Memoir

Antipodeans in America: a cautionary tale

I LEFT AUSTRALIA in 1988 with a bad conscience. Eighteen months earlier, the trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria had given me leave to take up the visiting chair in Australian studies at Harvard for a full academic year. Within weeks of my return in mid-1987 I told them I had accepted the directorship of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. They were shocked and dumbfounded. They had supported me unstintingly through seven years at the gallery, notably sticking by me during the furore of the theft of Picasso's Weeping Woman. Perhaps to assuage my mauvais foi, I resolved that I would do whatever I could to further the cause of Australian art in America – corny and grandiloquent though it sounded.

When I arrived at the Wadsworth Atheneum, the exhibitions officer told me with ironic pride that there was one Australian painting in the collection. It turned out to be quite a good Arthur Boyd landscape from the mid-1950s and hung in the basement office of the archivist. (It is still there.) Surprised, I remarked casually that it was quite a valuable painting back in Australia. "Sell it, boss, sell it!" one of the cheekier technical assistants urged. Unsur­prisingly, I had no wish to start my American career by de-accessioning the sole Australian painting in one of America's most distinguished collections.

The Wadsworth Atheneum was in many ways an ideal launching pad to further the cause of Australian art in America. Among the oldest art museums in America, pre-dating both the Metropolitan in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, it holds historically and artistically key col­lections of American art as well as rich holdings of European painting and the decorative arts and, thanks to its brilliant director in the 1930s and early1940s, A. Everett "Chick" Austin, it has for the past 70 years collected and exhibited contemporary art. No stuffy New England antique, believe you me.

Daniel Wadsworth, the museum's principal patron, was an early collector and friend of Thomas Cole, the founding painter of the Hudson River School, and later persuaded Cole to take on the young Frederic Church, the dominant member of the second generation of the school, as a pupil and assistant. On Wadsworth's death in 1848, the Atheneum had the ur-collection of the Hudson River School, which was steadily augmented through the latter half of the 19th century by Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, the widow of Colonel Sam Colt of revolver fame, and other collectors. For anybody even moderately versed in the pictorial culture of his or her country, the similarity between Australian colonial painting and the Hudson River School springs easily to mind. There are no precise equivalents. Thomas Cole does not exactly "fit" John Glover any more than Frederic Church does Eugene von Guerard, but certainly Asher B. Durand can match Abram Louis Buvelot in dullness and occasional brilliance. Sometimes there are simply absences. There is no Australian equiv­alent to the exquisite marine painting of Fitzhugh Lane nor the "luminist" depictions of sea and shore found in John Frederick Kensett or Martin Johnson Heade. But the underlying experience of wilderness and settlement, of sublimity and exploration, of the ambivalent treatment of indigenous people as "noble savage" and as "the last of their tribe" engages the imagin­ation of both national schools.

Move to the last two decades of the 19th century and the connection between the Heidelberg School and the "nativist" branch of American Impressionism – Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, William Merritt Chase – becomes tantalisingly close at certain points. Charles Conder, for instance, on the shores of Port Philip Bay or the surf beaches of Sydney with a staffage of women and children comes within a whisker of Chase amid the sand dunes of Shinnecock on Long Island in the 1890s with young girls and women in striped dresses and red bonnets sheltering from the summer winds off the Atlantic. Again the underlying experience of the two schools was similar. Both in America and Australia by the 1880s and '90s, the drama of wilder­ness and settlement was set aside as anachronistic in favour of the populated world, the figure in the landscape, the din of cities or their immediate envi­rons – the beach, the holiday resort, the suburban bush.

