Archive for the 'Western Art' Category

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

npg_01For this exercise I visited the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Canberra – 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) ( (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, 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) ( 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 (, 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 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) ( 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 (2010).


‘Cook, James (1728–1779)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, 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 (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 (Accessed 10-Apr-2014)

National Portrait Gallery (Australia), [n.d.] Corporate Policies and Operational Information [online] Available from (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

National Portrait Gallery (Australia) (2012) Corporate Plan 2011-2014 [online] Available from (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

National Portrait Gallery (UK) (2009) Strategic Plan 2009 – 2015 [online] Available from (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

New Zealand Portrait Gallery, ([n.d.]) About New Zealand Portrait Gallery [online] Available from (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, [n.d.] Visiting the Museum [online] Available from (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, (2011) Beyond the frame: National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian – Strategic Plan 2011 – 2016 [online] Available from (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,, 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

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

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) ( 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

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 (

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_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”.


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 (Accessed 22-Mar-2014).

LeWitt, S. (1971) “Sentences on Conceptual Art” originally published in Art Now 3 (2), 1971. [online] Available from (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

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

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 (

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

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 ( shows similarities. A Capriote (1878 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 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.


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 (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 (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:

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?

Hannah Gadsby’s Oz

I’ve just watched the first episode of this series (on ABC1 Tues, 10:00pm). I’m going to have to watch it quite a few more times – it speaks so directly to some of my current reading and thinking for the OCA course. I hadn’t heard the phrase “scar tissue of history” before and it resonates – except so much of my concern isn’t history, it’s what’s happening today.

Interesting to see the different perspective / emphasis to the 3 part series presented by Edmund Capon last year (

Some of the artists included in Hannah’s episode 1:

Julie Gough

Dan Boyd

Joan Ross

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Research Point: Portrait sculpture

For this Research Point I decided to start my investigation with two portrait busts I saw recently when visiting the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Canberra.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy (1936) by Benjamin Law is a painted cast plaster sculpture. In primary school I was taught that Trucaninny was the last Tasmanian Aborigine.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Woureddy, an Aboriginal Chief of Van Diemen’s Land (1835) was made by the same sculptor a year earlier.

There are multiple cast versions of these busts. The photographs here are from the British Museum because my use falls within their terms of use. Their colouring and condition are different to the ones I saw at the NPG which are painted black. The Australian Museum has two sets – one painted black, the other with more detailed paintwork. The Australian Museum photographs provide particular interest which I’ll mention later. The direct links are: British Museum –,2025.1,2025.2
Australian Museum –

A very brief and rough history. Tasmania is a state of Australia, a large island and many small islands to the south of the main continent. Aboriginal people have been living there for 45,000 years or so. The British began to settle in southern Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land, in 1803. There was conflict virtually from the start, over land, food sources and abductions (for sexual partners and labourers). The situation worsened significantly from 1824 as the colony expanded and population grew. The Aborigines resisted with guerrilla war tactics, the colonial government declared martial law between 1828 and 1832 – the Black War. The Black Line in 1830 was a chain of colonists – convicts and freemen – which over several weeks swept across the settled land in an attempt to drive the Aboriginal people onto a peninsula where they could be contained. Disease, fighting, massacres had decimated the Aboriginal people. Eventually in 1833 around 220, given various promises, were persuaded to surrender and were moved to Wybalenna on Flinders Island. By 1835 there were fewer than 150 alive, by 1847 just 47, and the last, Trucaninny, died in 1876. Tasmanian Aborigines were said to be extinct. It wasn’t true, and there’s lots of scholarly and not-so-scholarly debate about the rest.

The busts are life-size. At NPG the Woureddy bust is set on a plinth putting it at an average man’s height. He looks out confidently, directly. Close by the Trucaninny bust is on a lower plinth – a small woman. Her gaze is down and unfocused, I couldn’t find a position where I could meet her eyes. Both are dressed in what appear to be animal skins. The contrast in their stance is striking. The simple explanation would be that this portrays the individual personalities, but from various accounts I have read Trucaninny was not a shy or easily overwhelmed woman, and the sorrowful, passive, submissive posture of the bust is extreme.

