UA1-WA:P4-p2-Research Point: Artists’ self-portraits

This Research Point poses a number of questions about artists’ self-portraits.

1. Why might an artist choose to paint (or sculpt) a self-portrait?

My initial assumption here was cost and availability. Models may be hard to find and hard to afford. Only a limited number of sittings may be possible for a commissioned portrait. I’ve found there are many other reasons.

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669) each painted many self-portraits throughout their careers. Dr. Andrea Bubenik has suggested their motivations include “social ambition, pride in artistic profession, preparation for posterity, experimentation, medical diagnostics, and self fashioning” (Bubenik, 2011). Artists in their time were still regarded as any other craft workers, and showing themselves in rich costumes could enhance their prestige and social standing. The portraits could act as a form of advertising, displaying the artist’s virtuosity. In a self-portrait the artist could experiment with techniques or compositions in a way not possible within a commissioned work, for example by using a convex mirror. An example of “medical diagnostics” is a sketch by Dürer in which he points to where he was experiencing pain in his side (the work is held at the Kunsthalle, Bremen. A link to an image is https://www.museodelprado.es/en/exhibitions/exhibitions/at-the-museum/the-renaissance-portrait/the-exhibition/self-portraiture/).

Many of these motivations have remained relevant to artists through to the current day. However I think the two most common are the idea of a self fashioned or constructed persona, and the expression of the world view or personal concerns of the artist.

2 (a). How do artists explain themselves when portrayed as an artist? What visual clues do they give?

Information on the Museo Nacional Del Prado website (link above) suggests that it was not common for an artist to portray themselves as an artist until the late sixteenth century. Calling attention to their tools of trade could hurt their social position.

Judith Leyster’s work (c. 1630; http://www.nga.gov/content/
ngaweb/Collection/highlights/highlight37003.html
) shows the young woman turning away from her work to smile at the viewer. She appears confident and competent, dexterous with her brushes and palette. The canvas on her easel shows a unfinished genre painting of a musician, thus displaying the artist’s skills in both portraiture and genre painting. Leyster’s clothing shows fine lace and gleaming fabrics – not the most practical of outfits for painting, but further demonstrating her technical skills.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard Self–Portrait with Two Pupils http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/53.225.5

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard
Self–Portrait with Two Pupils
1785 Oil on canvas 210.8 x 151.1 cm)
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/53.225.5

In 1785 Labille-Guiard is seen at her easel. While the unfinished canvas cannot be seen, the portrait itself shows her command of composition and colour. She is confident with her tools – brushes and palette in hand, crayons and paper on the footstool nearby. All three women are shown in very fashionable attire and it has been suggested that this, together with the statue of the Vestal Virgin in the background, could display the artist’s feminist agenda, teaching and advancing women and seeking equal rights in the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Metropolitan Museum of Art [n.d.]).

Marie-Denise Villers

Marie-Denise Villers
Charlotte du Val d’Ognes
1801 Oil on canvas 161.3 x 128.6 cm
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/437903

It is not clear whether my next example is in fact a self-portrait. The catalogue entry presents a rather confusing sequence of attribution and re-attribution, but the work “may be a self-portrait”. I have included it because the artist’s tools shown are so much simpler than my earlier examples. A large sketchbook is propped in the young lady’s lap. She holds a brush, and another may be stuck in her hair, but there is no sign of paints or any other painting paraphernalia. The interior shown is also very simple, but there is a rather strange view through a cracked window, showing a couple in conversation in the distance. The artist is backlit, her face brightened by light reflected from her sketchbook. Her gaze is intense and serious. Could there be a questioning of the choices available – her art or marriage?

Nora Heysen’s 1932 selfportrait (http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=204031) pares the visual signs of the artist down to a minimum. She is seated and holds her palette (apparently gifted to her as a child by Dame Nellie Melba) and brushes. Her strong hands, her direct, searching expression, are all that are needed to show a modern, confident, independent artist. There is a blue curtain behind, the artist and her palette fill the frame. A few years after this painting Heysen became the first woman to win the Archibald Prize.

A great contrast to this is a more recent winner of the Archibald, Brett Whiteley’s Self portrait in the studio (1976 http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/1.1977/). Virtually the entire picture space is filled by the room and the view of the harbour outside. Whitely’s hands can be seen, one holding a small mirror, the other in the early stages of painting his head. His face is visible reflected in the mirror. The room is full of visual clues about the artist and his work, but the work as a whole challenges the concept of portraiture itself.

2 (b). How do artists explain themselves when portrayed in a role other than artist? What visual clues do they give?

I have found two self-portraits by Artemisia Gentileschi in which she shows herself in a different character. The first is Self-Portrait as a Lute Player c. 1615 was recently acquired by Wadsworth Atheneum (see http://nordonart.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/wadsworth-atheneum-acquires-an-artemisia-gentileschi-self-portrait/). The artist is playing a lute. The instrument itself is beautifully detailed. The artist’s hands with their long fingers are in the act of playing. She herself is voluptuous in a low-cut gown. She could be the personification of Music – or just possibly a courtesan.

The second work by Gentileschi has a odd twist because it shows her as the allegory of Painting – see http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/eGallery/object.asp?maker=12024&object=405551. The Royal Collection website explains “Artemisia follows the standard emblematic handbook of the period, the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa, where Painting is described as ‘a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ‘imitation’’” (Royal Collection [n.d.]). The only item missing is the gag – Painting may be dumb, but this artist has a voice – for of course as well as allegory this is also a self-portrait of the artist, complete with brushes and palette.

3. Can you find new insights in artists’ comments about their own self-portrait?

Nell, winner of The University of Queensland National Artists’ Self-Portrait Prize 2013. Without her comments I would not have been able to interpret her work. A performance, a video, the destruction of one work in the creation of a new one – it defies my description, so I suggest you look at http://www.artmuseum.uq.edu.au/nell.

One of the things I particularly like about this prize is the associated UQ Art Museum’s Selfie Comp. The short list can be seen at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.747970175229375.1073741830.108507249175674&type=1. The “selfie” has become so common and normal – it seems so relevant, but I haven’t been able to frame any questions or challenges it may pose to portraiture.

While looking through the associated documentation I found “Judge Blair French said good portraiture was inextricably bound with a consciousness of time and transience, and could embrace its complexity and hold on our experience.” (University of Queensland, 2013) I’ve only ever done rough self-sketches, never attempted a self-portrait (another of the Research Point questions). I would like to think on French’s quote for a while, and perhaps make a later attempt.