 

CLEARLY HERE WAS an exhibition waiting to happen: a comparison between the American and Australian 19th-century experiences of their respec­tive landscapes and an opportunity to place the otherwise unknown Australian school alongside another national school and to demonstrate its quality and significance to a wider world. Given its reputation, collection and scholarly resources, the Wadsworth Atheneum was an ideal starting point in America. From the very beginning, Betty Churcher, then director of the National Gallery of Australia, was an enthusiastic supporter of the project. Admirably, she believed that winning international recognition for Australian art was a prime responsibility of a national gallery. Earlier attempts to promote an exhibition of the Heidelberg School had proven unsuccessful with both American and British museums. The way forward lay in the comparative exhibition, each school holding up a powerful mirror, reflecting and refracting the other in its gaze. From the start, the American scholars, Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, curator of American painting and sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum, and Professor Elizabeth Johns of the University of Pennsylvania, were enthusiastic about the project; both visited Australia and became well versed in Australian art and its historiography. The Australian curatorial response was guarded, grudging and unenthus­iastic.

In the event, both Betty Churcher and I had left our respective institutions by the time New Worlds from Old: 19th Century Australian and American Land­scapes came to fruition. Overall the exhibition was both beautiful and remarkable. Maybe too many fine or footnotey points were made in the early work, leading to repetition rather than re-enforcement of the larger themes. Both Australian and American impressionism were de-emphasised and the exhibition lost a bit of zip thereby. But the exhibition was serious and thoughtful.

New Worlds from Old opened in March 1998 at the National Gallery of Australia and closed just over 12 months later in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington after intermediary stops at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Wadsworth Atheneum. The story behind the story lies in the reception the exhibition received on either side of the Pacific.

The National Gallery in Canberra took pride of place for the most rigid and least imaginative installation. The exhibition was colour-coded. All the Australian paintings were hung on green walls, all the American ones on blue. The two schools were kept in near absolute aesthetic apartheid with hardly a wall directly comparing an Australian work against an American. It was as though two good soccer teams had run out onto the pitch, shaken hands but never actually got round to playing the game. In this frigid display, the exhibition was, unsurprisingly, not a success. The National Gallery appeared to be more concerned to elaborate the Australian story than engage with the comparison. It did give rise to the view, which Mel­bourne did nothing to dispel, that the Australian pictures were all much better than the American ones, turning the exhibition into a competitive event and not an opportunity to win recognition for 19th-century Australian painting internationally. It was Australian chauvinism at its worst.

The American reception turned this attitude on its head. Kornhauser, who had the best artistic and scholarly understanding of the project, at last installed the exhibition as a dialogue where likeness and unlikeness were freely displayed. The American response almost universally admired the Australian work, particularly that of Tom Roberts whose A Break Away! (Art Gallery of South Australia) was the American sensation of the exhibition.

The comparison drawn between the Roberts and Frederick Remington's Fight for the Waterhole, a pastel-toned Western painting of the most melodra­matic kind, struck one of the few false notes. But in the galleries of the ancient and noble Wadsworth Atheneum, Australian painting spoke power­fully to an audience that could not have named a single Australian artist, living or dead.

The Washington show soon eclipsed this heart-warming experience. Over the years I have sat and stood through some tedious, bizarre and unconsciously hilarious exhibition openings but nothing can quite outdo the opening of New Worlds from Old in the Corcoran Gallery. One of the few "private", i.e. non-government-funded art museums in the capital, the Corc­oran was founded in the 19th century, old by Washington standards. Like the Wadsworth Atheneum, it has an important historical American collection allied to a taste for contemporary art. The galleries are a little awkward and graceless but the many-pillared forecourt where the opening reception and dinner took place is a masterpiece of beaux-arts classicism.

United Technologies, the big Hartford conglomerate, which numbers Pratt and Whitney engines, Otis elevators and Carrier air-conditioners among its portfolio, was the American sponsor. It has a penchant for doing exhibitions in Washington where it can invite congressmen and senators, cabinet officers and undersecretaries with a smattering of White House staff and ambassadors to see and take note of its good works. Inevitably, there are a lot of no-shows on such occasions and the tables can be strangely imbal­anced with a congressional spouse, a European ambassador, a junior from the Australian legation, and everyone struggling to find common conversa­tional ground. Thus it was that night – not quite the A team, although some A-team players were definitely present.