Benjamin Law arrived in Tasmania in 1835 and created the bust of Woureddy soon after. It could be that Law was not well informed of the history and situation of the aborigines in the colony and that he saw Woureddy as the “noble savage” of Rousseau, free of the vices of civilized men, peaceful, content, without foresight. When working on Trucaninny the next year Law may have been more informed about the devastation of her people and reflected that knowledge in the bust.

The contrast between the busts could been intended as a symbol of the binary nature of men and women. Europa and the Bull (see 28-Jul-2013) shows the strong, active male and the woman acted upon, with no voice in her situation. That explanation leaves a nasty taste, given both Woureddy and Tucaninny were ultimately unable despite their efforts to help their people against the power of the colonists (that is, they were together on one side of a different binary (power) relationship).

Benjamin Law Bust of George Augustus Robinson 1836

Benjamin Law
Bust of George Augustus Robinson
State Library of Victoria

Of interest here is a third bust by Law, apparently dated between Woureddy and Tucaninny. George Augustus Robinson was the “conciliator” or “pacificator” who persuaded the remaining Aborigines in Tasmania to surrender and accept relocation. Robinson commissioned his portrait bust from Law. I saw a similar ones at Elizabeth Bay House (see 30-Nov-2013), although the one shown in my post was marble rather than plaster and commissioned by the Linnean Society rather than self-commissioned. Robinson’s bust is in neoclassical style, showing him draped in a toga, fit but slightly older than his age at the time (around 45), wise, calm, noble, with the authority of antiquity behind him. Woureddy and Trucaninny are depicted in the skins of the savage, deliberately stressing the primitive – at a time when they would have generally dressed in european style clothing. Combined they could be viewed as a Dying Gaul (see, defeated yet still in death noble, dignified.

Similar approaches can be seen in images of Native Americans, for example the sculptures of Ferdinand Pettrich (see His c. 1850 Bust of Kee-o-kuk (Watchful Fox) shows the proud, erect head of the chief of the Sauk-Fox, while The dying Te-cum-seh depicts the fallen, dying warrior. These works were created at a time “when the US government’s policy towards the Native Americans was becoming increasingly hostile and the young nation was striving for further expansion and a national identity, while the native inhabitants were fighting for their physical and cultural survival” (Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2013).

As mentioned above, Robinson commissioned his own bust. Law acted as an entrepreneur when he created the busts of Trucanniny and Woureddy, reproducing them multiple times in a money-making venture as a memorial to the end of the Black War. Public reactions at the time were quite different. A number of contemporaries saw Robinson’s bust as a vanity piece, self-aggrandisement by a man who had managed to make considerable money doing his “humanitarian” work with the natives. The other two busts were a commercial success for Law, but not as works of art. Instead casts were purchased by museums and individuals for their ethnographic value as a record of what was assumed to be a primitive and dying race.

There may be an extreme example of this ethnographic focus, seeing the casts as specimens rather than portraits of individuals. In the copies of Trucanniny shown above and at NPG the figure is shown wearing a necklace of shells. A staff member at NPG explained to me that these were a tangible sign of Trucanniny’s connection to land. The shells were a kind found at her traditional home, and the necklace was knotted in a specific way which she would have been taught as a young woman by tribal elders. I was taken to another part of the gallery and shown a later photograph of Trucanniny, still wearing the shells (see It seemed a small positive in a very difficult life that she had been able to keep the necklace and the connection to land. I was shocked later when researching for this post to find that on one of the versions of the cast at the Australian Museum the shells are absent – yet another layer of dehumanisation.