References

Bubenik, A. (2011) “Dürer and Rembrant: The relevance of Early Modern Self-Portraiture” In Portraiture/Self Portraiture/Identity: UQ Art Museum Learning Resource [Seminar] University of Queensland [online] Available from http://asset.artmuseum.uq.edu.au/interpretive-resources/UQAM-Learning-Resource-CPD-Portraiture-2011.pdf (Accessed 17-Apr-2014)

Metropolitan Museum of Art [n.d.] Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818) and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788): Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (French, Paris 1749–1803 Paris) [online] Available from http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/436840 (Accessed 17-Apr-2014)

Royal Collection ([n.d.]) Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/3): Self-portrait as the allegory of Painting (La Pittura) [online] Available from http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/eGallery/object.asp?maker=12024&object=405551&row=0&detail=about (Accessed 18-Apr-2014).

University of Queensland (2013) Sydney artist Nell wins $50,000 UQ National Artists’ Self-Portrait Prize [online] Available from http://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2013/10/sydney-artist-nell-wins-50000-uq-national-artists-self-portrait-prize (Accessed 18-Apr-2014)

UA1-WA:P4-p2-Research Point: Artists’ self-portraits
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
Project two: The artist’s self-portrait portrait
Research point: Artists’ self-portraits

UA1-WA:Research: The Stripe – Jim Lambie

Jim Lambie Zobop 2014   vinyl tape, varnish

Jim Lambie
Zobop
2014 vinyl tape, varnish


You imagine what you desire, the 19th Biennale of Sydney, is on at the moment and Jim Lambie’s work fills a large gallery on the ground floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). “Fills” is an interesting word, because it seems this work is all about space – making it move, stretch out, pull in, making it a huge pulsating mass. In the gallery I was conscious of moving through space rather like moving through water in a swimming pool – it was somehow more solid, more real, more present. The gallery space didn’t contain the work, it was made part of it. It’s a joyful, exhilarating and somewhat vertiginous experience to walk through the gallery.

lambie_04Lambie, or assistants, has created stripes on the floor using vinyl sticky tape. Taping started around the perimeter, and you can see here how it respond to the slightest jag in the line of the walls (and this gallery is very irregular in shape, full of jogs and nooks and crannies, interrupted by columns).

A strong conceptual base of “trying to fill a space while still leaving it empty” has been suggested of Lambie’s Zobop works (National Galleries Scotland, [n.d.]). Writing about another work (at Inverleith House Edinburgh) Lambie explained “covering and resurfacing objects” in his works could come from different conceptual bases – in the case of a striped floor “[it's] primary concern was a more psychological description of architectural space” (quoted in Triming, 2003, p. 103). He goes on “of course, we can start to open up many layers which I believe exist within these works, but you have to start somewhere, and I think that most good art starts from a simple place”.

lambie_05Limek (2011) has found a joke in such works – “Lambie plays with the preciousness of the gallery space (Don’t touch the art! Oh, wait. You’re standing on it).”

It’s interesting and probably not really a coincidence that like Sol LeWitt (see 6-Apr-2014) Lambie has a strong interest in music (he’s a DJ) and also is happy for the individual Zobop works to be created by assistants – the concept is set, the architecture defines the work (although there are choices made during progress on colour and width of the next stripe) and “I don’t need to be there” (Lambie, in a great video produced in 2011 by Bass Museum – http://vimeo.com/30498019). In the same video Lambie describes the work as “a massive collection of edges melting and merging to make one whole”, which links to the commentary in the Biennale catalogue “…they all seem to dissolve, merging into a unified landscape of energy. Lambie’s floor installations are completely transformative and encompassing, yet transient, ending up as giant piles of twisted tape in the garbage” (Biennale of Sydney, 2014, p.183)

Can I find a message for weaving in Lambie’s stripes? Don’t begin by overcomplicating – find a start, ask a question. Perhaps it’s also to be less precious, to cut the handwoven cloth, combine it, use it, abuse it, be ready to throw it away at the end. Weaving is a tool, or a process, or a material – an input, not an end.

Jim Lambie Psychedelic Soul Stick

Jim Lambie
Psychedelic Soul Stick 68
2007 bamboo, wire, coloured thread, ladies necklace, green feather, Marlboro Light packets

Having done my duty by stripes and weaving, I want to show one of Lambie’s other works in the gallery.
lambie_03It’s an eclectic mix of found items, carefully listed (the spelling in the caption follows the gallery signage). I love the way the wrapping of the different objects unifies them, conceals them within those multiple very fine stripes of thread. It reminds me of Judith Scott’s work (see http://www.judithandjoycescott.com/ ), although at a different scale and from a different starting point. I know there’s a “reveal and conceal” section in the next Textile module, so perhaps I can take forward some of these ideas in future.

References

Biennale of Sydney (2014) “Jim Lambie” In You imagine what you desire: 19th biennale of Sydney Sydney: Biennale of Sydney Ltd

Limek, P. (2011) “Techno Colored: Jim Lambie at Goss-Michael” In D Magazine, May 4, 2011 [online] Available from http://www.antonkerngallery.com/system/press_pdfs/78/original/2011-05-04_D_Magazine_Lambie.pdf?1345756684 (Accessed 15-Apr-2014)

National Galleries Scotland [n.d.] “Jim Lambie” [online] Available from http://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/artists-a-z/L/15903/artist_name/Jim%20Lambie/record_id/2335 (Accessed 15-Apr-2014)

Triming, L. (2003) “Jim Lambie: Low kick and hard bob” In Flash Art May, 2003 pp. 102 – 105. [online] Available from http://www.antonkerngallery.com/system/press_pdfs/83/original/2003-05_FlashArt_Lambie.pdf?1345757411 (Accessed 15-Apr-2014)

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Analyse a formal portrait

Although this exercise suggests further analysis of one of the works seen at a portrait gallery, I would like to celebrate the great Sydney institution of the annual Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is awarded for the best portrait entered, ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia’. It was first awarded in 1921 and was established by a bequest from journalist Jules François Archibald to foster portraiture, support artists, and commemorate great Australians. The Archibald Prize is a huge event, complete with controversies, Packing Room and People’s Choice awards and a Salon des Refusés. It has generated ongoing debate on the nature of a portait, with one prize-winner being disputed in court as a caricature and distortion (the challenge failed). An often seen quote from Dobell, the artist involved, was that he was “trying to create something, instead of copying something. To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation. The real artist is striving to depict his subject’s character and to stress the caricature, but at least it is art which is alive.”

