consecutive days and I spread the word far and wide?

There were some gems in the ocean of detritus, if you were prepared to look hard enough, and I have included images of them below.  There may have been others but after an hour or so I’d had enough.  So it was off to the Hophaus Restaurant in Southbank to detox.


Shannon Smiley,  Near The Harbour Bridge,  oil on canvas

Shannon Smiley, Near The Harbour Bridge, oil on canvas

Katsutoshi Yuasa,  Tread Softly Because You Tread On My Dreams,  Oil-based Woodcut

Katsutoshi Yuasa, Tread Softly Because You Tread On My Dreams, Oil-based Woodcut

Wayne Fogden,  Le Venaria Reale,  Inkjet Print

Wayne Fogden, Le Venaria Reale, Inkjet Print

Luis Fuentes,   Home,   Oil On Canvas

Luis Fuentes, Home, Oil On Canvas



Living With Art by Geoff Harrison

How are we supposed to appreciate art?  It may seem a dumb question, but art historians and critics tend to tie themselves into knots sometimes when answering it.  It is the belief of many commentators that society has got it wrong by focusing on the technical elements of a work of art, or its provenance or its historical context.

Sure, these issues are important, but what we are not encouraged to do is to connect up works of art with the trials and aspirations of our daily lives.  “It is quickly deemed vulgar, even repugnant, to seek personal solace, encouragement, enlightenment or hope from high culture” ALAIN De BOTTON. To put it simply, we are not encouraged to appreciate art as a means of instruction on how to live and die well.

The art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon remarked that the paintings of Howard Hodgkin were a rebuttal to the dry academic puritanism of much art criticism these days that can’t relate to a work of art until it’s been reduced to a set of abstract concepts.  I recall having an art teacher at RMIT who was embarrassed by the display of emotion in art.

Elliott Erwitt, His first wife and their child, New York, 1953

Elliott Erwitt, His first wife and their child, New York, 1953

Photographer Elliott Erwitt was born to Russian Jewish parents in Paris in 1928, and as the war clouds loomed, his family emigrated to America.  He felt being an émigré helped him in his job – being an outsider looking in.  He is regarded as a humanist and humourist.

Eve Arnold, Divorce In Moscow 1966

Eve Arnold, Divorce In Moscow 1966

Eve Arnold’s photograph could be considered a modern day version of those moralizing images that characterised Christian paintings of the past.  In a secular world and with considerable skill, Arnold brings us face to face with the consequences of letting ourselves and others down.

Jessica Todd Harper, The Agony In The Kitchen 2012

Jessica Todd Harper, The Agony In The Kitchen 2012

This photo was specifically commissioned for the book Art As Therapy, written by Alain De Botton and John Armstrong.  The rationale of this exercise is that art should start serving our psychological needs as effectively as it served theological and state needs for centuries.  We are asked here to consider what impact viewing this image might have on a couple whose own relationship is going through some difficulties.  They may realise that other people have the same sorrows and troubles as they have.  They may connect with something that is universal and unashamed.  They are not robbed of their dignity but are learning the deepest truths about being human.

Rogier Van Der Weyden, Descent From The Cross, circa 1438

Rogier Van Der Weyden, Descent From The Cross, circa 1438

Even in a secular world it is still possible to feel the emotion pouring out of this painting.  It transcends the perhaps narrow Christian context to touch the viewer in ways many other paintings of that era can’t.  It is a technical masterpiece for sure, but its psychological power goes far beyond.



Art After Dark by Geoff Harrison

Night time has been described as the time when reality disappears and imaginings begin.  People somehow seem less sane at night, according to Mark Twain.  Shakespeare described night as the witching time and the night seems to have been a particularly productive time for many artists, particularly those interested in images of drama, mystery and perhaps even madness.

Georges Del La Tour, Magdalen With A Smoking Flame, circa 1640

Georges Del La Tour, Magdalen With A Smoking Flame, circa 1640

“If you are trying to image things rather than look at them, to see them with your mind’s eye, then darkness comes into its own, and the night becomes your ally.  The dark brought drama to our divine imaginings and made them feel real.” WALDEMAR jANUSZCZAK

Ippolito Caffi, Serenade In St Marks Place

Ippolito Caffi, Serenade In St Marks Place

Italian artist Ippolito Caffi (1809-1866) seems to have had a particularly intense relationship with the night. His daytime scenes of Venice are superb but it’s his night time scenes that are relevant here, and he is a difficult artist to find any substantial information on.