Researching these portrait busts I keep coming back to the beliefs and attitudes of the colonists. There was an assumption of superiority and often an expectation indigeneous people would die out. People acted in an involved web of financial, religious and humanitarian motives. Benjamin Duterrau’s painting The Conciliation (1840 – see shows Robinson shaking hands with one of a group of Aborigines, bringing peace and fellowship after the dreadful Black War. It could be likened to Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1771-72) by Benjamin West (see–2609/). I don’t know American history so can’t comment on the earlier image, but Duterrau’s image of peace and harmony, the suggestion of equality in a handshake, the idea of a “treaty” is far from the actuality. Over 150 years later the Aboriginal Lands Act 1995 (Tas) “acknowledges the dispossession of Tasmania’s Indigenous people and recognises certain rights of Tasmanians of Aboriginal descent. It is the first such legislation in Tasmania, where the assumption that no Aboriginal people remained after the first 50 years of the Colony meant the issue of reconciliation in law was ignored” (Museum of Australian Democracy, [n.d.]).


Arnoldsche Art Publishers (2013) TECUMSEH, KEOKUK, BLACK HAWK (catalogue entry) [online] Available from (Accessed 8-Mar-2014)

Museum of Australian Democracy, [n.d.] Documenting a democracy: Aboriginal Lands Act 1995 (Tas) [online] Available from (Accessed 13-Mar-2014)


‘Robinson, George Augustus (1791–1866)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 13 March 2014.

Delaney, JJ ([n.d.]) Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online] Available from (Accessed 9-Mar-2014)

Knapman, G. (2010) The Pacificator: discovering the lost bust of George Augustus Robinson. The La Trobe Journal 86 (December), pp. 37 – 52. Available online at (Accessed 8-March-2014)

Lyndall Ryan and Neil Smith, ‘Trugernanner (Truganini) (1812–1876)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 13 March 2014.

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Research Point: Portrait sculpture
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Project one: The portrait
Research Point: Portrait sculpture

James Turrell Within without 2010

These photos have been sitting on my PC since last November while I tried to fit them into a post about modern art and movements and labels and what is art and … Really, this is Art to be experienced. I don’t want to dissect it or label it.

James Turrell
Within without 2010
lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth and landscaping
National Gallery of Australia
More information:;

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UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Looking at cartoons

This Part of the course starts with a challenge to assumptions by examining newspaper political cartoons. Two points in the course notes attracted my attention – ‘tabs of identity’ (quick and clear ways to identify the person) and a tendency to be coarse in line due to printing constraints. Is the quality of newsprint still an issue given modern printing technology and online distribution?