Ben Quilty Margaret Olley oil on linen 170 x 150cm

Ben Quilty
Margaret Olley
2011 oil on linen 170 x 150cm


Ben Quilty won the Archibald Prize in 2011 with this portrait of artist Margaret Olley.

quilty_02The large scale and tight framing of the face give an almost overwhelming sense of a dominating presence. On the face large areas of smooth white-primed linen support thick, generous, yet precise sweeps of rich paint, and dense, textured impasto fills the background. The work seems close to the boundary of representation and abstraction.

The bright colours reflect the colours of Olley’s own work, which is often still-lifes of her own home – an eclectic, colourful jumble of treasures and inspiration. Margaret Olley, a grand dame of Australian painting, died only a few months after this work won the Archibald. Her home and its clutter were so well-known, seen as so central to Olley’s work and legacy, that it has now been recreated within the Tweed Regional Gallery (see http://artgallery.tweed.nsw.gov.au/MargaretOlleyArtCentre). The straw hat which frames her face in the portrait is classic Olley, as is the general expression – compare for example Greg Weight’s 1991 photograph (http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?&irn=811&acno=2004.62). Here she looks to me a touch tired, but alert, determined, opinionated, colourful… I would say that both the features and the character would have been clearly recognisable to most visitors to the exhibition.

This portrait was painted for the specific purpose of entry in the Archibald Prize. The artist, Ben Quilty, is a young star of Australian painting. His work is often gritty and masculine, so the portrait showed a new side to his work. Margaret Olley was a very successful and highly respected painter who has also contributed greatly to Australian art both by mentorship of younger artists and through philanthropic gifts. Olley was one of the judges who selected Quilty as winner of the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship in 2002. Their mutual affection and respect could be seen in footage taped at the time of the Archibald award (see http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/archibald-wynne-sulman-prizes-2011/video/).

The portrait was clearly very successful in that it won the Prize it was created for. It still hangs in a place of honour in the New South Wales Art Gallery. Whether it is successful as a portrait or was the “best” work in competition is a matter of debate – as is every Archibald. The competition has a strong populist slant and this was a popular selection. The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes together form an annual exhibition that gets a lot of press and a lot of visitors (The Wynne Prize is for landscape painting of Australian scenery, or figure sculpture; the Sulman Prize is for a subject or genre painting or mural.)

This exercise asks for a “formal portrait” and I have wondered if my selection fits. Being so tightly cropped it has virtually none of the additional identifying marks of the subject. The painting style, level of detail and type of finish don’t match the standard row of heads one sees in a boardroom or the corridor of some institution. However as a portrait by a modern painter, intended for a popular, celebrity-focused portrait competition, capturing not just the features but the character of a well known and admired icon of recent Australian painting, I think it is a very good example of a formal portrait.

Resources

Archibald Prize, including past winners: http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/

Australian Story profile of Quilty: http://www.abc.net.au/austory/specials/onthewarpath/default.htm

Ben Quilty’s website: http://www.benquilty.com/

Discussion of the Archibald and other 2011 entrants: http://theconversation.com/archibald-argy-bargy-as-ben-quilty-wins-populist-prize-841

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Analyse a formal portrait
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Project one: The portrait
Exercise: Analyse a formal portrait

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Visit a portrait gallery

npg_01For this exercise I visited the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Canberra – http://www.portrait.gov.au/. This is a fairly new institution in a new building. NPG’s first exhibition was held in 1994, but it was under the management of the National Library of Australia. It became an institution in its own right in 1998 and was housed in Old Parliament House until the purpose-built gallery was opened in 2008.

npg_02In the entranceway to the gallery is this work, Geo Face Distributor by James Angus (2009, enamel paint on cast aluminium) (NPG link). The Gallery website catalogue entry refers to “our innate capacity to recognise and respond to the faces of others”, and I think this work fits the location very well.

I have already written about two works in the NPG – the busts of Trucaninny and Woureddy by Benjamin Law (see 13-Mar-2014). The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) is about 200 metres away and also has casts of the busts. The NGA pair are on plinths of equal height, set at either end of a Regency period double-end sofa (NGA link). In my eyes the formal setting combined with the distance between the two busts turned these significant works into decorative items. Probably this is reflective of their original use, but the arrangement at the NPG – the busts on unequal plinths, the closer space between them – create hugely greater emotion and meaning. This could be in keeping with the purpose of the two Galleries, NGA presenting art, and NPG telling a story about people, their identity and culture.

I chose three focus paintings at NPG. The first is Portrait of Captain James Cook RN by John Webber (1782; oil on canvas) (http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?irn=143&acno=2000.25) (unfortunately photography is not permitted and the Gallery declined my request for photographs to use). Cook died in 1779, so this work was posthumous, however Webber had travelled with Cook and painted at least two other portraits of him, so knew the subject well. Cook of course was a great navigator, and in 1770 as a lieutenant took formal possession of the east coast of Australia on behalf of England. A biography can be found at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cook-james-1917, and includes the information Cook “was also severe on uncompliant natives whom he met on his voyages, and his readiness to use force contributed to his untimely death” at the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).

Cook is seen in uniform, including a sword. He has signet (seal), suggesting the official documents he wrote. His right hand is gloved, showing the personal knowledge of Webber (Cook’s hand had been injured by an exploding horn of gunpowder). He looks confident and relaxed, at home and in control in any environment.

The sea, so long Cook’s home, is in the background on the left. An overgrown hillside is on the right, symbolic of the lands he “discovered”, explored, and in some cases claimed. The sky is dark, with pinks and grays in the clouds and glimpses of lighter blue, including one to the right of the face which provides contrast the the modelling shadow.

The OCA course notes ask about where the portrait was originally displayed and who would have seen it. Strangely enough it seems it may have remained in Webber’s possession until his death, then possibly passed through the hands of William Segieur (first Keeper of London’s National Gallery), spent 150 years or so in Hull Trinity House (for infirm seamen), before a complex sequence involving failed high-flying business men and a mysterious stint in Switzerland. An odd history, but certainly this formal portrait of a famous seaman would have been very appropriate at Trinity House. (Information from Huda, 2008).

My second focus work is Dame Mary Gilmore by Lyall Trindall (c. 1938; oil on canvas) (http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?searchtype=basic&irn=196&acno=2001.42). Gilmore (1865 – 1962) was an Australian writer and a social crusader. She campaigned on “a wide range of social and economic reforms, such as votes for women, old-age and invalid pensions, child endowment and improved treatment of returned servicemen, the poor and deprived and, above all, of Aboriginals” and wrote about “such diverse subjects as the English language, the Prayer Book, earthquakes, Gaelic and the immigration laws, the waratah as a national emblem, the national anthem and Spanish Australia” (Wilde, 1983). She is featured on the Australian $10 note and there is an annual poetry prize in her name, among many other legacies of her contribution to the country.