Ippolito Caffi, Marketplace in Venice by Moonlight

Ippolito Caffi, Marketplace in Venice by Moonlight

At an exhibition of his work, held at the Museo Correr in Venice in 2016, (what I would have given to see it) the catalogue describes Caffi as a restless observer of society and a convinced patriot.  “Venice was the city that Caffi loved most, whose freedom he fought for and whose spectacular beauty he translated into painting, employing a capacity for synthesis unequaled during the entire nineteenth century.”

Ippolito Caffi, The Pantheon By Moonlight

Ippolito Caffi, The Pantheon By Moonlight

His patriotism drove him to become the first painter to record an Italian naval engagement, but his efforts came to nothing.  The Re d' Italia, on which he traveled was destroyed on July 20, 1866, by the Austro-Venetian fleet at the Battle of Lissa, drowning him along with his comrades.

Ippolito Caffi, Solar Eclipse Over Venice 1842

Ippolito Caffi, Solar Eclipse Over Venice 1842

Caffi was also a fine chronicler of unusual events. Here is his depiction of a solar eclipse. One wonders how many of these people lost their sight whilst witnessing this event.

Johann Christian Claussen Dahl, Dresden In The Moonlight, 1839

Johann Christian Claussen Dahl, Dresden In The Moonlight, 1839

There’s a gorgeous serenity in Johann Christian Dahl’s moonlit scenes of Dresden.  They take me to another level of consciousness, whereas I suspect a daytime view would not have the same effect.  The candle lit rooms across the river and the flares on the river bank contrast beautifully with the cold light of the moon.

Edward Hopper, The Nighthawks, 1943

Edward Hopper, The Nighthawks, 1943

Film directors love the paintings of American artist Edward Hopper. There are so many questions being posed here. What is the relationship between the couple on the right? What about the menacing figure of the guy with the powerful shoulders who has his back to us? No one has been able to precisely locate where this scene is, perhaps a deliberate ploy by Hopper to increase the mystery of the scene.

Moonlight Near Roxby Downs, 2014, Oil On Canvas, 101 cm x 142 cm

Moonlight Near Roxby Downs, 2014, Oil On Canvas, 101 cm x 142 cm

Roxby Downs is located in outback South Australia and this painting was inspired by a photo I saw of a lightning strike in the area, and I was particularly interested in the sheen on the water created by the lightning fork.  So I decided to turn the scene into a moonlit night time image, partly because of the challenge it presented and partly to highlight the isolation of the scene. And yet, the cold moonlight perhaps gives the scene a softness and harmony that may not be present during the daytime when you could image the appalling heat during the summer months.















The Conundrum That Was Brett Whiteley by Geoff Harrison

In writing about Brett Whiteley, it is tempting to simply present the facts and let the reader draw his/her own conclusions, such are the contradictions. He claims that at the age of about 5 he re-experienced his birth.  He said it was a fearful experience.  He claims he saw 2 words on the wall of his mother’s womb.  Security.  Rebellion.  He had to decide which one he would go towards.

Brett Whiteley, Self Portrait at 16

Brett Whiteley, Self Portrait at 16

In an ABC program focussing on his work “Alchemy” he discusses his life in a boarding school at Bathurst. He left the security of his mother and found himself in a boarding school “with these morons who talk like rabbits about tractors and seeds.  You are penned in, you don’t know what the crime is (most horrible).”  So he tried to imagine a world that was more constructive and meaningful.  “There were bus trips to church where you were given stained glass window meaningless talk then be taken back school for lunch.”  There is the oft told story of him finding on the church floor a book about Van Gogh and suddenly he felt there was a meaning to existence.  He knew it was in him and had to find a way to get it out.