In Canberra last month I visited two relevant exhibitions at the Museum of Australian Democracy – Behind the Lines 2013 ( and About Face: the art of caricature ( Relevant to the topic – but perhaps difficult for my British tutor and assessors. This led me to wonder about how ‘international’ cartoons can be. I searched on the internet for cartoons from different countries on a common topic – the current ongoing Russian incursion into Crimea. An Australian take is given by Jon Kudelka in a cartoon published in The Australian 4 March 2014. On the left is the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, identified by his red speedos (lycra swimming trunks – he is / was a volunteer surf lifesaver) which can’t actually be seen (an invisible but clearly present tag of identity!), sharp features and large ears. Abbott is on the phone to Vladimir Putin who is identified by his bare chest and muscular arms, large nose and short fair hair. There is a sparse economy of line – for example a puff of exhaust smoke, a single loopy line and a few brief marks behind the ear show the movement of Putin’s tank across the landscape. Colour shading takes advantage of new technology to a minimal extent. The men are clearly distant – Abbott in a small boat defending our borders, Putin in his tank – but the two sides are linked with a common horizon and blue sky. The politics are mainly local, referencing the Australian government’s responses to questions about people-smugglers / asylum boats, and a cheeky quote of an infamous phrase from a past Australian politician. The first American cartoon I found, drawn by Nate Beeler, turned out on investigation to be related to a different, earlier crisis. Both line and colour here are more complex, but still clearly within the cartoon genre. Barack Obama can be recognised by his elongated head and exaggerated ears, nose and mouth. Vladimir Putin is once more shirtless and muscular, enormous as the school bully giving the scrawny kid a noogie. The politics are locally focused, but in the context of international relations. While searching for a stable link (I hope!) I came across two other cartoons by Beeler with art history links – and Whether the policy relates to healthcare or Syria, Obama remains the failed abstract expressionist painter, recognisable by long head, prominent nose, mouth and ears combined with a stick thin body. A European perspective is given by Brian Adcock’s cartoon published in The Independent 6 March 2014. The lines and shading maintain the cartoon appearance, but the use of white writing on shaded backgrounds could make it difficult to read if converted to black and white or gray-scale. Putin remains muscular, shirtless, fair haired with a large nose, large and controlling. His confident power play on the map of Europe is watched by Barack Obama (elongated head, prominent nose, mouth and ears) and two others. The middle aged woman with bobbed fair hair and a hint of double chin is clearly Angela Merkle. I was fairly sure the middle figure was British, given the location of both newspaper and cartoonist, but being unfamiliar with British politics I had difficulty with identification. The identity tags – short, almost bald, pug nose – don’t fit UK Prime Minister David Cameron. I found the same figure in another Adcock cartoon showing signatories to the Iran nuclear deal (, leading me to UK foreign secretary William Hague who appears to match the tags nicely. Moving to a different alphabet was difficult – I was not successful. This link shows a cartoon from the Moscow Times. I’m fairly sure the artist is Sergei Elkin. The hard black line of the other cartoons has largely disappeared here, and even more so in some of the other work on Elkin’s blog. Putin’s fair hair and large nose remain, but the figure is dressed in a neat gray suit. The cartoon refers to a problem at the Sochi games, now overtaken by the Crimea story. International politics are certainly relevant to both the Olympic Games and the military movements, but the focus appears to be internal. This cartoon in the KvivPost newspaper doesn’t have a signature or any helpful meta-data so I haven’t been able to identify the cartoonist. It uses a black to gray line like a marker pen, a softer effect. I find the colour selection and shading unsettling, adding expressively to the mood of the cartoon more than the examples above which are roughly life-like. Based on cartoon text and caption I gather overthrown President Viktor Yanukovych is shivering under a table. Although all the identity tags have changed I believe the second man, seated at the table, is Putin. He is dressed in a gray suit. The short hair is now brown. The headshape, ears and cleft chin are different but recognisable. In the country directly affect by the incursion the focus is on their previous leader and his relationship with the Russian President.

While each artist brings a different style to their cartoons, the general approach of tabs of identity, clear and simplified line, and shading in a limited colour range is common to all.

Back home, a very direct reference to art history can be seen in Alan Moir’s cartoon Raft of the ALP published in Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 2013 – Moir appropriates Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa to illustrate the dire situation of the ALP government, inserting political identities such as then-Prime-Minister Julia Gillard (identity tags red hair, long pointed nose and glasses).

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Looking at cartoons
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part four: Portraiture and figure painting
Project one: The portrait
Exercise: Looking at cartoons

UWA-WA1:P3 Review

My tutor has suggested that after finishing the exercises in a Part of the course I take some time to look for connections and comparisons between works.

The most obvious comparisons can be made about the nature of painting. Particularly when doing a course like this which races through centuries, the history of modern painting seems to be a long series of move and countermove as artists react against their predecessors (or their previous selves) as they explore art. I started my study of this Part with Fauvism (see post 8-Dec-2014), noting those artists tended to be reacting against Impressionism, were anti-theoretical, and did not feel constrained to represent an objective world. Cézanne’s techniques (30-Jan-2014) were both additive and subtractive, making clearer the tension of artificial space, three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. Very relevant here is a blog post by my tutor, Gerald Deslandes, in which he commented on a recent exhibition in which the organisers focused on the particular light of the Mediterranean (see, allowing perceptual Impressionism to be followed by conceptual Post-Imnpressionism. “Their argument was that only as a direct result of their exposure to the Mediterranean, did artists come to concern themselves with the flatness of the picture plane and with the expressive power of their emotions. Hence no longer were they concerned with merely copying nature through the conventions of perspective” (Deslandes, 2013).