The portait shows a woman of keen intelligence, one willing and able to speak her mind, with a direct gaze and a firm mouth. Gilmore is seated and appears relaxed but alert. The clothes suggest the period and that she was neither greatly wealthy nor poor. There is a wedding ring but no other jewellery. There is a sense of authority and a no-nonsense approach. However there are few other details provided, unlike for example Gilmore’s 1943 portrait by Joshua Smith (http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/7619/), which includes books, Gilmore writing, native flowers and that same direct gaze. Another portrait of Gilmore painted by Tindall is held at the State Library of New South Wales (see http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/item/itemLarge.aspx?itemID=433038) and shows the same alert stance, steady gaze and firm mouth, but this time holding a book, perhaps (patiently?) dealing with an interruption before she returns to her reading. I haven’t been able to find any detail on the painting’s provenance, but it seems the sort of work that could be hung in a school to inspire students (a number of schools have a “Gilmore” house).

The final focus work is Eddie Mabo (after Mike Kelley’s ‘Booth’s Puddle’ 1985, from Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s profile) by Gordon Bennett (1996; synthetic polymer paint on canvas) (www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?&irn=67&acno=1999.27). Information from the NPG website: “Koiki (Eddie) Mabo (1937-1992) was a leader of the indigenous population of Townsville, where he established a pioneering Black Community School, before he initiated a legal case for native title against the State of Queensland in 1982. Along with his fellow Meriam people, Mabo was convinced that he owned his family’s land on Murray Island (Mer) in Torres Strait. By contrast, Queensland Crown lawyers argued that on annexation in 1879, all the land had become the property of the Crown. In 1992, the High Court found 6-1 in favour of Mabo and his co-plaintiffs, overturning the accepted view that Australia had been terra nullius (empty land) before white settlement. Mabo died before the historic decision, which was permanently to alter the way Australians think about Aboriginal land ownership.”

Unlike Trindall’s portrait of Gilmore, Bennett’s portrayal of Mabo is dense with symbols and indicators. Frustratingly I haven’t been able to learn much about Kelley’s work in the time available – such a specific subtitle would surely help me to understand quite what Bennett is telling us. The NPG website has “Gordon Bennett said ‘To me the image of Eddie Mabo stood like the eye of a storm, calmly asserting his rights while all around him the storm, a war of words and rhetoric, raged.’”, but that seems only a part of what is being shown.

Hinkson (2010) suggests “Simultaneously, a transformative set of events and an ongoing unresolved tension at the heart of Australian identity are galvanised in this picture. Rather than portraying Mabo the man heroically, Bennett’s picture is a powerful statement about the nature of our mediated public culture and the processes through which we grasp and indeed produce images of persons, the events with which they are associated and the ideas they come to stand for in the present… [The work] conveys a sense of the myth making we, the nation, undertake when we turn a person and his achievements into an element of public imagination.” It’s not a portrait of a man, but a wish or dream?

To be honest, I feel overwhelmed in writing this report. There is so much I don’t know or understand, of art and art history of course, but much more importantly of Australia’s history and place and people – and possible future(s).

I have a developing theory, heavily influenced by recent viewing of Hannah Gadsby’s Oz (see 14-Mar-2014), that Australia as a nation, Australians collectively and individually, are struggling with identity. It’s a theme many artists around the world explore in their work, but it seems to be a particular obsession here. To test this sweeping generalisation I went looking at Mission Statements of various national portrait galleries – surely they show the level of comfort of a people with their national stories. I’m throwing in a couple of basic statistics for support.

Under Corporate Policies and Operational Information on the NPG website I found “The purpose of the National Portrait Gallery is to increase the understanding and appreciation of the Australian people – their identity, history, creativity and culture – through portraiture” (National Portrait Gallery, [n.d.]). Searching for a more formal charter I found in their Corporate Plan: “The purpose of the National Portrait Gallery is to increase the understanding and appreciation of the Australian people – their identity, history, culture, creativity and diversity – through portraiture” (National Portrait Gallery, 2012, p.2). How significant is the extra word?

Both versions seem to give possible support to my theory. Based on recent data, 27% of the Australian population were born overseas and 2.5% are indigenous.

To test the theory further I checked National Portrait Galleries in other countries. In the UK the National Portrait Gallery (established 1856): “The Gallery’s overall aim (derived from the provisions of the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act) is ‘to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the
men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and … to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media’.”(National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 1) (their ellipsis, not mine). The UK has 13% of the population born overseas.

In the USA “The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the history of America through individuals who have shaped its culture” (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, [n.d.]). While there is no single succinct statement in their Strategic Plan the Introduction includes its “purpose is to illuminate the American experience and help people understand it” and in more general text there is reference to “important questions about our shared identity, our individual place within it, and about what it means to be an American” (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, 2011. [not paginated]). 13% of the USA population were born overseas while American Indian and Alaskan Natives make up 1.6% of the population.

The New Zealand Portrait Gallery te pukenga whakaata (established 1990) website includes “Our Vision: Portraying New Zealanders and our cultural heritage to all New Zealanders”, and in later text “Our aim is to present portraits of our peoples who, from various cultural or political standpoints, have shaped our country’s development or influenced the way we think about ourselves” (New Zealand Portrait Gallery, [n.d.]). 17% of NZ population were born overseas, 15% are Maori.

Possibly suggestive, certainly not conclusive.

When I had written most of this post I came across an article quite critical of aspects of the NPG and its effectiveness in telling the Australian story. Given the timing I haven’t integrated the information here – so see At the National Portrait Gallery: Art or history? by John Thompson http://recollections.nma.gov.au/issues/vol_5_no_1/notes_and_comments/at_the_national_portrait_gallery_art_or_history (2010).

Resources

‘Cook, James (1728–1779)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cook-james-1917/text2279, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 10 April 2014.

Hinkson, M (2010) “Seeing More than Black and White: Picturing Aboriginality at Australia’s National Portrait Gallery” In Australian Humanities Review (49) [online] Available from http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-November-2010/hinkson.html (Accessed 11-Apr-2014).