So it’s a bleak picture that he is portraying here, and yet it’s documented that he was given paints and brushes and allowed to produce works at the rear of the classroom, and he would often return to Bathurst later in life to recharge the batteries.

In an interview with Barry Pearce many years ago, Whiteley’s widow Wendy described Brett as a driven artist.  “He wanted to create his own world and move away from childhood.  We were curious and obsessive, we wanted to take things apart.  He viewed contentment as a dangerous state, bovine.  He needed to put his hand in the fire.”

Some interesting observations were made about Whiteley by his co-workers at Linton Advertising Agency where he worked in his mid-late teens.  They felt he was going full speed at the world with a sense of seeking compensation.  There was a disquiet about him which he disguised by moving fast.

Whiteley threatened to walk out of school if his mother left for England.  She left anyway and Brett felt abandoned.  However he received encouragement from his father Clem in his desire to become an artist.

Portrait of John Christie

Portrait of John Christie

Of the Christie series (works based on the London serial killer John Christie) Wendy said Brett had a lot of pain in his life and so did she.  The death of his father in 1963 raised a lot of questions.  It was recognition that evil and ugliness, good and beauty coexist.  It was about this time he became aware of Francis Bacon and his ability to deal with alienation whilst producing beautiful things.



BW with Francis Bacon

BW with Francis Bacon

Of the monumental work American Dream, Wendy described New York as floundering in the late 1960’s and Brett pushed himself to the extreme and it took its toll.  American dream was Whiteley’s response to New York and what was going on there.  “The centre panel looks like he vomited all over the canvas which was painted in a drunken state of rage and fear.”

Brett Whiteley - American Dream

Brett Whiteley - American Dream

“He had this desire to know everything….but not being prepared to accept that there are a lot of things you may never know.  He couldn’t concentrate on one thing at a time and became really overloaded in New York.”

Pearce described American Dream as having trauma and failure written all over it, because Whiteley’s intentions were absurd.  “He aimed at nothing less than to challenge America and change it.”  Pearce thought the painting was less about America and more a portrait of Whiteley himself “whipping up hell and heaven to extend the possibilities of art far beyond what it could achieve.”

American Dream was never exhibited in America, the Marlborough-Gerson gallery refused to take an interest in it, and Whiteley fled to Fiji to recover – without Wendy and daughter Arkie.

Brett Whiteley - Alchemy

Brett Whiteley - Alchemy

In 1972-72 Whitley produced another monumental work “Alchemy”, described by Pearce as another self-portrait but without the fierce political agenda of its predecessor.  Drugs and alcohol took its toll on Whiteley’s health during the production of Alchemy and viewing the ABC program based on this work, his motivations for it seemed incoherent at times.

It was after he and Wendy moved to Lavender Bay in 1974 that heroin began to play a major role in their lives.  Wendy spoke of spending time with some very crummy people and the ”whole tragic thing”.  In spite of his addiction, Whiteley produced some excellent work, but “he was just defeated in the end.”

In a letter to his mother written in the latter part of his life, Whiteley mentions her inability to spawn love, a difficulty that he inherited to some degree and this accounts for their vigorous independence.

Pearce argues that in Whiteley’s hunger for physical intimacy, reflected through the sexual themes of his art, emotional intimacy was not part of the game.  In his last days he finished up with neither.

He died alone from a drug overdose in a hotel in Thirroul south of Sydney in 1992, aged 53.







The Hard Hitting But Entertaining Critic by Geoff Harrison

If you are looking for an art critic who can make art understandable and accessible, then English born Waldemar Januszczak could be your man.  He has an easy, conversational style of presentation that I have always enjoyed.  Often humorous and witty, he is credited with doing for the arts what David Attenborough has done for the natural world.

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He began his career as an art critic with the Guardian in the 1980’s before switching to the Sunday Times in 1992.  In 1997 he founded a company called ZCZ Films which has produced over 30 films covering travel, the arts and even dogs.  In his program Puppy Love from 2000, Januszczak takes a swipe at dogs and particularly their owners who he can’t stand.  From the snippet I’ve seen on Youtube, it looks hilarious.