Braque, previously a Fauvist, learnt from rather than reacted against Cézanne’s discoveries, shattering perspective and somehow creating volume without depth (9-Feb-2014). By the time of the abstract expressionists Clement Greenberg was able to assert that “Realist, illusionist art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art. Modernism used art to call attention to art” (27-Dec-2013). Greenberg championed the work of Jackson Pollock, focused on the flat surface of the canvas and the physical presence of the paint, but was less convinced by later works such as Blue Poles, where a hierarchy of sorts was re-introduced (26-Dec-2013). Pop art (7-Feb-2014) reacted against the heroic gestures of abstract expressionism, downplaying the hand of the artist. Space was flattened, but there was a definite foreground and background. I’ve had a post about conceptual art semi-written for some time, hoping for the right moment to finish it. The label covers a wide range of artistic practice but could include a total absence of the artist’s hands, either with assistants following instructions to create the artwork (as with Sol Le Witt) or by regarding the concept itself as sufficient.

Only a slight digression from the above, one comparison I find interesting involves use of space. Cézanne created space, contracted, expanded and distorted it (30-Jan-2014). Braque created space without distance using the relationships of parts (9-Feb-2014). The interesting addition is Henry Moore (15-Dec-2013). The space between the components of Hill Arches both separate and connect the work. It gives the viewer something to work with, to engage with. It also makes the location, the space around, a significant part of the sculpture.

Together with the nature of painting, the role and status of the artist has continued to evolve. It’s not a recent thing. Arachne’s fate was determined by her challenge to the authority of the goddess Minerva. Peter Paul Rubens’ Pallas and Arachne (see post 8-July-2013) shows the proud young Arachne at work at her loom, the artistic triumph of her tapestry, and the vengeful response of the goddess to such presumption. Painted in 1854, Courbet’s Bonjour M. Courbet ( shows the deferential attitude of collector Bruyas and his servant to the artist Courbet – a free man with his feet firmly in nature. During his life Cézanne was famous amongst other painters but by the time of Jackson Pollock the idea of the heroic, tortured and flawed artist was well established (post 26-Dec-2013). Later artists including Andy Warhol have very consciously sought celebrity (7-Feb-2014). When it came to Yoko Ono, I was so conscious of her celebrity status that I found it difficult to see the art (31-Jan-2014).

Contemporary politics, particularly the expansion of Europe, colonialism and post-colonialism has been examined in a number of works. Rembrandt’s Two old men disputing (13-Sep-2013) has a globe in the background which reflects the thirst for knowledge as well as wealth in the society of the time. The vanitas still life paintings around the same period responded to the religious unease of some in Holland when spending the new wealth that exploration and trading provided (11-Jan-2014). The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879 by Alphonse de Neuville demonstrates an imperial power’s ability to take a country by force and to write a history that makes themselves heros for doing it (24-Oct-2013). Whether that action was for economic or political purposes is not clear. Europe’s colonial and economic might has faded over the years. The American Abstract Expressionist movement was heavily influenced by the Second World War, the related arrival of many Europeans in America, the relocation of the cutting edge of art to New York. The Cold War also played a part (27-Dec-2013). Currently, proppaNOW is a highly political collective, raising the concerns of urban aboriginal Australians (5-Jan-2014). The ongoing discrimination and disadvantage highlighted by this group is the direct result of European politics and colonisation. The politics shown in the other works I have mentioned is indirect, reflective of their times. ProppaNOW is deliberate and focused. As Richard Bell declares, “There is no better platform for politics than art … this way I don’t get arrested”. Finally I’d like to reference my recent Reflection (16-Feb-2014). While talking about art rather than art itself, the remarks that concerned me came I believe from a post-imperial mindset.

I hope to continue to explore some of these themes in later assignment choices.

Deslandes, G. (2013) Aix Marks the Spot: Post-Impressionists, Rodin, Photography, Contemporary Art [online] Available from (Accessed 2-Mar-2014)

UA1-WA:P3 Review
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life

UWA-WA1:P3 Assignment

I chose to attempt a copy of a painting for this assignment. The other option was an analysis, which seems like the obvious choice for a non-painter. The course material notes “copying isn’t just a technical exercise – it’s also a powerful way to learn”, plus we’re not expected to make a skilled literal copy, so I decided to go for it.