Huda, S. (2008) Pedigree and Panache: A History of the Art Auction in Australia Canberra: ANU E Press [online] Available from http://press.anu.edu.au/?p=75451 (Accessed 10-Apr-2014)

National Portrait Gallery (Australia), [n.d.] Corporate Policies and Operational Information [online] Available from http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/corporate_info.php (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

National Portrait Gallery (Australia) (2012) Corporate Plan 2011-2014 [online] Available from http://www.portrait.gov.au/UserFiles/file/CorporatePlan2011-2014-2012-07-24.pdf (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

National Portrait Gallery (UK) (2009) Strategic Plan 2009 – 2015 [online] Available from http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/strategic-plan/NPGStrategicPlan2009-2015.pdf (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

New Zealand Portrait Gallery, ([n.d.]) About New Zealand Portrait Gallery [online] Available from http://www.nzportraitgallery.org.nz/about-us/about-new-zealand-portrait-gallery (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, [n.d.] Visiting the Museum [online] Available from http://www.npg.si.edu/inform/visit.html (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, (2011) Beyond the frame: National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian – Strategic Plan 2011 – 2016 [online] Available from http://www.npg.si.edu/docs/npgsp2.pdf (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

Wilde, W.H. (1983) ‘Gilmore, Dame Mary Jean (1865–1962)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gilmore-dame-mary-jean-6391/text10923, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 10 April 2014.

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Visit a portrait gallery
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Project one: The portrait
Exercise: Visit a portrait gallery

UA1-WA:Research: The Stripe – Sol LeWitt

As part of the final assignment I must produce an illustrated report of around 2,000 words on a subject of my choice. I have chosen The Stripe. Loom weavers spend a lot of time designing stripes or fighting / hiding stripes. There’s a lot more to weaving of course, but that fundamental step of warping the loom has you making decisions about all those parallel lines. Painters have so many options, yet for different reasons some choose stripes. In my initial list I have Barnett Newman’s zips, the stripe flags of Jasper Johns, the conceptual of Sol LeWitt, Bridget Riley’s op art, Daniel Buren, in Australia David Aspden (colour field)… Over the coming months I’d like to explore their approaches and along the way perhaps get some ideas or questions that have me approaching the loom differently.

The series of posts will be my research notes for the final report and as such they will be sketchy and incomplete, an overview of things I think might be relevant or that interest me despite being irrelevant.

Sol LeWitt Wall drawing #1091

Sol LeWitt
Wall drawing #1091: arcs, circles and bands (room)
2003 synthetic polymer paint
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/
works/352.2011/

Non-geometric form (splotch) #3 – #6
1999 painted fiberglass

lewitt_02Starting with a bang – Sol LeWitt. The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) has quite a large collection, much or all the gift of the John Kaldor Family. This work was first installed in the Kaldor residence. Imagine that as a room in your house. I think I’d furnish it with a single sun lounge and spend an hour a day basking in colour :)

Originally associated with Minimalism (not a label he would accept) LeWitt was a major theorist of Conceptual Art. In 1967 LeWitt wrote: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” (LeWitt, 1967) Start with an idea (simple is good). Choose a form (simple is good). Select some rules. Then the fewer decisions the better.

cubeFor example, select a cube. There are 12 edges in total (on the left of the diagram). That’s the basic form. You can take away an edge and still see it’s a cube, even if incomplete – so 11 edges on the right. What are the variations of an incomplete cube? That’s it – except I used too many words. LeWitt developed very terse but sufficient ways of documenting his concepts.

Sol LeWitt Incomplete open cube

Sol LeWitt
Incomplete open cube
1974 baked enamel on aluminium
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/
works/349.2011/

Some of the results can be seen on the left. I find them … satisfying … to look at. They are crazy and obsessive. An irrational pursuit of a rational idea? Vice versa? When you start following the rules it turns out you need at least 3 sides – to give height, width and depth – otherwise it’s not an incomplete cube. Don’t you think that’s kind of a nice idea – plus that someone was focused enough to lay out 122 variations? (Bullock (2014, p. 21) records LeWitt consulted a mathematician when finalising the sequence).

It’s strange to see these incomplete cubes, each in a sense a separate (autonomous?) work, in a gallery setting. They now form a series, parts of a larger work, and the spacing between, the lighting and cast of shadows on the polished flooring, become part of the whole for the viewer.

lewitt_04Adding further complexity are the other works in the exhibition. On the wall in the background of this photograph is Wall structure 123454321 (1979) (www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/L2011.62/). A different but kindred idea, this time mounted on the wall in a hybrid not entirely three dimensional but not a flat surface way.

Work on the walls brings me back to focus on The Stripe – which I now see can refer to lines or bands.

Sol LeWitt Wall drawing #337’ and ‘Wall drawing #338

Sol LeWitt
Wall drawing #337 and Wall drawing #338
Both works 1971. #337 – pencil; #338 – coloured pencil
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/350.2011/
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/351.2011/

LeWitt wrote “The form itself is of very limited importance; it becomes the grammar for the total work. In fact, it is best that the basic unit be deliberately uninteresting so that it may more easily become an intrinsic part of the entire work. Using complex basic forms only disrupts the unity of the whole. Using a simple form repeatedly narrows the field of the work and concentrates the intensity to the arrangement of the form. This arrangement becomes the end while the form becomes the means.” (LeWitt, 1967). A straight line makes an ideal basic unit.

lewitt_06On the AGNSW website the full title of one of the works above is “Wall drawing #338: Two part drawing. The wall is divided vertically into two parts. Each part is divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts. 1st part: Lines in four directions, one direction in each quarter. 2nd part: Lines in four directions, superimposed progressively.” A diagram drawn on the wall next to the work shows how this has been implemented. At the bottom are the four directions and colours of line used, with identifying numbers. Above are the combinations of lines used in each section of the work.

lewitt_07My detail photos of the wall drawing are very fuzzy, so here I’ve shown a page from a book with a related sequence. The book is included in the current AGNSW exhibition Sol LeWitt: Your mind is exactly at that line (www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/
exhibitions/sol-lewitt/
).

The work invites viewing as a sequence. Haxthausen (2012, p. 17) suggests that LeWitt felt “thwarted by the nature of the easel picture as a single synchronous image, a spatial rather than a temporal structure”. Adopting a serial approach, and the wall, LeWitt challenged this. (Another approach, seen for example in works on Arachne, is to combine scenes of multiple times in a single picture – see 8-Jul-2013).

Kaiser (1992) wrote “LeWitt employed [abstraction] with a view to simplifying, rendering unambiguous, even encoding visual language. He sought a kind of basic vocabulary, in the fashion of musical annotation”.

lewitt_10

lewitt_09This first piece of research is already testing the borders of my topic. The thumbnail on the right shows Wall drawing #1274: scribble column (horizontal), graphite (2006). The detail at the left shows it is indeed “scribble”. In LeWitt there is line (often straight and orderly), band, grid (superimposed straight line), and in this example disorderly line organised into forming orderly line. Probably I’ll find very few if any artists whose works remains entirely within “the stripe”. I should still be able to find a range of approaches within those who use stripe on occasion.