His 2009 series “Baroque! From St Peters to St Pauls” reinvigorated my passion for the arts after a disastrous return to the workforce.  It was dark and brooding in segments, but highly entertaining and informative.  His self-deprecation is something I appreciate yet at the same time his profound knowledge of and passion for art history is clear.

But he has an acerbic tongue, or should that be pen?  His hatred of the Turner Prize is legendary dating all the way back to 1984.  “The British art establishment, having already shown unforgivable ignorance and wickedness in its dealings with Turner's own Bequest to the nation, is now bandying his name about in the hope of giving some spurious historical credibility to a new prize cynically concocted to promote the interest of a small group of dealers, gallery directors and critics.”

One year on and things hadn’t improved, ‘The Turner Prize, like the rot of the Arts Council, the rise of business sponsorship with strings attached, the growing importance of the PR man in art, the mess at the V&A, and the emergence of the ignorant "art consultant" is the direct result of inadequate government support for the arts. Forced out into the business circus, art has had to start clowning around.’  Both quotes are from The Guardian.  Of the 2014 prize Januszczak described it as “yawn-forcingly, heart-crushingly, buttock-clenchingly bad” and urged people not to go.

Unfortunately, Januszczak’s invective has also been directed towards Australian art, in particular the exhibition “Australia” mounted at the Royal Academy in 2013.  The Times seemed impressed with it, describing the exhibition as long overdue.  But over at the Sunday Times, Januszczak disagreed and described it as light weight, provincial and dull.  Yet in his most recent TV series “Big Sky, Big Dreams, Big Art – Made In The USA” he seemed to be championing exactly that kind of art – at least in the snippet I uncovered on the Net.


John Olsen                                                  Sydney Sun

John Olsen Sydney Sun

Januszczak describes McCubbin’s famous Pioneers triptych as “poverty porn” (work that one out), Fred Williams desert landscape as “thick cowpats of minimalism”, and most indigenous art as “tourist tat”.  He reserved his most fierce attack for John Olsen’s Sydney Sun describing as “a cascade of diarrhoea”.   Olsen responded by describing the comments as foolish and an attempt to put the colonials in their place.

Januszczak’s website ZCZ Films includes a shop that, strangely, contains very few of his most recent programs.  The ABC informed me they were frozen out of negotiations to screen his 2016 series The Renaissance Unchained by the BBC agreeing to an exclusive rights deal with Foxtel Arts. One assumes this also applies to his other recent films.  The Renaissance Unchained is still not available on the website.  This tends to make one feel very lonely in OZ, unless one can afford pay-tv.



Art In Post Industrial Towns by Geoff Harrison

The town of North Adams Massachusetts was on its knees following the closure of the local electronics industry in 1985.  At its height, the Sprague Electric Company employed over 4000 people in a community of 18000 but cheap imports from Asia killed it.  The factories themselves date back to the late 19th century when it started out as a print works.

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The BBC screened a series called Relative Values many years ago and one episode focused on plans to turn the huge factory complex into a contemporary art museum.  I wanted to find out if it had become a reality.

Plans to transform the factory complex date back to the year after Sprague closed, 1986, when staff from the nearby Williams College Museum of Art were inspecting the facility as a suitable venue to exhibit large contemporary art that were not able to be displayed in a more traditional gallery setting.  They realised the buildings had much more potential than as an offshoot gallery.  Several years of fundraising followed and petitioning of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts resulted in an $18.6 million grant.

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The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) opened in 1999 with 19 galleries and 9,300 m2 of exhibition space which has since more than doubled with subsequent expansions. In addition to housing galleries and performance art spaces, it also rents spaces to commercial tenants. Music festivals are also held there.



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According to a NPR (National Public Radio) article from 2012, you could pick up a live/work loft space for under $40,000.  Sounds attractive, but Mass MoCA has not been the employment generator that was first envisioned.  Original estimates that the development would create 600 jobs proved off the mark.  The real number is less than 300, although with subsequent expansions this figure may have increased.  There is some skepticism these days that a post-industrial town can turn things around entirely by building art galleries and developing economies based on the so-called creative industries.  It would appear that Mass MoCA is a work in progress.

Part of an installation by Liz Glynn

Part of an installation by Liz Glynn