The usual pleasantries and overflowing expressions of gratitude over, the Australian ambassador, Andrew Peacock, rose to open the exhibition. Stand­ing at the foot of the stairs that led to the exhibition galleries, he waved behind him and said – here I must paraphrase rather than quote directly – "I don't want any of you here tonight to think that what you see up there is what Aus­tralia is like today. Australia is a high-tech, globally minded economy ..." And he was off on a stump speech that could have been addressed to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce in his best Crocodile Dundee accent. (I have known Andrew Peacock since school and was puzzled when he adopted a super-Aussie accent on public occasions in America.)

Worse, however, was to follow. Brian Kennedy, the newly appointed director of the National Gallery of Australia, rose to respond. He confided that when he felt happy as he did this night, he liked to sing and soThe Wild Colonial Boy, or some such ditty, rang through the peristyle of the Corcoran Gallery's forecourt. I have rarely been so embarrassed as an Australian – some of the nation's finest paintings airily dismissed with a wave of an ambassadorial hand and the director of the nation's principal gallery acting like a performing seal. What an end to so lofty an ambition!

 

DURING MY EIGHT years as direcotr of the Wadsworth Atheneum, I acquired a small group of Australian paintings for the permanent col­lection. The experience proved to be a cautionary tale. What I chiefly learned from the experience was that Americans experience Australia, either vicar­iously or actually, as place rather than culture. So long as the acquisitions directly reflected this bias, everything went swimmingly. The frustration for Australian artists and writers is that there is little or no curiosity about their identities, their histories, their reputations but only about how their work is a revelation of place.

Like most Australians of my generation and beyond, the revival of con­temporary Aboriginal art from the early and mid-1970s on changed one's understanding and perception of the Australian landscape, its potency and significance, and the canon of modern Australian art. Soon after my arrival in the US, exhibitions of Aboriginal art began to attract sympathetic atten­tion. Dreamings at Asia House in 1988 was followed by the Holmes ˆ Court collection at Harvard in 1991. In 1994, in conjunction with an enterprising young Australian art dealer, Mary Reid Brunstrom, who ran a gallery in St Louis devoted to Australian art, I brought to the Atheneum a strangely her­metic exhibition of body painting, which had been transferred to shield-like supports. The exhibition also included a pair of monumental paintings by the Petyarre family, plus three contemporary Aboriginal paintings I had recently acquired for the Atheneum on a return visit to Australia. The artists were Gloria Petyarre, Emily Kngwarreye and Fred Ward Tjungurrayi. Although they were substantial works, they were inexpensive, ranging from $4500 to $5500 and could be bought from the director's allowance. On the same trip I bought a large painting by Jan Senbergs of a West Australian mining subject, Open Cut. It was very much a paysage moralise. Machinery had ripped the earth apart and left the landscape looking like a large open wound. There was not a human figure to be seen, only a record of human exploitation. On the rim of the horizon, a band of untouched desert formed a fragile margin against the sky.

I deliberately bought the four paintings as a group. They were to form in nuce an allegory of Australia. The Central Desert painters vividly conveyed the art of the Dreaming, naming, as they so often do, the presence of a food source, a place that provides identity to an individual or a ritual to a group. Gloria Petyarre's painting was her familiar landscape where a lizard in the Dreaming shaped the contours of her country. Fred Tjungurrayi painted a Tingari people dreaming – those mysterious ancestors who moved across the land in the Dreaming and whose fire sites became associated with men's ini­tiation ceremonies. The painting was a series of silver grey circular motifs, locked and linked to each other. It was the perfect image of initiation where the young man becomes himself and joins the others. The painting brilliantly evoked the one and the many.