Bringing a weaverly eye to the discussion, the simplified notation appears equivalent to a pattern draft, which gives an unambiguous, succinct description of structure.

Fairbrother (1992) wrote “LeWitt’s serial exercises produce objects for contemplation that may strike views as both structurally intriguing and abstractly beautiful, regardless of whether they understand the guiding parameters and variables”. That’s more of a challenge for weaving. The structure which is so important to the weaver is generally not even seen, let alone understood, by the viewer. Scale is clearly key here, but also the underlying sequence and basic unit – not just line but the unit of the draft – is virtually never revealed to the viewer. That could be an interesting sequence in a “New Weave” type exhibition.

In much of loom weaving a lot of calculations and decisions are made up front, with little decision making during the execution – although as a weaver I would say the final outcome is generally a very important part of the process, and rather than being cool and without emotion like some Conceptual Art, the tactile nature of cloth and all its cultural meanings (wrapping / protection…) make emotion of some kind almost inevitable. lewitt_08 The focus on the concept supported LeWitt’s practice of allowing assistants to realise works following his written instructions. I happened to be at AGNSW while the current exhibition was being prepared and took this photo of work on LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 604H, cubic rectangle with color ink washes superimposed (1989). The two men were working as fast as they could, one working from the bottom the other from the top, rubbing on the ink. As they finished one gave feedback, presumably training, looking for even more speed and a slight change in rubbing technique. lewitt_11The thumbnail at the left shows part of the finished work a month or so later.

There can be similar division in design and execution in weaving – Liz Williamson (see 24-Nov-2012) is one example of a highly experienced and proficient weaver who frequently has her designs realised by others. I suspect this is more a matter of time management than a basic conceptual division of process.

Fuschs writes of LeWitt’s “precise, lucid principles”, that he “ceased to rely on inspiration and coincidental impulses”, and “it is a way of doing and approaching without a real aesthetic premise” (Fuschs, 1992). The further I have gone with this investigation, and despite finding a few parallels, I think in the end LeWitt’s objectives make no sense at all in the weaving world – just a meaningless coincidence of a basic form. Perhaps we arrive there from different directions. Kaiser suggests “this extreme reduction [straight lines] was countered by an expansive use of the basic elements as a regularly repeating module” (Kaiser, 1992). Weaving isn’t a reduction to straight lines, it builds from them – so always expanding?

From Fairbrother (1992): “LeWitt’s first structure announced his reciprocal concerns to reduce subjective expressivity and to give the clearest exposition of ideas concerning basic form, modularity, gridding, stacking, extending, containing, repeating, and amplifying. To these ends he exercised the strictest economy with regard to color, surface, texture, and shape”. Obviously there was later development, particularly in color and shape, but again this seems totally opposed to most weaving. What would weaving look like if one tried to bring the same concerns? Can there be weaving without surface or texture? On the other hand Bonin (2012, p. 35) suggests “LeWitt exemplified his interest in two-dimensionality, in the plane’s physically flat surface. Gradations in wall texture became gradations in pencil lines. Subtle changes in the wall’s surface are made internal to the drawing’s form. The surface fluctuations lend the work a gentle dynamism, as if a barely noticeable, sheer cloth has been swept over parts of the wall”.

Some more brief notes and thoughts:
* “Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.” (LeWitt, 1967). True in so many areas! A lot of thought and effort is needed to achieve strong, simple, obvious, even “inevitable” results.

* “New materials are one of the great afflictions of contemporary art.” (LeWitt, 1967). I’d say that’s very relevant to today’s textile work. There are really exciting new materials and tools and techniques coming available all the time. The trick is to use them meaningfully, to take them beyond ‘look at this flashy new thing’ (“gaudy bauble”, as LeWitt put it).

* Scale. LeWitt devotes a paragraph to scale and placement. I’ll have more on that in an upcoming post.

* LeWitt’s comments about art. First a selection of sentences from 1971:
“10. Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical. …
17. All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.
18. One usually understands the art of the past by applying the convention of the present, thus misunderstanding the art of the past.
19. The conventions of art are altered by works of art.
20. Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our perceptions.”
The above I take to provide an overall understanding of what art is and how it changes over time – or at least a conceptual form of art. In his Paragraphs LeWitt mentions that this isn’t for all artists. Sentence 18 seems very relevant to art history studies. I wonder about the magnitude of misunderstandings due to time compared to all the other differences in context and knowledge when viewing works. Elsewhere LeWitt comments that the artist can’t control a viewer’s perception and also that the artist may perceive another’s work better than his/her own. I suppose that links back to the difference between conception and perception.
Another LeWitt statement, originally from 1974 and reprinted in Fairbrother (1992): “Each person, being different, conceives of art differently. There is no high or low art or good or bad art, but different kinds of art to satisfy the aesthetic needs of all. Whatever one understands to be art is art”.

References

Bonin, C. (2012) “Between wall and paper: rethinking LeWitt’s wall drawings” In Haxthausen, CW (ed) (2012) Sol LeWitt: The well-tempered grid. Williamstown: Williams College Museum of Art, pp. 27 – 43.

Bullock, N. (2014) “Sol LeWitt: An overview and a preview” In Look 0414 Sydney: Art Gallery Society of New South Wales, pp. 20 – 23.

Fairbrother, T. (1992) “Sol LeWitt’s drawing and the art of ‘logical statement’” In Singer, S. (ed) (1992) Sol LeWitt drawings 1958 – 1992. The Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum.

Fuschs, R. (1992) “Sol LeWitt” In Singer, S. (ed) (1992) Sol LeWitt drawings 1958 – 1992. The Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum.

Haxthausen, CW (2012) “The well-tempered grid: On Sol LeWitt and Music” In Haxthausen, CW (ed) (2012) Sol LeWitt: The well-tempered grid. Williamstown: Williams College Museum of Art.

Kaiser, FW (1992) “Drawing as notation – or just as drawing” In Singer, S. (ed) (1992) Sol LeWitt drawings 1958 – 1992. The Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum.

LeWitt, S. (1967) “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” originally published in Artforum, June 1967. [online] Available from http://radicalart.info/concept/LeWitt/paragraphs.html (Accessed 22-Mar-2014).

