UA1-WA:P4 Review

This Part of the course has been a struggle. I’m struggling with time; with depth – how far to go in research; and with focus, with a desire to get back to my own work, to be making, creating.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Looking back through my blog posts for over the last 4+ months there seems to be an ongoing theme of the politics and social meaning of art. It started with political cartoons, using images to comment on a current and continuing crisis (7-Mar-2014). Selecting busts of Trucaninny and Woureddy as examples of portrait sculpture allowed a more general consideration of the impact of colonisation and the implicit condescension of an “ethnographic” attitude (13-Mar-2014).
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

The annotation of Maurice Felton’s portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark provided a strong contrast in social conditions and also introduced (but did not develop) feminist concerns (19-Mar-2014). When visiting the National Portrait Gallery (11-Apr-2014) it all started getting too big for me – too much history I didn’t know, too many competing issues. My next annotation glanced at the art politics of the Archibald Prize, but is in honesty a bit brief and shallow (13-Apr-2014). (The 2014 Archibald opens in a few days)

Margaret Olley Portrait in the mirror

Margaret Olley
Portrait in the mirror
1948 Oil on cardboard

As a generalization, of all the genres of art I am least moved by or interested in portraits. . . As soon as I wrote that sentence I questioned myself, it seems ridiculous to be so sweeping – but with many exceptions, it’s basically true. I just scrolled through the finalists of the 2014 Archibald – So many of them are a lump of person (head, 3/4, full view) in a limited background. There seems to be a fair amount of effort for a likeness, perhaps with a few ‘tabs of identity’ like a painterly cartoon. I recognize the subject and feel vaguely clever, or I don’t and I can read some facts about them. I can’t tell myself a story about them because there’s a “correct answer”. As always, there are exceptions. I was intrigued by the photo of Mike Barnard’s You beautiful fighter (, and having read the artist’s statement I am still more moved by both the subject and the way he has based his technique on the story and the emotion. I’m looking forward to seeing the actual works when the exhibition opens.

Annotating Discobolus, a classical sculpture, returned my thoughts to questions of idealization, race and colonisation (23-May-2014). Combined with the impossibility of visiting a cast gallery and reflection on why that should be so (30-May-2014), the whole question of the Canon of western art was raised again. Whose heritage, what values, are being celebrated? In the next research point we were directly challenged on this, looking at the female nude through art history and the insights provided by a feminist critique (6-Jun-2014). I found introducing multiple perspectives enriched my experience of the artworks. Unfortunately the next exercise, annotating a female nude (8-Jun-2014), just made me cranky. First we were required to work on a classic nude in the western tradition, which forced me back onto internet images. We were then asked to compare this carefully selected masterpiece to a more recent work by a little-known female artist. I question the purpose of this requirement, which seems to me to trivialize important questions about women as artists and the depiction of women in art.

Henry Moore Helmet head no. 2 1955 bronze

Henry Moore
Helmet head no. 2
1955 bronze

A calming review of figure sculptures of the past century brought home how fortunate I’ve been in terms of access to artworks (13-Jun-2014). This was followed by the annotation of a Henry Moore sculpture (22-Jun-2014), in which I concentrated on ideas taken from the feminist critique, and also the context of work in a physical sense. The work by Moore on the right has only very recently been put on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), but makes a whimsical addition which could loosely be seen as “figure”.

Perhaps the most important thing I feel I have gained from the course so far is the ability to see artworks in context – historical, physical, thematic… agnswIn this I am greatly assisted not only by the course learning material, but by my local gallery, the AGNSW. Limited in space, with a major expansion years away, there is constant movement of the works displayed. Rather than a single work by an artist there will be a group of works, together with a couple of related or complementary pieces by other artists. A month or so later they could be gone. Recently the Kirchner I discussed as my Assignment 4 was moved upstairs and can now be seen together with a sculpture by Ossip Zadkine ( and a couple of paintings by Picasso, amongst other delights (the Picasso glimpsed in the photo, Woman lying on a couch (Dora Maar) (1939) doesn’t have a link, as it is on loan from the Lewis collection).

I feel this Part of the course has been a mixed bag – due to access to works, interest in the topics, this that and the other, and always, always time. I have a small pile of brochures and notes from exhibitions and events, just waiting for a write up – sometime soon.

UA1-WA:P4 Review
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting

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July 2014

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