What really stirred staff and trustees back in Hartford was Emily Kng-warreye's Alagurla 3. The particular picture I bought for the Wadsworth Atheneum had an extraordinary "all-over" surface as though the canvas itself was flowering. Gabrielle Pizzi noted:

This work followed an enormous rain that caused the Sandover River on Utopia Station to overflow. The plant species depicted in the painting are pre­ferred foods of the emu; the bush plum and the myneroo bush seed. The spontaneous dot work forms a ground covering showing various stages of ripeness and decay ... the desert and its power of transformation when the simple ingredients of fertile seed, earth warmth and water combine to carpet the earth with food sources and ensure survival for the following season.

You had to imagine walking across the painting, I suggested to the Hart­ford eyes, for the surface imitates the texture of the ground itself after the rains. The painting drew strongly on the tradition of the sand paintings of the earlier nomadic existence of the tribe. The sand paintings, I explained to my American listeners, were maps of their country so that the whole tribe could recall where they had been, where were the waterholes, the sources of vege­tation and the game that fed from it so that they could survive in the desert. And the maps became mythologies so that they entered the imagination of the tribe.

When the Americans looked at the three paintings with these brief expla­nations, they were convinced beyond doubt. Accustomed to reading abstract art, the austere forms of the paintings caused no difficulty. What moved them was that these painters of the Central Desert understood the landscape both in its microforms – the sudden desert germination in Emily Kngwarr-eye's dreaming – and in its macroforms – the constant experience of distance and space in central Australia found in Gloria Petyarre's work.

Against these visions, the Senbergs struck an even harsher than normal note of white intervention and disruption to the natural order. The group was received with enormous enthusiasm by the curatorial committee and entered the collection with many hurrahs. Some commentators have put down the American response to contemporary Aboriginal art as a further chapter in modernism's penchant for the primitive. This misses the point badly. Americans have a profound longing for a landscape of significance. So much on the eastern seaboard has been destroyed and devoured and the Great Plains and canyons of the west are distant places and tourist destina­tions. What Americans saw in the Aboriginal paintings was a profound and intimate connection between the human and the natural world, long lost to them. That the Aboriginal connection has a spiritual, quasi-religious dimen­sion made Americans all the more susceptible to its power. The abstraction, the minimalism, Emily Kngwarreye's "all-over" effect spoke such a contem­porary language to them that there was nothing hokey or folksy about the work. The austerity guaranteed its authenticity. The Senbergs mining paint­ing played the spoiler to this elevated vision of the Australian landscape. It was a powerful ensemble.

 

THE WARMTH OF the response encouraged me to believe that I could build a small but telling collection of Australian art at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Planning for New Worlds from Old was in its early stages and that helped build momentum for the cause of Australian art. When a year or so later I bought substantial paintings by Robert Jacks and Richard Larter, again with a mildly allegorical purpose, contrasting the Melbourne-Sydney antithesis, the urban versus the landscape as sources for Australian abstrac­tion, the reception was notably unenthusiastic. Unfairly, they were deemed to look like everybody else.

My real comeuppance in acquiring Australian art for the Wadsworth Atheneum came towards the end of my tenure at the museum. Agnews, the distinguished London art dealers, had taken over the estate of Sidney Nolan. Boldly, it brought a group of Nolan's paintings to a contemporary art fair in New York in 1995. Among the group was a celebrated painting from the early 1960s, Convict (1962). Nolan was then 45 and at the height of his powers. For Nolan, the ur-convict is David Bracefell who rescued Mrs Fraser after she was wrecked on Great Sandy Island off the coast of Queensland and led her to safety. She promptly betrayed him to the authorities. He escaped back into the bush and probably survived because he lived with Aborigines. He became "the genius of the place" and like Nolan's other heroes, Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills, destroyed, but not defeated.

The painting is unusual for Nolan for it shows a standing male nude, arms behind his head and with recognisable features. Across his body are ambiguous markings. They could be the ghostly tracings of his convict uniform or the body markings from an Aboriginal ceremony. He stands alone in a barren and featureless landscape. He is the absolute outsider, the outcast, the damned survivor. The figure was homo Australiensis, large, ugly and difficult. I had known and admired the picture for years. After some negotiation, the price was set at $US72,500 ($103,300), well beyond the director's allowance but not beyond the acquisition funds of the Wadsworth Atheneum. It was more than all the previous Australian acquisitions put together.