LeWitt, S. (1971) “Sentences on Conceptual Art” originally published in Art Now 3 (2), 1971. [online] Available from http://radicalart.info/concept/LeWitt/sentences.html (Accessed 23-Mar-2014).

UA1-WA:Research: The Stripe – Sol LeWitt
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Review: The Stripe
Research: Sol LeWitt

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Annotate a portrait

Maurice Felton Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark

Maurice Felton
Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark
1840 oil on canvas 142.5 x 114 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection
/works/117.1974/

For this exercise I have chosen a painting from just a few year’s after Law’s sculpture Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy (see post 13-Mar-2014).

Maurice Felton’s painting Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark brings us north to Sydney and a world away in terms of social strata at the time. The first impression on viewing this portrait is of ostentatious display of wealth. That impression persists – this portrait is a clear declaration of wealth and social position. The artist has lavished attention on the silk, lace, pearls, diamonds, sapphires and exquisite detail of the ensemble. “Mrs Spark’s fine gown features the decade’s distinctive V-shaped waist and lace bertha” notes a volume on the history of Australian fashion, which devotes a full page to this image as an exemplar of the fashion and aspiration of the period (Joel, p. 17).

felton_03The lady looking out at the viewer is not overwhelmed by her finery. She appears calm, clear-eyed, a firm chin, a hint of a smile. She has a book with her – a flash of red and gold that lifts the image, on the leather binding a family crest with the crest “Virtute et valore”. There is education, virtue and valour with this beauty and wealth. The book also gives an opportunity to display a delicate wrist and hand loaded with gems.

felton_02She stands on a terrace with a broad expanse of land behind leading to an expanse of water. The empty space balances with the foreground figure while a tree frames and curves protectively around her. Angels Trumpet flowers echo the white and curves of the clothes and jewellery, and give a hint of the exotic. The straight lines of horizon, balustrade and book play against the curves throughout the image.

felton_04One technique I haven’t noticed on a painting of this age before is the use of what may have been the end of the paintbrush scrapped through the paint to form the stitching on the fur-trimmed glove.

The frame adds to the impressive size and decoration of the picture and is the restored original.

Maurice Felton Mrs [Anna Elizabeth] Walker

Maurice Felton
Mrs [Anna Elizabeth] Walker
1840 oil on canvas 74.8 x 62.2 cm
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
http://www.acmssearch.sl.nsw.gov.au/search/itemDetailPaged.cgi?itemID=404700

Maurice Felton arrived in Sydney in 1839. He was a qualified medical practitioner, but appears to have spent most of his time in Australia in his secondary occupation as a painter. In the few years before his death in 1842 Felton painted many society portraits. The example on the right shows many similarities – a woman with carefully dressed hair, similar face and expression, well dressed, framing foliage, view to the horizon and the pop of red this time provided by the shawl. Not all Felton’s subject appear quite so similar. In the collection of the National Gallery of Australia is A woman of NSW, which shows an older, larger woman with decided features, wonderful earrings and a most remarkable headdress (http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=200464).

Apparently Felton painted some landscapes as well as portraits, but I have not been able to locate any examples. Much early colonial art has this focus on specific people and places, with few if any paintings of “higher” historical or mythological themes. This could be related to the “provincial” nature of the colony. Joan Kerr wrote “In fact, the primacy of some non-aesthetic purpose might be said to be a distinguishing characteristic of provincial art. In colonial New South Wales, painting or collecting portraits and views might be summarised as souvenir hunting for a specific purpose: … to prove one’s triumphant survival…” (Kerr, p. 15).

Sydney’s economy had boomed in the 1830s and the wealthy wanted to advertise their fortune and raise their social standing. Joanna Gilmour has explained “Felton’s subjects, though from a mix of spheres and origins, largely shared the supposed taint of commercial motivations and the experience of finding in colonial life and enterprise a high degree of wealth or social profile… In their ornate gold frames (some supplied by Felton’s brotherin- law, Solomon Lewis) and in his attentive rendering of fabrics, fashions and jewellery resides proof of the aspirations, pretensions or vulgarities of Felton’s sitters” (Gilmour, 2011). The fact that Felton worked in oil made it even more attractive to the very wealthy. The picture was commissioned by Alexander Brodie Spark, who “grew from a speculative trader to a rich banker and merchant, churchman, landowner and private collector. In the artificial aristocracy of the colony he was established as a leading citizen who had to ear and favour of the governor” (Abbott and Little, p. 1). Spark had married Maria 27th April 1840 and engaged Felton for her portrait on 18th May. The frame was chosen in June (from Lewis) and the final touches on the portrait completed 18 August. (Spark maintained a diary, giving a helpful amount of practical information from the period). Spark also used his wealth building his home at Tempe (architect John Verge, the same who oversaw the building of Elizabeth Bay House – see 30-Nov-2013). The extensive garden combined both kitchen and ornamental plants, with cuttings provided from Sydney’s Botanic Gardens and a team of 13 convict labourers working under an English gardener (Morris, p. 70). It seems likely that the extensive view and exotic plant in Felton’s painting is another reminder of Spark’s wealth and taste.

In November 1841 the Sydney Herald opined that Felton’s work signalled that “the day was not far distant when we should no longer be characterised as a mere money-getting and money-loving people; but that we should become conspicuous for the … cultivation of those arts that at once improve the heart and mind” (quoted in Gilmour, 2011). As it happened, in the early 1840s the economy crashed, undermined by over-speculation in land and a prolonged drought. This was the same crisis that brought an end to Alexander Macleay’s control of Elizabeth Bay House, and it eventually bankrupted Spark. He and Maria survived by tending the garden themselves and selling their produce.

In evaluating this painting I would like to compare it with another hanging nearby at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Violet Teague Dian dreams (Una Falkiner)

Violet Teague
Dian dreams (Una Falkiner)
1909 oil on canvas 159.0 x 108.2 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection
/works/60.1975/

Dian dreams (Una Falkiner) by Violet Teague was painted around 69 years after Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark, and I suspect in Melbourne rather than Sydney. Both pictures are of beautiful women in fashionable, luxurious, expensive gowns.

teague_03Both contrast and stabilise a series of curves with shorter straight lines. Both echo colours and lines of the figure with a cream/white blooming plant on the right (magnolias in this instance).