Paul Cezanne Banks of the Marne

Paul Cézanne
Banks of the Marne
circa 1888. Oil on canvas.

As mentioned in my annotation of a still life by Cézanne (30-Jan-2014), I decided to focus in on his work and this landscape of the banks of the Marne. This seemed like a great choice because the work is actually part of the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection, so generally I have plenty of opportunity to see it in person. Unfortunately just as I reached this section the painting disappeared from display. I decided to continue as planned, using the high quality photograph in the google art project as my source –

The assignment asks for brief notes, so I built up this post as I progressed.

* Late January. Painting proportion 5:4 width to height. Seems unusual for an expansive landscape. I’ll use a 10 x 8 grid to keep track of position while copying.

Original is oil on canvas. I’ve decided to use my conte crayons since I have a good range of colours and have some experience with them. Size and weight are issues given postage. Requirement is at least 42 cm in one dimension. College insists nothing rolled. Australia Post has “girth” as well as weight restrictions. After lengthy discussions at art supply store have chosen 290 gsm canson oil sketch paper which I will glue to foamboard to give some rigidity without weight. A border will give some protection. Can go to A2 if total package is no more than 4 cm high. Decide on 45 x 36 cm.

* 1 – 2 Feb
cezanne_landscape_01Initial observations show tight structure of horizontals, verticals and diagonals in village and boats. Bands of repeated brushstrokes form shapes, especially in the foliage of trees and grass on the river bank. The sky is more varied with some scrubbing marks.

cezanne_landscape_02cezanne_landscape_03Desaturating the image shows a full range of values, but focused in the middle range. Highest values are where light reflects from the walls of the village, and slightly lower values in the sky. There are touches of darker values across most of the picture, excluding the sky. The automated histogram confirms this general impression.
cezanne_landscape_04The palette is in greens, ochres, greys and blues. There are a couple of small touches of red on the boats. The little auto-generated palette is quite misleading – after all there are many more than 256 colours in the image and everything gets averaged down.
cezanne_landscape_05This is a comparison of a small section where a roof is in shadow – the colour version and a desaturated version. If you click on it you will see the maximum resolution I have in my image. It’s going to be difficult to get close to this subtlety of colour and the unevenness of cover of the canvas.

After brief test with my sample pieces I definitely prefer the coverage and blending of colour that I get on the smoother side of the canvas. It also showed that at the scale I’m using it won’t be possible to get close to any detail of colour and line. I was already strongly inclined to focus on composition and broad shapes, since forms in space seem such an important aspect of Cézanne’s work and influence.

The canvas is glued down. I had weighted the foam board as the glue dried, but there is still a slight bowing. Today I penciled in the grid and tried to add broad outlines, but the complexity is overwhelming me. I ran a ruler along the image both horizontally and vertically trying to find correspondences across the picture, but nothing seems to quite line up.

jgn_copy_01Abandoning the attempt to sketch in all the major lines, I decided to start top left in the sky and progress across the canvas treating each grid square as well as I could. This photo was taken at an extreme angle to pick up the initial sketch lines.

jgn_copy_02Progress shot. This process is really drawing me in. The complexity of colour is incredible. My earlier notes about the palette were totally inadequate and the computer generated colour analysis had everything averaged into nothingness. I have pretty much every shade of the conte crayons plus a few CarbOthello chalk-pastel pencils and of course none of the colours are right and in any case Cézanne layered colours to get lots of subtle changes on the canvas.

jgn_copy_03I’ve been across the whole picture. The tree in particular is very rough – it was the first non-sky part I attempted and I started losing my bearings so moved on quickly.

I settled into a working method of 30 minute “bursts”, which is about as long as my concentration lasts. I’d look at a section of the image on the computer, looking at shapes and the layers of colour, then select a crayon, maybe make a few dabs then change to something else. There is just so much happening in this painting!