So I proposed the work to the curatorial committee. Now this committee was the most prestigious and sought-after committee for a trustee to be a member. It alone decided what entered the Wadsworth Atheneum's collec­tion and what did not. It bristled if the full board of trustees ever so much as queried its decisions. It met over lunch and was the only committee where wine was served. (Keep 'em happy, was my motto.) The chairman was deft and saw his role as supporting the acquisition proposals put forward by the staff. All curators attended the meeting and a general sense of excitement and expectation prevailed rather than one of judgement and acrimony. All my proposals normally sailed through, although all were carefully presented and documented.

Two of the many professional vices afflicting directors are complacency and conceit. I presented the Nolan to the committee, telling the dramatic story of Bracefell and Mrs Fraser, filling in the background of Nolan as Australia's leading figurative painter and dashed for the door to catch a plane to Italy before the meeting ended.

Well, even as I was speeding to JFK, the peasants' revolt was on. Who was this Sidney Nolan? What direction was the contemporary collection at the Wadsworth Atheneum taking? How did another Australian painting fit into the collection? It was all quite unprecedented. In the absence of the director, the trustees had found their voice. Rolling a director on an acquisition is the birthright of every trustee the world over. When I returned to the museum a week or so later, these questions were dumped on my plate by a nonplussed chairman.

Now there happened to be living in Hartford in those days an extremely successful Australian businessman named Kenneth Butterworth. He was CEO of what had once been a small family business called Loctite, which made industrial-strength adhesives and glues the like of which had never been seen before. The company was worth approximately $US300 million when he took it over and he promptly built it into a Fortune 500 company worth upwards of $US1.5 billion. Butterworth had recently joined the board of trustees of the Atheneum. I could not, in those days, have called Butter-worth an arts hound but he was no philistine. He chaired and largely ran a foreign affairs forum in Hartford where they thought nothing of bringing the Chinese ambassador (terrible liar he turned out to be) and other luminaries of the international scene to talk about the state of the world to a city eager to throw off its provincialism. In addition, Butterworth chaired the Salvation Army's major appeal. He was impressive in a craggy, worldly way and learned to curb his instinctive feelings about artists like Brett Whiteley.

Naturally I turned to him and asked if he would consider helping with the acquisition. Together with the chairman of trustees, I took Butterworth down to the basement to look at the Nolan. Before I could finish my spiel about Bracefell and Mrs Fraser and homo Australiensis, Butterworth, who looked hard and sceptically at the painting, declared: "I'll give you $25,000 towards it and you'll have to find the rest."

It was just enough to turn the tide. New England principles are immune to every sound but the sound of the cash register.

It was, however, a cautionary tale. Nolan was by far the best known of all the Australian artists I had proposed. The year before (1994), the early Ned Kelly series had been shown over the summer at the Metropolitan in New York to some acclaim. If Nolan could not speak to the American imagination with a rich narrative painting and such an impressive, bold and difficult image, what did that say about the chances of others less well known? On reflection, I believe the trouble surrounding the Nolan acquisition was that the painting spoke from within Australian history and culture. It was not simply the record of place. Americans found it hard to give credence to such a work of art. The experience, historical and cultural, was not theirs and they could not enter into it.

Looking back, how puny one's efforts and achievements look in this matter. Although the Wadsworth Atheneum does not put its Australian works on view too often – shame on them! – Elizabeth Kornhauser, in a good stroke, made sure they were all on view when the Atheneum showed New Worlds from Old, a timely reminder that Australian art did not cease after 1900. Still, I have a quiet satisfaction that lodged in one of America's oldest art museums, there is a small group of Australian masterpieces that must inevitably see the light of day.

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