The differences are significant, beginning with the genesis of each painting. Unlike Felton who made his living from commissioned society portraits, Teague was a financially independent woman. At times she chose to accept commissions, but this painting was not one. It was included in the Women Painters Exhibition of 1911 for sale at £105, a premium price.

felton_teagueFelton’s work is a familiar composition, the subject standing at a slight angle (more visual interest, a display of womanly curves) and gazing towards the painter / viewer. In a more modern composition Teague’s woman is seated with her back to the viewer, her face in profile. It is a very conscious pose, displaying a graceful, feminine form, but the subject is allowed her own thoughts. Anna Clabburn suggests Teague provides “a consistent sense of the sitter’s inner energy” in her portraits of women (Clabburn, 1999). “Her averted eyes are not deferring to a pressured male audience… but instead suggest a quiet independence and sense of self” (Neville, p. 56). The self-possession of this figure has disturbed some viewers. In a London exhibition in 1911 the painting was “attacked by a ‘madman’ with a knife, who justified his actions, ‘because she wouldn’t look’ at him” (Holmes, p. 42). At some time after the subject, Una le Souëf, married the next year, her husband purchased the painting and is reported to have “complained that his wife would ‘not sit with her back to a party’” (Neville, p. 53). Although not traditional a similar pose can sometimes be seen in works by other artists. John White Alexander was mentioned by Neville as one of the artist who influenced Teague, and his 1898 work The Blue Bowl (risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/1016_the_blue_bowl) shows similarities. A Capriote (1878 https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/a-capriote-32955) by John Singer Sargent shows the subject woman’s back and profile, but in a more twisted pose that links her into the countryside. Closer to home, Tom Robert’s La Favorita (c. 1889 http://www.portrait.gov.au/magazine/article.php?articleID=354) could well have been seen by Teague in Melbourne.

Felton’s work displayed “the technical skill and showy sensibility that lent [his] work so effortlessly to the requirements of colonial clients” (Gilmour, 2011). Teague had more painterly ambitions. Her “rich dark palette … shows a keen sense of the chiaroscuro light contrasts used by Velazquez or the Italian masters Titian and Carravagio… ” (Clabburn). Teague was exploring colour and tone and shows the influence of Whistler. Neville claims “her paintings were more than portraits: they were as much about the act of painting and her ability to orchestrate a tonal palette as they were about people” (Neville, p. 53). There is a certain flattening of space, any depth limited by the flat geometry of wall and piano, a deceptive simplicity in the design, showing Teague connected to the sweep of painterly concerns in the late nineteenth and through the twentieth century.

I wonder if Teague also placed her work in the “higher” realm of mythological painting. Internet searches on variants of “Dian dreams” have yielded limited results. Endymion slept and perhaps dreamed of Diana, moon goddess – which doesn’t fit here. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummernight’s Dream Hermia is given a choice of accepting her father’s choice of marriage or lifelong chastity worshipping Diana as a nun. Apart from the possible link in the title I have no reason to suggest that Una was reflecting on her options the year before her marriage to Otway Falkiner. It seems clear that Felton had no deeper purpose than celebrating the prosperity of the new Mrs Spark and her husband. Just possibly her face is a touch tired, a touch sad, hinting at her previous marriage at age around 16, the eight children of whom five had died young (cholera, drowning in shipwreck, fire), or perhaps a more recent loss suggested in her husband’s diary entry of 8th June during the time Felton was painting her portrait: “Drove Maria to town for another sitting. She complained of a pain in the side, extinguishing late hopes…” (Abbott and Little, p. 120).

So clearly showing a person in her particular culture, meeting that culture’s specific needs and concerns, Felton’s Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark now appears almost ethnographic in nature. Teague’s Dian dreams seems more introverted, less focused on the needs of the viewer, both in the averted gaze of the subject and the painterly concerns of the artist. There is thought and emotion, but a slight separation. Neither work shows the open depth of emotion of Truganini’s portrait bust by Benjamin Law (13-Mar-2014), bowed with grief and loss not only of herself and her family but of her people. Another link of the three works is Teague’s efforts raising money to bring a permanent water supply to an Aboriginal Mission suffering under a long-term drought. Her letter to the editor of The Argus in 1934: “Sir, Many people, among them artists, think that the best way to begin the Centenary year is to do something useful for the Australian Aborigine – for some of those who have survived the 100 years of our occupation … When it is remembered that all the land and all the water were the aborigines’ inheritance, this will seem a small act of restitution” (quoted in Clabburn).

There is a lot more information available about the women I have recently researched – Truganini, Frances Maria Spark, Una le Souëf Falkiner and Violet Teague – that hasn’t been included in this post / annotation. It would be interesting to revisit using a feminist framework, focusing on the challenges and constraints in their lives, and the choices they made.

Reference

Abbott, G. and Little, G. (1976) The respectable Sydney merchant: A.B. Spark of Tempe Sydney: Sydney University Press.

Clabburn, A. (1999) The art of Violet Teague: Education Kit. [Parkville, Vic.] : Ian Potter Museum of Art. (sheets unnumbered).

Gilmour, J. (2011) More cash than dash. Portrait: Magazine of Australian & International portraiture 41 (October – November 2011) [online] Available from http://www.portrait.gov.au/magazine/article.php?articleID=349 (Accessed 15-Mar-2014)

Holmes, K. (1992) Diaries as Déshabillé? The diary of Una Falkiner: A careful dressing. Australian Feminist Studies 7 (16) [preview online] Preview available from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08164649.1992.9994660#.UydaNPmSzCZ (Accessed 14-Mar-2014).

Joel, A. (1998) Parade: The story of fashion in Australia Sydney: Harper Collins Publishers

Kerr, J. (1988) “Views, visages, invisability: Themes in the Art of colonial New South Wales” In McDonald, P. and Pearce, B. (ed) (1988) The Artist and the Patron: Aspects of Colonial Art in New South Wales. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Morris, C. (2008) Lost Gardens of Sydney. Sydney: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales

Neville, R. (1999) “Violet Teague’s Portraits” In Clark, J and Druce, F. (ed) (1999) Violet Teague 1872 – 1951. [Roseville, N.S.W.] : Beagle Press.

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Annotate a portrait
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Project one: The portrait
Exercise: Annotate a portrait

Jennifer Boldt, OCA postgraduate student and weaver

Jennifer Boldt, a postgraduatestudent of the Open College of the Arts (OCA) from Chicago, Illinois, has been shortlisted in the 3rd International Emerging Artist Award (OCA press release here).

Jennifer’s website: http://jenniferboldt.com/

Jennifer’s work is an exciting, contemporary, use of weaving. This is absolutely the sort of work or approach to work that I want to get to. Even more exciting is that she has chosen to be a student at OCA. The undergraduate course doesn’t seem to have much specifically focused on constructed textiles and I sometimes wonder if my OCA studies are a diversion, an interesting sidetrack. Asked and answered?


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