28-Feb (later)
jgn_copy_04This is where I’ve decided to stop. There is so much more that could be done, but I think I’ve achieved the overall objectives of the exercise. If I keep going over areas they just get dark and drab.

More than anything I’ve realised the complexity of the painting. It’s quick to write about planes sliding against each other and a grid of simplified shapes – but this is no simple grid and the number of decisions the artist made is incredible.

Above is my bad photo of the original, and one of my copy. There are clearly places where I got totally lost – glaringly the right side of the tree. The colour is totally different. Still overall I’m pretty pleased. I wanted to concentrate on composition and overall shapes and given everything that’s going on in the original I feel I’ve made a decent attempt.

The experience of attempting the copy has been amazing. I very much want to look at the original again and see all the detail, but sadly it is still absent from the gallery walls. I’m also keen to do more work with the pastels in my sketchbook. The colour mixing, little dabs of this and that, building up layers and interactions, was absorbing and exciting and satisfying. I want more! I’m also full of ideas for translating some of this into textiles – in particular felt, which I think really lends itself to layering and mixing of colours. I’d need to go an extra step towards abstraction…

While working on this assignment I’ve been reading Cézanne’s letters as edited and translated by Alex Danchev. Many of them were keeping in touch with people, making arrangement to travel or meet, or making excuses for not meeting people. There were comments like one about a visitor – “the poor man, I soaked him in theories about painting” (letter 179) – but for many years little if any on the actual theories. He wrote “it’s better to talk face-to-face – one always explains oneself and makes oneself better understood that way” (letter 188), “we can talk more, and perhaps better, about painting when sur le motif rather than devising purely speculative theories, in which we often get lost” (letter 206) and “talking about art is virtually useless” (letter 235). However there were some comments that resonated with the work I have been doing.

“I continue to seek to develop through design and colour the idea of art according to my beliefs” (letter 226). This assignment has brought home to me just how detailed and flexible Cézanne’s use of colour was. My version is over-coloured, but it is based on his.

“Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth … line perpendicular to this horizon give depth. Now, we men experience nature more in terms of depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our vibrations of light, represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient quantity of blue tones, to give a sense of atmosphere” (letter 233). I remarked early on about the proportions of the subject painting which is closer to a square than many landscapes. Looking at it now I see those repeated horizontals giving breadth – the edge of the grass at the base of the walls, also the river, the boats, the lines of walls and roofs. Then the vertical of that tree right in the centre, creating space before and behind it. I used a lots of purples and violets in my version, to warm up the blues and greys which are used across the picture. Once again, I am very keen to see the original – can there really be so many greys and blues in a picture which at first glance looks yellow, green and orange?

“The sensations colorantes that create light are the cause of abstractions that do not allow me to cover my canvas, nor to pursue the delimitation of objects when their points of contact are subtle, delicate; the result of which is that image image or painting is incomplete. On the other hand, the planes fall on top of one another, from which comes the neo-Impressionism that outlines [everything] in black, a defect that must be resisted with all one’s might” (letter 255). There seems to be a lot of uncovered canvas in this painting and I wonder about the cause. I have seen an anecdote a number of times about Cézanne’s portrait of Vollard, which remained with two blank spots on the hands which Cézanne could not fill unless he could determine just the right tone. I’ve also read suggestions that canvases were “unfinishable”, a concept which I don’t properly understand. My subject painting provides many examples of the subtle delimitation of objects. There were many places where I couldn’t really tell exactly what was happening, how one building or bush became another.

“I can’t achieve the intensity that builds in my senses, I don’t have that magnificent richness of colour that enlivens nature” (letter 267). Unsurprisingly given all I have written about Cézanne’s use of colour, I was startled at the idea that he should be so dissatisfied with it at the end of his life (the letter was written to his son in September 1906, just weeks before his own death). Was this modesty, or that one always want more? Nature can have infinite variety, while a painter on his canvas is limited – but from my close observation I would say that Cézanne pushed his limits.

All quotes of Cézanne’s letters are from
Danchev, A. (editor and translator) (2013) The Letters of Paul Cézanne Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum


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